Monday, December 5, 2016

What should the College Football Playoff committee value?

The field of four is now set for third annual College Football Playoff.  On New Year’s Eve, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl. The other semifinal will feature the Clemson Tigers and the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl. After having seen the process unfold for three seasons now, it’s fair to question the benchmarks for picking teams.
Let’s start by going back to 2014, the first year of the playoff.  Alabama and Ohio State were also a part of that playoff as well as Florida State and Oregon. There was little doubt that Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon were going to be in.  All three schools entered championship weekend in the top four, won their respective conference championships, and therefore stayed in the top four. However, it got interesting when TCU, ranked third in the playoff rankings heading into the weekend, throttled Iowa State in its final regular season game 55-3. The Big 12 did not have a conference championship game at the time and later Ohio State walloped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big 10 title game and Ohio State leapfrogged TCU in the ensuing playoff rankings, claimed the final spot in the playoff, and wound up winning a national championship.

This was the committee sounding a loud message to the country that conference championship games matter and that a 59-0 win for Ohio State against a ranked opponent was more impressive than a 55-3 win for TCU against a two-win Iowa State team. The Buckeyes validated the decision by upsetting Alabama and Oregon in the playoff and suddenly there didn’t seem to be much of a debate over which team deserved the final playoff spot. Last season was relatively straightforward. While Oklahoma was idle during championship weekend, the consensus was that the Sooners had done enough. Clemson and Alabama took care of business in the ACC and SEC championship games and the winner of the Big 10 title game between Michigan State and Iowa was going to get in and the Spartans came out on top. The three most worthy conference champions qualified and the Sooners were the next best team and claimed the final spot.

Then, some believed this season tossed a wrench into the notion that a conference championship was paramount in the committee’s decision-making process. Ohio State became the first team in three playoffs to not play in its conference championship but qualify for the playoff. The first team out was Penn State, who won the Big 10 championship and beat Ohio State in the regular season. Ohio State had wins over Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska in conference, and more importantly a non-conference win at Oklahoma. Oklahoma was far superior to any non-conference opponent Penn State played and so non-conference strength of schedule seemed to be push Ohio State over the top.

So now after seeing three seasons of the selection committee make decisions, the question arises, what is the value of a conference championship? Many believe yesterday’s decision was a devaluation of the conference championship and a way of enabling the best four teams to qualify even though Ohio State lost to Penn State in the regular season. But, the counter argument there is that if conference championships were so important then each conference in the power five would have a spot guaranteed in the playoff. However, it gets more interesting when you consider the same reason Ohio State got in over Penn State, strength of schedule, is the reason Penn State deserved a spot over Washington. The Huskies’ non-conference wins came against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State and some felt that if Penn State just scheduled an easier opponent than Pitt, who it lost to in its second game of the season, it would have gotten in over Washington. Penn State also has a win over Temple, who just won the American Athletic Conference championship.

In the end, it seems as if there isn’t a uniform criterion to make the field of four and rather the committee is going to try to pick the best four teams in the nation regardless of consistency from one year to the next. It is likely too early to expand to six or eight teams, but a season like this past one or another season like 2014, might make expansion a more plausible option. For now, somebody’s always going to be unhappy after championship weekend.

Friday, November 18, 2016

BBWAA got it right in picking Mike Trout as AL MVP

It’s an age-old debate in each of the major sports leagues. One of the best players in the league plays on one of the worst teams in that league. But, that one player has a season that was arguably better than anyone else in his sport and therefore should be honored with the Most Valuable Player award nonetheless right? Sometimes, it’s not that simple and this week’s American League MVP race was an example of said debate on display yet again.

This season, Mike Trout, outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in case you haven’t heard of him, had a .315 batting average, homered 29 times, stole 30 bases, posted an astounding .441 on-base percentage and several advanced statistics were another measure of just how good Trout’s 2016 was. However, to be nice, Trout’s teammates were not exactly on his level. The Angels finished the year 74-88 and in fourth place in the American League West. However, as evidenced by Rick Porcello winning the American League Cy Young award, voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America value wins, perhaps too much, as Porcello won the award despite several other statistics suggesting his wins were a result of the team around him. It seemed like Porcello’s teammate in Boston, Mookie Betts, was going to win the AL MVP for that reason.

Several of Betts’ numbers were similar to Trout’s. However, Trout’s on-base percentage was 78 points higher and the analytics favored Trout. Not to take anything away from Betts, but Trout is a better player. Then again, you can say that about any player compared to Trout. The Millville, New Jersey native is the best player in baseball and it would have been a travesty for his season to not be honored with an MVP award because his team won 74 games and Betts and the Red Sox won the AL East.

                                           David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The first five full seasons of Trout's career have
been nothing short of spectacular.
To get an idea of just how good Trout’s career has been so far, consider this. First off, he was drafted in June 2009 and got to the majors late in 2011 at the age of 19. It’s unheard of for a high school player to make the majors in about two and a quarter years after being drafted. Then, 2012 was his first full season in which he ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year award. In all five of his full seasons in the big leagues, Trout has finished in the top two of AL MVP voting, with this year being the second time he won the award. He has been an All Star and won a silver slugger award in all five of those seasons as well. His career batting average is over .300 and his career on-base percentage is over .400. With all that said, he just turned 25 in August. There is plenty more to come.

Thankfully, in the eyes of the baseball writers, the Angels’ incompetence did not get in the way of Trout’s greatness. However, the real winner throughout all of this is Major League Baseball. Not only is Trout still very young, but Betts is one year younger. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve came in third in the AL MVP voting and is only 26. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant won the NL MVP award and like Betts, Bryant is 24. Dodgers shortstop, 22-year old Corey Seager won the NL Rookie of the Year award easily and finished third in NL MVP voting. All of these youngsters collected some hardware just weeks after the Cubs and Indians played a World Series that was loaded with young talent in addition to Bryant. The future of Major League Baseball seems to be in good hands. Thankfully, the face of the sport, was rewarded accordingly this season.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Fall Classic to Remember

Wow. Where we even begin? It felt like this World Series had a chance to be special. But who knew it would be THIS special? Someone’s drought was going to end. All of a sudden after an NBA championship and being the Cubs’ opponent in the world series, nobody felt bad for Cleveland anymore. After the first four games, it was getting pretty boring. Cleveland silenced the crowd at Wrigley Field with a shutout in game three and seemingly slammed the door shut in game four with a blowout victory.

But then, much like in the National League Champoinship Series after they were shut out in back-to-back games and trailed two games to one, the Cubs showed championship resolve. Everyone knew they had the talent, but how would they respond when punched in the gut? The degree to which they were punched in the gut increased in each of the three rounds of the playoffs. The Cubs needed a four-run ninth inning in the fourth game of the National League Division Series against the Giants to avoid having to play a decisive fifth game back at Wrigley against Johnny Cueto. They rallied to win the last three games of the NLCS with ease after showing no signs of life in games two and three. But to cap it off with a comeback from 3-1 down against a Cleveland team that was the best of their three opponents in the postseason? And to win an epic game seven 8-7 in 10 innings after leading 5-1 and 6-3 in what looked to be a relatively routine baseball game? Of course that’s how a 108-year drought is going to end.

                                                                       Chicago Tribune
Let’s start at the top. The man who put assembled the beast that is the Chicago Cubs. After taking the job in October 2011, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein opted to gut the roster and start over. With several small-market tactics, Epstein and the rest of the front office loaded up their farm system and traded for players they saw as undervalued. Then, when the time was right, the Cubs flexed their financial muscles that any Chicago sports team has, and added free agents. The result of that? Draft picks that resulted in Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, trades that netted Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arietta, and free agent signings that brought Jon Lester and even the manager Joe Maddon to the north side. All of a sudden the Cubs were loaded with young talent and are now set to win their next championship much earlier than another 108 years down the road. At the age of 42, Epstein has already been the mastermind behind the Red Sox and Cubs respective curses coming to an end. Can you say Cooperstown?

While Maddon made some very questionable moves throughout the series, when you have as much talent as the Cubs did it’s important to have a players’ manager. Maddon lightened the team’s pregame workload throughout the season in an effort to keep his players fresh. What’s even scarier is how young the bulk of the Cubs’ roster is. With several players of their core under the age of 28, Chicago is now the heavy favorite in the National League for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to forget the Cleveland side of this story. The Indians did not necessarily have the flashy names in their lineup the way the Cubs did, but they all did their jobs which is a credit to manager Terry Francona, who was Epstein’s manager in Boston and like Epstein will also end up in the Hall of Fame when it’s all over. Team president Chris Antonetti was at the top of a front office that drafted and developed tons of talent which turned into a loaded pitching staff and a prospect core that was deep enough to trade for the best reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller, at the deadline. Their shortstop, Francisco Lindor, is perhaps the best shortstop in the game. This was a likeable group that steamrolled their way through the American League losing just one game in the ALDS and ALCS. They probably would have won the series if starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were healthy enough to make starts in the series. Salazar was limited to a bullpen role while Carrasco did not pitch at all. They will be back.

But when it was all said and done, Ben Zobrist was the MVP of the series after his clutch double in the top of the 10th in game seven broke a 6-6 tie.  The emotion from Rizzo was on display throughout the decisive game proving that these athletes are human too. But the real MVPs were those sitting in their living rooms that were old enough to be alive the last time the Cubs were in the World Series in 1945. Heck, one man drove from his North Carolina home to his father’s grave in Indiana to listen to the game with his dad fulfilling a pact made between the two. They waited a lifetime and it finally happened. It’s disappointing a team that was so easy to cheer for like the Indians was on the wrong side of all of it, but there’s nothing quite like what baseball fans just witnessed particularly in that seventh game. As Brad Pitt said in Moneyball, how can you not get romantic about baseball?