Archive for November, 2014

Week 13 Picks

Posted: 11/30/2014 by levcohen in Football

Even though today is a slightly lighter slate of games given that six teams already played on Thanksgiving, we have a great slate of games today. We’re lucky in that it seems that most of the bad teams are playing each other this week. The Giants are playing the Jaguars, the Raiders are playing the Rams, the Titans are playing the Texans, and the Panthers are playing the Vikings. That’s eight of the 12 worst teams in football (Washington, Chicago, Jets, Bucs are the others), and none of them are playing against a good team this week. That means, of course, that we are set to have some games between two teams fighting for the playoffs. The marquee matchup, of course, is Patriots-Packers in Green Bay. Dubbed by many as the Super Bowl preview, both teams have to be considered favorites to win the top seed in their respective conferences. It’s a game between Rodgers and Brady, weapons vs. weapons, etc. It could also help determine who wins homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and who eventually goes to the Super Bowl in Glendale. So yeah, it’s important. Also important are games between Denver and Kansas City, Arizona and Atlanta, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, San Diego and Baltimore, and Cleveland and Buffalo. The loser of the final two games will have a really tough time making the playoffs, while the Broncos can basically lock up the AFC West and come a step closer to clinching a BYE with a win over the Chiefs. The Cards and Falcons are both atop their divisions, even though one is 9-2 and the other 4-7. It’s a particularly important weekend in the AFC, where seven teams outside the AFC South are either 6-5 or 7-4 and only one (at most) will win its division. That means the wild card race is extremely muddled, and with the aforementioned head-to-head matchups coming up today, we should get some clarity. On to the picks.
*= upset pick

Washington Redskins (3-8, 4-7) at Indianapolis Colts (7-4, 8-3):- Lock of the Week
Spread: Colts favored by 8.5
Over/under: 50
My prediction: Yeah, I’m not picking the trainwreck that is the Washington Redskins here. I picked them against the spread last week because they were playing the 49ers, but this week they play a more explosive Colts team who has won the three games they’ve been favored in 6+ points in by an average of 24 points. Colts win 31-14.
Colts cover
Under

Tennessee Titans (2-9, 3-7-1) at Houston Texans (5-6, 6-5):
Spread: Texans favored by 7
Over/under: 43
My prediction: Do I pick Ryan Fitzpatrick or a terrible Titans team? This is the question I’m faced with, and I’m going to pick the Texans to win but the Titans to cover. Not planning on watching a second of this game, though. Texans win 21-16.
Titans cover
Under

Cleveland Browns (7-4, 6-3-2) at Buffalo Bills (6-5, 5-6):*
Spread: Bills favored by 3.5
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: This is interesting because it’s a matchup between two of this season’s biggest overachievers. I’ve been picking against both teams pretty much all season, and I’m torn about which to pick against this week. I normally like taking the home team, and have thought in the past that the Bills have a pretty decent homefield advantage. But they are just 2-3 at home this year, and a frightening 1-4 against the spread. It’s sad that I have to pick Brian Hoyer, but pick Hoyer I will. Browns win 23-16.
Browns cover
Under

San Diego Chargers (7-4, 5-6) at Baltimore Ravens (7-4, 6-4-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 6.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: This is the classic case of an inflated spread. The Ravens are coming off back to back wins over the Titans (comfortably) and Saints (by seven, but still fairly comfortable), while the Chargers lost three straight and then beat the Raiders by seven and the Rams by three, both at home. The Chargers are better than they’ve played in the past five games, but I’m losing patience with a team that covered its first five and hasn’t covered any of its past six. I think this game comes down to the wire, with the Ravens winning it at the end because they really are good at home. Ravens win 27-23
Chargers cover
Over

New York Giants (3-8, 4-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10, 2-8-1):
Spread: Giants favored by 2.5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: The Giants are at a low point right now, but I don’t think they will lose to the Jaguars. That’s not to say I would be shocked if they did, because they are a really bad team. Just not as bad as Jacksonville. Another game nobody should be watching. Giants win 28-17.
Giants cover
Over

Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1, 6-4-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-9, 4-7):
Spread: Bengals favored by 5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: As I’ve mentioned before, the AFC North has dominated the NFC South this season. In a matchup between the leaders of the AFC North and the worst of the NFC South, I don’t think we’ll see anything different. In fact, I’m surprised the line is only five points. Yes, the Bengals have had some low points, with the Thursday Night Football game against the Browns chief among them. But the Buccaneers are 0-5 against the spread at home, and I expect that to become 0-6 after this week. Bengals win 27-14.
Bengals cover
Under

Oakland Raiders (1-10, 6-5) at St. Louis Rams (4-7, 5-6):*
Spread: Rams favored by 6
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Riding the Raider train! No, I don’t think the Raiders are extremely likely to win this game, but I’m going to pick them to win anyway. It would be fun if they won their second straight, and they aren’t exactly playing a powerhouse in St. Louis. The Rams were destroyed by the Vikings in their only game as a favorite, and are 0-4 against the spread in games in which they have been less than a four point underdog. Raiders win 20-17.
Raiders cover
Under

New Orleans Saints (4-7, 4-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4, 5-6):
Spread: Steelers favored by 4
Over/under: 55
My prediction: Yup, I’m picking the team that has lost three straight home games against the team that has put up 124 points in its last four home games. I don’t have a great explanation. The Steelers have looked tremendous offensively at home and have seemingly gone back to the basics (get the ball to LeVeon Bell and Antonio Browns). Meanwhile, the Saints have struggled defensively and are only in the playoff race because they are in an all-time bad division. So why am I picking the Saints? I’m probably focusing on Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and the Saints’ recent history more than I should be. I’ve changed my mind: there’s no rational reason to pick the Saints. Steelers win 34-31.
Saints cover
Over

Carolina Panthers (3-7-1, 6-5) at Minnesota Vikings (4-7, 6-5):
Spread: Vikings favored by 2.5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: Bleh. This is somehow a meaningful game for the 3-7-1 Panthers, who are just a half game out of first in the NFC South. So the Panthers could play with more urgency than the Vikings, who are out of the playoff race and have a bigger problem- Adrian Peterson- than this game on the horizon. But I don’t buy that, and I think the Vikings have played better this season. I’ll take the Vikings- hesitantly- 24-21.
Vikings cover
Over

Arizona Cardinals (9-2, 8-3) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7, 4-7):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 1.5
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Another surprisingly low spread. I guess people just aren’t sold on the Cardinals. I guess I’m not either, but I think they are a lot better than the Falcons. Whenever a 9-2 team is favored by less than a field goal over a 4-7 team, I’m going to jump on the 9-2 team. Cardinals win 31-24.
Cardinals cover
Over

New England Patriots (9-2, 7-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-3, 6-4-1):*
Spread: Packers favored by 2.5
Over/under: 57
My prediction: I’m picking the Patriots, because I think they are the better all-around team, because they’ve won seven straight, and especially because we know how well they play as underdogs. They’ve won their four games as underdogs by an average of 21.25 points. That’s incredible, and while I think this one is closer, it should have the same outcome. Patriots win 37-31.
Patriots cover
Over (somehow)

Denver Broncos (8-3, 5-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4, 8-3):*
Spread: Chiefs favored by 1
Over/under: 49
My prediction: I’m surprised the Broncos are home underdogs here, as they were favored at home against the Chiefs by 13 points in week two. Yes, the Chiefs are more well-regarded now, but a 14 point swing? I think the Broncos are the better team, and they’ll win this one on the road. Broncos win 27-20.
Broncos cover
Under

Miami Dolphins (6-5, 7-4) at New York Jets (2-9, 2-8-1):
Spread: Dolphins favored by 7
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Jets are a mess, while I think the Dolphins are better than their record and perhaps one of the seven best teams in football. I’m petrified of picking the Dolphins as seven point road dogs, but I’m going to do it. The Dolphins are out with a loss, while the Jets have no incentive to win this game. Dolphins win 28-10.
Dolphins cover
Under

Upset picks:
Browns over Bills
Raiders over Rams
Patriots over Packers
Broncos over Chiefs

Lock of the week:
Colts over Redskins

I got some things right in my preseason NBA predictions, but one thing I got dead wrong was the Toronto Raptors. I had them going 45-37 and finishing fifth in the East, saying point guard Kyle Lowry would regress and the Raptors wouldn’t be able to build on their surprising 48 win year last season. Instead, Lowry is averaging 19-5-6 and has a 23 PER, which is pretty much right in line with his stats in a contract year last season. And the Raptors are 13-3, with no double-digit losses. They are a commanding three games up on second-place Washington, and their point differential (+10.6) is best in the NBA and miles better than 7-7 Cleveland’s (+3.4). In a conference with only four above-average teams (the Bulls along with the three mentioned above), the Raptors look like they are running away with the top seed. How are they doing it? Do they have a chance to knock off the more heralded Bulls and Cavs in the playoffs? Can they keep it up without DeMar DeRozan?

First, DeRozan. The 25-year old, who leads the Raptors with 19 points per game after scoring 23 per game last year, tore his left adductor longus tendon (whatever that is) yesterday and is out indefinitely. It’s a huge blow, as DeRozan is the Raptors’ main scoring option, taking a quarter of their shots and leading the team with a 26.5 usage rate (possessions used per 40 minutes) that is 14th in the league among players playing at least 30 minutes per game (of the guys ahead of him, only Reggie Jackson and Tony Wroten are not stars, and each has good reason to be hoisting up shots). But DeRozan is not irreplaceable, and the Raptors have a bench player named Lou Williams who just so happens to have similar scoring ability. It remains to be seen if Williams will join the starting lineup, as the Raptors may want to keep him where he has flourished for so much of his career (in the sixth man role), but there are a couple of other good candidates- James Johnson and Greivis Vasquez- to join the lineup. Johnson’s a great defender, while Vasquez is a good passer and would allow Lowry to play off the ball more. We could also see some more scoring from small forward Terrance Ross, who had a 50 point game last season but hasn’t done much since and is averaging just 10.7 points per game. Regardless of who replaces him, though, DeRozan was a key contributor, albeit probably not Toronto’s best or most important player (that distinction belongs to Lowry). The Raptors will lose some depth and scoring ability while he’s out, and their record will likely suffer. Assuming he’s back for the playoffs, though, they should be able to cope.

As for how they’re doing it, that’s an easier question. First of all, their schedule to this point has been pretty easy; they have played just three of the West’s top 10 teams. But the main reason they are playing so well is continuity. All of their best players from last year are back, and that’s especially important on a young team like Toronto. Center Jonas Valanciunas is 22, Ross is 23, DeRozan is 25, Amir Johnson is 27, and Lowry is 28, so all five are in their prime and have now been starting together for consecutive seasons. So when you add an offseason and a scoring threat like Lou Williams (14 ppg off the bench) to a young 48-win team, a big improvement isn’t all that surprising. That’s, of course, why I predicted they’d improve on last season and go over the 50-win mark…. Whoops.

But while I think they can hold on to a top-two seed in the East, I’m more skeptical about the Raptors’ playoff chances. They should easily advance past the first round this time around, but I don’t think they’ll be able to overcome the Cavaliers or Bulls, both of whom have more experience and talent. If they get the top seed, they could avoid the Cavs and Bulls until the conference finals, but I think the NBA Finals are still a bit too much to expect from this inexperienced and (come playoff time) probably overmatched team. Still, the ECF would be a huge success, and I think the Raptors have a better chance than anyone to upset one of the two favorites in the East. I don’t think they’ll end up pulling it off, but could they take the Bulls to seven games in the conference semis or finals? Absolutely, and the fact that it’s even a discussion should illustrate how far this team has come since the beginning of the year, let alone since before last season, when this core was just starting to round into shape and Rudy Gay was still a Raptor.

The Raptors have been really impressive and fun to watch so far this season, both offensively and defensively. Lowry has become one of the better two way point guards in the NBA, Williams has been a great fit as the Jamal Crawford of the Raptors (although he might need to take on more minutes and responsibilities after DeRozan’s injury), and there are signs that gifted big man Valanciunas is close to putting it all together and becoming a star. Big men who shoot 58% from the field and 82% from the line don’t grow on trees, and the Raptors need to get him involved more. Without a dominant Valanciunas, I don’t think they have much of a chance of challenging the bigger and more physical Bulls or the more talented Cavs. But for now, the big step forward has been refreshing in a poor conference mostly devoid of excitement. With Derrick Rose in and out of the lineup and Cleveland still struggling to mesh, many people wondered which Eastern conference team would step up and make a run for the top seed. Would it be Washington, Charlotte, Toronto, or Atlanta? It appears that we have our answer.

Thanksgiving Day Predictions, Week 12 Review

Posted: 11/27/2014 by levcohen in Football

Among all the things one can possibly be thankful for, football has to be pretty far down. But it’s on the list, and this year we should be even more thankful; all three games in the annual Thanksgiving triple-header are very meaningful. The NFL did a good job picking the Thanksgiving games this year, although the fact that Dallas (8-3) and Detroit (7-4) are actually good this year and host Thanksgiving games every year already made things easier. Of the three games, one has huge implications on the NFC East race (Eagles-Cowboys), one has huge implications on the wild card race (Seattle-San Fran), and one has huge implications on the Lions, Packers, and the rest of the NFC’s playoff hopefuls. Who should you be rooting for in these games? Well, everyone other than Lions fans should root for the 5-6 Bears in the early game. The Eagles-Cowboys game matters almost exclusively to those two teams, while Dallas and Philadelphia fans should root for the Seahawks in the late game since both have already lost the tiebreaker to the 49ers and would prefer them out of the race. I think we’re in for two good games, and while one will likely be a blowout, I have no idea which one it will be. You could see the Lions blowing out a divisional opponent on Thanksgiving for a second consecutive year (they destroyed the Packers last year), but their offense has been terrible recently. You could see Mark Sanchez making some mistakes and the Cowboys pulling away, but Dallas’s defense probably won’t be able to slow down Philly’s offense. And as for the night game, I really don’t see that one becoming a blowout. Both defenses are too good, and neither team has notched a real blowout since the Seahawks dominated the Packers in week one. Anyway, on to the picks.
*- upset pick

Chicago Bears (5-6, 5-6) at Detroit Lions (7-4, 5-6):
Spread: Lions favored by 7.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: The Lions have scored 15 points in the last two weeks combined, and are now the only team in the NFC that has scored fewer than 200 points (Jacksonville, New York, Oakland, and Tennessee are the other members of the sub-200 club). Calvin Johnson’s return was supposed to help the offense, but it hasn’t, as Megatron hasn’t looked the same and Matthew Stafford has continued to struggle. There’s still hope for Detroit’s offense, though. The Bears have looked terrible defensively, and Stafford and the Lions have played well on recent Thanksgivings. Although Reggie Bush is still out, the offense is also as healthy as it has been in recent weeks. As for Chicago, the Bears have turned it around in recent weeks, with back-to-back eight point wins (albeit over poor teams). They aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they could play spoiler down the stretch, starting today. I like the Lions in this one, but it could come down to the wire. Lions win 24-20.
Bears cover
Under

Philadelphia Eagles (8-3, 7-4) at Dallas Cowboys (8-3, 6-5):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 3
Over/under: 56
My prediction: I learned a couple of weeks ago (Eagles-Packers) to pick with my head and not my heart. With that in mind, I’m picking the Cowboys to win this one. They have the better offense, and Mark Sanchez on the road in an important game is very, very scary. Assuming the Cowboys can quiet the Eagles’ special teams and make them score points the hard way, I think they have the upper hand here, especially as the much more efficient red zone offense. Cowboys win 34-27.
Cowboys cover
Over

Seattle Seahawks (7-4, 5-6) at San Francisco 49ers (7-4, 6-5):*
Spread: 49ers favored by 2
Over/under: 40
My prediction: This is a coin-flip game, and I usually go with the home team in coin-flip games. Not this time. The 49ers have been mediocre in their new home stadium, going 3-2 and outscoring opponents by a total of three points. It’s not as if the Seahawks are good on the road (1-4 ATS, -1 point differential), but I think Seattle’s the better all-around team. I say it week after week, but I just am not a fan of the 49ers this year. I think they’re mediocre, and their +3 point differential agrees with me. Meanwhile, Seattle (+61) has been unlucky at times, and I think they assert themselves as the frontrunner to win a wild card here. Seahawks win 20-16.
Seahawks cover
Under

And here are my five takeaways from week 12:

  • The polar-opposite nature of the AFC North and NFC South is getting ridiculous. With the Steelers and Panthers on BYE, the AFC North went 3-0 last week while the NFC South was 0-3. The AFC North is now 28-15-1, including a 20-7-1 mark outside the division. Meanwhile, the NFC South is 13-30-1, including a 6-23-1 mark outside the division. Of course, the divisions played each other, and the AFC North is 10-1-1 against the NFC South, with the only loss being that bizarre Steelers home loss against the Buccaneers. Crazy.
  • The five worst teams in football (Tampa, Oakland, Jacksonville, the Jets, Tennessee) have continued to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Oakland won their first game last week, and seem to be at the top of the Quintet of Horror, but that really isn’t saying much. I’ll say this much: the race for the #1 pick is going to be thrilling, with head-to-head matchups and plenty of drama. A darkhorse candidate to join the Quintet of Horror: the Washington Redskins, who are a bigger mess than all five teams combined. In fact, I’m willing to make it a Sextet of Horror. Washington is that bad.
  • The race for the #1 seed in the NFC is just as wide-open as the AFC North race. Arizona is up a game on everyone else at 9-2, but are without their quarterback and have a pretty tough schedule. I would consider the 8-3 Packers favorites, but they play the Patriots this week and could easily end up with four or five losses. If the Seahawks or 49ers go on a hot streak, one of them could still have a shot at winning the top seed.
  • How was Justin Forsett cut by, of all teams, the Jaguars? The 2008 seventh round pick is now 29 and playing on his fourth team, and he’s an absolute monster. He’s now averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season and 5.2 for his career. Had he not gotten injured last season, he might still be on the floundering Jaguars, so that injury might have been a blessing in disguise.
  • The Miami Dolphins unfortunately feel like the team this year that everyone knows is good enough to make noise in the playoffs but just slips up one time too many to make the playoffs. They are 6-5 now and behind the five other serious AFC wild card competitors, despite the fact that their +66 point differential is tied for seventh in the NFL. Since they fell to 1-2 after week three, their three losses have all been heart-breakers; to the Packers by three points on the most improbable last drive comeback of the season, to the Lions by four on another game-winning touchdown in the last 30 seconds, and to the Broncos by three (in Denver) after holding a 28-17 lead going into the fourth. Those three teams are a combined 23-10, and the Dolphins arguably outplayed all three. They do get two gimmes against the Jets and one against the Vikings, but will need to get at least one win from games against Baltimore and New England. If they lose both or slip up in one of their other games, they’ll have seven losses and very little chance of making the playoffs.

I went 3-3 on upset picks, moving to a solid 18-23 on the season. My bold upset pick (Lions over Patriots) didn’t work out, though. The Colts ground out a 23-3 win over the Jaguars, so I’m 8-3 on locks.

11-4 straight up… 106-55-1
9-6 against the spread… 81-79-2
7-8 over/under… 71-89-2

MLB Free Agency; Red Sox Aggressive Early

Posted: 11/25/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Normally, this is how MLB free agency goes down: there are a flurry of small moves at or shortly after the winter GM meetings, and a couple of big free agents sign in the weeks after. Then, things die down a little, with big free agents signing in the weeks after and the most dramatic cases lasting until January. Right now, we’re in the “few weeks after the GM meetings” period, and, if you’re only counting changes of team, there have been three large and two pretty-large moves. After their extremely disappointing season last year, it’s not at all surprising that the most aggressive team early in free agency has been the Boston Red Sox. Their owner has said he doesn’t mind going over the luxury tax, and it shows; the Sox have signed Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, adding to their stable of corner infielders or, apparently in the case of Ramirez, outfielders. First, a look at each move individually:

  • Sandoval was signed to a five year, $95 million deal, with a team option in a sixth year. A few quick reactions: based on his regular season stats, this deal makes no sense for the Red Sox. Since his breakout year in 2011, he has averaged 14 homers per year and hasn’t had an OPS above .789. His Fangraphs WAR since the start of 2012- 7.9- ranks just 17th among third basemen. Add in his rather ample frame, and this deal looks crazy, even for a guy who will be just 33 when this deal ends. But there are other factors. The first one is general, and also applies to HanRam: it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find good hitters in an increasingly pitching-dominant league, and the price of proven hitters is rising, which means that these deals will look crazy at the beginning of each offseason and look better and better as the offseason progresses. The second is also simple: Sandoval is a beast in the playoffs. He has a career .344/.389/.545 triple slash line in 167 postseason plate appearances, and was named World Series MVP in 2012. I would say it’s a fluke, but at this point, it really isn’t. 167 plate appearances is still a small sample size, but it’s not tiny, and Sandoval can safely be considered a bigger asset in the playoffs than he is in the regular season. There’s also the fact that Sandoval, a fly-ball hitter, is going to be helped immensely by Fenway Park. He moves from AT&T Park in San Francisco, which is one of the most severely pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, to Fenway, a good hitter’s park. Look for him to return to the 20+ homer level for the first time since that 2011 season. The bottom line is that because Sandoval is a good hitter who doesn’t strike out much (important in a park that is friendly for hitters) and is also surprisingly nimble defensively at third base, this deal is less risky than you would imagine based on his regular season stats and weight. It includes his age 29-33 seasons, and there should be little if any dropoff from now to the end of the contract. While perhaps a little pricey ($19 million per year), Sandoval is a risk worth taking, and this contract makes sense for the Red Sox.
  • I’m a bit more worried about Ramirez, who was signed to a four year, $88 million deal that has a fifth year that will vest if Ramirez stays relatively healthy. And health is the biggest concern for the now leftfielder (?) who will be 31 by the time the calendar turns to 2015. He’s been bothered by various aches and pains over the past couple of years, going on the DL multiple times and registering just 848 plate appearances in the past two seasons after going over 600 in every other year of his career. But even assuming health, I’m concerned. The Red Sox say he will play left field, a position he’s never played in his career. A natural shortstop and recently a third baseman, it will be interesting to see how he reacts to playing in left and whether he can field the position well. The Red Sox have created quite the logjam in the outfield, with Jackie Bradley, Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Brock Holt, Allen Craig, and Daniel Nava, among others. A couple of those guys will likely be traded, but still, that’s a lot of capable players competing for just a few spots. Couldn’t that money have been spent better? Ramirez also has had his issues in the clubhouse. He’s reportedly not the best teammate, which is supported by the fact that this is his third team since 2012. That’s not out of the ordinary for a bench player, but it’s pretty odd for a great hitter. And one thing Ramirez is is a great hitter. He wasn’t great last year, but he has a career .300/.373/.500 triple slash with 191 homers and 261 steals in his 10 seasons. That would make a top-three offensive shortstop, but even in leftfield it’s extremely valuable. Is it worth $22 million per year, though? I’m not sure.

To recap, I like the Sandoval deal, while I’m not a big fan of the HanRam deal. The Red Sox have certainly improved their offense, which will now feature the two big free agent signings, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, and Xander Bogaerts. They should score plenty of runs.

The other signings worth talking about are Russell Martin, Billy Butler, and Adam LaRoche.

  • Martin was given five years and $82 million by the Blue Jays, who have recently had trouble getting a good, consistent catcher. It’s probably an overpay, but Martin was the only good catcher on the market, and he’s a really good catcher. He posted a fWAR of 5.3 last year, with fantastic defense to go along with an on base percentage that was a tremendous .402. He isn’t likely to replicate last season, but he won’t need to. Even if he’s more of a 4 WAR player than a 5+ WAR player, he’ll be worth this contract. Yes, there’s some risk in signing a soon-to-be 33 year old catcher to a five year deal, but it was a risk worth taking for Toronto, as long as they don’t expect last year’s numbers again.
  • Butler left the city he’s always played in, Kansas City, for Oakland. It will be shocking to see Butler on a team other than the Royals, and I was also pretty surprised to see the Athletics spend $30 million (over three years) on a pure DH who has posted just 9.6 career WAR in eight seasons and was sub-0 in a poor season last year. But this is what the Athletics do: they buy players who have warts or are just coming off bad years, and they hope the players can return to form. For Butler, that means rediscovering himself as a guy who can get on base at an elite (.370+) clip while hitting 15-20 homers per year. There’s a chance he never regains that form, in which case the Athletics will look really stupid. And while I’d argue that the risk outweighs the reward here, hitting is hard to find, and there are very few players who can get on base like Butler circa 2009-2013 can. The Athletics hope that five years of evidence will prove more predictive of future results than one bad year.
  • Finally, LaRoche was signed by the White Sox for two years and $25 million. This one is simple: the White Sox needed power (and, in particular, left-handed power) and LaRoche has averaged 26 homers over the past three years. He will likely hit directly behind Jose Abreu in the lineup, and his defense is also above average at first base. It’s a low risk, high reward deal for a Chicago team starting to gear up for a playoff run.

I’ll check in on free agency in a couple of weeks, or whenever something really big happens.

Week 12 Picks

Posted: 11/23/2014 by levcohen in Football

This week in the NFL has started out really, really weird. It began when the game that was supposed to be played today in Buffalo between the Bills and Jets was moved to FedEx Field in Detroit and will be played tomorrow night. It stinks for the Bills, but they weren’t going to be able to clear the field (or, just as importantly, the streets) in time for the game today. Then, we finally got a close (if not fun to watch) primetime game, with the Oakland Raiders winning their first game of the season against the mighty Kansas City Chiefs. It kind of makes sense, as the Chiefs were in between games between the Seahawks and Broncos and were on the road against a divisional opponent on three days rest. And the Raiders, while not a good football team, aren’t really bad enough to be sniffing 0-16. At the same time, it didn’t make sense at all; the Chiefs are clearly the better team and held the lead in the fourth quarter. So two weird things have already happened, and I think more are coming. With that in mind, I’ll try to pick a crazy upset or two in a week I think will be pretty wacky.
BYE teams: Pittsburgh, Carolina
*= upset pick

Cleveland Browns (6-4, 5-3-2 ATS) at Atlanta Falcons (4-6, 4-6):*
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 48
My prediction: In a matchup between two mediocre teams, a three point spread seems about right. I’m picking the Browns both because I expect the NFC South (6-20-1 out of division) to continue to stink, and because I think Josh Gordon makes a couple of big plays in his return to action. Regardless of how he does, Gordon is a really fun player to watch, and he should enhance Cleveland’s chances at making a playoff run. I still don’t think it will happen, but the offense will be more fun to watch. Meanwhile, the Falcons are 4-0 in the NFC South but just 0-6 out of division. Browns win 26-20.
Browns cover
Under

Tennessee Titans (2-8, 3-6-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-3, 6-4):
Spread: Eagles favored by 12.5
Over/under: 49
My prediction: This spread scares me, as the Eagles are coming off a 33 point loss while the Titans played a team about as good as the Eagles (Pittsburgh) pretty close. They ended up covering a seven point spread in Pittsburgh. I think this game ends up a lot closer than people are predicting, but the Eagles have been good at home and the Titans are pretty bad, so Philly should win. Eagles win 31-23.
Titans cover
Over

Detroit Lions (7-3, 5-5) at New England Patriots (8-2, 6-4):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 7.5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: The Patriots are really, really good. They’ve beaten the Broncos and Colts, the other two real contenders in the AFC, by 22 apiece in the past two weeks and have averaged more than 40 points per game in their past six games. If any team can slow them down, though, it’s the Lions, who quietly have perhaps the best defense in football. If the Lions can slow down Rob Gronkowski, they’ll have a chance at winning this game. That’s a big if, though, and I’m not sure I trust Matthew Stafford to play a full 60 minute game in a hostile environment. But I promised I’d take a wacky upset, and here it is: Lions win 23-20.
Lions cover
Under

Green Bay Packers (7-3, 6-3-1) at Minnesota Vikings (4-6, 5-5):
Spread: Packers favored by 7.5
Over/under: 49.5
My prediction: This is a game the Packers could lose. But how can you expect me to pick against them with the way they’ve been picking apart defense after defense? I’m certainly not picking against them twice in a row. Packers win 37-17.
Packers cover
Over

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9, 2-7-1) at Indianapolis Colts (6-4, 7-3):- Lock
Spread: Colts favored by 13
Over/under: 49
My prediction: The Colts have played three terrible teams: the Jaguars, Tennessee, and the Giants. They’ve won those games by an average of 22.33 points. Coming off a loss, I smell a blowout. And although the Jaguars aren’t too terrible defensively, they haven’t scored more than 24 points in a game this season, and are pretty comfortably the worst offense in football. Colts win 34-7.
Colts cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1, 5-4-1) at Houston Texans (5-5, 6-4):*
Spread: Texans favored by 2.5
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: The Bengals are, quite simply, the better team. It’s scary to pick Andy Dalton to play two consecutive good games (especially when the second one is against J.J. Watt), but I don’t think he has to be great for the Bengals to win this game. They get Giovani Bernard back to aid a run game that should carry the team to victory. Bengals win 23-21.
Bengals cover
Under

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8, 4-6) at Chicago Bears (4-6, 4-6):
Spread: Bears favored by 4
Over/under: 46
My prediction: The Buccaneers stink, so I’m surprised they are getting only four points from a slightly better Bears team in Chicago. But I kind of understand it: the Bears look pretty bad also, and Lovie Smith should push extra hard for a win in his return to Chicago. I see this turning into a shootout, with the Bears winning by a touchdown. Bears win 30-23.
Bears cover
Over

Arizona Cardinals (9-1, 8-2) at Seattle Seahawks (6-4, 4-6):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 7.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Something is fishy about this spread, as the Seahawks are giving more than a touchdown to the 9-1 Cardinals in Seattle. But in previous instances in which the spread has looked wrong, Vegas has been right and I’ve been wrong, so I’m going to bestow my trust in Vegas and take the Seahawks 27-10. They certainly need this game a lot more than Arizona does, as a loss would come close to eliminating the Seahawks from playoff contention.
Seahawks cover
Under

St. Louis Rams (4-6, 4-6) at San Diego Chargers (6-4, 5-5):*
Spread: Chargers favored by 5.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: This is a scary game for the Chargers, as the Rams have shown they can rush the passer and force mistakes over the past few weeks in wins over San Francisco and Denver, while San Diego has had tons of problems with their offensive line. With Philip Rivers banged up, I’m picking the Rams to pick up another upset win. Rams win 24-17.
Rams cover
Under

Miami Dolphins (6-4, 6-4) at Denver Broncos (7-3, 5-5):
Spread: Broncos favored by 6
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: This is another tough game for the Broncos, who have lost two of their past three games. Miami, like St. Louis, has a dominant pass rusher (Cameron Wake), and I think they’ll be able to get to Peyton Manning. I’m not picking the Dolphins in this game, though. I’m surprised the Broncos are just six point favorites at home, and with Emmanuel Sanders (and possibly Julius Thomas) back, they should have more weapons than they did for much of the game against the Rams. Broncos win 26-17.
Broncos cover
Under

Washington Redskins (3-7, 3-7) at San Francisco 49ers (6-4, 6-4):
Spread: 49ers favored by 9.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: Although Washington has totally fallen apart, I’m still not convinced by the 49ers, who have won their last two games by a combined nine points. I think Washington’s slide continues, but they play well enough here to keep this game close. 49ers win 27-20.
Redskins cover
Over

Dallas Cowboys (7-3, 6-4) at New York Giants (3-7, 3-7):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 4.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Two weeks ago, the Seahawks ran for 350 yards against the Giants. Last week, San Francisco ran for 148 yards against the Giants. This week, New York faces a Cowboys offense featuring a rested DeMarco Murray. 200 yards for Murray seems possible. Cowboys win 31-24.
Cowboys cover
Over

New York Jets (2-8, 2-7-1) vs Buffalo Bills (5-5, 4-6) in Detroit:*
Spread: Bills favored by 1.5
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: I simply think the Jets are playing slightly better right now, and the Bills have to be demoralized right now that they’ve basically been eliminated from the playoffs and had a home game moved to Detroit in a matter of days. Jets win 20-14.
Jets cover
Under

Baltimore Ravens (6-4, 5-4-1) at New Orleans Saints (4-6, 4-6):*
Spread: Saints favored by 3
Over/under: 50.5
My prediction: Continuing the recent trend, I’ll pick against the NFC South team here. New Orleans’s aura at home has seemingly diminished, and this is probably a bigger game for Baltimore than it is for New Orleans, who should still be in the race even with a loss. Ravens win 27-23.
Ravens cover
Under

Upset picks:
Browns over Falcons
Lions over Patriots
Bengals over Texans
Ravens over Saints
Jets over Bills
Rams over Chargers

Lock of the week:
Colts over Jaguars

I’m writing about this a little late, as Corey Kluber won the Cy Young award more than a week ago, but I still think the fact that Corey Kluber won the Cy Young award is worth writing about. Kluber was in the periphery of the Cy Young race throughout the season, but just barely. And when he was destroyed by the Tigers on national television at the beginning of September, it felt as if his campaign was basically over, especially after his main competition, Felix Hernandez, posted a 1.66 September ERA. But Kluber overcame his lack of name value and worse traditional stats to edge King Felix out and win the Cy Young award. How did he do it, and what does it mean going forward?

First, the stats. I listed most of the important stats in my post about this race when the season was winding down, in which I said I would vote for Kluber but I expected Hernandez to win by a hair. But I wrote that post a few days before the season ended, and each pitcher pitched after I wrote it (Kluber threw eight shutout innings in a win, while Hernandez allowed only one hit in 5 and a third innings before being taken out early, picking up the win). More importantly, there was an important stat correction made in the days following my post: Hernandez, who had been charged with eight earned runs in a loss to the Blue Jays a couple of days before my post, saw his statline altered as four of those runs were made unearned thanks to a stat change from hit to error. As a result, his ERA plummeted, so I think it’s important for me to quickly write about the most important stats for each pitcher once more.

Hernandez went 15-6 with a 2.14 ERA and 248 strikeouts in 236 innings while pitching in a pitcher-friendly Safeco field. Meanwhile, Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 235.2 innings in a more neutral home field (Progressive). On the surface, it looks as if Hernandez should have won. And in past years, he probably would have: he’s the more well-known pitcher, and already has a Cy Young award under his belt. He didn’t have more wins, but he had a better winning percentage (.715) than Kluber (.666). And, most importantly, he had, by 30 points, the better ERA. The pitcher with by far the best ERA normally wins the Cy Young. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Hernandez demolished a record of consecutive 7+ innings with 2 or fewer earned runs allowed set by Tom Seaver. That means something too. So in past years, Hernandez probably would have won (he was predicted to win by almost every major analyst). But he didn’t; Kluber won 17 of 30 first place votes and outpaced Hernandez by 10 points. How?

Usually, when the pitcher with the worse ERA wins, it is for one of a few reasons: either the pitcher who wins plays for a team that makes the playoffs, he throws a lot more innings, he is more recognizable, or he wins 20+ games. Kluber accomplished none of those things, and still overcame the 30 point ERA gap. Luckily, the voters themselves gave their reasoning, and most of them pointed to one of three things: home park, team defense (FIP), and the way each pitcher finished. These are all pretty simple reasons: Kluber didn’t have the benefit of a spacious home park or a good defense playing behind him, while recency bias also influenced voters’ decision making. But while they are simple reasons, they’re also meaningful: the fact that voters used advanced stats like Fielding Independent Pitching- Kluber’s 2.35 edged out Felix’s 2.56 thanks mostly to the inferior defense behind him- is a change from even the recent past, when voters snubbed every advanced stat in picking Miguel Cabrera to win the MVP over Mike Trout not once but twice. It’s encouraging that these voters have adapted as we’ve learned more from new and, let’s face it, improved stats. I thought it would happen eventually, but it was really surprising that it happened in a race which even the advanced stats crew thought was a dead heat.

I’m really happy with this result, not because I thought Kluber was the easy choice (again, I would have picked him, but it certainly wasn’t a no-brainer) but because I think it signifies a shift in voters’ thinking similar to the one that occurred, ironically, when a 13-12 Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young in 2010. It’s good to see the voters sifting past the obvious stats- ERA this year, wins in 2010- and taking other factors like team defense, home park, and run support (in 2010) into account. I feel bad for Hernandez, because he had a tremendous season and just missed out on both the playoffs and the Cy Young. But I think the Mariners will have a great chance to send Felix to October baseball (finally) next season, and it’s hard not to like Kluber after reading the recent Sports Illustrated feature that showed him as an unassuming person and a good, doting father. The final conclusion? Hernandez probably has the better shot at winning future hardware to go with his 2010 Cy Young and the Hall of Fame resume he is quickly building, but Kluber, who didn’t even make the all-star game this year, deserved this award, if only by a hair.

TNF Preview, Week 11 Review

Posted: 11/20/2014 by levcohen in Football

Before I get to the game prediction and the week 11 review, a quick note: I realize I’ve been posting mostly about football recently, and I’m going to get to more of other sports in the coming weeks (baseball free agency and I still want to talk about Corey Kluber winning the Cy Young). A football season takes up a lot of time and attention, though, which is why I’ve mostly been writing about it. Anyway, on to the game.

On paper, this looks like another really bad Thursday Night Football game. It’s the 7-3 Chiefs playing the 0-10 Raiders, and the Chiefs have been especially hot recently, winning five in a row and seven of eight while failing to cover just one game since week one. The result of the Chiefs hot streak? According to Football Outsiders, they now have an 88% chance of making the playoffs, both because of their 7-3 record and because they have key tiebreakers over Miami, San Diego (for now), and Buffalo while also holding the edge over the AFC North because of their superior in-conference record. The Raiders are also pretty likely to do something, but that something is not making the playoffs like it is for Kansas City. Instead, they are closing in on a winless season and the top pick in the draft. Football Outsiders says they have a 75% chance at the top pick, and probably have a 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 chance at going without a win, if only because their schedule is so difficult. But against the spread, the Raiders haven’t been terrible. They are 5-5 against Vegas, and have covered four of five games in which they were at least touchdown underdogs (although three of those were on the road). They’ve actually been worse at home (losing by an average of 16 points) than on the road (losing by an average of seven). It’ll be interesting to see if that changes here against a rival in (gulp) primetime. This has blowout written all over it, doesn’t it?

Kansas City Chiefs (7-3, 8-2) at Oakland Raiders (0-10, 5-5):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 7.5
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: People often put too much stock into letdown games, but I think the Chiefs could actually come out flat tonight. They have their two biggest games of the season to this point (vs Denver, at Arizona) coming up directly after this game, and probably aren’t taking the Raiders entirely seriously even if they are focusing on this game. There’s no way I’m going to pick the upset here, because I think the most likely result is a blowout win for the Chiefs, but I have a feeling the Raiders will finally muster up a good home performance and keep this game close. The Chiefs will eventually win 23-17, but I have the Raiders covering. The Chiefs can’t keep covering, can they?
Raiders cover
Under

My five takeaways from week 11:

  • I was going to say that the Patriots and Packers have emerged as clear favorites from their respective conferences after week 11 blowouts against good teams, but I don’t really think it’s that relevant. Why? The Seahawks, Cowboys, 49ers, and Saints have all had times this season when they were the trendy Super Bowl pick (not to mention the 9-1 Cardinals), while the Broncos have reigned supreme for most of the season in the AFC. So instead of naming the Pats and Packers favorites, I’ll say this: don’t overreact to what happened in week 11, whether it was the Broncos losing to the Rams or the Eagles and Colts losing handily.
  • The rookie receivers are really, really good. From Mike Evans to Sammy Watkins to Kelvin Benjamin to Odell Beckham Jr., the NFL has four rookie receivers who seem primed to become top-15 options in the NFL as soon as next season, but the crop is notable for its depth as much as for its star power. Jordan Matthews, Davante Adams, Martavis Bryant, Jarvis Landry, and recently-injured Brandin Cooks and Allen Robinson have all been productive, while Cody Latimer might just be getting his chance thanks to an injured Emmanuel Sanders in Denver. These rookie receivers are fun to watch.
  • The Cardinals are unshakeable. It doesn’t matter who their quarterback is: they just win football games. They are now 19-7 since Bruce Arians became head coach, and this is an extremely well coached team. The defense has lost a lot of key parts to injury but continues to throttle opponents, while whoever the quarterback is makes enough big plays to lead the Cardinals to win after win after win. It might not work in the playoffs, but the Cardinals are close to clinching the NFC West. Already. That has to mean something.
  • The Redskins aren’t the worst team in football, but they are the most dysfunctional. This is a team with a lot of offensive talent, and a quarterback who looked like an emerging star in his rookie year. But it’s been bad all season, and it’s gotten worse since RGIII returned from his ankle injury. Everyone’s blaming each other or themselves, and Griffin looks unlikely to ever regain his form, at least in Washington. A team that looked so promising after that 10-6 season in Griffin’s rookie year is now 3-7 and on its way to another terrible season, whether it’s 3-13 like last year or 4-12.
  • If you had the “under” last week, you probably won yourself some money. The under went 10-4, including a 9-2 mark outside the three primetime games. The only outliers in the early Sunday games? The Aaron Rodgers led Packers’ 53 point outburst, and the Chiefs-Seahawks game, which went over by half a point. It was a low scoring week.

I went 2-2 on my upset picks, hitting on New England and Houston while missing on Carolina (thanks to two missed field goals) and Philadelphia, which I admit was a homer pick and can’t be too upset about. I’m now 17-22 on upset picks. I lost another lock in Denver, moving to a disappointing 7-4. I guess “lock” for means “64% chance of winning”.

9-5 straight up.. 104-56-1 on the season
10-3-1 against the spread… 82-76-3
6-8 over/under.. 70-89-2