Archive for August, 2010

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Baseball Jesus and LeBron: The Future of the Nationals

August 25, 2010

Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’  “baseball Jesus” has been placed on the disabled list for the second time this season, and the team’s management and fans are understandably quite concerned.

Some people say that it is normal for a pitcher to have some arm soreness, especially since this is his first year of professional baseball, and his body is merely adjusting to his new pitching schedule.

That might have been the case for his initial shoulder injury.  But the latest injury seems much more ominous.  When a pitcher feels pain in a forearm tendon, that is not a good sign.  That feels like the first step towards Tommy John surgery and over a year of rehabilitation.

Many experts have said that Strasburg was at high risk of injury.  Even for pitchers with “perfect” mechanics, the act of pitching a baseball is unnatural for the human body.  Any pitcher is going to suffer a bit.  But some claim that Strasburg’s mechanics are not good, and they leave him at greater risk of injury.  They point to former Cubs phenom Mark Prior as a case of another talented pitcher whose poor pitching form derailed his potentially great career.

Even if the injury is not a long-term concern, it is still disappointing.  He was having an impressive rookie season, and more importantly, seemed to revitalize baseball in Washington.  People actually talked about the Nationals and for perhaps the first time since the team debuted in 2005, there was genuine excitement about them.

His debut might have been the greatest moment in Nationals history.  While the team has had a full stadium before, it was usually due to a high drawing opponent like the Red Sox.  But for Strasburg’s debut, there was actually a full crowd cheering for the Nationals.

Even better, Strasburg was amazing that night.  He absolutely dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, and showed pitching ability that the league hadn’t seen in some time.  The closest comparison that anyone could make was to a young Dwight Gooden.

The rest of his year hasn’t quite matched that first start, but he’s still done well.   Like any pitcher, he’s had some games where his best stuff simply wasn’t there.  And he’s also had some games where the opponent found ways to hit him.  But for the most part, he looks capable of living up to the hype.  That is, if he can stay healthy.

If this injury turns out to be no big deal, and he comes back next season to embark on a long career, what can reasonably be expected from him?

1. He will have some games where he absolutely dominates.  He might have the best “stuff” of any pitcher in baseball.  Even if you disregard the near-100 MPH fastball, his curveball and changeup are also devastating.  If he is in command of these pitches, he will be near unhittable.

2. He will have some games where he walks a lot of guys.  With that much power behind his pitches, it’s difficult to assume that he’ll be able to maintain perfect control.

3. Teams that have a disciplined plate approach, and try to go opposite field against him may have some success.  When he pitched against the Royals, they took this approach and hit a lot of singles.  They didn’t score many runs, but just enough to win the game.

4. He’ll give up a fair share of home runs.  Power pitchers are normally susceptible to giving up home runs (the faster the pitch, the harder it can be hit) and Strasburg is about as powerful as they come.

But once again, this all depends on him staying healthy.  If not, he’ll just be another phenom who flamed out.

In more positive news, they added another potential phenom when they came to terms with Bryce Harper, their first round draft pick in June’s amateur draft.  He’s been called the “LeBron James of baseball” and his talent level has been compared to a young Alex Rodriguez.

They signed him for $9.9 million, which is the highest total ever given to a non-pitcher amateur draft pick.  And yet, it is far below what some people estimated that he might get from the Nats.  His agent Scott Boras claimed that Harper was a “once-in-a-generation” talent, and would deserve a record contract.  This is not especially surprising, since every year, Boras seems to declare one of his clients to be a “once-in-a-generation” talent. 

Last year, he was saying the same thing about Strasburg.  It was obvious that Harper wasn’t going to get anywhere near Strasburg’s record deal for an amateur.  Strasburg was an accomplished college pitcher who looked to be almost ready for the majors when he was drafted.  As good a hitter as Harper may be, he’s still only 17, and will need at least a couple of minor league seasons, especially since he will be switching positions from catcher to right field.

In addition to signing Harper, the Nats also signed a few of their lower draft picks to large contracts, going well above the suggested amount provided by Major League Baseball’s slotting system.  For those unfamiliar with the slotting system: MLB comes up with a suggested signing price for each draft pick and encourages teams to stay near those figures when agreeing to terms.

Comforming with the slotting system is a great way to keep your minor league system free of high-end talent.  Basically, the players’ agents look at the suggested slot cost and say “That’s nice.  But here’s what it is really going to take to get a deal done.”  If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the player can re-enter the draft the next year and the team is awarded a compensation pick.

While this might seem to be a lose-lose situation, it’s really much worse for the team than it is for the player.  A high school player has the option of going to college (and in some cases improving his draft position).  College players obviously have less leverage.  When they go unsigned, they usually end up playing a season in an independent league, which can often be comparable in talent level to the minor league that the team would have assigned them to.

So the Nationals did the right thing, paid the necessary money, and they now have Harper in their system.    If his development goes as planned, he is expected to make his major league debut in 2012.  Of course, since he is only 17, his development could take much longer.  So don’t count on him carrying the Nationals’ lineup anytime soon.

One final word about the Nationals: Their TV announcers are bad.

The usual announcers are play-by-play man Bob Carpenter and color analyst Rob Dibble.  Now I understand that a team’s announcers are going to be “homers,” and they will be rooting for the home team.  And I also understand that trying to be optimistic about a team that constantly loses must be a bit wearing.  

But here’s a few suggestions: 

1. If a call goes against the Nationals, it is not a “travesty”.  Dibble acts like every close call that is not in the Nationals favor is a crime against the sport.  Especially when it comes to borderline balls and strikes.  This leads to…

2. Enough with the pitch tracker.  Over the past few years, TV broadcasts have started to use on-screen graphics to show a projection of the strike zone, and determine if a pitch is in the strike zone.  The Nationals’ broadcast seem to use their version, the Qinetic Pitch Track on just about every pitch. 

The problem is that these projections aren’t really exact, and don’t take into account the variability of each batter’s strike zone.  That doesn’t stop Dibble from ranting every time a strike call that goes against the Nats doesn’t match what the pitch track shows.

3. Please stop with the overbearing praise of Ryan Zimmerman.  I realize that he’s been the shining hope for the franchise over the past few seasons.  But the announcers can’t seem to praise him and his accomplishments enough, even when unmerited.

If Zimmerman strikes out after fouling off a few pitches, he did not “hang tough” or “give the pitcher a battle.”  He struck out.  And yes, he is a good fielder.  But is it necessary to act as if every routine grounder he fields was a highlight worhty play?  I don’t think a ball has been hit to him all season that didn’t prompt them to mention that he won a gold glove last year.

It’s a shame because Zimmerman is a talented young player.  But after listening to the Nationals announcers, I have grown to dislike him.

Then again, after hearing fill-in announcer Johnny Holliday this past weekend, I have a new appreciation for Carpenter.  Holliday may be an accomplished football announcer, but listening to him call a baseball game was painful.  It came across like someone said, “Hey, my uncle is a big fan of the team!  Why don’t we let him call the game?”

The happiest possible resolution to this problem is if Strasburg and Harper actually come through and lead the Nationals into contention.  Then, while the announcers might still be bad, at least they’d be doing bad announcing for good baseball.

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Catching up with the Eagles

August 23, 2010

We are halfway through the Philadelphia Eagles’ preseason schedule, so now seems like a decent time to take an accounting of where the team stands.

Then again, anything we’ve seen so far may not have any real bearing on how the regular season goes.  It is preseason football after all.

Preseason football isn’t usually much to get excited about.  Fans tend to get a little pumped up because there haven’t been any NFL games since February, and many are chomping at the bit to see any type of action.  But preseason games are usually boring affairs where the starters barely play, the offenses are kept fairly basic, and the outcome of the games depends on guys who might not even make the team.

Of course, the NFL still charges full price for tickets to these games. 

Side rant: 

Charging full price for preseason games, and including the two home preseason games in the season ticket package, is probably the biggest scam in professional sports.  It is absolutely ridiculous that fans are forced to pay full price for a product that is so substandard.

The owners are currently discussing plans to expand the NFL regular season to 18 games and eliminate two of the preseason games.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says that this is what the fans want to happen.  However, he’s only partially correct.

Fans would like to see two preseason games eliminated, but I don’t think most people want the regular season expanded.  To me, 16 games seems like a perfect length, as “season fatigue” never really sets in. 

Already, the NFL has a problem with non-competitive games towards the end of the season, since some teams have already clinched their playoff seeding, and rest most of their starters.  Other teams get eliminated from playoff contention early, and spend the last portion of the schedule merely playing out the string.  If they add two more games, it has the potential to add even more non-competitive games to the schedule.

Of course, the owners would never just drop two of the preseason games, because they’d lose the revenue from them, and losing revenue is something that owners of sports teams simply do not do.

I’m not sure if the schedule expansion will happen.  The players oppose the move, as they don’t feel like they will be duly compensated for the two extra games, while leaving themselves at greater risk for injury.  This is going to be a key point of contention when the two sides negotiate a new labor contract next offseason.

Rant over.

It was hard to take much from the  first preseason game against the Jaguars.  The starters only played one quarter, and both of the defensive series were three-and-outs.  While that seems good, it might have been due more to the Jaguars ineptitude, and didn’t really give any of the defensive players a chance to make an impression.  On the other hand, the second team defense looked shaky, getting burned for a couple of long touchdowns.

The second game against the Bengals showed us a little bit more, as the presumed starters played the entire first half.  The end result was a 22-9 loss, but wins and losses don’t mean anything in the preseason.  It’s all about avoiding injuries and how the starters execute.

I’m happy to say that the Eagles avoided serious injury.  At first, it looked as if receiver Jeremy Maclin might have suffered a major arm injury, but since he has returned to practice, it is apparently nothing serious.  So that alone means the game counts as a “win” for the team.

But how did the starters perform?  I’ll take a look at a few areas which I thought might have been concerns for the team:

– Quarterback Kevin Kolb – easily the biggest question mark of the season – looked pretty good.  He moved in the pocket well (which was necessary since his protection wasn’t great) and was fairly accurate.  His performance would have seemed even better had he not had a touchdown called back due to injury.

On the other hand, he definitely made some mistakes, especially in the red zone where he missed some open receivers.  One potential problem I’ve noticed is that on third down plays, he is looking way too conservative.  Instead of making a tougher throw, he seems content to check down to his “safety valve” receiver.  This typically forces the receiver to make at least two guys miss in order to make the first down, and often ends in failure.

I have to guess that since Donovan McNabb did this all the time, that this is something that the coaches preach.  Someone should remind them that the strategy works much better when you’re dumping the ball off to an in-his-prime Brian Westbrook.  We saw that in the past two seasons, as Westbrook slowed down, the strategy became much less effective.  And thus far, none of the Eagles backs looks to be capable of making this play a success on a regular basis. 

Of course this was the preseason, and it is possible that once the games start to count, Kolb will become a little more daring in these situations.

– The Eagles offensive line did not look good.  There were numerous penalties, Kolb was under a lot of pressure, and there didn’t seem to be much room for the team’s running backs.

Left tackle Jason Peters had problems with false starts and illegal formation penalties last year, so it isn’t a good sign that he committed two such penalties on Friday.  The rest of the line seemed to underperform as well.  There were penalties, breakdowns in protection, and a lack of a push in the running game.   Part of the problem may have been due to backups playing at left guard and center.  Still, there’s a good chance that these backups will be called upon at some point during the season.  They’ll need to perform better than this.

– Short yardage and red zone situations may continue to be problems.  For the past two seasons, the Eagles have had a lot of trouble when dealing with situations when they need two yards or less to convert a first down.  Part of the problem was the offensive line’s inability to clear enough space, and the lack of a power back who could get the necessary yards.  Another part of the problem was Andy Reid’s playcalling, as he had an inexplicable tendency to go for long pass attempts in these situations.

Running back Mike Bell was brought in to presumably be a power back, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in training camp.  As the preseason continues, it becomes less likely that he will be the answer.  And as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t appear that the offensive line will be any more effective in these spots than they were last season.

As far as the red zone, the explanation is less clear.  I think that the aforementioned tendency by the QBs to check down might be causing some of the issues.  But with a talented group of receivers, there should be plenty of options available.  While receiver DeSean Jackson has yet to show that he can be a red zone threat, Jason Avant and tight end Brenk Celek should both be strong red zone performers.

– The defense gave up a lot of yards, but countered that by making some big plays.  The Bengals have an excellent group of wide receivers, and without top cornerback Asante Samuel, this figured to be a bad matchup for the Eagles.  The Bengals connected on one big play to receiver Terrell Owens setting up their first half touchdown, but aside from that, the cornerbacks performed solidly.

They also forced two turnovers, which helped keep the Bengals scoring totals down.  While they’ll have to do a better job of limiting yardage in the regular season, all in all, it was a good showing for the defense.

So based on all that, what do I think of the team’s chances?  Before training camp, I thought the team had some talented pieces, but also enough holes to keep them out of the playoffs.  Nothing I’ve seen so far has changed my mind about that, so I’m going to stick with my early 8-8 prediction.