Posts for April, 2011
Baseball season is here, and with that comes the annual rite of stressing over the small sample of the first two weeks. Probably the most overreaction in sports comes in this period, when excited and baseball-starved fans rush to judgment and fail to grasp with their hearts – and sometimes their minds – how long the season can be and how important it is to demonstrate patience.
It’s also the time when fans begin to panic about the wrong things. I admit, I’m not an old school baseball thinker – I embrace stats like OBP and OPS and K:BB and BABIP as indicators of strong performance and expected success. I’m less inclined to care about batting average, stolen bases or teams with a high quotient of “winners.”
That’s partly where I’m coming from when I suggest some truths in baseball that not every fan believes:
Strikeouts are not the end of the world. The strikeout appears to be the ultimate failure for a batter, but just because a player strikes out a bunch doesn’t mean he has a problem. Nearly all the most talented home run hitters in baseball strike out a lot, and it’s rare to get a power hitter without a penchant for the K.
You want a player that hits 30 home runs and strikes out fewer than 100 times in a year? There were five players in baseball that fit the bill last year – two future Hall of Famers (Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols), two great hitters who nonetheless fell just short of 100 strikeouts (Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera) and, randomly, Vernon Wells.
Most of those guys get on base constantly, so they’re creating a lot more runs than they’re leaving on the deck. The team that struck out by far the fewest last year? The Kansas City Royals, one of the worst teams in the league. Probably because they were too busy getting out by every other means possible and didn’t have enough at-bats to strike out more regularly.
The five teams that were best at scoring runs were the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Reds and Rangers, and their respective ranking of strikeouts from fewest to most: 13th, 14th, 28th, 24th and 4th. There is very little correlation between punchouts and team success. Which brings me to my next qualm…
Small ball stinks. One of the strangest logic puzzles for me is when fans frown upon the automatic offense of home runs in favor of bunting or “small ball,” station-to-station work that essentially requires three different batters to succeed for one run, whereas a home run requires only one batter.
Over the course of the season, I understand a team needs situationally-gifted players, and “small ball” does work from time to time. However, a team reduces its percentage-chance of scoring a run in a particular inning if it goes from leadoff man aboard, nobody out to runner on second, one out. History bears that out. While that doesn’t mean bunting should be eliminated altogether, it does not serve as an effective way to score runs on a regular basis.
Give me the mashers. Ozzie Guillen’s “small ball” revolution in 2005 also featured a team that launched 200 home runs (fifth in baseball) before winning the World Series. The Brewers did not qualify for the playoffs in 2008 without its aerial assault of 198 home runs (fifth in baseball).
Chemistry doesn’t matter. Team unity matters in youth sports, college sports, and most every other sport except baseball, which is why I think people put stock in the idea in MLB. I’m sure “clubhouse leaders” have some value, and a team that gets along is probably better off that one which doesn’t. But give me 25 cranky, unfriendly people with awesome talent, and we’ll win the World Series every time.
Major League Baseball is a game of individual matchups, a selfish game that dramatically rewards those who win those one-on-one battles. There are no offensive sets or defensive schemes – on-field teamwork is a microscopic component of this game. I find it hilarious when a team’s problems are blamed exclusively on bad clubhouse personalities.
The beauty of pro baseball is in its selfishness – no matter how much a guy hates his colleagues, he still wants to do everything he can to succeed and get paid accordingly.
Spring training means nothing. This is oft-repeated but seldom taken to heart. The spring training games, in terms of win-loss results, mean so, so little. Sure, the World Series champion San Francisco Giants had the best spring record last year in the Cactus League, and Tampa – with the American League’s best record – won the Grapefruit League. Second place? Cleveland and Detroit, two teams that finished well out of the running for the playoffs.
The team that took last in the Cactus League, meanwhile, was Texas, which met San Fran in the aforementioned World Series.
Yes, injuries pop up during spring that can be mildly concerning, but even a team that plays a bad month of baseball in the regular season can overcome that and make the playoffs. These preseason games are simply not worth the anxiety.
The manager doesn't make THAT much difference. Opinions vary wildly on how many wins a good manager can create over a bad one -- some will say 1 or 2 (I'm in that camp), some will say as many as 10, and some will say more (which is ridiculous).
Managers have two very important tasks each night: make out the lineup and know when to make a pitching change. The former doesn't really have that much impact, and most statistical data supports the idea that players who get on base more should be near the top of the lineup ... simply because it could mean one extra at-bat and nothing more complicated than that. It's essentially a crapshoot, though managers sometimes need to cater to fickle ballplayers who feel they belong in a certain slot.
The latter is also a bit of a guessing game. Look at how many relievers have tremendous years followed by utterly terrible ones -- simple fact is when you're dealing with the small sample of a reliever (either in a game or a season), you're going to get an unpredictable response. A manager might make all the right pitching changes in one game and all the bad ones in another, whether they're pouring over data or simply going on intuition. There's no science.
For every fan who thinks a manager waited too long to take out the starter, there's another who thinks the manager brought the hook too soon in an identical situation. It's a lot of managerial instinct and a great deal of luck, made easier when the starters are dominant and limit the number of additional arms necessary to win a ballgame.
Like I said earlier, this isn't a game about X's and O's, and the fundamentals of the sport are pretty much ingrained by the MLB level. The manager's role is mostly to manage personalities, and if you subscribe to the Radcliffe Baseball Truths, you don't think the personalities really matter all that much anyway.
Pictured: Prince Fielder works out in the snow the day before Opening Day in Cincinnati. You want to win games? Get yourself some mashers like the Prince (AP Photo)
I had the pleasure of spending vacation time with my family last week in the Southwest, checking off a few awesome sights on my "bucket list" by visiting Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. The weather was great, the loss of money wasn’t too egregious and the pictures were beautiful.
But there was one trifling detail – the timing in the course of the year was awful for a baseball fan.
My flight left April 1 – one day after the doomed season opener in which the Brewers surrendered four runs in the ninth inning to lose in Cincinnati. Work obligations prevented me from watching that game, and I knew I’d be hard pressed to watch additional live coverage in Arizona. Was I really going to be without baseball for the first week of the season?
In those first games, when the fanaticism for baseball is at its peak, I was suffering through bad reception for my smart phone, which was frequently my only link to my beloved Brewers. A look at how the vacation went:
April 2 – Location: M Casino. Enjoying some time with friends living in the Vegas area at a "locals" casino a few miles from the Las Vegas strip, I am elated to see my first pictures of Shaun Marcum pitching in a Brewers uniform inside the casino’s sports book. Bad news: the Brewers are already losing, 2-0, by the time I get there. Worse news: I made my first ever sports bet, picking VCU to win the NCAA Tournament, and it’s losing to Butler simultaneously. Curse sports!
April 3 – Location: Random mall at edge of Las Vegas Strip. Good news! My parents’ rental car carries XM Radio, which means I can listen to the Brewers play the Reds in the series finale! Bad news. While sitting in a parking lot waiting for my mom to emerge from a mall-shopping venture, Casey McGehee makes a bad defensive play that extends an inning and allows the Reds to take a 3-2 lead. Worse news. I leave the car in disgust and head into the mall. By the time I return to the car, it’s 6-2, Reds, after a subsequent 3-run homer by Brandon Phillips. Curse sports!
Location: Pinball Hall of Fame. My phone insists that the Reds keep scoring runs, on their way to a 12-3 win. I take out my frustrations by losing badly on a Star Wars pinball game, several times.
April 4 – Location: Hoover Dam. Bad news. The thing about Hoover Dam is that it’s a giant wall of concrete, and that destroys my cell reception. To my dismay, the tour begins just as the Brewers game begins, and so I navigate the inner workings of the giant dam thinking about all that Brewers action I was missing. Good news! Upon emerging back to Planet Cell Reception, I discover the Brewers are winning, 1-0!
Location: En route to Grand Canyon. Bad news. Takashi Saito has given up two home runs in the eighth, and the Brewers lose, 2-1. Bob Uecker relays the news through the XM Radio. The Brewers are 0-4, but at least I find myself hating the Brewers while looking at the Grand Canyon. Decent tradeoff (To see a picture, visit @JRRadcliffe on Twitter).
April 5—Location: Lake Havasu City, AZ. Great news! My grandparents get their DirecTV package from Milwaukee, and given that the MLB Extra Innings free preview is ongoing, I can watch the Brewers! Bad news: Because it’s a Milwaukee feed, the Brewers game is blacked out, and since it’s not on Fox Sports Net, I can’t watch at all. Heartbreak. About the time I drive over the original London Bridge (yeah, it’s in Arizona, seriously), Yovani Gallardo has capped a 1-0 complete game shutout. I love sports!
April 6 – Location: BBQ Ribs Night, Havasu Elks Club. Bad news. Dinner is scheduled right around the second or third inning, and so I’m checking my phone rudely during ribs night. Great news! The ESPN Wednesday Night game is rained out, and the club is playing ESPN while it shows a live look in of the game. Bad news. Table is nowhere near the television (they won’t turn the TV in that room on because of the live entertainment playing an hour from now?), and the "live look-in" ends, anyway.
Good news: I can actually watch this game on TV when I get back, and the Brewers hold off the Braves for a second straight win. I love sports! And ribs!
April 7 – Location: Lake Havasu City. Good news. Nothing planned today, so I’m going to do nothing but watch the Brewers in the late morning. Bad news. Game isn’t televised in Milwaukee, and as I mentioned before, the Atlanta feed is blacked out on Extra Innings at my grandparents’ house. Heartbreak. Good news. The MLB Gameday online is pretty cool this year, and I "watch" as the Brewers win, 4-2. Awesome, but I’m ready for a full game sometime soon.
April 8 – Location: En route to Milwaukee. Good news. Frontier Airlines has televisions in every seat now, and I can watch national programming. Bad news. They cost $6 to use after takeoff. I have a long, deep internal conversation about paying the money JUST to watch the ESPN2 "bottom line" and get rotating updates. I bite the bullet and forget it. Good news though, the Brewers are winning, 2-0, on takeoff.
Bad news. We’re close to landing, and I’m straining my neck to see the guy’s TV next to me (he paid for the service, and he’s watching ESPN2!). It tells me the Brewers lost, 7-4. Curse sports! Worse news, the guy sees me and thinks I’m staring at him, so now thinks I’m a weirdo. Must de-board quickly.
April 9 – Location: Miller Park, Milwaukee. Yes. I’m never going on vacation again.
Pictured: Takashi Saito's rough inning and Nyjer Morgan's collision with Brian McCann of the Braves at home plate were key moments during the season's first homestands. JR didn't see them, or very much else, during the first week of Brewers baseball. (Photos: Benny Sieu and Tom Lynn, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
It’s been months since Pewaukee’s J.J. Watt last played football for the Wisconsin Badgers, but this interim period between the end of the college football season and NFL Draft nonetheless represents a time of unstable projections by media experts. Players see their stock rise and fall every spring.
Fortunately for Watt, the movement has been of the positive variety. Watt, who may have started this offseason as a borderline first-round draft choice, has ascended to consensus status in the opening round, possibly in the first 10 picks.
But Watt’s destination, which will be announced at next Thursday’s Draft, remains unclear. The personable defensive end was invited to New York as one of the projected top picks in the draft, and he’ll be on site to hear his name called. Meanwhile, Pewaukee residents will gather and wait for the exciting news – and a glance around the web sheds little resolution to the question of where Watt lands.
A roundup of where some of the experts project Watt as of April 19:
-- Mel Kiper of ESPN has Watt going at No. 10 to the Washington Redskins in his early April mock draft.
“Washington has serious needs on the offensive side of the ball, but if (Blaine) Gabbert and (Cam) Newton are gone, and (A.J.) Green and (Julio) Jones too, they should address another need or look to trade down. One pressing need on the other side of the ball is at defensive end, and Watt has a chance to be a tremendous player at that position. A high-energy guy capable of diagnosing plays, contributing in various schemes, and holding up well against the run while getting after quarterbacks in the pass game, he’s the kind of low-risk pick that makes sense for the Skins.”
So Kiper is seriously hedging. The aforementioned four players – two quarterbacks and two receivers – will probably be gone in the first nine picks, but one could slide, and Pete Prisco of CBS Sports reported that he heard the Redskins will try to trade down knowing they won’t have a chance at one of the top quarterbacks.
-- Don Banks of CNNSI sees Watt at No. 17 to New England.
He says, “The Patriots, as always, are willing to move around on draft weekend. But I think they’ll stick with their No. 17 pick and snatch up Watt to address their need for a 3-4 defensive end. It’s at No. 28 where I expect New England to vacate the slot, dealing with a team (I have guessed Minnesota) intent on landing a quarterback late in the first round.”
That would naturally be a great environment for any first-year player, but a lot could hinge on whether or not New England moves from its current position.
-- Rob Rang of CBS Sportsline also thinks Watt will land at No. 17 to the New England Patriots.
“Since the 2007 draft, Bill Belichick has invested 10 selections in the top 100 on the back seven of his defense, but only one pick on the defensive line. … Watt’s size (6-6, 290) makes him an ideal defensive end for the 3-4 and his non-stop motor is sure to be appreciated by Belichick and his staff.”
Among those slotted ahead of Watt in Rang’s scenario are Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16 to Jacksonville), the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Jacksonville runs a 4-3 defense, and it seems Watt could find a role in either that or the 3-4. I’m curious if teams will look at Kerrigan and Watt side-by-side and make a judgment between the two.
-- Rang’s colleague Chad Reuter of Sportsline sees Watt at No. 8 to Tennessee, saying, “Watt could play inside or outside in the Titans’ scheme, ecially since he’s probably not done adding weight. They picked Jason Jones to play inside two years ago, and at the 2011 Combine, Watt weighed 17 pounds more than Jones did as a rookie.”
The Titans also run a 4-3. Reuter slots Watt ahead of Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers (knee) and North Carolina’s Robert Quinn (sat out 2010), who are both considered elite talents but have holdups that could convince teams to look elsewhere.
-- NFL.com presents a microcosm of the wide disparity in projection for Watt. Brian Baldinger says No. 9 to the Cowboys, Pat Kirwan says No. 11 to the Titans, Charles Davis thinks No. 16 to the Jaguars and Steve Wyche thinks No. 18 to the Chargers.
Baldinger: “Watt is one of the ‘cleaner’ players in the draft and versatile as well. He will have the chance to start at DE immediately in their base 3-4 scheme and would move inside to rush in sub-packages."
Kirwan: “The Texans are converting to a 3-4 defense. Put this guy at the five-technique opposite Mario Williams and that will give the Texans a very tough front to block.”
Davis: “In contention for a top 10 selection, general manager Gene Smith is delighted this high-motor, productive player is still available.”
Wyche: “Watt could be long off the board by this point, but if he’s available, the Chargers would be hard-pressed not to select him. He’s a perfect fit.”
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: Follow @JRRadcliffe on Twitter to get live updates from Pewaukee as fans gather to watch J.J. Watt and the NFL Draft on April 28. Relive Watt's career in our photo gallery, "Native Son Watt Shines."
My first instinct was to shake my head and dislike it. But I think that instinct was wrong.
With the amount of tinkering that has gone on in WIAA basketball the past several months – including some maneuvers to the detriment of the playoff series – I wasn’t in a receptive mood when I heard that the governing body of high school athletics had used an ad-hoc committee and produced a football playoff scenario that allows every team a crack at the postseason.
Under the “Big Foot” plan, which hasn’t been implemented but seems to be gaining favor among the interested parties in state football, football teams would play what amounted to seven-game regular seasons. Week 8 would be, for all intents and purposes, the first week of the playoffs, though it may bear a different name.
- Teams in groups of 8 or 16 (presumably, with travel concerns less prevalent in Milwaukee than other parts of the state, this area will see more of the latter) will be seeded based on performances in the first seven-weeks and placed in a bracket, with 64 teams total for each of the first six divisions and Division 7 getting the balance.
- Winners in Week 8 would advance to face fellow winners in Week 9. Losing teams would be paired against other losing teams in what presents (I think) the greatest challenge of the system – lame-duck games for teams that no longer have a chance at going to state. Same would be true in Week 9 – winning teams move forward, losing teams play each other in the following week. There is some question as to whether losing teams will want to play after getting eliminated, but all teams should wind up with 10 games total. The losers in Week 8 would play a Week 10 opponent depending on outcomes in the “back draw.”
- Winners in Week 10 will find themselves in the state quarterfinals, needing two more wins to qualify for state.
- The plan achieves several goals for the WIAA, fitting the season into a specific timeframe and eliminating the much-disliked “Three Games in 10 Days” circumstance that has, to this point, been a reality for the first couple rounds of the playoffs in an effort to keep the proper scheduling intact.
- Teams would only play one game a week, as they will in 2011 (but at the cost of practice beginning in the first days of August – the plan allows for a reversion to practice beginning in the second week of August. In 2012, teams will play only eight regular-season games with the practice schedule shifting back to the second week).
The prevailing sentiment is that football represents the last bastian of regular-season value in Wisconsin state sports – the lone outpost where a team doesn’t make the playoffs unless it performs well in the regular season. Then again, the method of establishing playoff eligibility is unbalanced, as a team in a difficult conference might not get the requisite winning record in league play, while a lesser team might qualify from a lesser conference.
This would also eliminate the frequently-controversial process of filling out brackets each playoff season. Currently, the WIAA uses a set of criteria to place teams regionally and seed brackets in an intense one-day pow-wow. This past fall was a ringing example when some Division 1 teams took issue with the perceived strength in one corner of the bracket relative to the other three.
Surely, some parts of the bracket will still be tougher than others, but seeds will be determined based on a coaches meeting, consistent with the fairly-agreeable process utilized by other WIAA sports.
As I compare this to the changes made to the basketball postseason (addition of a fifth division and re-allocation of state-tourney berths, plus the creation of “Super Tuesday” in Division 1), I don’t see the overriding logic problems.
In hoops, I still can’t rectify how the smallest schools in the state (Division 5) get equal representation as the largest (Division 1), though I readily admit that football has essentially used the same procedure, with two teams from each Division at Camp Randall in Madison. I also think the Super Tuesday format in basketball sets up teams for too rugged a road to a state championship, forcing teams to travel for games all over the state in a Saturday-Tuesday-Friday sequence.
But here, there are no such conflicts. Every team gets its shot, and even if “backdraw” teams will have “nothing to play for” in Week 9 and 10, it does give coaches in rebuilding programs two more chances to play against fairly similar programs before heading into the offseason.
I suppose there will be a team or two that expresses frustration after seven great weeks of football, when it falls to a lesser opponent in Week 8 on a bad day and sees the season end prematurely based on that one performance. Then again, that’s always been the nature of the one-and-done playoffs in every sport.
The season would expand, the pressure would be off the WIAA to create a fair bracket, teams wouldn’t be disadvantaged by conference alignment and everyone would get a shot. My new instinct: make it happen.
Comments from area coaches:
Clay Iverson of Pewaukee, whose team perennially makes the playoffs as one of the best squads in the Woodland Conference: You know at first I didn't like it - I liked the fact that the regular season meant something as far as extending the season, which is different then any other sport. The more I look at it, with the ability to seed teams (getting our best matchups hopefully late in the playoffs), giving more summer to our kids, and keeping our state final game in Madison, I have really come around to it and I hope it goes through in 2013.
Plus, it gives teams in tough conference a reason to keep practicing and getting better, and allows teams that are improving at the end of the year to have something to play for. I really like it.
Greg Brazgel of Lake Country Lutheran, whose team has become one of the area's best small-school programs. My first impression is that I love it. It seems like a blend of all of the proposals. A team has the chance to compete for a conference, district, and state championship. Also, a player has a legitimate chance to be all-conference, all-district, and all-state.
Football coaches who just want to coach their players for the love of the game would be delighted in the guarantee of 10 games even if the last two don't "matter". When I coach, every game matters because it is another opportunity for my players to do something that very few people have the chance to do. The idea of playing 8 games in a season is ridiculous and slaps those of us who prepare for 9 months for this season in the face. I also love the fact that I would have a select group of teams that I may face in the playoffs to worry about as the season comes to an end. The past three years, I had up to 40 teams on my radar as I flip-flopped from D-7 to D-6 and from southeast to southwest to northeast. This was very frustrating, especially when I was shipped out to Potosi for a first round game. On the other hand, as an athletic director and revenue producer, there is the fear of only having three home games. We have enjoyed hosting the first two rounds the past two years, but one day the shoe could be on the other foot.
Bill Schulte of Mukwonago, whose team has been on the bubble of playoff qualification the last few years in the Classic 8. The new WIAA football scheduling proposal, like anything else, has its positive and negative points. The only "hiccup" that would be of concern is the scenario where a team which only has 3 home games is given the opportunity to host a first round playoff game, regardless of seeding.
In the competitive nature of sports, conference placement will always be of high value, and no one can take away a team's regular-season success and honors. Allowing everyone in the playoffs, however, will benefit those teams which are finding their niche later in the season. This scenario allows "late blooming" teams the opportunity to demonstrate how continued development throughout a season does and can retrieve success from what opened as a frustrating season.
Ryan McMillen of Oconomowoc, whose team has been on the bubble in the Wisconsin Little Ten. I think the plan has some merit. I am a little concerned how the WIAA will place teams into districts and the reseeding -- having a 1-8 match-up might be tough for some teams. This plan seems to be very similar to other states around us. I do really enjoy the current format, as I think it really created excitment for the sport and was unique to Wisconsin, but as everyone knows, something has to be done (about 3 games in 10 days), due to safety concerns. Every proposed plan will have its positive and negitives, but I think everyone will adjust accordingly.
Had a great time Thursday night at the J.J. Watt draft party, where friends and family of the former Pewaukee star gathered at SandBar Sports Pub in town to watch as the Houston Texans made Watt the No. 11 choice in the 2011 NFL Draft. Some video from the event:
Pewaukee's J.J. Watt poses with a Houston Texans jersey April 27 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City after the team made Watt the 11th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. Joining him onstage were (from left) Pewaukee head football coach Clay Iverson, brothers Derek Watt and T.J. Watt, parents Connie and John Watt and assistant PHS coach Mike Lecher. (PHOTO/AP)
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