Saturday, January 24, 2009

January Thoughts

The last time I wrote about the Celtics they were heading into a Christmas day match up against the Lakers. I said they would crush the Lakers and Sasha would cry like the baby he is. Didn't happen, obviously, and the Celts dove into a tailspin in which they lost 7 of 9 while only beating the Wizards and Kings.

Since then the C's have won 7 straight and seem to be back on track but what happened during that 9-game stretch? Obviously their defense wasn't playing as well as expected and takes a portion of the blame but the offense was the real culprit here. There was no flow at all and it seemed as though everyone was just standing around and waiting for some one else to shoot it. When the ball isn't passed around in search of the best shot it leads to bad possessions that create fast-breaks for the opposition.
One of the reasons the Celtics' defense wasn't able to make the big stops it usually comes up with at the end of games was it was worn down at times. It thrives on the half-court style and having to cover a fast break more than you're used to tends wear on you after a while. This pressure put on the defense could be compared to an NFL defense having to run back on the field after a series of three-and-outs for its offense.
Simply put, when the Celtics offense plays well, they are going to win. They've only lost 1 game this year while scoring over 100 points. During the rough stretch they averaged just over 92 points per game while the win streak Boston has averaged over 103 points. OK, obviously it makes sense that while a team was struggling it was scoring less and the numbers go up during a good run.
The correlation? The fact that the Celtics gave up 92 points per game during the 9-game period and is giving up 88 during their current 7-game winning streak. I don't think it was a coincidence that Boston having a much more efficient offense has led to the defense letting up 4 points less per game.

-When I'm wrong, I have no problem admitting it. I predicted the Ravens would be able to score on the Steelers' defense last week. It's a really good thing I didn't put any money on this game because once Pittsburgh shut down Baltimore's running attack they made Joe Flacco wish he was back in Delaware. That was the first thing I was wrong about.
Secondly, I assumed the Ravens' defense would have a better showing. After making that point last week about the Steelers' defense not showing up at playoff time and being overrated, I need to seriously amend that statement. Other than 2000, how many times has the Ravens' D lived up to its reputation?

I still hate the Steelers but you have to give credit where credit is due. I'll have a full Super Bowl preview this week but I obviously don't think Arizona has a chance.

-I really am enjoying what is happening with Manny Ramirez. He is going to get his money. Probably over $20 million a year. But the way the league has reacted to Scott Boras's demands in terms of the length of the contract has been great to watch. Seeing his demands incrementally decrease shouldn't be a shocker considering there have been a few general managers who have been anonymously quoted as saying his second-half tear with the Dodgers made them even more skeptical about signing him. A player who has proven he has the propensity to "turn it on and off" can not and should not receive a long-term deal. Manny will get his 2 or 3-year deal and no one will bat an eye but if you remember, back in November Boras wouldn't accept anything less than a 6-year deal.

-If you haven't watched the MLB network, you should. It puts the NBA network to shame and is in the same league as the NFL network.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

NFL Conference Title Games

Nope. No Patriots game today. Strange huh? While we don't have a team to root for today, we certainly have a team to root against: the Steelers.

Before I go out and shovel I would like to remind Pats fans why we should be rooting for the Ravens today. Granted, it is hard to root for Ray Lewis but remember...we HATE the Steelers. Despite knocking them off at home twice in 4 years for the AFC title and again in the regular season in '05 and '07, the likes of Lee Flowers or Joey Porter always claim the Steelers are the better team. It was also Porter who wanted his "three rings back" when asked about Spygate. What a joke.

The two I just mentioned are no longer in Pittsburgh but they do epitomize the Steeler mentality. Rarely has the vaunted Steeler defenses of this era come up big in January:

-The Steelers let Drew Bledsoe top them in '01 (with some special teams lapses included).
-In 2002 they gave the Browns a 24-7 lead but won 36-33 even after allowing 429 passing yards from the great Kelly Holcomb. They lost the next week 34-31 to the Titans. That's 67 points in 2 weeks.
-In 2004 the Patriots destroyed their zone coverage with Deion Branch.
-When Pittsburgh won the Superbowl in '05 it was aided by the cheap shot given to Carson Palmer by Keith Von Oelhoffen.
-David Garrard ran for 32 yards on fourth-and-2 against this "Steel Curtain" last year with the game on the line to beat the Steelers.

The Steelers will once again lose a conference championship today at home. Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend haven't been exposed because of the great Pitt pass rush in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley but the Ravens offensive line has been playing well and I expect Joe Flacco to continue making throws when he has to. Flacco has gotten better and better at throwing out patterns as the playoffs have progressed. The Ravens backfield of McGahee/McClain will also be a problem for Pittsburgh.

I don't see Ben Roethlisberger being able to do much against this Ravens defense. I know it was "ranked" behind the Steelers but this is the kind of game where Ed Reed and Ray Lewis show why they're going to Canton some day.

Say it with me, New Englanders: Go Ravens.

Prediction: Ravens, 20-14

Out west in Arizona we have a truly bizarre NFC title game on our hands. The 9-7 Cardinals are facing the 9-6-1 Eagles. The Cards lost 3 of their last 5 and laid down to the Pats in Foxboro (much to Dan Shaughnessy's chagrin). The Eagles tied the Bengals and needed a perfect week 17 to grab the eight spot. Now the two are playing for a Super Bowl appearance.

Based on the way the two teams have played thus far, I'm going with Arizona today. Its offense has never been in question but their suddenly turnover-creating defense has vaulted them to their current position. Formerly a weakness, the secondary has been a true strength in these playoffs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been great and will be a stud for years to come. He has received help from Roderick Hood as well as safties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson.

As great as Larry Fitzgerald was last week, the addition of Anquan Boldin would be huge for the Cardinals since the Eagles will be using zone coverages against the Arizona receivers. A key factor will be to see how much Edgerrin James can give both in terms of production and pass protection, an aspect of football he doesn't seem to be too fond of anymore.

If Brian Westbrook were completely healthy, I'd most likely be picking the Eagles but I can't see the Eagles winning two straight weeks with their best player having less than 25 touches. Donovan McNabb has been just good enough so far and he's going to need to play better in order to get to Tampa.

Prediction: Arizona, 24-17.

Some Red Sox Notes:
-After talking to a few people over the past day or so, it could be interpreted that me championing Jice Rice's candidacy for the Hall stems from me being a Red Sox fan. Not the case. Ask me about Carl Yastrzemski. I consider him to be in the Cal Ripken category of being a "compiler". Outside of his Triple Crown season in '67, Yaz lacked the year-to-year numbers of the other revered hitters of his tine. He spent 23 seasons with the Sox and had 100+ RBI in only five of them. No, I don't subscribe to the theory that he was a victim of a pitchers era. In fact, '67 was the height of that era and he had the last Triple Crown we've seen. After a batting title in '68 (with a .301 average) back-to-back 40-home run seasons in 1969-70 Yaz was an ordinary player who was a good fielder with 20-25 HR power. Overrated.

-The Kevin Youkilis deal is an absolute steal for the Sox. We should feel extremely comfortable about the future of this team with Youk and Pedroia in the infield for at least the next 4 years.
-If he hadn't already redacted his trade request the Red Sox would have been smart to inquire about the availability of Michael Young. Young has asked for a trade after being asked to move to third in order to make room for hot prospect Elvis Andrus at short. Young is 33, is owed $62 million over the next five seasons, had his worst year since 2002 and had an injured finger for most of the second half of 2008. All that being said, I would have loved for the Sox to deal a package of Jed Lowrie or a raw third base prospect like Michael Almanzar, a low-A pitcher along with the seemingly immovable object known as Julio Lugo. Oh well.

-The Sox have quickly built the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez leading up to Jonathan Papelbon is going to be very dependable. Keep in mind the Sox also have Justin Masterson once John Smoltz comes back as well as Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Congrats, Jim

Congrats, Jim. It was about time, huh?

Jim Rice finally has a space in Cooperstown. Rice was undeservedly in that group of borderline players for years; the good-but-not-great players (Andre Dawson ect...). Based on the criteria voters have used for years when deciding who gets in, it's ridiculous that it took until the 15th and final time for him to get in with 76.4 percent.

You could say Rice was the anti-Cal Ripken. Ripken was known for his ability to crank out 20 home run, 80 RBI seasons (with a great glove at short). Rice, on the other hand, had about a 10-year span where he was the most productive hitter in the AL. He didn't have the endurance Ripken had but, man, were those seasons great.

In order to really understand how dominant Rice really was you need to examine how much better he was than the rest of the AL during his run of dominance from 1977-79 and again from 1982-86. This was back when hitting over 30 home runs meant something and over a .900 OPS was rare.

Let's take a look at his run in the late '70s.

-In 1977 Rice hit .320 with 39 homers and 114 RBI. He could have won MVP that year had Rod Carew not hit an astounding .388 with 239 hits but it was a travesty he finished fourth in the vote. Ahead of him were the Orioles' Ken Singleton and a guy from Kansas City named Al Cowhens, niether of whom had a higher average, home run total, RBI or OPS than Rice. Another case of robbery in Rice's career.

The league average was .266 and Boston was the only team over 200 home runs.

-In 1978 Rice had one of the premiere seasons in Red Sox history. He was on par with some of the years Ted Williams put up, Yaz's 1967 Triple Crown season and Pedro's transcendent 1999. He hit .315 with 46 HR and 139 RBI while totaling 406 total bases, a feat not matched until Larry Walker had 409 in 1997. From that point on having 400+ total bases was not as big of an accomplishment. Sammy Sosa (425) had the seventh-best total in history in 2001 and there have been five other instances in which it happened, included Todd Helton twice.

I won't get started on why there was the sudden surge from 1997-2001 because it's been discussed over and over but the fact remains it was a special number until the late '90s.

Rice won the MVP while the league average dropped to .261 and the highest AL home run total was 173. Another indicator how great Rice was that year was he topped Rod Guidry 252-191 in the balloting. Why is this significant you ask? Because Guidry had a season that Pedro or Sandy Koufax would be proud to put on their resume. Wouldn't a 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 248 strikeout season create a close vote most seasons? Not in 1978, Jim Rice's most prolific season.

-Expecting a drop-off in 1979? Nope. Rice finished fifth in the MVP with a .325, 39 HR, 130 RBI. Either he, George Brett or Fred Lynn should have been MVP that year and it doesn't make much sense that Don Baylor won it or that Ken Singleton was again ahead of Rice at second.

The league average bumped up to .270 but still no teams over the 200 home run mark. Rice's stats, along with the aforementioned players, were a lot better than the rest of the league.

Anyway, Rice was eight points from a batting title, six away from the home run lead and nine RBI from the top spot in RBI. My point here is he was a top-three player in the AL for the third successive year. There were names like Bobby Bonds, Don Baylor, Lynn and others popping up but Rice was the most dominant over that period.

After injuries limited him to 24 HR and 86 RBI in 1980 and the strike held him to 17 HR and 62 and RBI in 1981, Rice was once again a top player between 1982 and 1986. He averaged .302, 28 home runs and 112 RBI in that period. No player averaged more RBI. Not Dale Murphy, who averaged averaged 105, Eddie Murray (averaged 108 but had an injury-plagued 1986 that brought his stats down), George Brett (who had more than 112 RBI only once in his career or any other of the best players of the 1980s.

Rice, simply put, was unrivaled from a production standpoint from 1977 to 1986. Three home run titles, a pair of RBI championships and four 200-hit seasons say it all. I'm glad voters finally recognized just how good he was and how good he could have been had his eyes not gone on him after his last MVP-type year in 1986.