Thursday, August 10, 2017

Five things to watch for during Eagles preseason games

The Eagles play a real football game tonight in Green Bay against the Packers at Lambeau Field.  Here are five things to look out for in the four preseason games leading up to the September 10 season opener on the road against the Washington Redskins.

                                                                       Chris Szagola/AP
Mills will be counted on to step up either as a
slot corner or on the outside in 2017.
Cornerback play: This is clearly the most glaring hole on the roster for the Eagles entering the 2017 season. Fans are hopeful Sidney Jones is the shutdown corner the team has lacked during the last ten years, but that question surely won’t be answered this year with Jones still recovering from an Achilles injury.  There isn’t much to be excited about regarding the rest of the cornerbacks on the roster, although rookie Rasul Douglas and second-year corner Jalen Mills will certainly get plenty of opportunities to prove their worth. Rumors have been swirling about recently-signed veteran safety Corey Graham being moved to cornerback and Patrick Robinson is on a cheap one-year deal. Many expect the position to be a revolving door for the Eagles this season. Consistent play from Douglas or Mills would have everyone feeling more optimistic about the team’s cornerback situation going into 2018 when Jones figures to be healthy.

Slot Receiver: With the future of Jordan Matthews beyond this season up in the air, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah reported that Nelson Agholor will be the Eagles’ slot receiver in 2017. This is a role Matthews has occupied in the first three seasons of his career.  However, with the Vanderbilt product entering the final year on his rookie contract and Agholor generating lots of buzz early on in training camp, it will be interesting to see the snap counts of both wide receivers in these preseason games and early in the regular season.

Running back rotation: Going into the offseason, it was no secret the Eagles had to address their running back situation. The team drafted San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round and later signed free agent LeGarrette Blount. Darren Sproles has made it known that 2017 will be his last season in the NFL while Wendell Smallwood enters his second season. Pumphrey is expected to be the heir apparent to Sproles as a passing down back and potential punt returner. Smallwood could push Blount for carries as the year goes on but Blount is coming off a career year in New England and should get the bulk of the work on early downs. Nevertheless, there isn’t a workhorse type of three-down back on the roster therefore how the Eagles manage the snaps of all four players is worth monitoring. With Sproles’ retirement on the horizon and Blount on a one-year contract, running back could need to be addressed again before 2018.

Linebacker depth: Third-year linebacker Jordan Hicks is one of the best players on the defense. Nigel Bradham had a good first season with the in Philadelphia in 2016. However, Hicks has struggled to stay healthy going back to his college days at Texas and Bradham can become a free agent at season’s end. Mychal Kendricks has been with the Eagles his entire career but admitted to requesting a trade in the offseason and doesn’t seem to be the best fit as an outside linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s defense. Kendricks has also had his fair share of injuries since being drafted in the second round in 2012. This makes fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry one of the more intriguing preseason players to watch. Gerry played safety in college at Nebraska but was moved to linebacker in the offseason and is listed as the backup behind Kendricks on the team’s first depth chart.  Another name to keep an eye on is Joe Walker who was picked in the seventh round in 2016 but missed the year rehabbing from a torn ACL. With the futures of Kendricks and Bradham unknown, it would be helpful if someone lower on the depth chart emerged at linebacker.

Pass Rush from front four:  This is going to be something to watch all season. The defensive line is the best position group on the roster for the Eagles and expectations are high. Acquiring defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan from Baltimore and spending a first-round pick on Derek Barnett showed a commitment to getting to the quarterback without always needing to blitz. Brandon Graham had his best season in the NFL last year and Fletcher Cox is arguably the best player on the roster. Vinny Curry was disappointing in the first season of a big contract last year and Barnett could push for more snaps opposite Graham as the season goes along. Chris Long was also brought in as a situational pass rusher. With the cornerback play likely suspect all season, the defensive line must hit opposing quarterbacks early and often all year long.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

About time Raines’ Hall of Fame wait ends

It’s no secret that the baseball hall of fame is the hardest hall of fame in sports to earn induction into. However, that’s not an excuse to leave certain players out whose resumes are just as good if not better than those who already have plaques in Cooperstown. For years, the name at the forefront of the notable exclusions discussion was Tim Raines. Now, in his final year of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America, Raines is set to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend after his name appeared on 86 percent of ballots back in January when the election was held.

                                                                              Getty Images
In his prime with the Montreal Expos, Raines was hailed as the Rickey Henderson of the National League.  This label may have hurt him when it came to Hall of Fame voting and contributed to his wait. After all, nobody else can be Rickey Henderson. But, there is a statistical argument for Raines beyond the stats that are normally associated with leadoff hitters like on-base percentage, stolen bases and runs scored. Raines was the poster child for the sabermetrics and advanced statistics crowd. Baseball statistician Ryan Spaeder pointed out last year during Hall of Fame weekend that Henderson would have to return to baseball and steal 448 consecutive bases to have a better stolen base success rate than Raines. The total steals are a whopping 1,406-808 for Henderson but there’s something to be said for a base stealer having the right feel for the game and picking his spots wisely.

Lou Brock is a distant second to Henderson on the all-time stolen bases list with 938. Brock was a first-ballot selection in 1985. On election day this year, Spaeder compared career statistics of Raines, who was nicknamed “Rock”, and Brock using a combination of common baseball statistics and some of the advanced statistics. Here is what Spaeder came up with:

Regardless of how much weight voters placed in the advanced statistics, Raines had an advantage over Brock using several of the sport’s everyday statistics. Brock’s name appeared on 79.7 percent of ballots in 1985 to safely clear the required 75 percent threshold.  Raines’ first year of eligibility came in 2008 and he only received 24.3 percent of the vote. So, what caused Raines to sweat it out until his final year on the ballot?

Seven-year peak is another statistic that is often factored into a player’s hall of fame case. Raines had a stretch of seven straight all-star appearances from 1981-87, which was still prior to the steroid era. Some players, namely Fred McGriff, can claim their careers were overshadowed by the steroid era, but it’s difficult to make that argument for Raines. Playing in the same era as Rickey Henderson though, surely hurt Raines. Henderson is the gold standard of leadoff hitters and therefore any other player with the same profile was going to be hurt by playing at the same time. Conversely, Brock’s career ending just as Raines and Henderson were getting started certainly had to work in Brock’s favor.

It’s hard not to think there was some location bias that worked against Raines too. The Expos have been defunct since 2004 and it’s not exactly going out on a limb to say Montreal isn’t a baseball market. Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, a longtime teammate of Raines in Montreal, had to wait until his penultimate year of eligibility with the BBWAA before being inducted in 2010.  Location is likely another variable Brock had in his favor playing the bulk of his career with the Cardinals in St. Louis, arguably the biggest baseball market in the United States.

The growth of analytics likely got Raines over the top. As sabermetrics became more popular in front offices and in the media, it had to be easier for voters to give Raines the nod. Nevertheless, it’s preposterous to think about just how low Raines’ voting percentage was in 2008. It’s a yes or no question for each player every year and for Tim Raines, the answer was always yes.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Home Run Derby features some of baseball’s best youth

Baseball’s All-Star festivities really do land at the perfect time on the sports calendar. By mid-July, the offseason in both the NBA and NHL has usually simmered down with most of the summer’s high-profile free agents already inked up to new contracts and both leagues have their drafts in late June. Football is getting closer, and many fans across the country are surely counting down the days until their favorite team opens training camp, but it’s not here yet. Therefore, there’s no better time for baseball to showcase its top talent than this week every year in the middle of July.

For some, the Home Run Derby can be more entertaining than the actual All-Star game. This year, it’s certainly a possibility that many fans feel that way given the field. Starting at the top where the number one seed in this year’s bracket is the defending champion Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. Standing at 6’6”, Stanton has long been an imposing matchup for pitchers and has grown to be known for his mammoth home runs. This year he gets to participate in the event at home with all the All-Star events taking place at Marlins Park.

Stanton’s opponent in the opening round tonight is New York Yankees’ catcher, 24-year-old Gary Sanchez. Sanchez had his first extended stay in the major leagues last year and came out of the gate hot and never slowed down. The Dominican-born catcher hit 20 homers in just 53 games with the Yankees and would have ran away with the American League’s Rookie of the Year award had he been promoted earlier in the season. In 57 games so far in 2017, Sanchez has 13 homers. Due to injuries and the torrid pace that a certain teammate of Sanchez’s has been on offensively, Sanchez been overshadowed to a certain degree but could absolutely raise some eyebrows by upsetting Stanton tonight.

That teammate of Sanchez’s is of course, Aaron Judge. The 25-year-old rookie enters the All-Star break boasting a .329 batting average, and has 30 home runs to go with a .448 on-base percentage. With Mike Trout having missed over a month with a thumb injury, it’s very possible Judge is the first player since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in one league. However, Trout is due back for the Angels in the first game after the break so it’s far too early to hand Judge the MVP award. Judge has drawn comparisons to Stanton thanks to his gigantic 6’7” frame and tape measure shots that fly out of parks in a hurry. Judge enters tonight as the number two seed and faces another Marlin, Justin Bour, in the first round.

                           Frank Franklin II/AP and Harry How/Getty Images      
Much how Judge has dominated American League pitching in the first half of the season, Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers has done the same to National League pitchers. It must be a welcomed sight for commissioner Rob Manfred that two of the fastest rising stars in baseball and runaway rookies of the year in their respective leagues are having such seasons in two big sports markets. A Yankees-Dodgers World Series would certainly be a good matchup for Major League Baseball as was last year’s matchup between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was. At age 21, Bellinger sports a natural home run swing that has resulted in him launching 25 bombs in 70 games since his promotion to the big leagues.

One other name to keep an eye on tonight is another native of the Dominican Republic. Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins is in his third season in the majors and his 21 dingers and .276 batting average are a big reason why the Twins have overachieved so far and find themselves just 2.5 games behind the defending American League champion Indians in the AL Central. Sano is one of several young players that is responsible for Minnesota’s surprising first half and his bat has always been touted going back to his days in the Twins’ farm system.

The Home Run Derby is always an entertaining event. But when it features several of the next generation’s stars, it’s a much better spectacle. I like Bellinger to win tonight, but what’s most important regardless of who wins is that one of the biggest events in the sport is showcasing lots of its young talent. That’s what added to last year’s drama in the World Series. Everyone knew one of the two teams was going to halt a long championship drought, but the Cubs and Indians were two teams that successfully rebuilt to become contenders and featured tons of young players in their lineups. Perhaps one criticism of tonight’s field is that it does not feature a member of the Houston Astros. Owners of the best record in the American League, Houston is perhaps the most dangerous offensive team in baseball and is another team that’s having success with several young players in its lineup. Nevertheless, tonight figures to be a special Home Run Derby.