Thursday, September 13, 2018

Rays’ innovation easy to overlook

They play in the worst ballpark in Major League Baseball. Their attendance numbers are always at the bottom of the league. They’re not going to make the playoffs. Chances are baseball fans outside of Tampa Bay aren’t familiar with more than a handful of players on the Rays roster. Yet, after taking two of three from the Cleveland Indians, who are about to win their third consecutive AL Central division title, the Tampa Bay Rays are going to flirt with 90 wins.

How is this possible? A team with a roster chockfull of has-beens and unproven young players is 15 games over .500 in mid-September. In the last 12 months, the Rays have traded away franchise icons like Evan Longoria and Chris Archer as well as All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos. There have been plenty of other transactions as well and on the surface not many of them indicate a team looking to compete in 2018.

The most obvious trend the Rays have started has been the use of “The Opener” across baseball. Before the season, pitching prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon had Tommy John surgery for Tampa. In June, another pitching prospect, Anthony Banda, went under the knife for the same surgery. Banda pitched less than 15 innings in the big leagues this year and Honeywell and De Leon were expected to contribute at the big league level this season. Rather than just hand the ball to the next man up simply because that pitcher was a conventional starter, the Rays and manager Kevin Cash took a different approach. Cash started using relievers to start games, a statistically-sound strategy albeit new. The first inning is the inning in which the most runs are scored in Major League Baseball. On certain days, Cash has used a reliever for the first inning and then allowed the “starter” to pitch through the order twice and usually throw up to five innings.
                       Kim Klement/USA Today Sports
Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays have
exceeded expectations more than any team
in Major League Baseball.

It was certainly different, and if there’s one thing old-school baseball fans hate, it’s anything different. Thankfully, baseball has moved on from the pitcher win as a relevant statistic and the growth of “The Opener” is only further proof of that.  Not only does it make sense to use a pitcher who goes full-throttle for one inning to start the game in the league’s highest-scoring inning, but this also avoids the next pitcher from seeing the opposing team’s best hitters three times. If it’s not the first inning, then another statistically-backed theory indicates the third time through the order is when offenses tend to have lots of success against starting pitchers. In other words, get the starter early, or hope he tires out late. “The Opener” eliminates both of these issues that generally arrive for traditional starting pitchers.

In some games this year, the Rays have opted for a full bullpen approach where no one pitcher throws more than two or three innings. They were thin on starting pitching. So they practically eliminated it. Traditionalists would sooner call up minor leaguers with no real future in the big leagues just to be a starter than try something like Cash and the Rays have done.  Once that leads to a loss, it can simply to chalked up as “not our year” and nobody within the organization really gets blamed for such a loss because they played it by the book. Cash has decided to do anything in his power to win the game in front of him and his bullpen decisions have certainly helped do that.

One time, Cash even kept left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado in the game in the ninth inning to play first base because he wanted to bring him back in later in the ninth inning. The Rays won this game. This kind of situational bullpen usage in the ninth was another example of combating conventional wisdom. While leaving a reliever in the game as a position player was new, practically every manager in baseball now has realized the absurdity of refusing to use your best reliever until the ninth inning or in some cases, extra innings if you are the visiting team.

This feels like a good time to remind everyone Baltimore manager Buck Showalter left Zach Britton in the bullpen in the 2016 AL Wild Card game in Toronto. He was waiting for his team to take the lead in the top of one of the extra innings. That lead never came and the best reliever in baseball in 2016 never pitched in a one-game playoff. Nice way to head into the offseason.

Since implementing “The Opener” in the middle of May, Tampa Bay has the second-lowest ERA in baseball. Other teams have also started using it. Yet, this idea is still met with discontent by lots of baseball fans. The Rays are not necessarily out to kill the starting pitcher entirely. Their left-handed ace Blake Snell is probably the AL Cy Young award winner and they’re not using an opener on days he starts. They just found a better way of filling innings and winning games than rounding out a rotation with lackluster starters.

There’s also a few feel-good stories about this Rays season. Left-handed reliever Jonny Venters had three Tommy John surgeries only to return to the majors six years after last pitching in 2012. Like most Rays who had the slightest ounce of trade value, Venters was dealt before the non-waiver trade deadline in July. It would appear outfielder Mallex Smith has however found a steady home in Tampa Bay after being traded while in the minor leagues and twice in one day back in January 2017. Smith is slashing .303/.373/.421 this year with 31 stolen bases and a 121 OPS+.

With pace of play being such a hot topic amongst the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred in recent years, the Rays bullpen strategy and a few teams following suit is certainly going to spark more pace of play discussions. But, can anyone fault the Rays? They just keep winning and the players have bought in. It’s not going to be enough because the American League has three teams that are going to win 100 games and two of the three are in the Rays’ division. For what it’s worth, Tampa’s 80-65 mark would put it atop the NL West and second in the NL East. Kevin Cash is the American League Manager of the Year. If by some chance he doesn’t win, then it’s Bob Melvin with Oakland, who has wisely taken bunting to new lows.

But Oakland was aggressive at the deadline and it looks to be paying off as the only question surrounding the A’s is if they can win the AL West or if they’ll have to settle for a wild card. Tampa Bay was realistic about its chances and knew it could not compete with Boston or New York in the AL East. But that hasn’t stopped Cash from trying to win every game he manages and he’s done alright.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

10 College Football Thoughts Entering 2018

The majority of FBS programs across the country open play this weekend. There’s no better way to close the summer every year than a full slate of college football during Labor Day weekend. Here’s what I’m looking at with another season commencing.

1.     Hangover in Columbus?

It was the biggest story in sports last week. Everyone had an opinion on Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension upon the conclusion of an investigation into his inaction regarding domestic violence involving one of his former assistant coaches, Zach Smith. The overwhelming consensus was  that Meyer got a slap on the wrist with just three games, two of which Ohio State is a heavy favorite in and no Big 10 games. It certainly didn’t dispel the idea that coaches at brand programs have job security for days provided they just win football games. During the entire season, the story is going to loom over the program. Interim head coach Ryan Day will have to win a tough non-conference game against TCU on September 15. Meyer’s second game back, and first conference game, is at Penn State. I’m not normally one to place too much value on intangibles, but who knows what’s been going through the heads of the Ohio State players during the last month? If the Buckeyes start fast, it’s only logical to assume blocking out the distractions will get easier. That’s why the first month of the season is pivotal.

2.     Taking the next step through the maize

                                         Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Harbaugh has won lots of games at Michigan, but now
must take the Wolverines into the playoff.
Expectations are always going to be high for whoever is coaching at Michigan. It’s hard to quantify just how much those expectations were multiplied by when Jim Harbaugh was hired back in 2015. It was a feel-good story of a man returning to his alma mater looking to bring the program its first national championship in close to two decades. It’s now been more than two decades. With three seasons in the books at Michigan, Harbaugh is 28-11. It sounds good on the surface, but Michigan fans are probably fed up with 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State the last three seasons, despite getting screwed in Columbus in 2016. Michigan opens with another rival in Notre Dame on Saturday. Year four of Harbaugh’s tenure feels like a good time to jump forward.

3.     How do things end at Maryland?

This one could be settled before Saturday, but was unfortunately another one of the big stories from the offseason. DJ Durkin has been on administrative leave for almost three weeks now, but there is simply no way he can survive the death of Jordan McNair. This Big 10 program has nowhere to hide. There is no long track record of winning at Maryland. The entire culture that was created within the Maryland football program needs to be replaced.

4.      No end in sight for the Tide

Enough with the Big 10 and on to the defending champs. The legend of Nick Saban grew last season and now he’s got a rare quarterback decision to make. It would be nice if Alabama faced some serious adversity before the Iron Bowl with Auburn on November 24. Not sure that’s going to happen though. That also doesn’t make the Crimson Tide bad for college football. Winning a championship is very difficult in any sport. Saban’s staff is frequently raided and every college coach always has to replace players and recruit though not many turn things over as well as he does.

5.      Powerhouses looking up at Alabama

Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Kirby Smart at Georgia have built elite programs in every sense of the word. Smart has restored order with the Bulldogs very quickly following the Mark Richt era in Athens. Swinney managed to take down Saban in the National Championship game two seasons ago. A Georgia-Alabama SEC Championship feels too easy to call, as does Clemson and Alabama in the College Football Playoff for the fourth time. But can anyone complain with either matchup? Alabama, Clemson and Georgia are the top three programs respectively in the opening AP Poll. Alabama is the program everyone aspires to be, but the staying power of Clemson and Georgia is very impressive.

6.      Quarterback eaters

Last year’s college season was rife with top quarterback prospects which resulted in five going in the first round in this past spring’s NFL Draft.  This season is the year of the defensive lineman and Dabo Swinney’s got an entire line of Tigers on the defensive interior ready to destroy quarterbacks. It seems like Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa or Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver is the favorite to be the first name called next spring. But there’s a long way to go, and plenty of hungry defensive linemen.

7.     Brands in need of revival

As mentioned earlier, Kirby Smart did it pretty quickly at Georgia. Texas has long been in search of a return to the top and there’s reason to believe Tom Herman can provide that. We’ll see what comes of Herman’s involvement with Zach Smith at Ohio State earlier this decade, but he made great strides in just two seasons at Houston. After posting the first bowl win in five years at Texas last year, Herman’s Longhorns are in the preseason top 25 this year and trending up. Oregon is on its third coach in three years and went 20-18 from 2015-17. The Ducks could certainly use some juice as could Florida under new coach Dan Mullen as the Gators have posted just one double-digit win season in the last five years.

8.     Open Heisman race

All eyes were on Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield last year and both ended up in New York for the Heisman presentation which ultimately was awarded to Mayfield.  Stanford running back Bryce Love probably has the pole position entering week one, but if this is a year where an odd ball candidate winds up flashing the pose, that wouldn’t be a surprise.  Jonathan Taylor looks like the next Wisconsin running back to pop off, Trace McSorley gets a chance to burst out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow at Penn State and Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift should take big steps for the Georgia offense. But none of those names carry the profile Jackson or Mayfield did.

9.     Group of Five powers

Central Florida and Boise State are in the preseason top 25. Central Florida’s perfect season in 2017 is well-documented by now. Western Michigan was undefeated until its loss in the New Year’s Six in 2016. Houston smacked Florida State on the same stage in 2015. The group of five has produced some very talented football teams in the College Football Playoff era. But it’s still waiting for a seat at the table and who knows when that’s coming?

10.  Playoff turns five

This marks the fifth season of the College Football Playoff. This was undoubtedly a good change for the sport, and it’s fascinating to see how certain teams are valued or devalued each season. This always opens up discussions on scheduling and non-conference opponents, the value of a conference championship and when the day might come that the playoff is expanded. Having five years to look at will add more fuel to these conversations.

Award Picks

Heisman: Jake Fromm (Georgia)
Doak Walker: JK Dobbins (Ohio State)
Fred Biletnikoff: Collin Johnson (Texas)
Chuck Bednarik: Devin Bush (Michigan)


Alabama, Georgia, Stanford and Michigan

National Champion

Georgia Bulldogs