Saturday, October 27, 2012

2012 World Series: San Francisco Giants and the East Coast Bias


The Detroit Tigers came into the World Series as favorites—and it is not hard to see why. Justin Verlander has a Cy Young and MVP award to his name and Miguel Cabrera just won the first Triple Crown since 1967. Quite frankly, the Tigers came into the World Series with both the best pitcher and the best hitter in baseball.

That’s nothing to shrug your shoulders at, but ignoring the efforts of the other competitor is ridiculous.

Look at MLB.com, and you’ll see the vast majority of the media personalities surveyed have predicted the Tigers to win the World Series. (Thankfully at least those at ESPN were a bit less biased in that survey.) While the World Series is far from over—as the Giants proved in their comebacks in both the NLDS and NLCS—it is ridiculous to see such a bias in World Series predictions. Didn't the Giants just prove twice not to count them out?

This east coast/anti-West coast bias prevailed throughout the first two games of the World Series, too. The infamous two check marks were insane. How badly did the Giants prove Tim McCarver wrong? Verlander got rocked and Zito threw a gem. Pablo Sandoval had a three home run game.

And yet, somehow it was often attributed to luck. After all, who could hit a 95 MPH fastball, never mind some dude nicknamed Kung Fu Panda?

Well, before Sandoval took his first swing against Verlander, my thoughts were: “if anybody can hit Verlander, Sandoval is that guy.” I would be lying if I told you that I predicted that he would hit three home runs, but Sandoval’s free-swinging nature is made for a flame-thrower like the former Cy Young winner.

Verlander loves to elevate his fastball—which Tim McCarver repeatedly called “unhittable” (until Giants hitters made it look like a watermelon)—and guess what Pablo loves swinging at? You guessed it: the high fastball. Rewind a couple years and that is exactly what Pablo’s problem was because he could not catch up to the high heat. But now, two years later and 40 pounds lighter, Pablo has shown that his free-swinging nature works. His career .303 average does not lie.

For those who do not buy the hitting ability of Sandoval, how about his All-Star performance against Verlander? The three-run triple proved that Verlander is not unhittable. He is underrated and a bit overweight, but the Panda can hit. And he owns Verlander.

An even more ridiculous claim: the Giants have gotten lucky in games one and two. Even former San Francisco Chronicle writer Gwen Knapp wrote that the Giants “have been so fortunate in the last week that even their mistakes end up working to their advantage” and “the Giants’ luck took on a paranormal quality late in the NLCS.”

Again, who knows how it will play out in the rest of the World Series, but from Game 5 of the NLCS through Game 2 of the World Series, the Giants have played nearly perfect baseball. To point to Blanco’s bunt, Pence’s broken-bat knock, or Pagan’s hit that bounced off third base as reasons for the Giants three consecutive wins is insane.

Offense, defense, pitching, managing—it has all been nearly perfect from Game 5 of the NLCS through Game 2 of the World Series.

And it hasn’t magically appeared, either. Take another wildly miscalculated Giant player for example: Barry Zito. First of all, the guy has been, well…perfect. In his past 14 starts, the Giants are a 14-0. Luck? Give it a break…he won a back-to-the-wall elimination Game 5 in the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series. Any argument as to the validity of Zito’s pitching ability is outdated and lacks a factual basis. He deserves a large amount of credit for the Giants success. He earned the “Barry” chants at AT&T Park.

On that note, Joe Buck mentioned the “Barry chants” were a first since another famous Barry. Tim McCarver’s response? “When Barry Manilow was playing in a concert.” He forgot the most renowned Giant of all time. East coast bias or a lack of baseball knowledge? Who knows, but I find it embarrassing that these guys are in the announcers booth on baseball’s biggest stage.

Something would surely change in Game 2, right?

Similar claims of luck were made as to Madison Bumgarner’s seven innings of shutout baseball. The excuse this time was his recent struggles and 11.25 postseason ERA. No mention was made of Bumgarner’s 0.00 ERA in the World Series (which still holds true after his Game 2 start). He is the first pitcher since 1986 to allow 0 ER in his first 15 IP in the World Series.

How many times did you hear that mentioned on ESPN or during the game on Fox?

Nothing was made of the fact that the Giants have, as Brian Sabean said after the Giants won the pennant, the best coaching staff in baseball. Dave Righetti has seen some great pitchers in his 12-year tenure as the Giants pitching coach and Bruce Bochy has seamlessly integrated a Brian Wilson-less bullpen. Bumgarner’s mechanical flaws were no problem to fix for this staff.

How about now that the World Series shifts to Detroit? Well, home-field advantage means that the Tigers have nothing to worry about. In fact, they “won’t waste time winning the World Series.” We could pull up article after article on national media that would lend Stephen A. Smith to repeat one word: disrespectful.

Even the east-coast biased Joe Buck called AT&T Park the most electrifying ballpark in baseball, and he's announced playoff games in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

The Giants have one of the league’s best shortstops. They have a catcher with the highest baseball IQ in the world—and a likely NL MVP award to complement his masterful management of the Giants pitching staff. And, oh yeah, a 2010 World Series championship banner.

They have talent, baseball intelligence, and a brotherhood that has proven to be crucial in playoff runs (see the “idiots” in Boston in 2004 and the “fear the beard” team of 2010).

49ers quarterback Alex Smith made a controversial stand to support San Francisco by wearing a Giants hat in a postgame interview. Smith plays a completely different sport but has respect for a Giants team that has proven they know how to get the job done. Jim Harbaugh voiced similar sentiments after Bochy wore a 49ers hat in a postgame interview of his own.

Harbaugh’s words, more than a month ago: “[The Giants are] a team that just never gives up. They're always fighting and they're coming back. It's a never-say-die type of team.

While their road to winning the World Series will mean holding on to a 2-0 lead, those thoughts quite accurately echo their road to the Series.

Maybe someone should give Harbaugh—a football coach—a spot on ESPN or Fox as a baseball analyst. Sadly, he seems to know more about baseball than too many of the so-called “experts.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Top 10 NBA Players of 2013

Blockbuster trades and signings have placed some of the NBA’s best in new homes. While it remains to be seen how the players who were a part of the Dwight Howard trade will fair, there is no doubt that Howard himself will vie for a position among the best players in the NBA today.

And so, with the 2012-13 NBA season only about a week away from commencement, here is a ranking of the best players. (Note: Kevin Love and Derrick Rose are not considered because of injuries.)

10. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks


Although the Jeremy Lin saga took center stage in New York last season, Carmelo Anthony still put up over 21 points per game. He is one of the best scorers in the NBA along with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James—all who accompany him in this top-10 list.

The Knicks have not performed well in the postseason over Anthony’s tenure in New York but injuries have not helped. The addition of Jason Kidd should help get the best out of Anthony because unlike Lin, Kidd is more of a pass-first point guard, with a career 9.0 assist per game average.

If Anthony can keep himself collected when the Knicks find their rough patches, he may finally play more than just one playoff series in 2013.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 22.3 PPG / 5.3  RPG / 2.0 APG

9. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets


The Nets move to Brooklyn included the additions and re-signings of big names that included Deron Williams, Brooke Lopez, and Joe Johnson. This group of players and a slight change of scenery from New Jersey to Brooklyn will bring out the best in their star point guard.

Williams is an excellent hybrid of a scoring and facilitating point guard and is in the midst of his prime. The lack of depth in Brooklyn will make it difficult for the Nets to succeed in the playoffs, but Williams will continue to show that he is one of the best point guards in the game.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 20.7 PPG / 3.5 RPG / 8.9 APG

8. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat


Even in the shadows of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade has proven to still be one of the best players in the NBA. Like James, his incredibly well-rounded game has led to both individual and team success.

His points per game average has steadily dropped over the past four years—but when you average over 30 points per game, that drop is relative. The 30-year-old Wade still has more than a good amount left in the tank. In fact, he is still the second best shooting guard in basketball behind one Kobe Bryant.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 22.9 PPG / 5.6 RPG / 5.3 APG / 1.2 BPG

7. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers


CP3 has been one of those guys who steadily produces for his team and always seems to know how to best manage the offense. Like Deron Williams, his playmaking ability involves both scoring and facilitating aspects and he is a double-double threat.

Paul has also established himself as one of the best defensive point guards in the league. A four-time NBA steals champion and two-time All-Defensive first team, he is a leader on both ends of the floor.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 19.6 PPG / 3.3 RPG / 9.8 APG / 2.4 SPG

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder


I have criticized Russell Westbrook’s style of play more than once, but you cannot argue with the results that he and Kevin Durant have had over the past three years. However, I will continue to question his and coach Scott Brooks’ thought process in having Westbrook take more shots in a game than Durant, his teammate who happens to be the best scorer in the game.

But it has produced results, with the Thunder steadily progressing in the postseason over the years. Westbrook’s fastbreak pull-up free-throw line jumper has become deadly. With some modification to his gameplay, there is no reason why Westbrook could not make it at least to the list of top-five NBA players.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 23.8 PPG / 4.8 RPG / 7.3 APG

5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers


Even a couple years into his 30s, Kobe Bryant is still a top-five player in the NBA. He has proven year in and year out that he does everything to keep his body and his shot in top shape. I have been a critic of Bryant’s style of play in the past and it remains to be seen if he can coexist with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard—both players who will command the ball a lot, something that Kobe will have to get used to. Pau and Andrew Bynum are/were much more passive than D12 and Nash, so even though they are highly capable players, they let Kobe run the show.

That will not be the case in 2013.

Like Wade, Kobe’s points per game will decrease in 2013. But when you were nearly the scoring champion, a decrease to 25 PPG (which is what I have predicted) is surely nothing tragic. He will be one of the best scorers in the game until he retires but whether or not he can win a sixth championship remains to be seen.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 25.1 PPG / 5.0 RPG / 4.1 APG

4. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers


The second Los Angeles Laker to hit the top-five best players currently in the NBA, D12 is a monster. His exit from Orlando was anything but pretty, but a change of scenery could be something that truly sets Howard above all other centers in the NBA.

He will prove to be one of the best defensive players in 2013 at roughly 14 rebounds and two blocks per game. But again, the dynamics between him, Kobe, and Nash will determine how far the Lakers can go as a team because each star will want his share of the spotlight. The “Big Threes” in Boston and Miami took a couple years to pull it together and if Bryant retires at age 35, that puts a large amount of pressure on Howard and the Lakers to succeed now.

Regardless, Howard is the best big man in the league and is ahead of Kobe Bryant mainly because of age. At this point in their respective careers, Howard’s ability to impact the game on offense and defense is greater. Either way, the Lakers should be pleased to have two of the NBA’s best wearing their purple and gold.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 20.7 PPG / 14.2 RPG / 1.6 APG / 2.2 BPG

3. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics


This may appear to be a controversial pick, but for one Rajon Rondo is the best traditional point guard in the league. Both Chris Paul and Deron Williams are better offensive scorers than Rondo, but the Celtic point guard runs the show like nobody else in the NBA. His ability to get the ball to his perimeter players and post players is uncanny.

He carried the Celtics to nearly beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals almost singlehandedly. Rondo even went off for 44 points, something that was amazing considering the fact that he is not the greatest scorer. Rajon even proved that he could hit jump shots and the occasional three-pointer. Undoubtedly, that performance was the exception rather than the norm, but Rondo will come into 2013 an improved player.

More so than the other seven players behind Rondo on this list, he made his team better than they would have been without him. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen were not young and the up-and-coming Avery Bradley got injured at the most inopportune time. Rondo was a workhorse who almost never rested during the 48-minute game and gave the Celtics a chance to go farther in the playoffs than most people were expecting.

He jumped up quite a few spots from where I ranked him for 2011-12, but he earned it. He may have some room to improve his scoring ability, but Rondo is the best overall point guard in the NBA.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 13.4 PPG / 5.1 RPG / 11.9 APG / 2.1 SPG

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder


There is not much to say about Kevin Durant that has not already been said. Will he finally get a ring in 2013? Who knows, but what we do know is that this guy is the best scorer in the NBA from the tip-off to the final buzzer. Put the ball in his hands and something good is bound to happen.

Durant is one of the most likable players and quietly led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the top of the Western Conference (having lost in the NBA Finals in 2012). Look for him to improve on the areas that he was weaker in in 2012 (namely rebounding) and compete for another championship in 2013. The future is bright for this young star.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 30.4 PPG / 7.8 RPG / 3.0 APG

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat


“It’s about damn time.” Those were the first words from LeBron James in a post-game interview after winning the 2012 NBA Finals and finally capturing that elusive first title. Having done that, LeBron has lifted a tremendous weight off of his shoulders, and like I have said before, he will be better than ever in 2013.

The inability to decide how exactly to take advantage of opposing defenses has been difficult for LeBron because they are at his mercy. He can do nearly everything you want on offense better than nearly everybody else (save outside shooting).

But what he does not as often get credited for is his ability to impact the game on defense. He can do something that nobody else in the NBA can: defend all five positions, point guard through center. Granted he is best at defending opposing small forwards, but LeBron will do whatever he is called upon to do. That is something that helped lead the Heat to the 2012 NBA championship, considering they were weaker on the inside with Chris Bosh as the only natural post defender.

Everybody else is looking up at the reigning regular season and NBA Finals MVP.

Predicted 2013 statistics: 28.3 PPG / 8.0 RPG / 7.6 APG / 2.0 SPG

Saturday, October 20, 2012

2012 NLCS: Barry Zito’s resilience, a microcosm of the Giants organization



The San Francisco Giants are now a perfect 13-0 in the last 13 times that Barry Zito has taken the ball, including two starts in the playoffs. Some of those starts have not been pretty—twice he did not see the end of the third inning—but the end result is what matters. And in Game 5, as he did in the previous 12 starts, Zito led the Giants to a win.

Let there be absolutely no mistake: the past couple months (and the season as a whole) have seen some of the most bizarre, unexpected events for the Giants. Starting pitching has been the crux of the organization ever since they won the 2010 World Series. Everybody except Barry Zito has faulted at some point during Zito’s winning streak and that includes a former two-time Cy Young Award winner and a right-hander who threw a perfect game. At the start of the season Brian Wilson went down and a successful return from injury by Posey was anything but guaranteed.

Posey has become the face of the franchise and is now the likely National League MVP. Melky Cabrera, a juiced-up hitting machine, helped lead a Giants offense that has been at least as critical to the success of their team as the pitching. San Francisco concluded the 2012 regular season top-five in all of baseball in batting average at nearly .270.

Three years ago the Giants had two players above .265 (among qualifiers).

Bruce Bochy deserves a large amount of credit for the work that he has done as manager with an erratic organization. San Francisco has often defied who they have defined themselves as over the course of the past couple years. He should be manager of the year (even considering the incredible work of rookie manager Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals), but an incredible amount of accolades deserves to fall with Barry Zito.

What he has given the Giants this year has been quintessential to their success. His contributions arguably equate to Buster Posey’s incredible comeback.

Although he only had one win to show for it, Zito started off the 2012 season with a miniscule 1.67 ERA in 27 IP in the month of April. That includes a four-hit complete game shutout. Sadly, he did not maintain that performance, but with a $126 million contract lingering over his head and the disappointment of San Francisco weighing him down, it has been anything but easy for the former Cy Young Award winner. I still have a hard time believing this guy was once the best pitcher in the American League, but that’s a separate story…

Nonetheless, he kept his head down and continued plugging away—which is exactly what the Giants have been doing over these 2012 playoffs. Sometimes it has been downright ugly, but Zito (like the Giants) have not given up.

And it bears repeating a second time: the man has led the Giants to wins every single of his past 13 starts. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and Zito has had his fair share of luck…but being perfect is a completely different story. You ride that as long as you can. And while I disagreed with Bochy giving Lincecum the Game 4 start in the NLCS, giving Zito the ball in Game 5 proved to be season-saving. Sometimes luck and hard work have a funny way of coinciding and discerning the two should not really matter.

In Game 5, Zito had all of his pitches working. He threw perfect “Zito ball.” He made an 86 MPH fastball look like it was 96 by commanding both sides of the plate with his infamous curveball and excellent changeup.

But the numbers that Zito put up were not what impressed me most. Manager Bruce Bochy gave the ball to him in a situation that Zito has failed miserably in in the past. Clutch was a gene that had apparently escaped him. Even the great Joe Buck remembers that Zito was left off of the playoff roster in 2010.

That was a move added insult to injury but Zito sucked it up and went with the flow.

This time he got his chance and threw lights out. He pulled himself out of a second inning jam and got some help from Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence on defense. It was somewhat surreal, but he was cool for the 7 2/3 innings that he pitched. He accomplished something that probably nobody else on the Giants pitching staff could do.

His post-game interview with Fox Sports solidified this renewed respect that I have for Zito. As the reporter said, the “weight of San Francisco [was] on his shoulders, [Zito] you certainly carried it well tonight.” The humble look about him is further proof that Zito is as grounded as you could possibly get, even after a fabulous outing. He acknowledged that this was the best start of his career “especially doing it in a Giants uniform.”

In his words: “most important thing for me is doing everything for San Francisco right now.”

He knows the pain that he has caused Giants fans over the years, something that probably was not really his fault. Outrageous expectations in the form of dollar signs were met with hard reality and Zito was the recipient of a lot of harsh criticism (myself very much included). But as a Giants fan I recognize and appreciate that Zito has powered through it despite that the circumstances and criticism—and this performance in the NLCS against a high-octane offense was spectacular.

It was inspiring.

He weathered the storm and has been the representation of a “never-say-die” attitude. He has provided the postseason magic that the Giants desperately needed.

While there may be no way to quantify it, the Giants do seem to play harder behind Zito. His constant effort edges them on—maybe because he does so perfectly represent what their team has been about over this season. Resilience has often been the only thing that the Giants could look for when they were underperforming and it led them to completing a historic comeback in the NLDS.

Zito acknowledged that the Giants still have their work cut out for them. San Francisco is still down three games to two against the Cardinals heading back to city by the bay. It truly does come down to this: World Series or go home.

Fittingly, it represents the dichotomous nature of Zito’s pitching: either come through in the clutch or pack your bags and hope something changes next year.

As for Zito specifically: in this article that I wrote nearly exactly a month ago, I said that he “has the power to change Giants’ fans opinion of him in the next month.”

He has done just that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

2012 NLCS: Analyzing Lincecum and the Giants' rotation



Two disheartening losses at home in games 1 and 2 of the NLDS were not a good sign of things to come—and history said a comeback was impossible. So what did the Giants do? Come back from a 2-0 deficit to win three games on the road. It was historic. It was a magical performance that reinvigorated the Giants organization as well as their fan base.

The NLDS was eerily reminiscent of the 2004 ALCS when the Boston Red Sox came roaring back from a 3-0 deficit of their own in what was the greatest comeback in sports history. (Okay maybe the Giants comeback was not quite of that magnitude, but you get the idea.)

While it should be clear that manager Bruce Bochy will choose what is best for the Giants, as he has always done, here are my thoughts of what the NLCS starting rotation should look like (something quite different from my original thoughts of their playoff pitching). This is a question that largely comes down to the use of five starters that have been inconsistent and, for 80 percent of them, under-performing. Yet that only matters so much because the potential for greatness has already been seen on the mound from each starter.

First, and most importantly should be a consideration of when each pitcher threw in the NLDS and this chart gives you a succinct look at that:


Pitcher
Innings pitched
Earned runs
Game 1
Matt Cain
5
3
Game 2
Madison Bumgarner
4.1
4
Game 2
Tim Lincecum
2
0
Game 3
Ryan Vogelsong
5
1
Game 4
Barry Zito
2.2
2
Game 4
Tim Lincecum
4.1
1
Game 5
Matt Cain
5.2
3

Of course, Matt Cain cannot pitch on Sunday’s opener. But is that really a bad thing? Definitely not. If Cain pitches in Game 3, then he would be pitching on full rest in a Game 7 situation, which would be ideal. Regardless of the fact that he struggled mightily in his two games in the NLDS, Cain is a workhorse and has earned the right to be the primary focal point of the pitching staff in the decline of Tim Lincecum.

You might say what decline of Tim Lincecum? Certainly his two performances in the NLDS earned him the right to return to the starting rotation! While that may be true, the reality is that he may be more valuable to the Giants as a long reliever and a Zito-buffer. If Lincecum comes out of the bullpen, the Giants have flexibility on which games to use him. Compare that to Bochy giving the ball to Lincecum as a starter—a situation where all flexibility is lost. Presumably the games in which Cain pitches the Giants would go to their traditional bullpen pitchers where Bochy is a master at mixing and matching based on matchups and who is pitching well. Also, a Zito-Lincecum game gives Posey the game off at catcher.

The other starters have been a toss-up. Since it comes down to it, Vogelsong was the only pitcher other than Cain to make it to 5 IP so the Giants should have no problem moving him up to a Game 1 or Game 2 start. However, they should be hesitant to give Vogelsong the Game 1 start because he or Lincecum could be used out of the bullpen if necessary—possibly paving a way for Lincecum into the starting rotation.

Also, Bumgarner has more experience—namely the 2010 World Series championship run. So I would give the Game 1 start to Bumgarner; he gives the Giants the best chance to win after eliminating Lincecum and Cain from consideration (based on what was mentioned in previous paragraphs). If you disagree with the previous paragraph, perhaps giving Lincecum a Game 1 start is feasible and reasonable.

Putting my thoughts into action means the first three games will look like this:

Game 1: Madison Bumgarner
Game 2: Ryan Vogelsong
Game 3: Matt Cain

…Now the tough question: who starts Game 4? You can say Tim Lincecum but the reality is that Barry Zito works. Why? First, the Giants have won all of his past 12 starts. Regardless of how utterly ugly they have been, the end result has been, dare I say…perfect. Second, Lincecum coming out of the ‘pen is a great option if things go south quickly. Lincecum is so different from Zito that he will surely disorient the Nationals/Cardinals hitters. Finally, this is the ideal situation for Timmy because he can replicate precisely what worked in the NLDS. Lincecum could relieve in Games 2 and 4…and possibly in Game 7. That is another consideration when trying to maximize the benefits of "The Freak."

Lincecum clearly proved me wrong when I said that Vogelsong would be the best “starter-reliever”, and he showed that he may be more valuable in that relief role during these playoffs. So give Game 4 to Barry Zito.

If neither NLCS team sweeps the series, games 5 through 7 are all fairly straightforward. A re-hashing of the game 1-3 starters leaves the final three games looking like this:

Game 5: Madison Bumgarner
Game 6: Ryan Vogelsong
Game 7: Matt Cain

Again, there are so many variables to take into account. Which Bumgarner is going to show up? Is 2010 playoff Cain going to be in the NLCS or will it be the one who pitched in the 2012 NLDS? Can Barry Zito pitch more than a couple innings? The list goes on because each of the five regular season starters has questions surrounding him.

The one thing that we have learned from the NLDS is that Lincecum is back in the discussion. Should he start? I say not in the NLCS, but if the Giants make it to the World Series, that argument should (and would) be re-evaluated.

Bochy’s decision will probably become apparent shortly. His protection of his pitchers in the NLDS and appropriate use of them all shows that he not only knows what is best for his team but that he also has the trust of his players.

One thing is certain: Bochy’s management of the rotation and closer role have been nothing short of spectacular, so whomever he puts on the field is for a reason.

…Well probably more than just one reason.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A conversation with John Brenkus of ESPN's Sport Science


Fans from all sports have seen the great looks that Sport Science gives into the spectrum of world-class athletes. John Brenkus gives us something that SportsCenter just does not cover. Here is an exclusive interview that John did with me (which was my first since talking to NBA Hall of Famer, Clyde Drexler). We covered two main subjects: baseball and John’s recent involvement with extreme sports, namely the Iron Man triathlon.

Elijah Abramson: Let’s start off with a little baseball first, and Miguel Cabrera winning the triple crown. What are your thoughts on that and the surprise in him winning the batting crown because of the difficulties of right-handed hitters getting to first base. Is there any merit to that notion?

John Brenkus: I think it’s being a little overblown. The argument that it’s surprising that anybody would win it now is valid. With all sports, there are numerous athletes at the top and just better overall. It’s not surprising that it hasn’t happened in a long time because there are so many good hitters and pitchers. It’s difficult for everything to line up in such a way that this can happen. For an athlete to be in the groove for such an extended time is amazing.

EA: Why hasn’t there been as much talk about this historic performance? Do you think that this has anything to do with the emphasis of sabermetrics and de-emphasis of traditional stats?

JB: In terms of the reaction, I think that stories will gain weight based on who is doing it and what the circumstances are. The Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow explosion media might outweigh the triple crown because of the person, city, time, and place. The triple crown in baseball is over such an extended time that you can’t have as much sort of intense focus. The back story wasn’t nearly as interesting as Tebow or Lin.

EA: Obviously you discuss a lot about physical limits, talk a little about Aroldis Chapman. He hadn’t given up an earned run for a good portion of the season. Can he last throwing so hard and has he reached the physical limits of velocity of a fastball at 105 MPH?

JB: Certainly, as I mentioned in my book, I think that we are pegging out at the top of how hard a human being can throw. The best illustration of that is in the explosion of the steroid era where home runs were flying out of the ballpark, the average velocity of a pitch was relatively consistent. There is a limit to how fast an arm can move. We are reaching that point where you simply can’t move any faster. Throwing the ball that hard that many times—there are only so many times that is possible.

There are many schools of thought: older pitchers think that newer ones aren’t throwing enough and the newer pitchers think, ‘well we’re just throwing faster than anyone has.’ Half of all starting pitchers at some point wind up on the disabled list. There is a very high rate of injury. If you get injured while pitching it is often very difficult to get that confidence back because of the worry of re-injury.

EA: So what do you think about the Stephen Strasburg situation and shutting him down for the playoffs?

JB: There are two legitimate arguments to be made. Regardless of what I think, there is the team that made the investment, ultimately it is their call. If they weren’t paying athletes so much money maybe I would say differently. Some people think he should be throwing and make his arm stronger and other people think being cautious is better.

EA: What do you think about Tim Lincecum's mechanics and can he rebound? His velocity definitely decreased this past year.

JB: I think that great athletes can always rebound. They can always get there. The question is well he ever throw as hard as he has? I don’t think that’s a requirement for a “rebound.” You look at someone like R.A. Dickey, there are a lot of different ways to pitch.

Lincecum is one of those guys who has a peculiar throwing motion so those mechanics are very built in to him and in terms of trying to explain why he isn’t throwing as hard or is it a lack of confidence or is it trying to learn his patterns as a pitcher. It’s probably a combination of all of those. I do think he can rebound and I don’t think he will regain his max velocity—but that’s not required.

EA: Will his career be shortened because of that stress? Is a 10-15 season career within reach?

JB: You never want to under-sell somebody and say that they can’t do it but I would say that if I had to bet, I don’t think that he is going to flame out. How long of a career he has, well who knows?

EA: How do you think steroids will impact how Melky Cabrera can come back? Do steroids have a lingering effect; basically, did his entire performance hinge on steroids and he will return a mediocre player at best?

JB: We now have a significant sample size of players coming back from PEDs. A subset of players continues right along and are just fine. They might not be as good as they were but are just fine. Others are nowhere near where they were. Largely, that answer comes down to psychology.

The big thing with PEDs is that they are oversold as a “magic potion” for amazing performance in terms of what they do to you. Yes, you can recover faster. However, the psychological component may be as responsible as the physical effect. PEDs have that “superman effect” for players making them feel invincible.

And they are hitting home runs, which is positive feedback that reinforces that idea. [After getting off steroids] some may change psychologically while others may have completely lost that mental edge. It really depends on that psychological dependence.

EA: Moving on to the extreme sports, can you give me your thoughts on their rise and popularity? Can they ever come close to approaching the Big Three sports in America or are they more designed for a subset of people?

JB: They won’t be as popular on TV but in terms of participation, something like the Iron Man has become the new marathon. As people are seeing what the body is capable of, the marathon used to be that event that was the most grueling thing that you had to do in a day. It was a goal that needed to be worked toward in order to achieve. It’s been around so long and so many people are looking at what’s more difficult.

The Iron Man is the perfect confluence of what you can’t do to just roll out of bed and it’s one day so it’s not an eco-challenge over multiple days with team members. It’s running, biking, swimming. It’s self-contained. It will continue to grow because you can wrap your brain around it. Even though it’s unbelievably difficult and covers incredible distances, the Iron Man is at that modern day limit of what the marathon used to be.

EA: Talk a little bit about your training and tips for people who might be considering it.

JB: There is a strong psychological component. After all, you are swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, and running 26.2. Those are huge numbers.

What you need to do in training is take certain distances and commit to finishing them no matter what. That way when you run 18 miles you say, ‘wow I know I can do it, I am strong enough, healthy enough and have sound enough of a mind’ and you prove to yourself that you can do that. Then training as a whole becomes easier. You say, ‘well if I can bike 80 miles, certainly I can bike 112!’

Once you overcome the psychological barriers, you can go into the event knowing you can do it. The real question is how much are you going to enjoy yourself? There are a lot of different philosophies in training for an endurance event. I subscribe to the ‘don’t over-train’ mentality. The over-training is what gets you injured and more psychologically exhausted. It changes your mental perspective too much. It can take the fun out of it and make it more like a job. If you want it to become a lifestyle you still need to enjoy it.

Variety is key. Cross-training is important. Changing up your workouts is important.

EA: How do you think a professional athlete like LeBron James would fair if he decided to do something like this? Would his (or any pro athletes’) sport adequately train them for such endurance based events?

JB: I think LeBron would do great. The intense focus that professional athletes sustain over a long time—LeBron’s got an 82 game season plus playoffs and the Olympics—just shows the commitment and endurance that these guys have. Sure, they may need more practice with the swimming and biking components, but they could definitely do it if they dedicated themselves to it. It would take some adaptation but it is definitely well within reason.

EA: Alright, well what about comparing someone like LeBron or Calvin Johnson to Usain Bolt in a short-distance running event?

JB: That’s a great question but I still think Usain would come out on top. The nuances come in when you talk about lateral movement.

Bolt doesn’t have nearly the elite side-to-side ability of someone like a running back. And even with short distance sprints, [Titans RB] Chris Johnson actually has a faster 40-yard dash than Bolt but over 200m, Bolt would still come out on top. These guys are all the best at what they do and we should appreciate that. It would be tough for the best player in their sport to go into another sport and compete with the best in that sport.

EA: I agree. Well thanks again for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.

JB: You got it. Have a good one.

If you want to read or see more of John Brenkus’ work, be sure to check out the TV Series Sport Science as well as his book, The Perfection Point.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Previewing the 2013 NBA sleeper teams


The faces of the NBA currently reside in Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and a few other select cities. While fans and analysts alike are quick to pick their favorite Goliath, there are always teams like the 2012 Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers ready to give them a run for their money.

Even if the concentration of talent in the NBA has lended itself to rooting for a team away from home, there is a ray of hope for those who still manage to pull for a select group of small market teams. And all of those teams follow a formula of scavenging around for young talent and players capable of putting up All Star-type numbers on occasion.

In no particular order, here are five NBA teams that you should not sleep on.

Golden State Warriors

A tumultuous four or five seasons after upending the number one seeded Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs, the Warriors are legitimately ready to rebound. Monta Ellis had led the way for the majority of those years but it was not working. His scoring ability was unquestionably elite; in his heyday for the Warriors, he could get to the basket with the best players in the NBA. And the reality is that there is really only one way to go for a team that did not even win 25 games in 2012.

Monta’s selfishness played a part in the lack of success in Golden State. So although the pieces the Warriors received when they traded Monta to the Milwaukee Bucks may have been suspect at the time, the trade looks better as time passes—although on-court performance will be the true judge of the trade. The centerpiece of the trade, Andrew Bogut, fulfilled a void that has plagued the Warriors for years because Andris Biedrins has become a disaster.

Now add Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, David Lee, and a host of other highly capable role players to the mix and the Warriors have reason for optimism. Injury is the taboo topic for Bay Area fans with the fragility of Curry and Bogut’s recent history, but at least for now, the Warriors should be excited for more than merely a rebuilding season.

Fending for your life in the western conference is by no means easy, but time is on their side and a playoff berth is within reason. As they have shown before, once the Dubs are in the playoffs, all bets are off for favorites—there is energy at Oracle that few (if any) NBA fan bases can match.

Where will they be seeded at the end of the 2013 NBA season: 6-8, the Warriors will be heading back to the playoffs.

New Orleans Hornets

Building your organization around a player like Anthony Davis certainly bodes well for the future of your team—but the Hornet who is often forgotten is Eric Gordon. Although he played a grand total of nine games in the 2012 NBA season because of injury, Gordon has proven that he is a force in the NBA. In 2011, he scored over 22 points per game.

The Hornets are also the epitome of youth with only one player on the entire team over the age of 30. Does this remind you of a team who has thrived with superstar-caliber youth? Oklahoma City has been the definition of supremely talented youth in the NBA and although Anthony Davis may be nowhere near the scorer of Kevin Durant that may not be necessary with Eric Gordon running the scoring show.

For the Thunder, an issue that was brought up again and again (whether or not it had merit) was that they lacked a big man. New Orleans definitely does not lack that. And how Davis matches up to future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan will be particularly fascinating to watch when the two big men compete in what will likely become more than a joke of a division rivalry.

Where will they be seeded at the end of the 2013 NBA season: 10-12, the Hornets will not make the playoffs. They are on the up-and-up but the Hornets are still at least a year away from a playoff berth.

Utah Jazz

Even though they got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, the Utah Jazz are another solid young team. Led by Al Jefferson, the Utah Jazz have managed to stay in the playoff hunt after the departure of long-time Jazz player, Carlos Boozer.

And to add onto the obstacles in the pathway of the Jazz, Jerry Sloan’s retirement meant that some big shoes had to be filled. Tyrone Corbin has proven that he is a reasonably capable coach and now has more than a year’s worth of experience as the head coach of the Jazz.

Utah does not have the caliber of young studs that the other four teams mentioned here possess, but if they can click, the Jazz should be able to compete for another position at the bottom of the western conference.

Where will they be seeded at the end of the 2013 NBA season: 9-11, many fans have high hopes for the Jazz, but just aren’t there yet. Teams like the Warriors and Timberwolves are ready to make a move.

Minnesota Timberwolves

On paper, there looks like there is no reason that the T’wolves should not be competitive. With Kevin Love averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds a night, Minnesota should be able to put together a supporting cast to help them get to the playoffs.

Of course, injuries never help and Ricky Rubio was removed from the equation early in the season. And although the timetable for Rubio’s return is still set potentially months away, the Timberwolves have quietly assembled some excellent pieces for the upcoming season.

Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, and Greg Steimsma all have the potential to pay dividends and really bolster the overall offensive and defensive firepower of a fairly small-market franchise.

Where will they be seeded at the end of the 2013 NBA season: 7-8, the Timberwolves will finally make the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers

Finally dumping Andre Iguodala was a blessing for the 76ers. Not only did they get rid of a guy that they had been trying to sell for a while but Philadelphia received a top-two center in the entire league. The math does not add up but the Sixers will be the last to complain.

Bynum averages a double-double over the course of his career and is still only 24 years old! If the Sixers can hold onto the talented big man, they will have a great centerpiece to build their organization around for years to come. Granted, he may not be the most mature player, but he will not be doing much of the ball handling and Jrue Holliday has proven to be very capable of that aspect of the offense.

Spencer Hawes, Nick Young, Jason Richardson, and Dorell Wright are all more than proficient at their primary role on the basketball court and the team chemistry is what could make the 76ers a truly special team.

Their upside is nothing short competing with the top tier of the eastern conference.

Where will they be seeded at the end of the 2013 NBA season: 4-7, the 76ers are the strongest team of these five sleepers.