Archive for August, 2015

NFC East Predictions

Posted: 08/26/2015 by levcohen in Football

Now that the projected over and under performers are out of the way, it’s time to move on to the important stuff: preseason full standings predictions. I know most of these predicted records won’t turn out to be on the spot, but I still think this is a good way of sorting out who will be in the playoff hunt and who won’t be along with the teams likely to improve or regress. I’ll begin with the NFC East, a division that last year lacked intrigue at the end of the season; the four were spread out by two, four, and two games going from top to bottom. More than anything, this is the division of increased defensive focus. Big-name free agents Greg Hardy and Byron Maxwell joined while others (including linebacker Kiko Alonso) were added via trade. What kind of impact, if any, will those changes have on the division?

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): I try not to get too sucked in by preseason results. I really do. But it’s hard not to like what the Eagles have done this preseason in their blowout wins against the Colts and Ravens. The running game has looked powerful, young wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews look like good top receivers, and, most importantly, the defense has been great. Even without the preseason results, though, I was optimistic about this Eagles team. The offense, complex signals and all, pretty simply comes down to Sam Bradford and his knee. The ex-Ram has missed almost the entire last two seasons with a pair of torn ACLs, damaging a career that once, after a ROY win, looked destined for stardom. He’s back healthy for now, and it’s clear that he still can be a good quarterback, especially in the Chip Kelly system. Bradford is accurate and decisive and a clear upgrade over ex-starter Nick Foles. If he’s healthy, the offense can be one of the league’s best. Granted, the team is much thinner at offensive line than it has been in the past few years thanks to the losses of guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. But the other three above-average line starters return, and guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner look like solid replacements for Mathis and Herremans. Meanwhile, the revolving door at the skill positions continued, with Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy leaving and a host of new guys coming in. The receiving core of Matthews, Agholor, Josh Huff, and Miles Austin has been transformed over the past year-and-change and looks pretty strong, but it’s the running game that will really be expected to carry the weight. In DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, the Eagles have two ferocious downhill runners who will keep each other fresh. Meanwhile, Darren Sproles looks as dynamic as ever and will see time as a slot receiver this season. In some ways, I think the Eagles are going to try to emulate the 2014 Cowboys with an overpowering running game that keeps the defense off the field and an accurate quarterback who can command the offense. Luckily for Philly, I think their defense could be just as good as the offense. Last year’s defense finished a surprising 10th in DVOA, and there’s no doubt it has been improved this offseason. Maxwell will slide in at CB1 and shadow the opponent’s top receiver, and while he’s still fairly unproven, Maxwell is still a clear upgrade over the Bradley Fletcher-Cary Williams fiasco last season. Meanwhile, the front seven was a strength last year and, thanks to Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, Alonso, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, and others, it will be again. They’ll be able to stop the run; it’s just a matter of whether they can stop the pass. Overall, I think this will be a solid playoff team but one with a few significant flaws (0-line depth, secondary). If Bradford stays healthy, and that’s a big if, I see them going 11-5 or 12-4 and winning the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys (9-7): I was going to go into this long spiel about how lucky the Cowboys got last year with injuries, but I have an easy way of saying that now. Yesterday, top cornerback Orlando Scandrick tore his ACL and will miss the season, a blow that will be tough to recover from. That’s even more significant when considering that nearly every key contributor, with one major exception, was healthy throughout the year. Tony Romo’s back problems? Not an issue. DeMarco Murray’s injury-proneness? Not last year. America’s Team lived a charmed life last year, and that’s not likely to happen twice. That’s not to say that it will be a disastrous season for the Cowboys, who still certainly have the pieces to win the division. That key piece who was injured last year? That’s middle linebacker Sean Lee, who just so happens to be one of the best defenders in football when healthy. The problem is that he’s never healthy, and I can’t assume he will be this year, either. Without Lee, the Cowboys are weak at linebacker, but they can make up for that with a defensive line that will be much improved with the addition of Hardy (after he serves his four game suspension). Like Adrian Peterson, Hardy’s a polarizing person, but he’s not a polarizing player; few will argue with the fact that he’s a dominant pass-rusher, and he’ll need to be that this year if the ‘Boys will want to make up for a sub-par secondary led by much-maligned Brandon Carr and rookie Byron Jones. This won’t be a good defense, but it wasn’t last year either. I just worry that it will be significantly worse than slightly below average, which is what it was last season. Meanwhile, the offense will be good again this year, although probably not as good as it was last year. The loss of Murray hurts, but Joseph Randle is a fine running back, and that’s all the Cowboys need given their fantastic offensive line. And now that Dez Bryant is signed and presumably happy, we can pencil in another season of the great Romo-Bryant connection. What does a great offense and a bad defense equal? Well, last year the answer was 12-4, but with a little more bad luck and a little regression, I think it’ll be closer to 8-8 this season.

New York Giants (7-9): I have to put this bluntly: to me, the Giants are a very boring team with one very exciting player. Besides Odell Beckham, who are you really looking forward to watching on this team? There’s no tremendous defender, especially now that Jason Pierre-Paul has just nine fingers. Eli Manning is a good quarterback, but he won’t be able to win games by himself. The running game is below average and has been since the punishing combination of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw led the team to a Super Bowl. And that’s really the main problem. The great Giants teams that included the 2007 and 2012 Super Bowl Champs were built around a strong defense and great running game. Now, the Giants are looking to spread the field more and put the ball in Eli’s hands, and I don’t really think it’s going to work out great. It’s not that this is a terrible team, it’s just that there’s nothing they can really hang their hat on. Besides Odell, who should win them plenty of games by himself. This could be a fairly nondescript season for the Giants and another one in which they fail to reach .500. Now can you imagine if Odell got injured?

Washington Redskins (4-12): I wrote about the Redskins in my post about three overrated teams, so I won’t say much here. But the team’s outlook looks even worse than it was when I wrote that post. I think I overestimated Washington’s line in saying it could be among the NFL’s best. The o-line was terrible in the Redskins’ second preseason game, leading to a constantly hit and eventually injured Robert Griffin III. When the positive things you say about a bad team aren’t true, you know that’s a bad thing for the team. I still think the defense will be fine, but the offense is going to struggle to move the ball.


3 NFL Teams That Will Under-perform

Posted: 08/23/2015 by levcohen in Football

I wrote about three teams that will do better than expected yesterday, and now I’ll do the same with three teams I expect to underperform.

Chicago Bears, under 7: The Bears were really bad last year, with a 5-11 record and a -123 point differential that was one of only seven worse than -38. And I don’t think it’s going to be a quick rebuild in Chicago. They fell apart down the stretch last year, losing their last five games. This is a team in the same division as (in my opinion) the best team in football in the Packers along with an 11-5 Lions team and a Vikings squad that I think will be in the playoff hunt this year. It’s a tough division, and the Bears also have to go against both West divisions, which are also among the best in football. So it’s a tough schedule. More importantly, I don’t think the Bears did much to improve their team this offseason. They downgraded from Brandon Marshall to Eddie Royal at receiver and have seen their first round pick, wideout Kevin White, go down for the season with a stress fracture. The rest of the offense, namely Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, and divisive QB Jay Cutler will return, but I expect it to be slightly worse than the one that finished 14th in DVOA last season, nowhere near good enough to carry a poor defense. Remember when the Bears defense was scary and by far the best in football? The Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs-led defense was a sight opposing offenses trembled at as recently as a few seasons ago, but that is no longer even close to true. They finished 28th in defensive DVOA last year, with a below-average run defense and the second-worst pass defense in football to Atlanta’s. And I just don’t think they’ve made enough moves to reasonably expect a bounce-back season. Pernell McPhee will strength the team’s pass-rush, but the inside linebackers are suspect and the defensive line will be overpowered. I expect a slight improvement from Kyle Fuller and the secondary, but it won’t be enough to improve the defense meaningfully. I can easily see this blowing up, with Cutler getting benched, Jeffery aggravating an injury, and the offense joining the defense near the bottom of the NFL in a 3-13 type season. But even in the best-case scenario, I can’t see the Bears doing any better than pushing this seven win over/under, which makes this an easy “under” pick.

Washington Redskins, under 6.5: The Redskins have won a total of six games in the past two years, so it would take a big improvement for them to get anywhere near .500. Las Vegas thinks that jump is very possible, thanks mainly to a defense that should be much improved. The Redskins opened up the checkbook in free agency, upgrading three starting spots with a fourth upgrade coming via trade. Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, the former Bronco, should vastly improve the run defense, while former 49ers Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver will help the secondary and pass defense. Meanwhile, star linebacker Ryan Kerrigan returns and will join middle linebacker Perry Riley to help form a linebacking group that will be pretty good. Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Redskins improved pretty significantly defensively, from 27th in DVOA to the back end of the top 20. I just don’t think that will be enough to take a team with a bad offense and bad special teams to seven wins. Special teams-wise, the Redskins are below average in the kicking game (Kai Forbath is one of the worst starting kickers in the game) and in the return game (Andre Roberts is not an exciting return man). And offensively, while the pieces are there to be a good offense, I think the quarterback is going to hold them back. The offensive line looks pretty good, thanks largely to newly-drafted Brandon Scherff, the #5 overall pick who will slide in at guard. The line might be one of the 10 best in football at this point, a huge boon, especially when you consider the fact that the Redskins also have some good skill-position players. Alfred Morris is one of the most underrated running backs in football, and he’s joined by third round pick Matt Jones, who looks fantastic in the preseason. Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon still make up a pretty decent receiving core. Unfortunately, I just have no confidence in Robert Griffin, and when you have one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, your offensive upside is going to be very limited. That’s really what it comes down to for the Redskins; if Griffin returns to anything near his rookie-year form, they have a shot at a winning record. I don’t think he will, hence the under 6.5.

New York Jets, under 7.5: Notice a trend? For the three teams I picked to outperform expectations, I looked for quarterbacks I believed in. For these three, I looked for bad QB situations. And when your starting quarterback breaks his jaw in a locker room fight and most people call it a positive for the team’s chances, you definitely have a bad quarterback situation. At this point, we all know how bad Geno Smith is. We also know that Ryan Fitzpatrick can be mediocre at times but is usually worse. In Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Fitzpatrick has some good targets to throw to, but New York’s running game is likely to be poor with Chris Ivory again heading a platoon. Meanwhile, the offensive line is no better than average, which means the offense, led by new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, is likely to be pretty bad again. There’s no such concern about the defense, which should jump up from 21st in DVOA into at least the top half. Sheldon Richardson’s suspension is disappointing, but the Muhammad Wilkerson and #6 pick Leonard Williams-led D-line should still be elite. The team’s biggest additions, though, all come in the secondary. Darrelle Revis, the best cornerback in the league, is obviously the headliner, but the Jets also signed Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine and now have a very good group of cornerbacks. Add the likely improvement of safety Calvin Pryor and this has the makings of a shutdown secondary. This is going to be a good defense, but I don’t think it’ll be good enough to carry a poor offense in a very tough division. The Jets always seem to disappoint people, and I think they’ll disappoint again this year.

3 NFL Teams That Will Exceed Expectations

Posted: 08/22/2015 by levcohen in Football

It’s that time of year again. I love baseball, but after it’s been the only sport worth talking about for months, I’m ready to get into football again, as I am at this time every season. Fantasy football drafts are ramping up, and the second week of the preseason is underway, which means that the season is right around the corner. I introduced the football season with this post last year, and I figured I’d do it again this season. I’m going to look at Bovada’s team over/under regular season win totals and pick three teams who I think are being underrated by Las Vegas and will overperform their expectations. Tomorrow, I’ll do the same for three teams I like less that Vegas.

Indianapolis Colts, over 10.5: I picked the Colts last year, but that was when the over/under is 9.5. They’re expected to win another game this year, but I still think it’s a modest number. Let’s start with the schedule. The Colts still happen to play in probably the weakest division in football, the AFC South. Just look at the other quarterbacks in their division; either Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett in Houston, rookie Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, and Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. Those might be the three worst quarterback situations in the NFL, since rookies are always at a disadvantage and Bortles is coming off an awful rookie season. Last year, the other three teams in Indy’s division went 14-34. They’ll probably be better this year (simply because they can’t be as bad), but I’m not sure how much better. And the Colts also get to play the NFC South, the division which infamously had a sub-.500 winner last season. I expect them to win at least eight of the 10 games they play against the other South teams (they haven’t lost against their own division in two years), which leaves them needing to pick up a maximum of three wins in the other six. And guess what? The two toughest games they have are against the Patriots and Broncos, and both of those are at home, where the Colts went 6-2 last year. But the main reason I’m picking the Colts is because of their quarterback. Andrew Luck has won 11 games in each of his three seasons, and it’s now safe to say that he’s one of the three or four best quarterbacks in football. He’s extremely tough, very athletic, very smart, and he just so happens to be one of the most talented QBs in football. Luck threw for upwards of 4700 yards last year along with his 40 touchdowns, coming up clutch time after time in close games. It’s no coincidence that the Colts are now 18-4 in regular season one-score games in Luck’s career. Even scarier is the fact that Luck has a lot more to work with than he ever has. The Colts added Frank Gore and Andre Johnson to their offense, and those two are huge upgrades over Trent Richardson and Reggie Wayne at this point. The running game, nearly nonexistent last season, will be much improved, while the depth at receiver (T.Y. Hilton, Johnson, Dante Moncrief, first rounder Phillip Dorsett) and tight end (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen) is scary. Add an upgrade at guard in former-Eagle Todd Herremans and this offense, which ranked just 17th in DVOA last year, should jump into the upper echelon. Defensively, the Colts just have to be as good as they were last year, when they finished 11th in yards allowed and 12th in DVOA. The Vontae Davis-led secondary is solid, and the pass rush should be better with a fully healthy Robert Mathis and the addition of Trent Cole. The run defense is still a work in progress, but that won’t come back to bite them more than a few times, at least in the regular season. I think the Colts have a realistic shot at being the best team in the AFC, so the “over” on 10.5 is pretty straightforward.

Miami Dolphins, over 8.5: The Dolphins should be a very interesting team to watch this year. They have a coach in Joe Philbin who’s squarely on the hot seat; if the Dolphins fail to make the playoffs this year, he’ll most likely be fired. They (theoretically) have an opening in the AFC East with Tom Brady (theoretically) out for the first four games in the season. They also signed the best free agent the NFL’s seen in years in Ndamukong Suh to a massive deal. This is a team that went 8-8 last season despite having the league’s fifth-toughest schedule; this year, instead of the tough NFC North and AFC West, they get to play the NFC East and AFC South. Their extra games, against Baltimore and San Diego, will be tough, but they should have a much more friendly schedule this season. I expect them to go at least 4-1 in their first five games, which happen to be against Washington, Jacksonville, Buffalo, the Jets, and Tennessee. Doesn’t get much easier than that. I’m also a big fan of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has steadily improved in his first three seasons and posted a solid 58 QBR and 92.8 passer rating last season. Tannehill’s a very accurate quarterback who struggles to throw the deep ball but can really control an offense, as he quarterbacked the seventh-best offense in football per DVOA. The rest of the offense has changed a bit, with Kenny Stills replacing Mike Wallace and Jordan Cameron taking over at tight end for Charles Clay, but key receiver Jarvis Landry and breakout star running back Lamar Miller are both back. Meanwhile, the offensive line should be better this year with Brandon Albert returning from injury and Mike Pouncey moving back to the center position. The offense probably won’t be better than it was last year on a per-play basis, but they should score a few more points this year than they did last, when they finished 11th in points. It was the defense and special teams that caused Miami’s collapse last season (they lost four of their last six and gave up 32 points per game in that stretch), and the Dolphins obviously recognized that in shelling out a ton of money for Suh. Suh won’t fill every hole, but he and Cameron Wake will wreak havoc on opposing backfields. I don’t think they’ll be a top-10 defense, but could Suh put them in the top half? I wouldn’t be surprised. Add in an improved special teams performance (the Dolphins finished dead last in special teams DVOA last year) and nine wins should be easily attainable.

Oakland Raiders, over 5.5: Remember when people thought the Raiders had a good chance of finishing without a win last season? They started the season 0-10 and had six tough games to end the season. Well, they ended that stretch 3-3, although that record flatters them, as they were outscored 187-101 in that span including a 52-0 drubbing at the hands of the Rams. But there were positives for the team that played against by far the toughest schedule in football last season. Running back Latavius Murray broke out in a big way with a 90-yard TD rush against the Chiefs and heads into this season as the clear starter in Oakland and, as a guy who averaged 5.2 yards per carry last year, a very intriguing option. Meanwhile, Derek Carr wasn’t great last year, but his rookie season was far better than Blake Bortles’. He threw for 3,270 yards and 21 TDs last season while throwing only 12 interceptions with very few options in the passing game. This year, that should change; the Raiders drafted Amari Cooper with the fourth pick in the draft, and Cooper should immediately become a good top receiver. He’s joined by talented wideout Michael Crabtree, who had some pretty good seasons in San Francisco but has never really put it together. It should be a meaningfully better offense than the one that finished 30th in DVOA last season. Defensively, the team didn’t make many big changes, but they’ll expect some improvements from stud Kahlil Mack, who seems set to be an All-Pro. Look, I don’t expect the Raiders to make the playoffs this year. They’re still last in a tough division, and their schedule looks brutal again, with dates against both North divisions. But I think they can steal a few games from their division mates, beat the Bears and Browns, and take their games against the Titans and Jets. Throw in a few other winnable games and this team could sniff .500 this year. It’s definitely a team on the rise, and while I’m not sure they’ll be good in the next few years, I think they can make a decent improvement this season.

How to Further Shorten MLB Games

Posted: 08/17/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

On a macro level, the narrative about baseball over the last few years has been that the games are too boring and that the sport was generally losing traction in America. In some ways, that narrative is completely false; Major League Baseball is making more money than it ever has, and more people are going to games as ever. 913,370 more fans have attended games this year than at this time last year, an average of 520 more per game. Aside from in terrible markets like Tampa Bay (the Rays should be moved sooner rather than later), people are still showing up to games. And given the influx of young talent the league has seen this season, the worries many people had about finding new superstars (after Derek Jeter, the face of baseball, retired) have been pretty much assuaged. So the business is fine. At the same time, though, there are some worrying trends. While attendance is up, the average age of viewers has steadily climbed from the mid-40s to the mid-50s over the past decade, hinting to a more pronounced decline in viewership in the future. The age increase can be attributed to a lot of things, from the decreased scoring in baseball to the increased competition for young fans’ time (European soccer is becoming more and more popular in the US). But the most pressing and quantifiable issue is the length of games. Viewers, especially younger ones, aren’t interested in sitting in the same place for an entire evening or afternoon, so any decrease would be a huge boon to MLB. Thirty years ago, the average baseball game lasted just a tad over two and a half hours. Last year, the average game topped the three hour mark for the first time ever. Major League Baseball responded by implementing a clock in between innings, and games have been slightly shorter this season. They’re still far too long, though, which is why I set about finding some more ways to shorten games in a more meaningful way.

You might first wonder how games ever got so long in the first place. There are a bunch of answers to that question, but the main one is more pitching changes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to limit the number of pitching changes a team can make without drastically changing the rules of the game, so that’s out. We have to find other ways to cut some dead time out of the game, as MLB has tried to do with the between-innings clock. So what else is slowing down the game? Well, the addition of instant replays have added a little time, but no more than a minute or two per game. More importantly, the dilly-dallying by both hitters and pitchers between pitches has had a huge impact on the pace of the game. According to Forbes, one ball was put in play every two minutes and 29 seconds in 1964; last year, it happened once every 3:30. Now, part of that can be explained by the vast recent increase in strikeouts and walks, but that doesn’t account for the whole 1:01. Ever find yourself drifting off to sleep between pitches? You’re forgiven, because, on average, there’s about 21.5 seconds between pitches, up nearly a full second from five years ago (I’m only going back to 2010 because that’s the first year PITCHf/x tracked the time between every pitch). Let’s call it a second and assume that around 300 pitches are being thrown per game (both are slight exaggerations but will work for this exercise). That means that around five minutes a game have been added in the last five years from the one second increase between pitches alone. Is that increase essential to the game of baseball, or can it be cut out? That’s a rhetorical question and the reason I’m writing this post. Both hitters and pitchers are to blame for the eternity between pitches, and both will have to be regulated in order to shorten the time between throws meaningfully. So here goes…

#1: One batter timeout a game
Don’t you hate it when hitters call timeout after a pitch, adjust their batting gloves, watch a pitch go by, and then do the same thing? It seems pointless and annoying and is certainly not a pleasant watching experience. Well, hitters should still be granted timeouts, but any more than one per game is overkill. It’s a big enough rule change that it will cause a serious impact (unlike a one-timeout-per-inning rule) but not big enough to really change the way the game will be played.

I also believe that umpires should more strictly enforce the rules that already exist. If the batter steps out of the box before being granted a timeout, it should be an automatic strike. And if the pitcher throws the pitch before the batter’s gone through his whole pre-pitch repertoire, so be it. This might further depress scoring in the short-term, but not significantly, and I’m confident that hitters will be able to adjust to this slight alteration.

#2: A 25 second “shot-clock” between pitches
Let me put this bluntly: pitchers control pace far more than hitters, simply because they are the ones who decide when to throw the ball. So this rule will impact the pitchers far more than the hitters, just as the first rule targeted batters. This would be a massive change, since 27 of the 289 pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings this season average more than 25 seconds between pitches. But of the 90 qualified pitchers, only David Price and Jeremy Hellickson have on average exceeded the 25 second mark, and only five of the 90 qualifiers average more than 24 seconds between pitches. Now, relievers generally take more time between pitches, so this would impact them more, but again, the majority of relievers are already comfortably under the 25 second mark. I also understand that pitchers take more time when they are throwing from the stretch, so perhaps an accommodation can be made when there are men on (perhaps a 22 second clock with the bases empty and a 28 second clock with men on). This is still a work in progress, after all. But can you imagine how much a clock like this would shorten the game? Even if it only cuts a couple of seconds off the average, we’re shaving 10 minutes off the average game right here. Besides, don’t we want to reward fast-workers like Mark Buehrle (15.8 seconds between pitches) anyway?

Look, this isn’t a crisis. There are still plenty of baseball fans, and MLB doesn’t need a huge change like a seven-inning game or three balls for a walk. But the trends are worrying, and you can be sure that the league is currently looking into how to shorten the game. I say they restrict the amount of time allowed between pitches, which wouldn’t alter statistics or strategy but would make the game faster and much more engaging in a way that would anger hitters and pitchers equally.

Last year was a pretty poor one for National League rookies. Only one rookie batter, Billy Hamilton, qualified for the batting title, while no pitcher accumulated enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. In the end, Jacob DeGrom won the NL Rookie of the Year award by posting a 2.69 ERA in 140.1 innings. DeGrom has taken the next step into the elite echelon of starting pitchers this year, but in general this year’s crop of rookies has been much better, especially hitting-wise.

Heading into the season, it looked like a race between two top prospects playing in big markets in Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson. Sure enough, Pederson and Bryant rank first and third in plate appearances among rookies. But after a strong start to the season that led to an All-Star game appearance, Pederson has hit no better than .236 since April and is batting .176 with a .579 OPS since he went 0-2 with two strikeouts in the All-Star game. He’s third in baseball in strikeouts (right behind Bryant), and it’s hard to envision a .219 (and sinking) hitter who isn’t great defensively or on the base paths winning the ROY award despite the fact that he’s fifth in baseball in walks and has a solid .356 OBP. So Pederson’s out. That leads us back to Kris Bryant.

Heading into the season, Bryant was probably the most hyped-up prospect since Bryce Harper. There was the whole “controversy” about the Cubs keeping him in AAA for 10 days to start the season just so they could gain an extra year of service time (10 days of a rookie season for a year of a prime is a no-brainer, by the way), and Bryant absolutely destroyed the minors, hitting .327/.426/.667 with 55 homers in 773 plate appearances. And the hype has, for the most part, been justified. The power hasn’t quite shown itself yet, as Bryant has just 16 homers in 445 plate appearances, but he did hit in the home run derby and some of his homers have been absolute bombs. And the rest has been pretty solid. Bryant headed into the All-Star break hitting .269/.376/.472, not MVP numbers but certainly ROY-caliber stats. Since the break, though, Bryant’s hitting just .184, although he’s turned it around in August (.998 OPS). Like Pederson, it looks as if he’s slumping. But while Pederson’s slump is almost definitely a death knell to his ROY chances, it isn’t to Bryant’s. The biggest concern for Bryant heading into the season was his defense at third base. But while the eye test says that he’s not comfortable at third and that he’s a pretty big negative in the field, the advanced stats actually indicate that Bryant’s range is fairly good. Still, I tend to trust my eyes more than the stats when it comes to fielding, since fielding stats are far less accurate than hitting ones. And Bryant has also surprisingly stolen 12 bases; more importantly, he’s added more value on the base paths than anyone other than the insane Billy Hamilton. That’s serious value added there. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s value that the average voter will pick up on, and Bryant’s slump has opened the backdoor for a couple of other less heralded candidates.

I follow baseball pretty closely, but I had barely heard of Matt Duffy and Jung-ho Kang before I researched this post. But Duffy and Kang have both been very good and are serious candidates for this award. Duffy opened the season on the Giants but was in and out of the lineup until seizing an everyday spot in the lineup in mid May. He’s been good enough, however, to make up for lost time. Duffy’s slashing .304/.340/.458 and has hit over .300 every month since taking over at third base. He’s hitting second or third in the Giants’ solid lineup every night, and his 128 wRC+ is actually higher than Bryant’s (126) because he plays in a much harder stadium to hit in. There’s no doubt that Duffy does it differently than Chicago’s phenom; his walk rate is just 4.1% compared to Bryant’s 13.5%, he strikes out much less than Bryant, he has just nine homers, and his average is 55 points better than Bryant’s. But while baseball is veering towards Bryant’s walk and power style of play, Duffy’s average could appeal to a lot of voters. He’s also a good defender and looks the part, unlike Bryant. San Fran’s third baseman is a very fundamentally-solid player and, unlike Bryant and Pederson, is trending up; it’s not too hard to imagine him catching up to Bryant in WAR.

Kang played even less than Duffy did at the beginning of the season, as he made just six starts in April. The shortstop is the same type of player as Duffy, and his nine homers and five steals match Duffy’s. But thanks to a 6.4% walk rate and 15 HBPs along with his .296 average, Kang’s .371 OBP is higher than both Bryant’s (.360) and Duffy’s (.340). And Kang’s hitting fifth in a strong Pirates lineup, which means he’ll probably catch up to Duffy in the counting stats (runs and RBI) despite being in a 48 plate appearance hole. Kang, like Duffy, is a good fielder, although he’s more solid than spectacular. Most importantly, Kang is getting hot at the right time. He’s hitting an insane .373/.435/.663 since the All-Star break and has hit more homers (5) in 92 post-break plate appearances than he did in 253 PAs before the break (4). With his higher walk rate than Duffy’s and higher average than Bryant’s, Kang might be a happy medium between the two extremes, especially if he keeps hitting for power.

If nothing else, Duffy and Kang have made this a closer race than I imagined it would be. Given that Kang is the hottest of the three and already has hit the best this season, I think he’s going to end up winning the award over the more-heralded Bryant and Pederson. This is how I anticipate the race finishing:

Jung-ho Kang
Kris Bryant
Matt Duffy
Joc Pederson

This is around the time in the baseball season that it makes sense to start looking ahead to the playoffs and to the award races. I started doing the former with my Mets post and figured that I’d get going on the latter today with one or both of the MVP races. The problem is that both the NL MVP and the AL MVP races are effectively over, with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout running away with their respective races. The comparison between those two is another post entirely, one that’s probably been over-analyzed already. And the NL Cy Young is Zack Greinke’s to lose, given that Greinke is 11-2 and has a sub-2 ERA. If Greinke has more starts like the one he had against the Phillies (six runs in six innings), the back door could open up for Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole, assuming Greinke and fellow-Dodger Clayton Kershaw split votes. But the award is Greinke’s if he continues to pitch well, which is something that can’t be said about any pitcher in the AL.

This race is refreshingly wide-open. You’d normally see a semi-decent candidate from the best team in the league gaining momentum, but there’s nobody on the Royals who deserves much of a look, barring a 2008 CC Sabathia stretch from new acquisition Jhonny Cueto (in 2008, Sabathia finished sixth in the NL MVP voting despite starting just 17 games for the Brewers after a mid-season trade. In those 17 games, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings a start. Cueto won’t do that.). The Yankees, the team with the second best record in the AL, also don’t have a viable starting candidate for Cy Young, although reliever Dellin Betances might have an argument (more on that later). Many of the best pitchers in the AL pitch on teams that are below .500, which, while in no way a death knell, is a big negative for some voters. Another problem is that there’s no pitcher who’s racked up an anomalous number of wins. Felix Hernandez leads the AL with 14 wins, and even he has a less than 50-50 shot at 20 wins. Lastly, nobody’s having a Greinke-esque season in the AL when it comes to ERA, with no pitcher currently posting an ERA under 2.00 as we slog through the dog days of August.

Ok, so we know why this is a close and congested race. Who are the frontrunners? First, let’s learn something from previous AL Cy Young winners. Since 2008, the seven winners have averaged just north of 19 wins with only one, Felix Hernandez in 2010, winning fewer than 16. Only one of the seven has posted an ERA higher than 2.60, and that was Max Scherzer in 2013 when he had a ludicrous 21-3 record along with a 2.90 ERA. So anyone with an ERA above, say, 3.20 (anyone below that can easily get under the threshold) and anyone with single-digit wins should be eliminated. Already, we’re left with just six candidates: Sonny Gray, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Felix Hernandez, and Edinson Volquez. And given that every Cy Young winner since 2009 in both leagues has struck out more than 200 batters, we can eliminate Volquez, who has just 102 strikeouts in 139 innings. Besides, he’s Edinson Volquez. That should have been enough. So we’re left with five candidates.

I wouldn’t have said this a couple of weeks ago, but right now it looks like Price should be the favorite to take home his second AL Cy Young award in four years. Three great things have happened to Price’s stock in the last two weeks. First, he was traded from a sinking team in the Tigers to a team with a much better chance of making the playoffs in the Blue Jays. Second, the Jays have gone 11-1 since the trade, drawing within a single game of the Yankees in the AL East. Price isn’t responsible for most of that, but most voters are frankly too shallow to realize that. The Jays have gone from a fringe playoff contender to a likely playoff team, and that matters to voters, especially if they go on to win their division. Finally, Price has pitched extremely well since the trade, allowing just six hits and one run in 15 innings while striking out 18 and winning both starts as a Blue Jay. So he now sits at 11-4 with a 2.35 ERA. He sits just fifth in the AL in WAR at 4.1, but that won’t matter to most voters. Price ranks fourth in the AL in innings pitched with 161 and has 156 strikeouts, which should allow him to break the 200 mark easily. Minus a few wins, in fact, his season very much mirrors his 2012 Cy Young season; in 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA for a 90-win Rays team that barely missed the playoffs. Again, though, more important than all of the stats is the fact that Price is making a clear impact on a team that’s exploded since it has acquired him. If the Blue Jays win the AL East with Price pitching well, the former Ray and Tiger will probably win the award. If not, though, there are plenty of other candidates for the award.

The ERA leader always has a chance in the race. This year, barring a late slump, that guy will be either Sonny Gray or Scott Kazmir. And since Kazmir is just 6-6, Gray is the guy with a chance to capitalize on his low ERA. The 25-year old has been good ever since being called up in 2013 but is having his true breakout season this year. He’s 12-4 with a 2.06 ERA and seems to be well on his way to a 17-7, 2.30 type season, numbers that would put him squarely in the race. Unfortunately, Gray happens to pitch for the Athletics, who are 12 games under .500 and are just half a game better than the Red Sox, the worst team in the AL. He’s also not the prototypical dominant Cy Young candidate, as while he throws as fast as any candidate besides Price, Archer, and Betances, he lacks the out pitches the other guys have, as evidenced by his lackluster 7.57 K/9 rate, which, if it remains static, will leave him just short of 200 strikeouts. Gray pitches to contact, and he’s gotten really lucky this year, with a lot of balls finding gloves. That explains why his FIP is nearly a run higher than his ERA, and it could mean that his ERA will regress meaningfully over the final few months. And while a relatively unknown 17-7 pitcher with a 2.10 ERA on a bad team might win the Cy Young, the same guy with a 2.50 ERA would probably fall short. Gray’s a very good pitcher, but I think he could fall short of a top-three finish.

In every way except the traditional ones, Archer would be a better candidate than Gray. The two are at similar points in their careers, and Archer’s 10-8 record and 2.62 ERA pales in comparison to Gray’s profile. Archer’s on pace to go 14-12, and only the 13-12, 2.27 ERA King Felix in 2010 managed to win a Cy Young with a record like that. But everything else about Archer, the candidate with the best WAR, screams “stud.” He throws his average fastball 95 miles per hour, and he uses his deadly slider to strike out 11.06 batters per nine innings. He’s on pace to strike out 275 hitters, more than any Cy Young winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. And even if he ends up with 250 strikeouts he’ll be in great shape. The problem is again that he’s a relatively unknown starter on a .500 Rays team that is unlikely (16.8% playoff shot, per Fangraphs) to make the playoffs. So while Archer might be the deserving Cy Young, he won’t have the pedigree, ERA or record to make a serious run barring a dominant final month and a half.

One thing you might have noticed is that most of these candidates have pretty much come out of nowhere. That’s certainly the case for Dallas Keuchel, who after posting an ERA above five in his first two years has bounced back with a 2.93 ERA last season and a 2.40 ERA this year to go along with his solid 13-6 record. Keuchel’s average fastball clocks in at under 90 miles per hour. He’s one of just seven qualified AL starters without a pitch that averages 90 mph, and Hernandez, the next slowest of the candidates, averages 92.1 miles per hour on his fastball. Keuchel might be the guy with the best story. He’s the ace for the biggest surprise in baseball, as his Astros have quickly gone from being baseball’s laughingstock to leading the AL West for almost the entirety of this season. Unfortunately, it looks as if he’s falling off a little as the season has gone on. Since posting a .73 ERA in April, he’s looked a little more shaky, as evidenced by his 3.71 ERA in July and his 3.29 ERA through two August starts. But those numbers are still pretty darn good, and Keuchel will have a legitimate chance at the Cy Young. In order to win the award, the Astros probably need to hold on for the AL West championship, Keuchel needs to keep his ERA under 2.50. Oh, and it would also be nice if he could hit 20 wins. It might be unlikely, but a 20-8 season on baseball’s feel-good team would probably be enough for Keuchel to take home the Cy Young.

Then there’s Felix Hernandez, who along with Price is a guy everyone knew about before the season. Hernandez probably feels robbed of a Cy Young, as he was just edged out by then-upstart Corey Kluber despite leading the league in ERA at 2.14 and WHIP at .92. He now has four top-four Cy Young finishes and could be on his way to adding a fifth this season. Hernandez is an outlier here because his 3.11 ERA is pretty high for a Cy Young candidate, but I had to include him both because he leads the league in wins and because I think he has a good chance of going on a tear to close the season. Let’s say Hernandez allows 10 runs in his final 10 starts (70 innings) while winning six and losing two. Pretty reasonable for an ace like Felix, right? Well, in that scenario, Hernandez would end the season with a 20-8 record and a 2.53 ERA. That probably still wouldn’t be enough to win him the award given that he plays for a pretty poor Mariners team, but it would definitely put him in the conversation. And the name Felix Hernandez is always going to give him a little bump, especially since he’ll be competing with no-names like Dallas Keuchel for votes.

Finally, I’d like to talk about Dellin Betances, my darkhorse candidate. Now, I know Betances has no real shot at winning this award unless all five of the other guys get shelled a bunch and a few other starters get injured. And given that he’s going to end the season with around two-and-a-half times fewer innings pitched than the starters, he probably shouldn’t be in the conversation. But the guy is so dominant for one of the best teams in the league that I almost feel obligated to bring him up. Betances and Aroldis Chapman are the only relievers to post WAR tallies above 1.8, and the Yankees flamethrower (96.8 average fastball, sixth fastest in baseball) leads the way with 2.3. He also has thrown more innings than all but two relievers, and one of those two, Justin De Fratus, has thrown most of his innings in mop-up situations, as evidenced by his 0-1 record and 5.69 ERA. Betances trails only Chapman in strikeouts per nine innings with 14.28, and he leads all relief pitchers with 92 punchouts. Oh, he also has a 1.23 ERA, second best in baseball. But most important is the role he fills with the Yankees. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually think Betances’ six wins say a lot about what he’s done for the team. He always comes in in high leverage situations, and he almost always gets the job done, including when closer Andrew Miller was injured. He has 18 holds and seven saves while often pitching on back-to-back nights. And while this shouldn’t matter, he also looks incredibly intimidating to hit against, as he’s 6’8″ and not all that lanky. So if he brings his ERA lower and keeps dominating opponents, why shouldn’t he be in the discussion? …. Right, the innings thing. Bummer.

The American League is closer to complete parity than I can remember it ever being, with no team even as many as 10 games out of a playoff spot and only the Royals boasting a winning percentage over .555. With that being said, this might be a year in which pitching for a winning team means less than it otherwise would. That opens the door for guys like Gray, Hernandez, and Archer while giving Betances and Volquez less of an advantage. Here’s the way I see the AL Cy Young award race shaking out:

David Price
Dallas Keuchel
Sonny Gray
Felix Hernandez
Chris Archer
Dellin Betances

This is a crazy race, and I can see it going any number of ways. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the two leaders in WAR in Corey Kluber and Chris Sale simply because this year they don’t fit the profiles of Cy Young award winners. But I feel pretty confident that, barring a collapse or injury, these five starters are all going to finish near the top of the ballot, with Price or Keuchel winning the award simply because they have the best combinations of stats and storylines. And Betances might even find himself on some ballots too.

Are the Mets Now NL East Favorites?

Posted: 08/08/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

The New York Mets started the year extremely well. They were 13-3 following an 11 game win streak and were six games up on the Nationals, who had started the season with some puzzling losses against pretty bad teams. That’s when the “Can the Mets win the NL East?” narrative started, but most people (including myself) still believed that the Nationals, the World Series favorite and a much stronger team on paper, would pull away. And guess what? By mid-May, the teams were even in the standings. And even after the Mets won six of their last seven games before the All-Star break to pick up a couple of games in the standings, the Nationals were two games up heading into the midseason break. The race, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be over, as the Nationals had withstood the Mets’ early surge and were slowly returning to full strength. If you had asked me a month ago what the NL East would look like on August 8th, I would have predicted a five or six game Nationals lead. And after the Mets lost six of their first eight games after the break, that prediction would have looked good. Since they fell to 49-48 and three games behind the Nationals, though, New York is 10-2, while Washington is 4-8. All of a sudden, the Mets are on a seven game winning streak and hold a 2.5 game lead on the Nats with about a third of the season still to play. The sample size is large now, and the Mets are still in front. So should they now be considered the favorites?

This is one of the weirder contending big-market teams I’ve seen because they are being managed as if they play in Oakland and not the Big Apple. I don’t really know much about the connection between Mets owner Fred Wilpon and Bernie Madoff, but the Madoff scandal has certainly had a huge effect on the amount Wilpon has been willing to spend on his baseball team. The Mets have been one of the lowest-spending teams in baseball over the last few years and finally re-broke the $100 million salary mark this season. But their $112 million salary this season is still just 18th in baseball, and all of the teams below New York reside in traditionally small baseball markets. This only matters in the context of the 2015 Mets and their NL East championship chances because of what happened at the trade deadline. A couple of days before the deadline, the Mets were reported to have traded for Carlos Gomez, one of the best all-around players on the market and a perfect replacement for the struggling Juan Lagares. The acquisition of Gomez, whom I wrote about as a darkhorse trade candidate, would have legitimized the Mets as a potential playoff team if not the NL East favorite. But hours after Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the trade, Mets GM Sandy Alderson shot it down. The Mets say they backed out because of a Gomez hip injury, but Gomez has never had a hip injury in his career and was traded to the Astros the next day. The speculation has been that the Mets backed out for money reasons, opting instead to trade for Yoenis Cespedes, probably a lesser all-around player and a free agent after this season. Did the Mets really pick Cespedes over Gomez simply because he was a shorter-term commitment and because the Brewers wouldn’t take money back in the Gomez trade? I don’t know, but it seems pretty likely, and it’s a decision that has a pretty big impact on New York’s chances.

So instead of Gomez, the Mets ended up with Cespedes. Fine. Their fans are angry that they won’t spend more money, but who cares, right? This is still a team that’s heavily reliant on its rotation. Jacob DeGrom has turned into a bonafide ace and is suddenly an NL Cy Young candidate who sports a 2.13 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning. Top prospect Noah Syndergaard had given up just 12 earned runs in his last nine starts before running into some trouble today. Matt Harvey is back to dominating the league, as he’s posted a 1.64 ERA in his last nine starts. Jon Niese is a terrific #4 starter, as he’s posted 10 quality starts in his last 11 outings. Even 42-year old Bartolo Colon has provided some quality innings. So yeah, if the rotation can continue to put up these incredible numbers over the final couple months of the season, they’ll win the NL East.

The more interesting question is whether the offense can lift the team to the NL East championship if the starters stumble a little bit down the stretch, as Syndergaard did today (by the way, the Mets trail 5-4 in the sixth as I write this) and as can be expected from the team’s other young starters. I think the offense can do it. First of all, the team is going to get some help. David Wright is finally about to start a rehab stint, so he could return from the 60-day DL before the end of August. Remember, Wright has been the team’s best player for nearly a decade, and it’s hard to overstate how important he is to the team’s offense. Meanwhile, Michael Cuddyer’s stint on the DL will be a short one, and the outfielder will hopefully be revived by the few weeks off. And when Wright and Cuddyer return, the team will have a pretty deep and productive lineup that’s slowly been improving. Even before he hit two homers (and counting) today, leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson had a .907 post All-Star break OPS after hitting just .243/.340/.417 in the first half of the season. Cleanup hitter Lucas Duda, who hit 30 homers in a breakout season last year, is now hitting .270/.360/.689 after the break with nearly as many homers (nine) as he had before it (12). Second baseman Daniel Murphy, the prototypical average-only player, has upped his slugging percentage from .405 pre All-Star break to .449 since the break. Shortstop Ruben Tejada has taken the job from nearly-traded Wilmer Flores and run with it, as he’s hitting .329 since the All-Star break. The team is hitting a lot better than it did before the break, and that’s even without factoring in the big addition of Cespedes, who has immediately slotted into the #3 spot in the lineup.

The Mets don’t have a great offense on paper, but they do have some talent, and they were always likely to perform better than they did early in the season. And while the team’s still just 28th in baseball in runs scored, I’d say they are closer to average than 28th talent-wise. And you know what? That, along with the team’s stellar pitching, might just be enough to stave off the struggling Nationals. Putting aside six games against the Nationals, the Mets have just eight games remaining against winning teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, NY Yankees), and six of those come at home, where they are 38-18. Meanwhile, the Nats still have to play tough series’ against the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Giants, with all three coming on the road. The Mets have the softer schedule to go along with their 2.5 game edge and stronger rotation, and that’s enough for me to give them the slight edge in the NL East race over their more talented rivals. It’s taken more than four months, but the Mets have finally done enough (or the Nationals have finally struggled enough) to make this a race worth watching down the stretch.