Friday, August 28, 2009

Mets vs. Cubs

I don't think I've ever been so unexcited about going to a major league baseball game in my life, at least not in recent memory.

Sure, some of it was the cool, gray weather. Some because I went into the office for three boring hours just to come back home. Mostly though, it was the incredible failures of the Mets (58-70, 16.5 games out of first place) and Cubs (63-62, 9 games out), two teams expected to contend for their division and more this year, after disappointing ends to last season.

For the Mets, the Great Suck of 2009 is shocking but understandable. Look at who they trotted out on the last Friday of August, compared to the Opening Day lineup (by position, not batting order ... obviously Jose Reyes would be leadoff):

  • Pagan, CF (Beltran. Out since June 22 with bone bruise in right knee)
  • Castillo, 2B (same.)
  • Murphy, 1B (Delgado. Out since May 11 with hip problems, then strained his oblique during rehab)
  • Franceour, RF (Ryan Church. Traded July 10 to Atlanta for ... Jeff Franceour)
  • Tatis, 3B (David Wright. Hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball on Aug. 16, still on DL ... warning, link has pic of Wright getting hit)
  • Santos, C (Brian Schneider. Still on the roster, but has only caught 47 games this year vs. 110 last year.)
  • Sullivan, LF (Murphy. Moved to first after Delgado's injury.)
  • Valdez, SS (Reyes. Out since May 21 with a hamstring tear and calf tendinitis)
  • Misch, P (Johan Santana. Out for season since Aug. 21 with shoulder injury)
Does anyone remember this man? Anybody? (photo taken Spring Training 2007)

Result: one of nine the same, with up to five season-ending injuries. Just insane. I haven't mentioned pitchers like J.J. Putz and Oliver Perez and John Maine who have missed significant time. No doubt wherever he is, Mr Met is crying.

This is close as I could come to an unhappy Mr. Met.

For comparison, the Cubs had six guys exactly where they were on Opening Day (Suckyano, D-Lee, Bradley, Ramirez, Soto, The Riot) with two others available and active (Zambrano and Fukudome).

This was in many respects an evenly matched game. Both teams had 32 at-bats. Both pitchers finished seven innings. There was a tie score for most of the game, and you never felt either team had an advantage (even with the four-run outburst in the 8th, the Mets still had the combustible combo of Marmol and Gregg in the Cubs pen). Both left seven men on base, generally failing to seize opportunities.

The deciding factor appeared to be the lethargy of the Cubs. While the Mets have struggled with a makeshift lineup decimated by injuries to their stars, the Cubs have mostly just flat out under-performed (yes I know there have been injuries too ... but not as long-lasting and devastating as the Mets).

In the 2nd inning, Omir Santos lofted a shot into the Bermuda's triangle of shallow right. Lee and Baker went out, and Milton Bradley came in. Bradley got leather on it, but showed no effort or hustle. I scored it a hit for Santos (as did the official scorer) but Bradley could have made it a tougher call or even an out.

And in the top of the 8th, ex-Cub Angel Pagan hit a shot into the gap. Soriano casually jogged over and half-heartedly waved at the ball as it went under his glove. One, he could have gotten there a little sooner and tried to make a play with his team down one. Two, he should have at least picked it up on the hop, not let it roll past him. Pagan had a double either way, so no error was charged. But it was a lackluster, lazy play that defines the 2009 Cubs. Of course, I haven't mentioned his actual error, in the 4th, when a standard pop fly hit off his glove.

But hey, Suckyano did his best Sammy impersonation by making up for it all with a three-run homer in the 8th. Marmol got the save, fans got to sing "Go Cubs Go," and TM and I saw our first Cubs win live in almost a year. So yay for Cub fans.

Mr. Met in happier times.

The scorecard: (click for larger)

The official wrap and box score here. Note to 83F: Fuld started, but didn't do anything at the plate or in the field.

Back in Business

This morning I was thumbing through the alumni notes section of the latest Notre Dame Magazine. An alum remembered back to those first days on campus in August and hearing the marching band practicing off in the distance. It is a moment Father Ted has described as knowing "we're back in business."

With the cool weather lately--chill and clouds that have you reaching into the bottom drawer for a sweatshirt or hoodie before you realize the calendar still says summer--it's easy to not notice the season approaching. But it's getting closer. First we had reports of freshmen reporting to campus. Then the coaches poll, which everyone knows is a joke but was our first taste of actual information.

Now we have the real poll (AP poll) to chew over. We have point spread lines from Vegas we can actually believe. The managers of pick 'em games are sending emails that instead of saying "I can't wait for the season" say "this week's picks are out." On Monday or Tuesday we'll have depth charts that aren't for spring football, or camp, or fan-generated, but for actual Week 1 competition.

Ohhhhhhh I'm ready.

It technically starts Thursday night, with an ESPN game actually worth watching (Oregon at Boise State ... seems like in years past it's Mississippi State vs. Directional Louisana type games). It really starts a week from tomorrow morning, at 11am, when Iowa kicks off against Nothern Iowa. In between there will a drive to Ohio, a new College GameDay song, and hopefully, we're told, the return of football's Dickie V.

It's a long week, from now til Saturday. But it's only one week, and the light at the end of our weeklong tunnel ... is a glowing TV set, beaming college football into your eyeballs.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Comparing Iowa and Notre Dame

I was talking to my dad last week, and he asked me how things are looking for Iowa and Notre Dame. "Don't you read the blog?" I asked. (My parents never read the blog.) "Naw, I don't read blogs," Dad said. Well Dad, here's a look at those two teams.

Dad: "How do I get to this blog of yours?"

The preseason rankings are starting to trickle out, and most see the Hawks and Irish congregating at the bottom of the Top 25. That's progress, considering they spent a combined zero weeks in the Top 25 in 2008. (Iowa cracked the list after the dominating bowl win to finish at 9-4.) The coaches have Iowa #21 and ND #23. The New York Times is similar, with Iowa #19 and ND #21. AP comes out on Aug. 22. Phil, as mentioned before, is high on the Irish (or just high).

Comparing Iowa and Notre Dame, I see some similarities. One is the quarterback position: strength at starter and lack of depth. Ricky Stanzi may not have announced his commitment at the College Football Hall of Fame, but he did lead a season-defining, fourth-quarter game-winning drive. Behind him are Jake Christensen (oops, transferred) and Marvin McNutt (uhhh, switched to wide receiver) ... are, uh, two redshirt freshmen. Behind Jimmy are redshirt freshman Dayne Christ and true freshman Nate Montana (err, going to play at junior college this fall), and Evan Sharpley (a fifth-year senior and professional first baseman who luckily came back). Guess it's good we have experienced O-lines--more on that in a sec.

Also, both schools make the Phil Steele Surprise Teams article. That's his list of schools outside the preseason consensus Top 10 that could rise up and win the national championship. The Irish are No. 4, the Hawks are almost No. 10. Phil writes: "The highest rated of my remaining teams (after No. 9) is Iowa but they have to play Ohio St AND Penn St along with Michigan St and Wisconsin all on the road."

One factor of sharp contrast is balance. Thanks to the once-a-generation performance of Shonn Greene, Iowa exhibited excellent run-pass balance in 2008: 189 yards rushing, 182 yards throwing per game. A near-even split means the defense never knows what's coming, they can't key in on just one aspect, and they have to respect the play-action pass. By contrast, Coach "we're gonna pound it" Weis must have a different definition of "pound it," because the Irish ran for just 110 yards per game (ypg), throwing for 245. (This, by the way, is the second-worst rushing effort in Irish history, behind the 2007 debacle we all erased from our memory.)

Besides ypg rushing, I also looked at average yards per carry (ypc) and sacks allowed. If there's one thing I learned living in Nebraska, it's the importance of a strong offensive line in college football (also, that Omaha is not a great place for a 20-something non-native to live). Notre Dame had 110 rush ypg last year, as mentioned, and ypc of 3.3. Iowa had the record-setting performance by Greene, pushing the numbers to 189 and 4.8. But that's not a once-a-lifetime performance: Iowa produced 175 ypg and 4.8 ypc in 2005, and 215 ypg and 5.0 ypc in 2002. The Irish haven't cracked 4.0 ypc or 150 ypg since Ty's first year! With Allen, Hughes and Alridge in the backfield, and Gray, Wood and Riddick waiting in the wings, the running game simply has to be better to justify the expectations.

For context, Florida has produced 4.2 ypc or better five of the past six years, and Southern Cal has gone 4.0, 5.0 and 5.0 ypc in the years following the insane Bush-fueled 6.4 in 2005. This is where I'd like to see my teams.

As for sacks: ND gave up 22, Iowa gave up 27. I think you can chalk some of that up to quarterback inexperience, with sophomore and first-time starter Stanzi learning how to avoid the rush and dump off an incompletion. After all, Christensen was sacked 46 times in '07, and most of ND's 58 (gulp) sacks given up in 2007 were Clausen, a true freshman.

Finally, there is offensive line experience. This became somewhat of a hot stat over the summer, after the Wall Street Journal did an analysis of starts returning for every team's OL. You can see here that Iowa and ND are in the top 5 nationally among major conference schools.

Three weeks and counting til football!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tonight's Pitching Matchup


Of course, they will both be wearing different uniforms.

I'm really looking forward to this matchup of cool personalities I rooted for a few years ago. Technically I went to school with Shark ... his first two years were my first two years there. Of course, it wasn't until 2005 that he had his breakout season.

And Petey. He has had a fantastic career, including the great 2004 World Series win with Boston (who were, up until that point, the Cubs of the American League). Then he ended up in New York the same time we were there, and we cheered him on as a Met.

Who knows if it will be a competitive game, but it should be fun to watch. Go Cubs, Go Pedro!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Predicting Won-Loss Records (The Easy Way)

Picking a team's final record in summertime, much less right before the season starts, is tricky business. But there are shortcuts.

One proxy for Won-Loss expectations could be the team's ranking in the Steele preseason poll, which takes into account talent, schedule, and is intended to predict how teams will finish the year (as opposed to a normative model, which is purely statistical, according to Rivalry, Esq.--who breaks out grad school terminology on a blog, anyway??!) . Of course, this won't work perfectly, especially for the teams at the top (it's unrealistic to expect Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, USC and LSU to all go undefeated or 11-1). But broadly speaking, you should be expected to beat the teams ranked lower, and lose to teams ranked higher. Assume the vagaries of injuries and upsets balance each other out, and you have an expected W-L record.

In 2008, Steele ranked Iowa #34. Three opponents were ranked higher (PSU #10, Wisky #21, Pitt #25) and nine lower (Northwestern the closest at #49) for an expected 9-3. The reality was 8-4, with "upsets" (in the Steele preseason sense, not necessarily the literal gameday sense) of Wisky and PSU, a mild upset (they were in the ballpark, rankwise) by NWU and shocking losses to MSU and Illinois (sorry Sarah, that shit should NOT have happened). Given how close all those losses were (4 by 12 points total), 9-3 was a good guess.

Please recover from your stroke. Please don't pick Iowa if Gameday comes to town.

Now look at ND. Steele put them at #19, coming off a 3-9 year (ballsy). Only USC was ranked higher and an expected/definite loss, for an expected 10-1 record. Unfortunately, mild upsets by Pitt (#25) and UNC (#38) plus shocks by MSU, BC and Syracuse dropped them to 6-6. Iowa did about as well as Steele thought; ND drastically under-performed but had the potential to match the prediction.

Not from 2008. Don't care. Awesome picture. Want to see more of this in '09.

How does this look back help us put 2009 in focus? Steele is high on both my teams, with the Hawks at #20 and the Irish at #7. Iowa would be expected to lose to Penn St. (#5) and A State University in Ohio (#10), but four other opponents lurk in the Top 50: Mich State (#29), Wisky (#38), Arizona (#40) and Meechigan (#48). Plus, those four highest-ranked conference teams are all on the road for us. So a "raw" record of 10-2 might be expected in theory, but four conference road losses and a possible ILTCMTS* means 7-5 isn't unreasonable either.

Notre Dame, near the top of the pack, doesn't have much breathing room. Southern Cal is still above them (#3), and only four teams could reasonably cause trouble: Pitt #23, Mich St. #29, Nevada #35, Meechigan #48. That's a 10-1 record, particularly considering we get Nevada (our home opener) and Michigan (probably breaking in a true freshman QB) early, Pitt loses stud RB McCoy, and we get USC at home. The giant question, though: Is Phil over-ranking the Irish?

Finally, a quick look at my favorite MAC team: Frank Solich is three games under .500 (23-26) at Ohio, and I think it would be great for him to get back to even. That means an 8-5 season (7-5 with bowl win, or more likely 8-4 with a bowl loss) would do it.

How does he get there? Using the schedule proxy system, Ohio at #74 is looking at almost-certain wins against Northern Illinois (#96), Buffalo (101), Kent State (106), Ball State (108), Bowling Green (111), North Texas (116), (Fake) Miami (117), and Cal Poly SLO (I-AA school). That's eight right there. Put aside for a moment the fact that Solich has averaged just under six wins a year in his Athens tenure ... we're being lazy, remember? (And if you're asking yourself, wait, both of last year's division champions are ranked in triple digits? ... yes, yes, they are. Welcome to the MAC.)

Temple (#86) and Akron (87) are in the ballpark, and UConn at #73 is a dead heat where you have to give an edge to the home team, particularly early in the year and with a senior quarterback returning.

One of two dudes is going to be the senior quarterback I refer to. While Theo Scott (being played here by wide receiver #7 LaVon Brazill) is probably more talented, how do you root against #8 Boo Jackson? And that hair! (photo credit: TM)

Only Tennessee (40) is a near-certain loss ... but no less an authority on Volunteer football than Scott Miller said they won't be very good at all this year. His direct quote: "We will lose a LOT this season." An early lead by a motivated Bobcat squad could take the fans out of the game, much like the the Ohio State game in 2008. So even with a TCLTCTS** or two thrown in there, the schedule looks favorable for another winning Bobcat season.

If you want to play this game with another ranking list, wait a few weeks for the New York Times list to be complete, and look up your own team. Or of course, buy yourself a copy of Steele.

* Inexplicable Loss That Causes Me to Throw Shit

** Tantalizingly Close Loss That Causes TM to Swear