Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Looking Ahead for the HOF

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

So Hall of Fame ballots will be announced tomorrow. It’s going to be an interesting year. The Hall apparently purged a lot of writers from the voter rolls, hoping to create a more active and engaged electorate. This may change the dynamics of the voting; it may not.

Right now, the public votes are being compiled here. There aren’t a huge number of surprises but I think we are seeing what I predicted last year: a gradual reduction of the huge glut we had a couple of years ago as candidates are elected or drop off the ballot. The thinning of the herd is opening up opportunities for players who’ve been lingering around for a while.

They way I expect to break down is:

  • Elected: Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr. If it weren’t for the stupidity of a few writers, Griffey would be unanimous: a great and insanely popular player whose place in Cooperstown was being prepared 20 years ago, when even the internet was young. Mike Piazza just missed last year, partly because of unfounded rumors of PED use and partly because some writers don’t appreciate what a great player he was.
  • Just Misses: This will be the really interesting category. Given how the field has cleared, I think we are going to see a number of candidates who’ve been lingering in the 20′s to 50′s take big steps forward. I don’t think any of them will be elected this year, but I think they will put themselves in position to be. As a matter of history, only two candidates — Jack Morris and Gil Hodges — have ever polled more than 48% without getting elected. Some needed the veterans committee and the current committee keeps twisting itself pretzels trying to elect Hodges. It looks like Bagwell, Martinez, Mussina, Raines, Schilling and Trammel may all leap 20 points or more in the balloting. All are worthy of election but time is running out for Raines and will run out for Trammel. I expect Raines and Bagwell to get very close, however, and possibly go in next year. This is Trevor Hoffman’s debut year and while I don’t expect him to get elected, I do expect him to get close, with a long debate over whether closers belong in the Hall (see discussion below).
  • The Walking Dead: There are always candidates who just linger on the ballots, never really gaining the momentum they need to get in but not dropping below 5% either. Bonds and Clemens are on this list for stupid reasons about which I’ve pawed the ground many times. But Kent, McGriff, McGwire, Sheffield, Smith, Sosa and Walker are also in this category. Billy Wagner may join them.
  • Dropouts: Almost all the new guys are on this list. It’s possible Edmonds or Garciaparra could get a one-year reprieve.
  • So: Griffey and Piazza in. Bagwell and Raines get close. Martinez, Mussina, Hoffman and Schilling take big steps toward eventual election. With a fairly uncrowded 2017 ballot (Rodriguez probably gets in immediately; Guerrero gets close, Ramirez goes into PED purgatory), Bagwell and Raines probably go in next year, with the others creeping a bit closer.

    As I noted last year, the HOF balloting has moved toward some resolution of the so-called Steroid Era, with multiple players getting in, Palmeiro disappearing and Clemens/Bonds stuck in purgatory. I don’t think the issue is dead. We will have to revisit Bonds and Clemens at some point. But I think we’ve moved on for the moment to the point where the enraging idiocy of 2013 is unlikely to repeat itself.

    The big debate I expect to emerge now is whether closers should be elected to the Hall and specifically whether Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner belong in the Hall. Joe Posnanski makes the case against but … this is a rare time where I disagree with him. Yes, it’s true that a lot of failed starters have been converted into effective closers and no closer has gone back to being a starter unless his name is John Smoltz. While I think a closer’s innings are more valuable than a starter’s, I don’t think they are three or four times more valuable. But here’s the thing: (a) not every failed starter can become an effective closer; (b) very very few closers can be as good for as long as Hoffman or Rivera.

    Let’s expand on that last point. Jonathan Papelbon has been a very good closer for a decade. He’s still over 250 saves behind Hoffman and is very unlikely to get anywhere close to him. Francisco Rodriguez became one of the best closers in the game at age 23 and saved 62 games once. He’s over 200 saves behind Hoffman. Joe Nathan has been a great closer. He’s 200 saves behind.

    It seems to be we are starting to develop a separation that I will call the Wagner line. We are seeing a whole bunch of Billy Wagners emerge — guys with 400 or so saves and amazing rate stats. We can’t start putting those guys in the Hall because it will mean inducting a couple of closers a decade. But beyond the Wagner line you see the very rare guys like Rivera or Hoffman who have 500-600 saves. The latter, to me, should be in the Hall of Fame. I can understand why someone would say none of them do. But you can’t pretend that there isn’t at least some separation between the two elite guys and the next half dozen lingering around the Wagner Line.

    I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit because I like to play computer baseball. In particular, I like Out of the Park baseball, which has long careers, minor leagues, an amazing statistical model and a Hall of Fame. One problem I’ve encountered after 60 simulated seasons is a raft of potential Hall of Fame closers. The computer has produced maybe a dozen guys with 400 saves and amazing rate stats, similar to what we’re seeing emerge from baseball right now in the persons of Papelbon and Rodriguez and others. I’ve probably put too many relievers in my fictional Hall of Fame, but the only way I’ve been able to avoid inducting a dozen is to limit it to guys with long careers who were also the best closers. And, like the real Hall of Fame, I do have a few, “Shit, I shouldn’t have elected him” guys from the early days.

    I expect a similar paradigm to emerge over the next decade or two — maybe set at the Wagner Line, maybe elsewhere. Because we can’t elect everyone who managed to put 300 saves. But we can elect the best of the best.

    That’s what the Hall if all about, right?

    The Return of the SEC

    Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

    So another College Football Season is almost done. Time to revisit my Bowl Championship System:

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    Here are the winners of the Bowl Championship Points system for the time I’ve been keeping it.

    1998-1999: Big Ten (12 points, 5-0, 2 BCS wins)
    1999-2000: Big Ten (10 points, 5-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2000-2001: Big East (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2001-2002: SEC (9 points, 5-3, 2 BCS wins)
    2002-2003: Big Ten (9 points, 5-2, 1 BCS win)
    2003-2004: ACC/SEC (9 points each)
    2004-2005: Big 12 (6 points, 4-3, 1 BCS win)
    2005-2006: Big 12 (8 points, 5-3, 1 BCS win)
    2006-2007: Big East/SEC (11 points each)
    2007-2008: SEC (14 points, 7-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2008-2009: SEC/Pac 12 (11 points each)
    2009-2010: SEC (10 points, 6-4, 2 BCS wins)
    2010-2011: Mountain West (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2011-2012: Big 12 (11 points, 6-2, 1 BCS Win)
    2012-2013: SEC (10 points, 6-3, 1 BCS win)
    2013-2014: SEC (11 points, 7-3, 0 BCS wins)
    2014-2015: Big 10/Pac 12 (10 points)

    You can contrast that against the Bowl Cup, which has been awarded five times to the Mountain West Conference and three times to Conference USA based on their performance in such venues as the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. I’m happy when the mid-majors do well, but winning three or four second tier bowls just isn’t the same as winning six bowls, two CFP bowls and a national title.

    I also keep track of “doubles”, when a conference wins both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. That’s been done by the Big 10 (1998, 1999, 2002), the ACC (2003), the Big 12 (2005), the Big East (2006), the Pac 10 (2008), the Mountain West (2010) and the SEC (2013).

    For years, I’ve been saying that the SEC’s dominance was waning, based on the points system, from its 2008 peak. And to the extent that the SEC did dominate, it was a result of being one of the only conferences that played defense, not “SEC speed”. In 2014, I saw the Pac 12 rising and predicted we were moving toward two super-conferences — the SEC and the Pac 12 — dominating the college football scene. But then the Big Ten, with two of their top teams returning, moved into the picture, with more parity overall.

    This year has seen the SEC come back in a major way. With an 8-2 record and two CFP wins, they have already won both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. They are guaranteed to break the record and, if Alabama wins the title, they will shatter the previous record of 14 points with 19 (granted, with more games). They were one good pass away from A&M winning their game. Only one SEC team — Florida — had a bad game.

    The Pac 12 will come in second with nine points, an impressive performance for a team that was locked out of the playoff but saw Stanford absolutely dominate the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten is currently third with six points, showing that their status as a doormat is dead and buried. It was a wild bowl season for them — Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State were crushed while Ohio State and Michigan dominated. But the ACC will take over third place if Clemson upsets Alabama, once again having a modest overall performance rescued by having the best single team in the country.

    One could argue that this has been a weird year — all the CFP games so far have been blowouts and the two best conferences never faced each other. But it’s hard to argue with the SEC hasn’t dominated the year and, indeed, dominated the system. Over the 17 years I’ve been tracking, they’ve simply been better than anyone else and it’s not close.

    SEC: 95-60, 19 BCS/CFP wins, 149 points, 9 titles
    Pac 12: 59-54, 15 BCS/CFP wins, 79 points, 1 title*
    American: 52-41, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 1 title**
    Big 12: 66-70, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 2 titles
    Big 10: 60-74, 17 BCS/CFP wins, 63 points, 1 title
    ACC: 62-73, 7 BCS/CFP wins, 58 points, 2 titles
    Mountain West: 42-35, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 53 points
    Conference USA: 43-47, 39 points
    WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
    MAC: 27-39, 15 points
    Sun Belt: 14-18, 10 points
    Independents: 12-18, 6 points

    (*Screw the NCAA. I’m counting USC as a champion.)
    (**This counts previous games from the Big East and Miami’s title.)

    The Double Revisisted

    Thursday, December 31st, 2015

    Dammit. It’s almost the end of December and I haven’t put up a post this month. I have — I kid you not — 37 posts in various draft forms. So I’ll be trying to kick a bunch out.

    A few years ago, I suggested that baseball borrow “the double” from English football as a way of bringing back some meaning to the long regular season. In this scheme, the league champion would be the team that won the most games. A team that won both the most games in its league and the World Series would be recognized as having won a “double” just like winning the League and FA Cups in English Football. Here is an updated list of the teams that would have been national champions under this system. Bold lettering is a team that won the double.

    1994 – New York (70), Montreal (74)
    1995 – Cleveland (100), Atlanta (90)
    1996 – Cleveland (99), Atlanta (96)
    1997 – Baltimore (98), Atlanta (101)
    1998 – New York (114), Atlanta (106)
    1999 – New York (98), Atlanta (99)
    2000 – Chicago (95), San Francisco (97)
    2001 – Seattle (116), St. Louis/Houston (93)
    2002 – New York/Oakland (103), Atlanta (101)
    2003 – New York (101), Atlanta (101)
    2004 – New York (101), St. Louis (105)
    2005 – Chicago (99), St. Louis (100)
    2006 – New York (97), New York (97)
    2007 – Boston (96), Colorado/Arizona (90)
    2008 – Anaheim (100), Chicago (97)
    2009 – New York (103), Los Angeles (95)
    2010 – Tampa Bay (96), Philadelphia (97)
    2011 – New York (97), Philadelphia (102)
    2012 – New York (95), Washington (98)
    2013 – Boston (97), St. Louis (97)
    2014 – Anaheim (98), Washington (96)
    2015 – Kansas City (95), St. Louis (100)

    Again, I think recognizing the national champions this way gives a much clearer view of which teams are dominating baseball. Since I wrote that post, Washington and St. Louis have dominated the National League while the American League has been in flux with Kansas City emerging as a double team this year.

    A Long Way Down

    Monday, November 30th, 2015

    When I was a graduate student at UVa, George Welsh was the head coach of the football team. Welsh had taken one of the worst football programs in the ACC and turned it into a good one. In his 19 years at the helm, UVa had 15 winning seasons, made 12 bowl games and won the ACC twice (including the dramatic 1995 victory over Florida State). They continually had great players like the Barber twins, Thomas Jones, Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Anthony Poindexter. And they did it while maintaining a reasonable commitment to education.

    But there was a vocal faction of fans who were unhappy with this. Welsh, they said, was over-rated. He couldn’t beat Florida State consistently. He won “only” two ACC titles. He couldn’t get them into the national title picture. He couldn’t beat Virginia Tech enough. Thankfully, they were a small faction, despite their dominating presence on local talk radio. And even more thankfully, the University ignored them. But eventually Welsh retired and the anti-Welsh brigade sighed with relief.

    The University went out and hired Al Groh. And UVA started to stink. In 9 years, Groh only had five winning seasons. He lost to Virginia Tech every year but one. He couldn’t beat Florida State. So they ditched him for Mike London, who has managed one winning season in six and and couldn’t beat anyone. And he just resigned.

    We see this over and over again. And not just in college football. It’s Braves fans bitching about Bobby Cox only to see the team struggle once he leaves. It’s NFL teams like the Redskins and Browns going through coach after coach. It’s Bills fans grousing because Levy lost four superbowls, then watching the team struggle after he retires.

    The problem here is that people often think that, when a team is this close to winning something big — a conference title, a championship — that they are a coaching change away from grabbing it. But they are wrong. It’s because of the coach that they are that far away. People used to joke that you had to be a great team to lose four Super Bowls, but it was true. A team that is almost but not quite good enough is still one of the best in the country. And when you’re at that kind of elite level of performance, there is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise. Changes to your team are way more likely to make things worse, not better. This is doubly true in college football, where you have over a hundred teams vying for glory and it’s very easy for an elite program to fall back into the horde of mediocre ones.

    I bring this up because the University of Georgia just fired Mark Richt. In 15 seasons, Richt had won 75% of his games, seven division titles and two conference titles. He never won fewer than eight games, never failed to make Bowl and never finished lower than third in one of the most competitive conference in the nation. As recently as 2012, he brought Georgia to within a few yards of a third conference title and a shot at a national title. The last three years were disappointing, but were heavily affected by injuries to star players like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray. But finishing the season 9-3 and second in the SEC East is no mean feat.

    Still, the media clamored for his head. The fans clamored for his head. And this week, the University gave it to them.

    This will not help. The Bulldogs are almost certain, no matter who they hire, to go into a decline. To be one of the top 25 football teams in the country, you have to be really good. Very few coaches are that good. A coach who “can’t take you to the next level” is still among the top 5% of college football coaches. What are the odds that you will get a better coach if you change? Probably a bit less than 5%. And the odds that you’ll get someone who can give you Alabama-like dominance? Less than 1%.

    What are the chances that a coach of Richt’s quality will eventually luck into a championship? Probably a lot better than the chances that Georgia will luck into a coach who can “take them to the next level.”

    Georgia has an advantage in prestige and recruiting, of course. But a lot of programs have those advantages and some to an even greater extent. A coach who can take you to division titles in half his seasons is a valuable commodity. Georgia just threw that away. And they’re going to deserve the inevitable slide.

    Of Miracles, Men and Red Armies

    Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

    By sheer coincidence, I happened to recently watch two documentaries about the Soviet Union’s hockey team. The first, Red Army, is good. It focuses mostly on the team after the Miracle on Ice and how they entered the NHL.

    The second, Of Miracles and Men, revolves around the Miracle on Ice as seen from the Soviet point of view. It interviews most of the Soviet principals with a particular focus on Viacheslav Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter. It is simply excellent, describing the rise of Soviet hockey, the way they reinvented the game and going blow-by-blow through the Miracle on Ice. Even for someone who is not a particularly avid fan of hockey, I found it fascinating.

    Joe Posnanski has a great review of it, particularly one of the most important moments:

    For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

    The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

    One of the many reasons to be glad the Cold War is over (and hope Putin doesn’t start it up again) is that you can appreciate just how amazing the Soviet hockey team was. They were playing a game that was a level beyond what anyone else was doing. They were beating teams — good teams — by football scores. In the 1980 Olympics, they won games by scores of 16-0, 17-4, 8-1 and 9-2. Their average margin of victory was eight goals, which is insane. The year before, they defeated an NHL all-star team that included 20 future Hall of Famers. Sports rarely see that kind of utter total dominance.

    The beauty of the documentary is that by showing how dominant the Soviet team was, it shows just how miraculous the Miracle on Ice really was. The US team played well, yes. They played much better than they had earlier when they got stomped 10-3. But even with that improvement, the Soviets totally outplayed them, dominating possession and peppering Jim Craig with 39 shots (to the US’s 16). An unlikely goal at the end of the 1st period and two great goals in the second gave the US one of the most unlikely wins in sports history. On such things does history turn.

    Granted, the Soviet juggernaut was only possible in a totalitarian country where hockey players could be ordered to train incessantly (Louis CK has a routine where he talks about how countries can achieve great things if they just don’t give a crap about people). And for the Soviet team, which did nothing but practice 11 months of the year, to be called “amateurs” was ridiculous. But there was beauty in that terribleness. Which, of course, made it all the sweeter when the US beat them. And “Of Miracles and Men” does a really good job of driving home both of those points.

    Whither the Heavyweights?

    Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

    Joe Posnanski has a great post up on the subject of Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods. His argument, as far as Tyson goes, is that Tyson was over-rated as a fighter. Tyson could beat the hell out of lesser opponents and make it look absurdly easy. But against better opponents, he was frequently not only beaten but beaten badly. I’ll let you read Joe instead of excerpting because it’s one of those “you should read the whole thing” deals.

    Here’s the thing though. Maybe I’m out of touch, but it seems to me that Tyson was the last heavyweight champion that really captured the public imagination. Oh, there have been popular heavyweights since — Holyfield, Lewis, Jones. But they weren’t Iron Mike. They weren’t household names. They weren’t the subject of landmark video games. And I doubt they’ll be making cameo appearances in movies 20 years from now.

    For a while, Tyson was beloved. He had a great story and a winning smile and just destroyed people in the ring. I think Will Smith put it best: people didn’t just want Tyson to win at boxing; they wanted him to win at life. And when he got into trouble — when he created trouble for himself — it was heart-breaking.

    But Tyson was the last in a string of boxing champions that had captured the public’s imagination, from Sullivan to Braddock to Marciano to Ali (especially Ali) to Frasier to Forman. These men defined the sport. The current champion — whom I had to look up — isn’t in that class. I don’t think anyone really has been since Tyson.

    Maybe we’re an interim, waiting for the next fighter who will grab the American people’s attention. But I actually think that boxing’s day has simply passed. It’s a bit too violent, a bit too sensational, a bit too shaky for modern America. Team sports have taken over. It still makes money and has some cache. But I don’t see it ever returning to its glory days.

    Parity Returns to College Football?

    Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

    So another College Football Season is done. Time to revisit my Bowl Championship System:

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    Here are the winners of the Bowl Championship Points system for the time I’ve been keeping it.

    1998-1999: Big Ten (12 points, 5-0, 2 BCS wins)
    1999-2000: Big Ten (10 points, 5-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2000-2001: Big East (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2001-2002: SEC (9 points, 5-3, 2 BCS wins)
    2002-2003: Big Ten (9 points, 5-2, 1 BCS win)
    2003-2004: ACC/SEC (9 points each)
    2004-2005: Big 12 (6 points, 4-3, 1 BCS win)
    2005-2006: Big 12 (8 points, 5-3, 1 BCS win)
    2006-2007: Big East/SEC (11 points each)*
    2007-2008: SEC (14 points, 7-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2008-2009: SEC/Pac 12 (11 points each)*
    2009-2010: SEC (10 points, 6-4, 2 BCS wins)
    2010-2011: Mountain West (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2011-2012: Big 12 (11 points, 6-2, 1 BCS Win)
    2012-2013: SEC (10 points, 6-3, 1 BCS win)
    2013-2014: SEC (11 points, 7-3, 0 BCS wins)

    (*In 2006-7, the Big East went 5-0 in bowls. But the SEC went 6-3, with two BCS wins and a national title. To my mind, that was equally impressive.)

    (**In 2008-9, the Pac 12 went 5-0 in bowls. But the SEC went 6-2, with a BCS win and a national title. Again, depth is important to winning the points system.)

    I have long been saying that the SEC’s dominance was waning, based on the points system. They had a good year last year, but their performance had slowly been declining from its 2008 peak. And to the extent that the SEC did dominate, it was a result of being one of the only conferences that played defense, not “SEC speed”. Last year, I saw the Pac 12 rising and predicted we were moving toward two super-conferences — the SEC and the Pac 12 — dominating the college football scene. But this year, the Big Ten moved into the discussion. In retrospect, that’s not surprising given that two of their best Bowl teams were able to play again.

    So who wins for 2014? Based on the points, the title is split between the Big 10 and the Pac 12. The Pac 12 went 6-3 with one playoff win. The Big 10 went 6-5 with three playoff wins. As a tie-breaker, I’m perfectly willing to give the title to the Big 10 based on Ohio State winning the championship. While they were barely above .500, I think the outstanding performance of their top teams is more impressive than Conference USA’s 4-1 performance in lesser bowls, which would have won the Bowl Championship Cup.

    But what really jumps out this year is the parity. The SEC went 7-5 for nine points as well. Conference USA went 4-1 for seven points. For the first time since 2010-11, no conference had negative points. I think it’s safe to say that the Big Ten is back and can now claim, along with the SEC and Pac 12, to be one of the best conferences in the country. That’s good for the Big Ten. But I also think it’s good for college football. We’re better off when the game is competitive.

    The 2015 HOF Class

    Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

    Baseball Think Factory is compiling publicly released Hall of Fame ballots to get an idea of how this year’s balloting will go. You can check here to see how well their Ballot Collecting Gizmo did last year when compared to the final vote.

    Just to get this out of the way, I think publicly releasing Hall of Fame votes is a great idea and should be actively encouraged by the BBWAA and the Hall. When writers have to publicly defend their votes, you get much more thoughtful results (the odd Murray Chass aside — and at least he provides exercise for your neck muscles). Look at that second link and compare the public and private ballots. The difference is quite noticeable. For example, 99.5% of those who publicly released their ballots voted for Greg Maddux. This makes sense, since he was one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But only 95.9% of the private ballots did. It’s a small difference, but it shows the effect of accountability. It is much easier to vote against Maddux because of his era or some dim-witted “no one should get in on the first ballot” logic when you don’t have to defend that attitude in public.

    Note that almost every player did better on the public ballots than the private ones except a few like Don Mattingly and Lee Smith. I think this actually a generational thing: older writers not wanting to throw their ballots out to the internet wolves and also favoring older players.

    Looking at BBTF, it looks like Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz will get in this year. Biggio is doing even better than last year, when he fell two votes shy, but I would still hesitate to say he’ll make it. Piazza is currently polling at 77.8% which means he will likely not make it as the difference between his public and private numbers was very strong last year, probably due to unsubstantiated PED rumors. Bagwell, Raines, Schilling and Mussina look likely to take small steps forward.

    What’s interesting, however, is that this looks to be the year we will see the big purge of the ballot that the HOF has clearly been wanting. One problem the HOF ballot has had in recent years is a super-abundance of candidates. Joe Posnanaki recently commented that he regarded Fred McGriff as a marginal HOFer and had him 17th on his ballot. There are ways to improve the process, including Bill James recent suggestion. But I think we’re going to see the glut of candidates finally shrink this year. Why?

    At least three and possibly four men will get inducted. Don Mattingly will drop off the ballot as his time expires. And looking at the votes and considering how the private balloting has gone, it is quite possible that Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield will also drop off the ballot. In fact, of the new arrivals, it’s possible that none will be on the ballot again next year. That’s a big reduction in the backlog.

    Next year will see Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman probably voted in the first ballot. It’s possible Jim Edmonds or Billy Wagner will linger around. But that will crack the door open for Bagwell, Raines, Schilling and/or Mussina. Then in 2017, we’ll see Pudge Rodriguez (in on first ballot), Vladimir Guerrero (in after a few years) and Manny Ramirez (excluded by steroid allegations). That will keep the door open. Then things get interesting again in 2018.

    In short, the storm has passed and the Hall has apparently passed its judgement on the PED era. Pitchers are in. Great players without specific allegations are in. Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa and Sheffield are out. Bonds and Clemens are in limbo but almost certainly will not make it before their eligibility expires.

    I think the Hall will have to go back and address the steroid era again, especially once they find out that one (or likely several) current HOFers used steroids. It’s going to be difficult to have a Hall without Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, A. Rodriguez, Palmeiro, Sheffield and Manny Ramirez. But I think it will be at least a decade before we get there. The hysteria over PED’s is waning. But it’s not over yet.

    The End of the Era

    Saturday, December 20th, 2014

    It’s my blog. I can vent if I feel the need.

    On October 21, 1983, the Atlanta Braves’ effort to become a serious team ended for almost a decade. On that day, the Braves completed a trade made two months earlier for Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker. Going to the Indians was Brook Jacoby, a young third baseman who would nail down the hot corner in Cleveland for a decade, go to a couple of allstar games and tally over a thousand hits and a hundred home runs. In their defense, the Braves thought they had third base nailed down in Bob Horner, who had already smashed 158 home runs through age 25 and looked like a future Hall of Famer. There was no way to know that Horner would be out of baseball by 30 due to injuries.

    But the real prize for the Indians was Brett Butler, Atlanta’s excellent and popular center fielder. Butler was a strong leadoff man who put up a .344 OBP and swiped 39 bases. He would go on to become on of the best leadoff men in history, a borderline HOF candidate who smashed 2375 hits, stole 558 bases and had a lifetime .377 OBP. He was a great player. It was obvious to everyone that he would at least become a good player and score a tons of runs hitting in front of Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. But the Braves traded him for Len Barker because … I guess … Barker had thrown a perfect game. Barker would go 10-20 in 232.1 innings with a 4.64 ERA. That was over three years, not one. He would be out of baseball within four years.

    The Barker-Butler trade is well-known as one of the worst in history. But it was more than just a bad trade. For the Braves, it was the end of an era. In 1982, the Braves had one of their best seasons, winning 89 games to take the division, then losing the NLCS to the Cardinals. In 1983, they won 88 games but a late-season collapse let the Dodgers win the division. With Joe Torre at the helm and a team that included Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Glenn Hubbard, Phil Niekro — all great players — and some young pitching, they looked poised to turn around “Loserville” as Atlanta was known (and, to some extent, still is). They looked like they would become the first team from Atlanta, in any sport, to become a serious presence.

    But the next year, they fell to 80 wins. Then Horner got hurt and went to Japan. Torre got fired. Niekro got traded. Brad Komminsk flopped. The farm system imploded. And the Braves returned to being one of the worst teams in baseball.

    This was why 1991 was not only a miracle year, it was one the great miracle years in sports. The Braves didn’t just go worst-to-first and come within a Lonnie Smith hesitation of a championship. They went from a truly terrible team, a nothing on the sports radar, to a dynasty. They were good, they were young and they were run by two great men who knew what they were doing.

    And the result was one of the great runs in sports history: 14 straight division titles, five pennants and a championship. An average of 98 wins per season. Four players — Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — are in the Hall of Fame or soon will be. A few more — Fred McGriff, Javy Lopez — have borderline cases. Still more were just great damned players. Their manager is in the Hall of Fame and you could make an argument for their General Manager and their Pitching Coach. It was an amazing time to be a Braves fan. You turned on the TV and knew you were watching a great team that would usually win. If they fell behind in the standings, you knew it was only a matter of time until they would catch up. It was a joy to turn on TBS and watch them dominate. The “Braves Way” was a real thing: great pitching, great defense, timely hitting.

    The thing is that the Braves weren’t just a great team, they were a smart team. They developed great prospects (Lopez, Klesko, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones, David Justice), they traded for great players (Fred McGriff especially), they signed impact free agents (Greg Maddux, Andres Galarraga). They had a great major league team and a great farm system. If someone got injured or left to free agency, they had the depth to replace them. Year after year, everything they touched was gold.

    That era has long been over, as exemplified by this summer’s capstone — the induction of Maddux, Glavine and Cox into the Hall of Fame. But now we see we are back to the bad old days. It turns out that capstone was also a gravestone:

    Here Lieth the Braves Dynasty: 1991-2005

    Last year, I thought maybe the good days were back after almost a decade of middling shuffling semi-contention. They won 96 games, took the division and looked like a team poised for a multi-year run. True, they had albatross contracts in Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. But they had a slew of great young players — Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen. They’d signed a number of them to long-term contracts.

    But it was more than just that. The Braves were fun to watch again. I looked forward to every game and would watch them on mlb.tv while messaging my brother. It felt like 1991 all over again, like we were returning to the good old days.

    What a difference a year makes. The Braves had a lousy 2014 season, with the bats completely collapsing and several of their young pitchers getting hurt. They finished under .500 and looked terrible the last few months. I couldn’t watch them, it was so maddening.

    But as disappointing as the season was, there were still reasons for optimism. They had one of the best pitching staffs in the league. Their defense was very good. They still had the young core that had looked so promising a year earlier. A change of hitting coach (or maybe manager) and they looked good to bounce back in 2015 and fulfill their destiny as the next Braves dynasty.

    Well, that apparently wasn’t good enough. A month ago, they traded away Jason Heyward — a 24 y/o Atlanta native and one of the best players on the team — for a disappointing pitcher from the Cardinals. They traded Tommy La Stella, one of their few prospects who could get on base, for an oft-injured former pitching prospect. Yesterday, they traded Justin Upton, their second best player, for some minor league prospects, the best of which is a disappointing first-round pitcher coming off arm surgery. The rumor is that they’re accumulating capital to make some major plays in the international market. I’m dubious. I don’t see Liberty Media — the cheapskates owners who wrecked the dynasty — shelling out for the top-tier talent.

    It was the Heyward trade was the watershed for me — an awful echo of the Len Barker trade. The Braves traded away their most popular player — a young talent who is still years away from his prime — for the ultimate bag of magic beans: a young pitcher. And the language surrounding the trade was even more disheartening. The Braves talked about “years of control” — i.e., how many more years they have before the players reach free agency. They talked about how they’re building for 2017, when their stadium opens. They talked about how they were trying to get out from under some bad contracts.

    I understand the theory behind all that. The problem is that these are the things said by loser organizations. Loser organizations are always rebuilding, always aiming to contend a few years from now, always worried about years-of-control and payroll implications. Smart teams worry about those things too but they also know how to hold onto their best players and how to build a team that will contend, full stop, not just in some nebulous future window. They don’t trade away almost all of their on-base skills for minor league scraps and pitchers with injury risks. They don’t trade away talented young players and sign older less-talented players to replace them. They don’t look at the team that kept runs off the board better than almost anyone last year but couldn’t string three hits together and think their real need is mawr pitching.

    The Braves aren’t some ancient team at the end of a great run trading away their aging stars. They were one of the youngest teams in the majors with some of their best players locked up long term. This isn’t the Red Sox rebuilding when their stars all aged overnight. This is like the Royals tearing up their young team two years before those players took them to the World Series.

    (And it’s made worse by the signing of Nick Markakis to a 4-year deal. Markakis is six years older than Heyward. He’s four years older than Upton. And he’s not nearly as good as either of them. The Braves outfield has gotten older while shedding all of its on-base skills, all of its power and all of its defense. This is not how you build a team that will contend three years from now. This is how you become the Marlins.)

    Looking at the destruction of a good team, the trading away of good young players for scraps, the obsession over payroll (for an organization awash in money), I can’t help but think of the bad old days when the Braves would trade away Brett Butler and sign Ken Oberkfell, when they’d break Pascual Perez and trade for Danny Heep or Ozzie Virgil, when they talked excitedly about potentially signing the remnants of an aging Jim Rice. Yesterday’s Upton trade simply confirmed my suspicions. The Braves are no longer a serious organization. They had a team that could have contended when they opened their new stadium. Now they don’t.

    I’m probably being overly bitter and pessimistic. But I’m dubious that this team will contend anytime in the next five years and I’m certain they will not approach anything like a dynasty as long as Liberty Media are in charge. They’re simply too cheap and too stupid to build the kind of powerhouse they used to be known for.

    No, we’re heading back to the bad old days when the Braves were the joke of the National League. And with the Hawks still unserious and the Falcons “contending” at 5-9, I fear that the days of Loserville have returned.

    Addendum: Braves’ apologists are saying this team couldn’t afford to keep Upton and Heyward. This is garbage. Uggla’s contract comes off the books next year. And the Braves’ organization has a revenue stream of $253 million. They could easily pay those two outfielders $40 million a year and not break a sweat. This is just an excuse from a cheapskate owner.

    Does Defense Win Championships?

    Monday, February 3rd, 2014

    So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

    Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

    Right?

    Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

    The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

    But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

    And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

    I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

    This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

    I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

    So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.

    SEC Forever

    Monday, January 6th, 2014

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    This year, it isn’t really close. The Pac 12 did well, with 9 points (6 bowl wins). The ACC could vault into third with six points if Florida State wins their Bowl, despite their losing record. How? Their conference is top heavy with most of their teams struggling but Clemson and FSU having a chance to win two BCS bowls and a national title.

    But first this year is the SEC, currently riding on 12 points thanks to their 7-2 record and with a chance to break their own 2007 record with 15 points if Auburn pulls off the upset.

    This actually surprised me as I expected the SEC to tumble. For all the hype, the SEC dominance peaked in 2008. Moreover, the SEC has shown a lamentable lack of defense this year. Their dominance — and the Big 10′s dominance a decade ago and the Big 12′s dominance in the early 00′s — was the result of having powerhouse defenses that could stop the much-hyped offenses of Oklahoma, Oregon and USC as well as spectacular offensive lines. This year was a poor year for SEC defense and I expected them to tumble.

    In retrospect, however, I think the SEC’s dominance (and to some extent, the Pac 12′s, which is second only to the SEC) is structural. The SEC has been one of the big winners in conference realignment, picking up powerhouse programs Missouri and Texas A&M while the Big 12 and Pac 12 are patching things with West Virginia, TCU, Utah and Colorado — all schools in a down cycle. The American Conference (formerly Big East) is basically a mid-major at this point and the Big 12 is on their way to being Texas, Oklahoma and the Texas-Oklahoma-ettes.

    We are clearly headed to an era when four conferences — SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 10 — will dominate college football. We might even be heading for two conferences dominating the league. The Pac 12 and SEC, which went 1-2 in my system this year, have extraordinary depth: according to Sagarin, ten of the Pac 12′s teams are in the top 50 teams, ten of the SEC’s 14 teams are in the top 50 (and the two out are Florida and Tennessee in down cycles). No conference can match that kind of depth. None is even close. The ACC has the best team in the country, but FSU and Clemson are the only ones ranked in the top 30 and and only seven of their 14 are in the top 50. The Big Ten has three great programs, but only six of their 12 programs are in the top 50. Only six of the Big 12′s 10 teams are in the top 50. Only three of the American’s ten teams are in the top 50.

    I really don’t like re-alignment because of the way it throws out old rivalries in favor of dollars and has created the superconference situation we find ourselves in. When I invented this system, it was kind of fun because you could see more-or-less equal conferences rise and fall. Now it seems to be tracking which conferences are rising in falling in terms of wooing members out of other conferences. If the NCAA really cared, they’d have done something about it long ago. But they don’t. And so my points system will probably go the way of the Championship Cup. Because what’s the point of tracking this thing if it’s going to be the SEC and Pac 12 every year? You don’t need a points system to figure that out.

    The Authentic Games Metric

    Thursday, December 5th, 2013

    In Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s most recent column, he suggested picking post-season favorites based on what he calls Authentic Games:

    Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook — there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.

    Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.

    The Authentic metric values most W’s over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.

    In principle, the Authentic Games Metric makes sense. A great team should be able to beat other great teams rather than pounding on cupcakes. But I was immediately suspicious because it plugs into what I call the Grand Championship Delusion: the belief that the team that wins the championship is always or even usually the best team. We want desperately to believe that the team that wins the title is not a team that had a good season and then got hot. Or a team that had a good season and then had a few breaks go their way. We want to believe that they possess some ineffable quality — clutchiness, manliness, moxie — that makes them win. And the idea that their record in “Authentic Games” is tempting as a way to measure their supposed manliness.

    However, once my skepticism was aroused, I came up with numerous problems with the Authentic Games Metric:

  • There is a great deal of parity in the NFL. If you opened up the playoffs to all 32 teams, we would doubtless see the occasional one seed upset by the occasional 16 seed. And the likelihood of upsets only increases as the teams become closer in quality. A team’s record in a 16-game season is subject to enough random variation, chance plays, tipped passed and blown calls. When you narrow it down to 2-6 “Authentic Games” between teams of near-equal quality, you’re basically just looking at noise.
  • This is born out by research that Football Outsiders has done: great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate lesser teams not win close games. A great team puts games out of reach; a lucky team wins the nail-biters.
  • Even if Authentic Games gave you some read on who is really the best team in the NFL, applying those to playoffs results invokes even more uncertainty. You’re now dealing with an even smaller sample of 11 games involving teams that are nearly equal in quality.
  • Basically, I think this is yet another attempt to find the “special sauce” that would enable us to know why some some #5 seeds win the Super Bowl while #1 seeds fail. Because, to our simian brains, “football happens” isn’t enough. We don’t want to believe that the winner is a result of team quality convolved with a lot of luck and random chance. We don’t want to believe that a team wins the Super Bowl because they just happen to have three or four good games in a row. No, there has to be a reason behind the madness.

    Anyway, here’s what I did to test the Authentic Games Metric:

    I took all 60 playoffs teams from the last five years. I then went through their schedules and kept track of how they did against other playoff contenders. I then tracked how well this predicted playoff results. In the case of a tie, I went with the team that had more Authentic Games. Since we are subject to noise, I did a second test just looking at strong predictions — where one team was two or more games over or under .500 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season and their opponent was not.

    As a control, I then checked predictions made based purely on their regular season record (with a tie going to the higher seeded team) or which team had home-field advantage. I then checked against predictions based on Football Outsider’s team rankings.

    The result? It really isn’t even close. Teams that won the most Authentic Games were 25-25 in their matchups. For strong predictions, teams were 17-18. Essentially, the Authentic Games Metric is the same as flipping a coin. Of course, using the regular season records was 27-28, which bears out TMQ’s criticism that seeding and the regular season don’t tell you nearly enough about the relative quality of the best team.

    However, I did find two predictors that were useful. One was homefield advantage. Home teams were 30-20 in the playoffs. Even if you discount home teams in the divisional round, who have had a bye while their opponent was playing, home teams still win 60% of the time (I’m obviously excluding the Super Bowl here).

    Of similar quality was Football Outsider’s team efficiency ratings, which went 32-23. Not great, but pretty decent all things considered. FO would be the first to admit that predicting the winner in a football game is a fool’s business. Not only do you have the problem of random luck and chance, you have the problem that football is about matchups. A team may be, by some metric, the best. But if they have a weak secondary, they can get torched by a “lesser” team.

    Breaking it down by year reveals just how random the Authentic Game metric is:

  • In 2008, Arizona went 1-4 in authentic games and came within a hair of winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Indianapolis (5-1) died in the first round against San Diego (0-5). Philly (4-2) made the conference final but only because they played New York, also 4-2.
  • In 2009, Indianapolis and New Orleans were both 3-1 in Authentic Games, which would seem to give the metric some credence. But Minnesota (4-1) died in the conference final while Baltimore (1-6) made the divisional round. This was actually the best year for the Authentic Games Metric.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh (2-4) made the Super Bowl while New England (6-1) died in the first round. The AFC final matches two 2-4 teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
  • In 2011, Baltimore and Green Bay went 6-0 in Authentic Games. Only Baltimore even made the conference final. The New York Giants went 1-3 and won the Super Bowl. Detroit went 1-5 and lost in the first round. New Orleans went 5-1 and lost in the division round. Atlanta went 1-4 and lost in the first round. San Francisco went 4-1 and lost the conference title game. Instead of a matchup of Baltimore (6-0) and Green Bay (6-0) we got New England (1-2) against New York (1-3).
  • In 2012, Seattle was 4-1 in Authentic Games and lost in the divisional round. Green Bay went 2-4 and lost in the division round; Baltimore went 2-4 and won the Super Bowl. Instead of Seattle (4-1) against Indianapolis (3-2), we got Baltimore (2-4) against San Francisco (3-2).
  • You see? You can occasionally pick out a team that did well in both Authentic Games and the playoffs but it’s mostly random. Part of this is, again, the vicissitudes of football. But FO’s rankings don’t do too badly. I think it’s more of a flaw in the Authentic Games metric itself. Because a metric based on 2-6 games is going to be worse, not better, than one based on 16.

    If you want to predict how the NFL post-season will go, here’s my system:

    1) When in doubt, pick the home team or the team with better FO ranking.
    2) Have a lot of doubt.

    The Agony of Atlanta

    Friday, October 4th, 2013

    The most miserable sports town in America is, without a doubt, Cleveland*. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948 and the city had a great team in the late 90′s that fell just shy (in heart-breaking fashion in 1997). Only the Cubs have a longer world series drought. The Cleveland Browns have not won a championship since 1964, although they have a lot more company in their misery than the Tribe do (for all the NFL’s talk of competitive balance, they are far more dominated by franchises than baseball). The Browns also had heart-breaking losses in the 1980′s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a title in any of their 43 seasons. During the last decade, they had one of the best players in league history but couldn’t win a title. He then ran off to Miami, where he’s won two.

    That’s 157 years of misery for Cleveland fans and 49 years since they could claim to be champions. They have it the worst. There are 20 cities in North America that have at least three major sports teams. The second longest drought is Minnesota at 22 years (and Washington, but the Ravens have won twice since then). And Clevelanders have born this burden with about 6% of the whining with which Boston fans endured the Red Sox drought while their Celtics were dominating the universe.

    However, I would argue that Atlanta comes in second in sports agony**. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Braves have won one title in almost half a century of play. They were an awful team for their first 25 years — Lewis Grizzard once joked that Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves had one thing in common: they both wore one glove for no apparent reason. They then turned into one of the best franchises in sports. They have had two losing season in the last 23 years and went to the post-season 14 straight times. But they only won one title, including heart-breaking loses in 1991 and 1996. In recent years, they have flamed out every year and seem well on their way this year. The last time they even won a post-season series was 2001. Throughout the 90′s they lost on freak events, such as horrific umpiring in ’96 series. Last year, they lost on a fluke bad call.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have also gone nearly half a century without a title. They were also awful for a long time but have recently been one of the better franchises in the NFL, with five straight winning seasons. They have flamed out in the playoffs every time, only making one Super Bowl during their existence. Last year, they lost on a batted down fourth and goal pass that would have won the game.
  • The Hawks have not won a title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. During that time, they have made the playoffs 29 times and had the best conference record 4 times. They have not made an NBA final. They have not even made the conference final since 1970.
  • For good measure, the Atlanta flames played eight years and made the playoffs six times. The Atlanta Thrashers played eleven years and made the playoffs once. Neither team even made it to a semi-final.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They lost the championship the next two years. Since then, Georgia has not made a title game. Over the last few years, they have been an SEC powerhouse but can’t put together a championship season. Last year, they lost the SEC title and a possible trip to the BCS title game when a pass was deflected and caught by a receiver, letting time run out inside Alabama’s five. Georgia Tech split a title in 1990 and have not done much since. That title, incidentally, should not have been split. It only was because of Colorado’s fifth down play.
  • Last year was particularly hideous for Atlanta sports fans. The Falcons, Dawgs and Braves all went down on fluke plays falling literally yards shy of a Super Bowl, a BCS title game and an NLDS appearance, respectively. And this year looks no better. The Falcons are already 1-3 and have lost three games because of an inability to punch it in from the red zone. The Dawgs lost a close game to Clemson and have looked shaky on defense. The Braves lost tonight and have looked hapless over the last few weeks.

    My brother thinks Georgia teams are cursed. I’m starting to believe him.

    (*After I posted this, the Great Posnanski posted similar thoughts.)

    (** Being me, I actually compiled a table for this. There are 20 metro areas that have three or more sports teams and six more that have had three at some point in the last 50 years. I compiled the number of championships and the number of years played since 1963. Some New Yorkers or Chicagoans may take offense at my math since I’m combining teams that play in the same city. Meh. I figure if you’re a Yankees fan and can’t get some small pleasure from the Mets winning a World Series, that’s your problem. A more meritorious gripe might be leveled at my merging of San Francisco and Oakland as well as Washington and Baltimore. But there is a lot of overlap between those fans.

    Anyway, every city has won at least one championship in the last fifty years. New York, LA, San Francisco-Oakland, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh have at least ten. New Yorkers, if you throw in the Islanders and Devils — and I will — have basically enjoyed a championship every other year. All good and decent sports fans should cheer against New York teams. I mean, unless they’re from New York. The other cities have enjoyed a title once every 2-5 years.

    The cities with only one title? Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. If you divide the number of seasons by the number of titles, the most barren cities are Phoenix (1 title every 102 seasons), Cleveland (1 every 144), San Diego (1 every 115) and Kansas City (1 every 104).

    Atlanta, however, comes in at 1 championship in 158 seasons of sports. Now that’s misery.)

    PS: Some more facts that came to me this morning:

  • Up until 1995, the only championship any Atlanta team had ever won was the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League.
  • Before then, you have the minor league Atlanta Crackers. Seriously.
  • 1991 was the first time any major championship was played within 500 miles of Atlanta.
  • Update on 4/28/2015: Seattle won a title since I wrote this, so they can be bumped down on the list. As I write this, the Hawks are trying very hard to choke the #1 seed. I expect them to succeed.

    Update: Forbes agrees with me.

    Update So does the New York Times

    Tebow Out of NYC

    Monday, April 29th, 2013

    Tim Tebow was released by the Jets today, ending one of the most baffling sports acquisitions I have ever witnessed.

    When Tebow was with the Broncos, he crossed me as a poor man’s Doug Flutie — a QB who lacked some essential tool (height in Flutie’s case; passing ability in Tebow’s) but nevertheless found ways to win. I was dubious that it could be sustained. But it seemed like he’d found a niche — a team with a great running game and offensive line — where his skills were useful.

    When the Jets took him, I hoped they would find some creative ways to use him and Sanchez. Two QB sets, especially at the goal line; wildcat formations; using Tebow as running back who could sometimes pass. Instead, the nailed him to the bench and used him as an alternative to Sanchez. But, without the Bronco’s running game, that wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t. It’s obvious now that Tebow can never be a feature QB.

    However, I have to disagree with those, like ESPN, who are saying this is the end of the road for Tebow. He’s still young, still well-liked and still has some skills that will make your jaw drop. Some team is going to sign him for publicity if nothing else.

    But what I would really like to see is Tebow fall into the hands of a Belichick-like unconventional guru; someone who could use what Tebow does well (run, lead, use his instincts) without exposing what he does poorly (pass). Someone who would put in a two-QB set at the line to give defenses fits.

    In an odd way, I’m reminded of Reggie Bush. This is a bit of a stretch, since Bush was heavily touted coming out of college (although, in a post that disappeared in the event horizon, I was skeptical). But he never became the stud that everyone thought he would. Oh, he was good. But until 2011, he’d never a thousand yard season. What the Dolphins seemed to figure out was that he wasn’t an MVP type who could pound out 350 carries a year and gain 2000 yards from scrimmage. But there was nothing wrong with that. He was a guy who could run 200 times, catch 40-50 passes and get 1500 yards from scrimmage. And that guy was very very useful.

    Whoever picks up Tebow needs to stop squeezing him into a pocket passer hole. Tebow is not that guy and never will be. But he is a guy who could throw 50-100 passes a year, run for a thousand yards, score few touchdowns and drive opposing defenses crazy. And he’s only 25 years old.