Archive for May, 2015

Cleveland Indians: Panic or Don’t Panic?

Posted: 05/31/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

I wrote about three teams who are performing better than expectations (KC, Minnesota, Houston) and decided whether or not their starts were sustainable. Now, I’m going to go over a couple of teams who are under performing compared to preseason hype in the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. I wanted to pick more than one NL team to go over, but I had trouble simply because the American League has been the much more interesting division to this point. The National League has been pretty straightforward. We thought the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers would be the class of their respective divisions, and they have been. We thought the Pirates, Cubs, Giants, Padres, and Mets would all fight for the two wild card spots, and they are doing just that. The Padres got a lot of hype, so I’m going to look at why they are under .500, but even their (relatively) poor start isn’t that surprising. Simply put, the AL has been the more surprising (and intriguing) league thus far, and I haven’t even touched the AL East, which is so thoroughly mediocre that all five teams, each of whom has huge holes, has a good shot at winning the division. The 22-29 Red Sox would qualify as an underachieving team, but they are still just four games out in the AL East, so I don’t really see the point. The AL East is still a total tossup. But that’s a post for another day, so I’ll move on to the first under performing team: the Cleveland Indians.

In hindsight (and at the time), some of the hype surrounding the Indians heading into this season was just outrageous. Sports Illustrated, which usually picks conservatively, had Cleveland going to the World Series. ESPN, which published predictions from 15 experts, had more people choose the Indians to win the AL Central (6) than the Royals and Tigers combined (5). Predictably, the team started slowly. They were nine games under .500 on May 9th, which was even more painful given the fact that their rivals had started quickly. In the last three weeks, though, things have gotten better. The Indians are 14-7 in their last 21 games and have posted a +29 run differential in that time. They’re still just 24-26, though, so the question remains: will the Indians rebound to win the division or at least a wild card, or will they be a .500 team?

The offense has been pretty good, if not elite. They have the ninth best OPS in baseball and rank fourth in Fangraphs’ comprehensive offensive value stat. They walk more than any other team, strike out fewer than everyone but the Royals and Red Sox, and rank third in baserunning runs added behind the Blue Jays and Astros. And looking at the team, they should have a good offense. Jason Kipnis, third in baseball in WAR, is having a terrific season and especially month. He ended up with 51 hits in the month of May and an OPS well over 1.200. Kipnis had a poor year last season but has certainly reestablished himself as a top tier second baseman this season. Kipnis is joined by Michael Brantley, who finished third in the MVP voting last season and is hitting .307 this year, on-base king Carlos Santana, slugger Brandon Moss, and a few effective platoons. It’s an offense that utilizes its bench, takes walks, and hits for good power. That, along with two studs hitting first and third, seems like a recipe for success.

But while the offense has been good, the fielding has been atrocious. I think this is something I, among other people, underestimated when it comes to the Indians. They were a terrible fielding team last season and didn’t really make many changes to improve heading into this season. As a result, they rank ahead of only the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres with a -14.6 Fangraphs Def value. As an aside, I’d like to note that the three teams who rank as the most underachieving compared to preseason hype happen to rank 27th, 28th, and 30th in defense. You think people are underrating defensive value a bit? Anyway, the defensive issues aren’t going away. For all Brantley’s offense value, he gives a lot of it back defensively. Michael Bourn used to be a good defensive centerfielder, but he’s slower now and his instincts aren’t very good. The result has been a poor few seasons defensively. And Santana, a former catcher (and not a very good defensive one), is now one of the worst defensive first basemen in baseball. Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall help a little bit, and Moss has actually been a pretty solid defensive right fielder, but the defensive outlook remains grim and nullifies much of the excitement generated by the offensive improvement.

The Indians’ rotation, 1-4 at least, is so tantalizingly talented. Corey Kluber, unlucky start aside, is one of the five best pitchers in baseball. He won the Cy Young award last year and has posted an incredible 50:2 K:BB ratio in his last four starts (32 innings). He now has a 96:13 K:BB this season and a 3.52 ERA that will only come down. No worries at the top of the rotation. Then come the three starters, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, who will make or break Cleveland’s season. They’re three of the most interesting young pitchers in baseball in that they’ve all struggled at times but have electric stuff. Bauer, with a 2.99 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 63.2 innings, has been the best of the three so far this season, but the walks (25) are still an issue. Meanwhile, Carrasco has a 4.24 ERA but a 2.67 FIP. He’s another strikeout pitcher but walks fewer hitters than Bauer. And Salazar, with 71 strikeouts and 16 walks in 54.2 innings, throws harder than almost any starter. His fastball’s average of 95.3 miles per hour ranks fourth and is just  .4 MPH behind first place Nathan Eovaldi. But he has just a 3.79 ERA, and his bugaboo is the same as it’s always been: the long ball. He’s given up eight homers this year and 28 in 217 career innings. Predictably, Indians’ starters have a FIP (3.38) that’s way better than their ERA (4.48). They strike out nearly a batter and a half more per nine innings (10.29 to 8.89) than any other team. Normally, I would say the ERA would creep down into the 3.50 range, but Cleveland’s defense is really bad, which helps explain a .323 BABIP that’s baseball’s highest. There’s hope, though: Cleveland pitchers had the sixth highest BABIP last season but still managed to post a 3.57 ERA that was only slightly higher than their 3.42 FIP. To put this simply, Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar are going to get luckier and give up fewer runs as the season continues. So to will closer Cody Allen, who has great stuff and a 2.78 FIP to go along with his 5.24 ERA. It’s a good staff and particularly rotation, and it’s important to note that the Indians just got catcher Yan Gomes, a very good defensive catcher (and game caller) back. The Indians are giving up just 3.5 runs per game with Gomes behind the plate and are 6-4 in games he’s started. It’s a small sample size, but there’s little doubt that they are a better all-around team with Gomes playing catcher.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a good team. In Kluber, Kipnis, and Brantley, the Indians have three true stars, something very few teams (especially among the lower payroll clubs) can say. They also have a very talented rotation and a good, balanced offense that will more than make up for some defensive deficiencies. I think the Indians are just fine, and I think they’ll still win the division despite currently residing in fourth place. My verdict is…

Don’t panic

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What a difference a month makes! Entering May, the Twins were 10-12 and already five games behind the Royals (4.5 behind Detroit). Now, with the Royals mired in a four game losing streak and the Twins on a five game tear, the two teams are tied for first in the AL Central. The Twins are 18-6 in the month of May and now have a 28-18 record, tied for fourth best in baseball. Their run differential-based expected win loss record is 25-21, which is, while not as good, still surprising enough that it would warrant a post by itself. I predicted that they would finish 68-94, saying:

When your below-average offense is the best part of your team, you know it’s going to be a long season. The Twins are horrid defensively, with Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia rating as two of the worst corner outfielders in baseball and a huge liability in Trevor Plouffe at third. In fact, first baseman (and former catcher) Joe Mauer might be the only guy who isn’t a net negative in the field. Then there’s the pitching, which won’t be much better than the staff that posted a 9.7 WAR (third worst) and 4.58 ERA (second worst) last season. Their #5, Mike Pelfrey, who posted a 5.19 ERA in 2013 and a 7.99 ERA last season, isn’t much worse than their #1, Phil Hughes. That’s how bad this is.

What’s changed? You wouldn’t think that a team whose cleanup hitter is Trevor Plouffe and whose ace is Phil Hughes would be able to sustain a winning percentage anywhere near .600, right? Let’s check it out.

The Twins are hitting .257/.310/.387 with 37 homers, 25th in baseball, and 18 steals, 23rd. They rank 18th in offensive value added per Fangraphs, How, then, do they rank ninth in runs scored, despite playing just 46 games, fewer than the majority of baseball? Well, they’ve been good when it’s counted. They have been the second most clutch team in baseball by a ton and trail only the Royals. They are third in average with runners in scoring position at .299, well ahead of the fourth place Orioles. That’s one sign that team-wide regression could be coming, because teams are rarely this good when the stakes are high despite being sub-par in low-leverage situations. They haven’t gotten any huge individual performances, but have managed to get things done despite the fact that Mauer has been a negative at the plate. Brian Dozier, Plouffe, and, surprisingly, Torii Hunter have provided most of the power, combining to hit 23 of the team’s 37 homers. Those three and Mauer make a pretty solid offensive core moving forward, but with Oswaldo Arcia injured, there’s not much depth in the lineup. The bottom four in the lineup of Eduardo Escobar, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks, and Danny Santana has been anemic, posting OBPs of .277, .288, .269, and .256. Talent-wise, it’s still a mediocre offense at best, and I expect the runs scored numbers to decrease.

I thought this team would be the worst fielding team in baseball. Instead, Fangraphs ranks them 23rd while saying they have the second worst range in all of baseball, better than just the Indians. Hicks and catcher Kurt Suzuki have helped improve the team defensively, and Shane Robinson is a great glove to bring off the bench with a lead. Plouffe and Hunter, while not good defensively, haven’t been as bad as I expected. But Mauer is playing poorly defensively, Arcia is one of the worst defenders in baseball, and the left side of the infield (Escobar and Santana) are hemorrhaging runs defensively. The defense has gotten better, but it still isn’t the reason this team will remain in contention.

Pitching-wise, the traditional stats (3.94 ERA, 16th in baseball) line up more with the advanced ones (4.11 FIP, 19th). This isn’t a pitching staff with great stuff. They strike out just 5.75 hitters per nine innings, nearly a batter per nine fewer than the 29th ranked Rockies (6.52). The rotation is better than I thought it was. Hughes has a 4.50 ERA, but I expect that to drop a run by the end of the year, homer prevention problems and all. Young starter Trevor May has finally solved his control problems, posting a 1.65 BB/9 ratio, and his 3.00 FIP is nearly two runs better than his 4.95 ERA. Ricky Nolasco also has peripheral numbers that are far better than his 5.12 ERA, but that’s nothing new for Nolasco; he has a career 4.50 ERA and 3.80 FIP. While Nolasco and May probably have some good ERA luck coming, expect Kyle Gibson (2.72 ERA, 4.22 FIP) and Mike Pelfrey (2.72, 4.21) to regress, as they’ve posted K rates that are second and fourth worst among the 94 starters who have thrown at least 50 innings. So Hughes and May will get better, Nolasco is and has always been a mystery, and Gibson along with Pelfrey will get worse. It’s likely that the rotation is what it is; better than it has been recently but again not enough to support a playoff run.

The bullpen has been poor, ranking 23rd in WAR, 21st in ERA (3.91), and last in strikeout rate by a long shot. Glen Perkins, who already has 18 saves along with his 1.19 ERA, is a stud and one of the best closers in baseball. Setup man Blaine Boyer has gotten very lucky, with a 2.28 ERA supported by a lucky .269 BABIP, 84% left on base, and a 3.8:2.28 K:BB ratio. And outside of Perkins and Boyer, the Twins don’t really have any relievers they seem to trust. I think it’s safe to say this bullpen is below-average.

Everything about this team screams: “70 wins.” They already have 28 wins in the bank, so they’ll probably end somewhere near .500, but I still think they are the worst team in the AL Central, and I think they’ll perform the worst over the final 100-odd games. It’s the clearest decision left, simply because the Twins don’t really have any above-average traits to hang their hat on besides their “clutch gene,” which has been proven to be one of the least predictive traits out there. The Twins are..

Pretenders.

Has a team ever gone through a quicker transformation from lovable underdogs to annoying favorites than these Kansas City Royals? Last year, everyone was rooting for the Royals, as they rallied to make the playoffs, won the wild card play-in game, and streaked all the way to the World Series, where they fell to the Giants. It was a prototypical small market team that relied on small ball, some timely hits, and a stifling bullpen. This year, I, and probably a majority of baseball fans, thought the Royals would regress back to the .500 or sub.500 record we’d come to expect from them. Their 89-73 season last year had been aided by luck, as their expected win-loss based on run differential was 84-78. More importantly, the biggest offseason addition they made was the signing of Kendrys Morales, and they lost ace James Shields. But instead of regression, we got an explosion. The Royals are 28-16 and are three runs away from having the best run differential in baseball despite a 14-1 loss earlier today. We should be happy for them, right? Well, sort of. They’ve also been involved in a few of the biggest fights of the season to this point (most notably with the Athletics and White Sox), with HBPs, retaliations, and ejections galore. Whether we should be rooting for this plucky team or not is up for debate, and so is whether they are really good candidates to get to a second consecutive World Series. We know they’ve been good to this point, but is it sustainable? Will they win a tough AL Central, or will they have to fight for another wild card?

After finishing 15th last year, the Royals are third in Fangraphs offensive WAR, behind only the Dodgers and Blue Jays, each of whom have spent oodles of money on offense. The Royals have done it differently. As recently as before this season, it seemed as if their plan, drafting and developing elite hitters, was failing. Top prospects like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were the poster children, as they always showed potential but had never cashed in on that potential. Hosmer, a first baseman who was supposed to hit for power, was a career .275/.328/.418 hitter in four full seasons, with just 26 combined homers in the previous two. Moustakas, at .236/.290/.378 over four seasons, was much worse. Although he and Hosmer both performed well in the playoffs, that wasn’t supposed to carry over into this season. Well, Moustakas and Hosmer, in their age 27 and 26 seasons, have become Kansas City’s best hitters this year. Moustakas, hitting second in the order, is hitting .327/.382/.481 for a 144 wRC+; his previous high was 90. Meanwhile, Hosmer has rediscovered his power stroke, hitting .312/.385/.524 with seven homers and 153 wRC+, up from 99 last season. Given that these two guys are entering their primes and have the pedigree of elite hitters, I have to believe that at least most of this breakout is real, especially since neither of them have a jaw-dropping BABIP. So right there is two above average hitters we didn’t think the Royals would have. They also have three other regulars, Morales, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez, hitting over .300 and no starter hitting under Omar Infante’s .250. With the homegrown core of Moustakas at third, Gordon in left, Hosmer at first, Cain in center, and Perez behind the plate, all is going really well at the plate for a team that leads baseball with a .287 average while ranking last with a 5.4% walk rate. With right fielder Alex Rios set to return from injury in the next week, it could get even better.

There are a few more question marks on the pitching side for a team that ranks has the third best ERA in baseball but only the 16th best pitching WAR, which is based on the more predictive FIP. You only have to look at today’s loss against the Yankees to see where the rotation concerns begin. Yesterday, Jeremy Guthrie, a mediocre pitcher, had a 4.75 ERA. After giving up 11 runs while recording just three outs (he’s the second pitcher to ever manage that), the ERA is at 6.70. Calamitous start aside, starting pitching is becoming a real concern for the Royals. Their ace, Yordano Ventura, has been laboring, and there are concerns over his elbow, which has caused him to leave multiple games early. Edinson Volquez has a 2.77 ERA, but that’s mostly down to luck. And two fifths of the starters on the opening day roster (Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy) are on the DL after terrible starts. Without Shields there are no sure things in this rotation, and all of Kansas City’s best pitching prospects are at least a year from being ready. The Royals will thus have to rely even more on their stellar bullpen. After wowing last year, the bullpen is again putting up great numbers, with a 1.68 ERA only slightly downgraded by its 3.30 FIP. The ERA is nearly 50 points better than second place Houston, with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland leading the way again.

So, is the start sustainable? Unfortunately for Royals haters, I think the answer is mostly yes. If any team can overcome a poor rotation, it’ll be these Royals, with their great offense and bullpen. Another concern is the over usage of Perez. You would have thought that KC would have learned their lesson last season, when Perez looked incredibly fatigued at the end of the season and hit .229/.236/.360 after the All-Star break with three walks and 46 strikeouts, but it appears that they haven’t. Perez’s numbers are comparable to his pre-All-Star break numbers last season, and he’s on pace to play in 155 games. He has more at-bats than any other catcher besides Buster Posey (who plays first when he needs an off day) and Derek Norris. Hopefully Perez can stay healthy, because he’s one of the best catchers in baseball.

The starting pitching and Perez concerns are real, but they are also minor compared to all this team has going for it. The entire lineup is in its prime and raking, while the bullpen looks set to lap the rest of baseball again. Because they play in the tough AL Central they are separated from third place by just three games, but I think they’ll maintain their lead in the division. That makes them…

Contenders.

When I looked at the MLB standings today, a little more than a quarter into baseball’s long season, two things jumped out at me. One was the vast number of teams who, in my view, are underperforming. I’ll get to those teams in the coming days. The other thing? The three teams I’d consider major pleasant surprises, at least when juxtaposed with my preseason predictions; Houston, Kansas City, and Minnesota. So, are their starts legit, or is it just small sample size theater? If this were April, I’d tend to lean towards the latter, but this – late May – is when we really have to start believing what we’ve been seeing. Let’s look at the three, who also happen to boast the three best records in the American League, and see if they can keep up their torrid starts. Today, I’ll go over the Astros, with the Royals and Twins to come by Tuesday.

* All individual and cumulative numbers are as of tonight, but team splits are as of this morning.

Houston Astros: Many people predicted that the Astros would take a step forward this year. A few even thought they’d go above .500. But nobody, and I mean nobody, predicted this. Not only are the Astros 29-16, but they’re also bossing a division (the AL West) that I thought would be pretty tough. They’re up by 6.5 games over the Angels, their nearest competition, opening up by far the biggest margin between first and second in baseball. How have they done it? Well, on the surface, the offensive production looks unsustainable. The Astros rank eighth in baseball in runs, but they are dead last in average (.228), and tied for 24th in OBP (.300). They are striking out 24.5% of the time, second most in baseball. All of this, though, is by design. The Astros don’t care if they strike out or get two-hit a few times, because they know they’ve built a power and speed machine. They have hit 64 homers, by far the most in baseball, and their HR+STL number (105) is also tops in baseball. And their homers haven’t exactly come from household names. In fact, their three leading homer hitters, Luis Valbuena (10), Evan Gattis (9), and Colby Rasmus (8), were all acquired, either via trade or free agency, this offseason for pennies on the dollar. Throw in all-time power-strikeout hitter Chris Carter (66 homers and 394 strikeouts in 2013-14), and power-speed maestro George Springer, and you have an offense deep with power. So if you want to make a good guess as to whether the Astros are contenders or pretenders, this has to be a central question: Have the Astros found the new market inefficiency? With the majority of teams gunning for high average, high OBP players, is Houston, who has just one player who can be categorized that way (Jose Altuve), winning because they have the secret recipe? That’s to be determined, but I would still say that a .300 OBP team is still likely to be a below average offense, even with the most homers in baseball.

Luckily for Houston, they might be able to win the AL West with a mediocre offense, because their pitching ranks fifth in Fangraphs WAR. They’re led by Dallas Keuchel, who at 6-0 with a 1.67 ERA would certainly win the Cy Young if the season ended today. Keuchel’s gotten lucky and will probably end up with an ERA in the mid twos, but that’s a pretty nice place to start. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of the rest of the rotation. I like Collin McHugh, but a decrease in K rate (9.14/9 to 7.34) and fastball velocity (91.6 to 90.3) has me worried. And the Scott Feldman-Roberto Hernandez-? trifecta at the back of the rotation has me thinking that the Astros’ 4.00 rotation ERA will balloon by the end of the season. Where the ‘Stros have really set themselves apart has been in the bullpen, and that’s not a surprise. Just look at the top six teams in bullpen ERA: Kansas City; Houston; St. Louis; the Mets; the Dodgers; Detroit. It’s pretty much a list of the best teams in baseball to this point, which could indicate that the Astros, and the other teams on the list, have stumbled upon (or invested in) another market inefficiency. Houston’s bullpen ERA is 2.14, and they are striking out more batters per nine than anyone other than the Dodgers while walking the fewest by a landslide. The names aren’t Aroldis Chapman-esque flashy, but Will Harris (.40 ERA, 29 Ks in 22.2 innings), Josh Fields (.87, 18 in 10.1), Tony Sipp (1.06, 18 in 17) and the rest are more than giving the job done. All you need to know is that Luke Gregerson, the team’s closer and best paid reliever, has the worst ERA in the bullpen at 4.12 and has still saved 12-13 save opportunities.

The Astros’ have had some unsustainable performances (Keuchel comes to mind), but they also have some hitters who are bound to get some more luck on balls in play (Gattis, Valbuena, Carter). Their run differential of +27 is fourth best in baseball, but that +27 number is closer to 12th than third. It’s clear that the Astros are not among the five best teams in baseball, so since they’re playing at a .644 clip right now, I’ll have to call them a pretender. I also don’t think they’ll run away with the AL West; Seattle and/or the Angels are bound to make a run at some point. I’m going to stick with my preseason predictions, which had the Mariners winning the division and the Astros coming in second. It depends on the definition of “contender,” but I make my own definitions, and in this case I feel like I am slightly more pessimistic about Houston’s chances to keep playing this well and to make the playoffs than most. I’m sad to say that the Astros, because of their lack of rotation options and good all-around hitters, are…

Pretenders.

P.S.: I tried to make clear that my calling the Astros pretenders does not mean that I think they will fall off a cliff. No, I just think they’ll slow down a bit more than most people do, and that will cost them the division.

Mike Babcock Takes the Money, Signs with Toronto

Posted: 05/21/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

If you asked me to rank the top 10 head coaching jobs in hockey right now, the Detroit job would definitely be there. Expand that list to 20 and Buffalo would be there too. But Toronto? Not a great place for a coach to be right now. Consider: it’s probably the most hockey-crazy city in North America by sheer volume if not per capita. The media is vicious, to the point that their two best players, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, are probably the two most criticized players in the NHL. Kessel flipped out at the media multiple times, most notably here. More importantly, the team stinks. They went 30-44-8 this season for the fourth worst point total in the NHL. But Buffalo was even worse, so why is the Toronto job so much worse?

Well, the Sabres, and most other teams at the bottom of the standings, already have some talented youth. Buffalo’s prospects, led by Sam Reinhart, last year’s #2 overall pick, are ranked first in hockey by Hockeysfuture.com, and that doesn’t even include all the young talent they have already at the NHL level. 20 year-old Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen played 78 games this year, while fellow 20 year-old Nikita Zadorov played 60. Of the team’s key contributors, only Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta are older than 25. Oh, and let’s not forget about this year’s second overall pick, which is all but certain to be Boston University center Jack Eichel. The Sabres were bummed to fall out of the #1 spot, but the consolation prize isn’t too bad; Eichel would be the #1 overall pick almost any other year and profiles as a #1 center. It’s a pretty good core to build on, and they’ll also have oodles of cap space in the future.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs’ prospects are ranked 19th. They are a disaster at the goalie position. They have drafted conservatively over the last number of years, and as a result they don’t have many high-potential prospects. Kessel, their best player, is unlikely to be on the team next year. Same goes for #1 defenseman Phaneuf. Aside from perhaps 26 year-old James van Riemsdyk, there are no sure things on this roster. Sure, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri are expected to be future contributors, but have we really seen all that much from them? The truth is that this roster shows the risk of gunning for a playoff spot every year; it’s cap-strained and lacks talented youth. So roster-wise as well as media-wise, Toronto isn’t anywhere near the best landing spot for Mike Babcock.

Of course, Babcock probably walked away from the best job of all the available ones: the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings have made the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons and also have a strong group of young players and prospects. They look primed to continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. So why did Babcock leave Detroit and reject the chance to coach Eichel, instead ending up in Toronto?

Well, I can think of two possible big reasons. The first is simply that Babcock wants and needs a new challenge. He’s thought of as the best coach in the NHL, but he won a Stanley Cup with a stacked team that he inherited. I mean, couldn’t you or I win it all with a base of Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk and plenty of talent around them? He also won two Olympics, but again, he won them with a stacked team in Team Canada. Still impressive achievements, but Babcock still hasn’t built a team from the ground up on his own and won with it. Whereas he’d have it easier in Detroit (way more talent) or Buffalo (way more young potential), he’ll start from closer to scratch with Toronto than he would at pretty much any other destination. Given the circumstances (hockey-obsessed town and a team that hasn’t had success in ages), Babcock will be under tremendous pressure, but the flip side of that is that, if he succeeds, he’ll be a hero. If he wins them a Stanley Cup, he’ll have a statue in front of the Air Canada Centre. And knowing how confident Babcock is, I’m sure he thinks he can take the Leafs to the promised land.

But still, if the money were equal, don’t you think Babcock would have taken one of his other, more luxurious options? We’ll never know, because the Maple Leafs threw way more money at Babcock than the Sabres and certainly the Red Wings. He signed an eight year, $50 million deal and will now basically be making twice as much as any other coach. Even if you believe he’s the best coach in the NHL, that still has to be considered an overpay. You can’t blame Babcock, or anyone, for taking the money, but he can’t have it both ways; he’s clearly prioritizing money over winning, at least in the immediate future.

In the end, the Maple Leafs and Babcock might be a perfect match for each other. Toronto’s front office surely now knows they need a full rebuild, and it will be a lot easier to explain losing to the fans and media now that Babcock is the coach.  Meanwhile, the former Red Wings coach has done a lot of winning in his career but has never had a challenge like the one he’s about to face. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Toronto, the media center of hockey, over the next few years. Will the fans grow impatient, causing Babcock’s tenure to end prematurely? Or will the coach lead the maligned franchise to the promised land? I’m betting on the first but, for the sake of the poor Toronto hockey fans, hoping for the second.

NBA Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/19/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Well, after a month of playoff games, we’re left with chalk in the conference finals. For the second consecutive year, each matchup will feature the #1 seed against the #2 seed. That reinforces the idea that the regular season in the NBA matters a lot more than any other sport’s regular season, with the possible exception of baseball, but it also means that the playoffs to this point have for the most part been somewhat less than captivating. Unless, of course, you like injuries, whining, hack-a-big or collapses. I must admit that the collapse part intrigues me, but the Clippers-Rockets series was so full of fouls and complaints that I could barely watch LA’s collapse. Seriously, the only two matchups that I have really enjoyed in these playoffs were Clippers-Spurs (a great series, but the fact that both teams have been eliminated doesn’t help now) and Warriors-Grizzlies (it was good in the first three games, not so much after Golden State reminded us why they will win the championship). The rest? Sure, they had their moments, like the three consecutive buzzer-beaters in the Eastern Conference, but they never were consistently excellent. Injuries to Kevin Love, John Wall, Mike Conley, Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol, Chandler Parsons, and whomever I’m forgetting have certainly put a damper on the playoffs. Anyway, this is where it really gets series. Now, all four teams must really have a shot at winning it all, right? Well, I’m going to have to be the downer there, too. I already have said that it was Golden State’s title to lose, but now that the Warriors have cruised past what might end up being their toughest challenge, I think they are even more unlikely to lose in the next two rounds. I’d put their chances near 85% now, which leaves very little room for the other three. But while I think the Warriors’ is close to a foregone conclusion, the Cavs, Hawks, and Rockets probably don’t (at least, I would hope not), which means I “have” to preview them. Onwards!

 

Warriors over Rockets in five: Houston’s comeback against the Clippers shocked me. I know I picked the Rockets to win in seven, but, once they fell behind 3-1, I didn’t think they had any shot at getting back into the series, let alone winning it. But their depth advantage did end up paying off, with guys like Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer (three mid-season acquisitions, so props to GM Darryl Morey), and Trevor Ariza making plays time and time again, while their Clippers counterparts (Big Baby, anyone?) could never respond. When they were really on, Houston pretty much shut down LA’s vaunted offense, both by putting J.J. Redick, a key offensive cog in a funk, and by placing Dwight Howard on Blake Griffin and Ariza on Chris Paul. Unfortunately, they’ll have a much harder time against a Golden State team that causes matchup problem after matchup problem. If the Rockets stick by the script they used in the last round, they’ll put Ariza on Stephen Curry, which might work fine. Ok, but then who goes on the constantly moving Klay Thompson? Will it be notorious ball-watcher James Harden or (gulp) Jason Terry? And if Harden stays on Thompson, how on Earth will Terry be able to guard Harrison Barnes, who is a master in the post against undersized opponents? Alternatively, the Rockets could opt to put Terry on Curry and Ariza on Thompson, but we all know how that would turn out. It’s a shame, because this would have been the perfect Patrick Beverley series. But Beverley is injured, so the Rockets won’t have the services of perhaps the best defensive point guard in basketball. Instead of hoping to totally shut down the Warriors, Houston has to hope to keep the open shots inside the arc and keep runs from getting out of hand.

Unless the Rockets are getting to the line, the other side of the ball might be even worse for the #2 seed. They often struggled to score against the Clippers in the half court, and this is going to be much worse. While the Clippers were slightly better offensively than the Warriors in the regular season, Golden State was by far the best defense in the league. Given that Redick did a pretty good job on Harden for most of the series, the Warriors have to like the Thompson-Harden matchup defensively. Klay is the type of long, patient defender who gives Harden fits. And since the Rockets are weak at the point guard position, Curry won’t have to expend too much energy on the defensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, the Bogut-Draymond Green pair can stop basically any big man and/or explosive power forward (for Houston, those guys are Terrence Jones, Howard, and Smith) that an opponent will throw out. And they can counter a big Rockets strength, their depth at the wing position (Brewer and Ariza are both good players) with Barnes and the defensively stellar Andre Iguodala. Take a huge chunk out of the Howard dunks and role player threes and the Rockets are left with very few options. Jones, Smith, Ariza and Harden can probably get some good midrange shots if they really work for them, but settling for midrange jumpers is the antithesis of Morey’s philosophy (threes, layups, and free throws). Houston’s best chance might be feeding it down low to Howard and trying to get Bogut in foul trouble, because Bogut is one of the few Warriors who is really irreplaceable. And if that fails, put the ball in James Harden’s hands and let him go to work. That sophisticated plan will probably work a few times because Harden is so darn good, which is why I’m not making this a sweep. But I think there will be a few blowouts, with the Splash Bros getting hot from three, Green tearing it up, and Howard getting in foul trouble. It’s been a great run, Houston, but I’m pretty sure it will end here.

 

Hawks over Cavaliers in seven: I might be making this pick in part because I can’t make a full predictions post without picking at least one upset, but that (probably) isn’t the main reason. The main reason also doesn’t have much to do with an Atlanta team that has been pretty disappointing in the playoffs yet is 8-4. It’s all about the Cavaliers. Despite the fact that the Hawks beat the Cavs in three of their four regular season meetings, I would definitely pick a full strength Cleveland team over the Hawks. Here’s the thing, though: David Blatt’s team isn’t at full strength. Kevin Love is out, and I think that Kyrie Irving’s injury has gone way under the radar. The guy was playing on one leg throughout the Chicago series! He played really well against the Bulls in a couple of games, but I don’t think we’re going to see the Kyrie who carved up the Celtics against in this year’s playoffs. So if it’s going to be a hobbled Kyrie, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, and LeBron James, LeBron is going to need to carry the load. Again. But is James really still good enough to carry his flawed Cavaliers over a 60-win team? Probably, especially since the Hawks are the worst 60-win team in recent memory. There are some warning signs, though. On the surface, all of the LEBRON JAMES stats are there this postseason, from the 26.5 points to the 10.2 rebounds to the 7.9 assists to the 3.5 STOCKs (steals+blocks). But LeBron is turning the ball over 4.6 times per game, more than in any other year besides his first in the playoffs, and he’s shooting 42% from the field after being at 47% or better the six previous playoffs. LeBron is obviously older than he’s ever been, and he’s also shouldering a bigger load than he ever has. And I’m not even going to touch the 14.6% three point shooting. Now, because the Eastern Conference is so weak, the Cavaliers are still easily favored against the Hawks. They have a good offense, with guys like Smith and Shumpert who can knock down shots when James draws their defenders. Their best offense, though, might come from offensive rebounds from the huge Mozgov and the uber-energetic Thompson. One of the most vulnerable spots for the Hawks is rebounding (they are in the bottom third in the NBA in defensive rebounding), because they simply aren’t big enough to bang with the big boys. Mozgov and Thompson are averaging a combined six offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs, and they’ll definitely save some Cavalier possessions. But if they are both playing at once, the Cavs will have lost a lot of shooting, which is why the loss of K-Love hurts so much. It’s hard to stop both Shumpert and Smith, but one of them? Not so much. Cleveland is a good offensive team, but they are much worth without Love or a healthy Irving.

On the other end, the Hawks have to be better than they were against the Nets and Wizards. We know by now that the offense isn’t going to be effective if two or three of their starters are out of sync. They’ll need Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to take advantage of a gimpy Irving with drives and finishes or kick-outs. They’ll need Paul Millsap to hit the midrange jumpers he invariably gets for himself. They’ll need DeMarre Carroll to keep cutting and hitting from deep. They’ll need Al Horford to be a focal point, both in the post and on the pick-and-roll. Most of all, though, the Hawks need regular season Kyle Korver to return. If Korver starts hitting his shots again, everything will open up against a defense that has its deficiencies. Luckily, I think Korver will have a better matchup (likely against some combination of Shumpert and Smith) than he did against Washington. He moves more than almost any other wing player, and while Shumpert is a good on-ball defender, he and especially Smith both have trouble tracking cutters and moving wing players. Meanwhile, I love the Horford-Mozgov matchup for the Hawks offensively. Horford is just too fast for Mozgov, and he’s going to be able to get pretty much any shot he wants. And if Cleveland goes small, Horford and Millsap, two of the more versatile bigs in the game, will be able to back down smaller defenders, So we’ll get Teague penetration, open Korver and Carroll, and steady Millsap and Horford. Sounds like the regular season Hawks, and smells like victory. Hawks in seven it is.

NHL Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/16/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

Well, it took overtime in game seven of the Capitals-Rangers series to get here, but here we are. The Rangers won the game and the series (shocker), continuing their playoff dominance over Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals and sending them to the Eastern Conference finals for a second consecutive year while giving me a 3-1 record in round two. Which brings me to the Wild. Why on earth would I pick the Minnesota Wild to beat the Chicago Blackhawks in a playoff series??? The Blackhawks own the playoffs, and they own the Wild. That by itself should have been enough evidence for me to give the edge to the Blackhawks. But I got too cute. Hopefully I’ll learn my lesson (hint: I didn’t learn my lesson. See: Rangers-Lightning and Ducks-Blackhawks). Anyway, I think the four right teams have made it to the final four. As much as I whined about Anaheim’s record in one goal games, I’m now convinced that they belong. The Rangers and Lightning are the two fastest teams in the speed-laden Eastern Conference. And the Blackhawks are the Blackhawks. We’re all set, then, for two exciting series (fingers crossed). Game one in the East was certainly a good start.

Lightning over Rangers in seven: We all know that the Rangers have some voodoo magic, and they’re definitely using it right now. A mediocre puck-possession team that leaned on speed, clutch scoring and Henrik Lundqvist have relied on the same things in the playoffs. You know what might be the craziest thing I’ve ever seen (besides Anaheim’s record in one goal games and Sadio Mane’s three minute hat-trick)? The fact that all 13 of New York’s playoff games have ended in a one goal game. Think about all the empty nets, all the chances to tack a meaningless goal to ensure a two goal cushion. 13 straight one goal games in the playoffs is unheard of, an NHL record (they also ended last year’s series loss against the Kings with two one goal losses). You know what else is insane? Henrik Lundqvist, especially in game seven. He has a .944 save percentage in the playoffs and is now at .925 in his career. He’s allowing 1.6 goals per game in the playoffs. And while everyone thinks Patrick Roy is Mr. Game Seven, I think Lundqvist has a claim to that title; he’s won his last six while allowing five goals in those six games and posting a .973 save percentage. So if this goes seven games, the Lightning might not even want to show up.

Unfortunately, after a 2-1 heartbreak in game one, the Lightning are going to have to win four of the next five if they want to avoid heading to MSG for game seven. I picked Tampa to win it all before the playoffs, so believe me, I’m pulling for them in this series. The Lightning have a level New York can’t reach when they are hitting on all cylinders, and if they had reached that level more consistently in the playoffs, I wouldn’t have any problem picking them in six. The sneaky problem is that they haven’t played that well in the playoffs. Steven Stamkos’s struggles have been well-documented, and it’s a relief that he seemingly broke out of his rut in game six against Montreal. But the Lightning are relying too heavily on the dynamic second line of Tyler Johnson-Ondrej Palat-Nikita Kucherov (the line that provided their only goal today), and they’ll need more scoring from their bottom two lines if they want to bounce back from the game one loss. There’s hope though, and some of it rests on the fact that Tampa Bay won all three games against New York by a combined 15-7 margin in the regular season, giving Ben Bishop an 8-0 career mark against the Rangers. Unfortunately, that record is now 8-1, showing that the regular season and playoffs are two very different things, but Tampa can definitely beat New York. That’s why I’m picking them to buck Lundqvist and all the trends in a ROAD GAME SEVEN AT MSG. That’s right: Tampa in seven. Fool me once…

Ducks over Blackhawks in seven: I know the Ducks have home ice advantage, but this is a bigger upset pick than Lightning over Rangers is. Consider: on ESPN, seven of the 13 voters picked New York over Tampa, but only one, Scott Burnside, picked Anaheim over Chicago. But I can’t resist. I picked Winnipeg to beat Anaheim in round one with the Ducks’ (still) unsustainable record in one goal games as my ammo, but I’m on board the Anaheim train now. The Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf-led team has steamrolled Winnipeg and Calgary, winning eight of their nine playoff games and outscoring opponents 35-18 while outshooting them 304-239. Their matchup with Chicago will definitely be an interesting one. The goalkeeping actually looks pretty even, with Frederik Andersen and Corey Crawford both showing the potential to either win or lose their team a game. The series could hinge on which one of the two stays hot for longer, but things will get really intriguing if they play to a standstill. We’ve seen a lot of Blackhawks-Kings series recently, and this series could look a lot like those. The Blackhawks are a speedy and skilled team, a puck-possessing giant that consistently pressures opponents for minutes at a time. The Ducks are a Kings-style big, bruising, dump the puck and crash the zone team. They’ll pile up the hits, but it’s not as if they lack talent. Perry, a Hart Trophy winner, leads the league in playoff points, and he and Getzlaf form perhaps the best 1-2 combo in hockey. Meanwhile, Ryan Kesler will have a matchup advantage over Chicago’s #2 center, a huge bonus. And while Duncan Keith is the best defenseman in the series, Anaheim have the depth advantage at the back. Still, there’s a reason everyone’s picking Chicago. A bunch of reasons, actually. There are the two championships and a third trip to this stage of the playoffs in the last five years, the experience that captivates so many analysts. More importantly (to me), there’s Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, etc. Why the heck am I not picking the Blackhawks? Well, I mentioned the lack of depth at the blue line. The fact is that Kimmo Timonen, who cost Chicago two early round picks at the trade deadline, has been a huge failure. He’s averaging just 9:25 of ice time a game, which means that the other five defensemen have played more than they otherwise would (Keith ranks second among all skaters with 30:38 minutes per game, while three others are playing at least 24 minutes a game). The problem is that Michal Rozsival, who was playing 17:26 per game, is now out for the year, which means Timonen is going to have to play more. And since the Ducks have last change in games one, two, five, and seven, they are bound to get their first line on the ice against Chicago’s third defense pair. These teams don’t have many holes, and the Blackhawks have the biggest one. Both teams have a lot of talent up front and a slight question mark in the net, but I think the depth at defense for Anaheim outweighs any advantage Chicago might gain from having more experience. Ducks in seven at home.

How likely is a Lightning-Ducks final? Well, the least likely of the four matchups. Oddsmakers have Rangers-Blackhawks, Lightning-Blackhawks, and Rangers-Ducks as the three most likely matchups (in that order), which means… Well, you know what it means.