Monday, May 31, 2010

Russian TV Interview with Evgeni Malkin

Malkin did an interview with Russian television which Yahoo! sports has translated on their excellent hockey blog Puck Daddy.  Geno has some interesting things to say about Sid, Ovie and playing in North America.  Worth the read.  If you're a big hockey fan, bookmark their blog.

Jeff Clement/Justin Smoak/Pedro Alvarez

Jeff Clement, the Pirates' opening day starting first baseman, was taken with the third overall pick in the first round of the 2005 amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners.  He was rated the #42 prospect in all of minor league baseball in 2008.  The Pirates acquired him in a multi-player trade with Seattle July 29th of last year.  Clement has dominated AAA over the past few years, but as a repeater at that level he is expected to now prove himself at the major league level.  He is a left-handed batter who will be 27 in August.

Justin Smoak was drafted by the Texas Rangers with the eleventh overall pick in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft after his junior year at South Carolina.  After starting this season very impressively at AAA Oklahoma City, he was called up by the Rangers and made his debut on April 23.  Smoak is a switch-hitter who will be 24 in December.

Pedro Alvarez was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the first overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft out of Vanderbilt University.  Alvarez also started this season in AAA, at Indianapolis.  He has yet to be called up to the major leagues, but the expectation is it will happen soon.  Alvarez is a left-handed batter who turned 23 in February.

The goal here is not to equate the three players.  First and most importantly, Clement is three years older.  But when thinking about decisions to make going forward and seeing how guys often come up and struggle I thought this was illustrative.  These are the major league numbers for this year.

                PA      AB    H    2B  3B    HR    BB      K    AVG/OBP/SLG    OPS
Smoak     134     114    20    4     0       4       19      24     .175/.291/.316       .607

Clement   126     117    24    3     0       5        6       32     .205/.248/.359       .607

Clement's strikeout rate is high and he has drawn few walks.  Nonetheless, he has shown steady improvement.  He's been much better in May, better the last two weeks and better the past week.  It is a small sample size, but trending the right way.  Surprisingly, Clement is hitting better against lefties than righties thus far.  One would expect his numbers against righties to improve as the season progresses.

Smoak is a switch hitter.  He is 2-for-34 as a RHB with 1 extra base hit.  He has an OPS of .301.  That obviously is terrible in a small sample size.

Here are Justin Smoak's and Pedro Alvarez's numbers at AAA.  Smoak played 54 games in AAA last year and 15 this year.  Alvarez has played 50 games, all this year, going into today.

                PA      AB    H    2B  3B  HR    BB   K      AVG/OBP/SLG    OPS
Smoak     303     247    63   17    0      6      51     53      .255/.386/.397     .783

Alvarez    212    184    48     9     2    11     24     49      .261/.349/.511     .860

ESPN's Keith Law felt Smoak's ability to hit lefties was one reason that he rated him a better prospect.  Coming into the year Smoak's slash line against lefties in 130 at bats was .215/.304/.331.  Alvarez's minor league numbers against lefties are .258/.323/.411 in 209 career minor league at bats.  It will be very interesting to see how all three progress the rest of the year.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blog on the Road, Boston Style

NBA Eastern Conference Finals Orlando v. Boston, Game 4, May 25, 2010.  Boston leads Series 3-0.
(Note: Sorry for posting this a day late.  Travel yesterday impacted getting it online.)

Being up three games to none in an NBA playoff series isn't all that unusual.  And, if you have been paying any attention to the Boston-Orlando series, you know that teams in that position have won every time.  All 93 to be specific.

What makes this series somewhat unusual is that the team ahead 3-0 has almost always been the team that hosted the first two games of the series.  That is not what happened here, and it's the reason things have gotten a lot more interesting in the space of one day.

Let's forget the specifics of the teams and the match-ups just for a second and think about the psychology of the series and where we are today.  Virtually everyone except the guys in the Celtics locker room was surprised that Boston won both games in Orlando, and they did it in a fashion that was more dominant than their three and four point road victories would suggest.  Their 23 point win at home in Game 3 was a truer measure of the beatdown they had put on the Magic to that point in the series.  John Hollinger of ESPN went so far as to say that Boston had broken the Magic's will.  Only 15 of the 93 series that went three games to none had the team ahead playing Game 4 at home as Boston did Monday night.  Obviously this occurred so few times because to go up three games to none you have to pretty clearly be the better team and one would expect the better team to have the higher seed and the home court advantage.  The Celtics were bucking history and had clearly earned their 3-0 advantage.  Everything was going their way and most expected closure in Game 4.

But here is the problem.  Orlando won Game 4.  Of the fifteen teams previously in the Magic's position, only five were able to even do that.  It was the Magic's turn to buck history as they became the sixth.  Back to the psychology.  Now the advantage and momentum swings to Orlando.  Sure they are still underdogs being down 3-1, but having won in Boston they get to go home for Game 5.  If they are finally able to win one at Amway the pressure on Boston will be extraordinary.  The Celts would be heading home for a Game 6, playing in the same building where co-tenants the Boston Bruins had squandered a 3-0 series lead (and a 3-0 lead in Game 7) to become only the fourth team in American sporting history to blow such an advantage.  They will have lost two games in a row and, by definition, some flaws will have been exposed.  If you were a Boston fan you were really hoping David Stern presented the Eastern Conference trophy on Monday night.  It didn't happen.  Here are some reasons why:

• Rajon Rondo, clearly Boston's best player in the playoffs, was non-existent.  Aside from a brief flurry in the second quarter Rondo lacked his customary explosiveness and seemed hesitant to break down the defense and attack the basket.  He finished with 9 points, 8 assists and 3 rebounds, his quietest effort in this year's playoffs.

UPDATE: It was reported that Rondo had some cramping issues during the game.  Clearly this affected his performance

• Jameer Nelson did have his best game of the series.  Nelson was great running the high screen and role and creating his own shot.  He was effective penetrating off the dribble and finding Dwight Howard for some easy baskets and he hit two threes in overtime to seal the victory, albeit one an off-balance banker that had no business going in.

• Dwight Howard is unstoppable with the ball in the paint.  Kendrick Perkins, Glenn Davis and Rasheed Wallace did a good job of keeping Howard off the low block and forcing him further out to receive entry passes.  However they were much less effective in keeping him off the offensive glass and defending him on screen-and-rolls where Howard did much of his damage.  Superman's missed foul shots, he was 6-14 on the night, helped keep Boston in it down the stretch, but overall he had his most dominant game.

• Boston squandered a clear chance to end the series with ten seconds left in regulation.  The game was tied and Paul Pierce had the ball at the top of the key.  However, Pierce waited and didn't start making his move to the basket until there were five or six seconds remaining.  His first foray into the key was well-defended and then he was rushed and had the ball deflected away and time expired.  Opportunity lost.

And eventually, so was the game.  On to Game 5.
Some notes from my seat on the floor:

• The Boston crowd was into it from the start.  It was a great atmosphere and the scoreboard and music were well-choreographed to the game, not intrusive or annoying as is so often the case.

• Almost on cue, Vince Carter was terrible.  VC has a reputation as being soft and disappearing in big games.  Well-deserved.  Arguments to the contrary now are almost laughable.  Carter was 1-9 from the field with 3 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in 31 minutes.  A three-two-two line.  I'm going to christen this an "Area Code" line.  Term: Area Code line. Definition: A player making more than $10 million/yr recording single digit points, rebounds and assists while playing more than 30 minutes. (For the record 322 has yet to be issued.)

• J.J. Redick is much better at creating his own shot than I would have imagined.  Yes, Redick is a spot-up shooter first and has some trouble on the defensive end, but he is a solid ball-handler and has a very good sense of how to create enough space to get separation and get his shot away quickly.

• Ray Allen was Boston's best player but Paul Pierce took more than twice as many shots and didn't look for an open teammate on his ill-fated move to the basket in the last seconds.  Pierce has been the Celts goto guy in crunch time the last three years, but the talk shows were killing him after the game for his "ego" and wanting to be the hero.  Not sure what I think about it, seemed a bit quick to crucify.

• Kevin Garnett is clearly still the team's and the crowd's emotional leader.  Everyone in the building was  feeding off Garnett after he got a second half technical and was able to channel his anger into a quick Boston run that saw them take the lead.  Unfortunately, Garnett is no longer able to take over a game as his offensive skills have diminished noticeably.

• Last and maybe most noteworthy, the NBA game is IMPOSSIBLE to referee.  The game is so fast.  The players are so big and quick.  There is contact every time down the floor.  I thought the game was poorly refereed, but I also thought it was evenly refereed.  It really is a thankless and incredibly difficult job, particularly when you have two physical teams bringing the intensity that Boston and Orlando brought on Monday night.

Hopefully I'll have a few pics to share in a bit.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

And the Carousel Begins...

The long-awaited roster moves that fans have been first begging, then pleading, now screaming for should begin today.  Unfortunately the impetus for the first of these moves began with Steve Pearce's ankle injury last night which probably means he is shelved for at least two weeks.
Pearce's injury thrusts open the door for a promotion of Neil Walker.  This is a move that should have been made two weeks ago when Aki Iwamura, (.163/.270/.234) got hurt, but it wasn't so on we go.  With Walker up I would expect him initially to get 3-5 starts a week, with some at second, some at first and possibly the occasional one in left.
Pearce's move to the DL means the team will not have to make a corresponding roster move.  But, those will begin soon enough when Jack Taschner is eligible to come off the DL June 6th.  That will also closely correspond with Brad Lincoln being able to be called up while still retaining six years of control over his contractual rights.  To me the resulting moves become obvious.  Both Jeff Karstens and Brian Burres will be sent down.
Karstens has been mildly useful as a spot starter and a long-man, but he is a AAAA pitcher who is nice to have in the organization in case of emergency, but nothing more.  In order to send him down to Indianapolis he will have to clear waivers and my guess is he will.  If he doesn't, good for him as he gets an opportunity with another team.  His window of opportunity with the Pirates is going to close quickly as guys like Jose Ascanio, Chris Jakubauskas, Neal Cotts and Tyler Yates return from long rehab stints and prospects continue to push their way up from lower levels.  Eventually Daniel McCutchen will also get another look.
Burress has been a pleasant surprise and given the Pirates the occasional quality start, but his ceiling is also limited and at age 29 it's unrealistic to think much will change.  Maybe he goes on to be Jamie Moyer and pitches for 18 more years as a soft-tossing lefty, but I would imagine he has, at most, two starts left in his Pirates career.  Lincoln steps into Burres' spot in the starting rotation and Taschner rejoins the pen which will again consist of the seven members who broke camp with the club at the end of March.
June should also see the promotion of Jose Tabata.  I have been a believer that there was no reason to rush Tabata, and if he spent the whole year in AAA developing his skills and maturing as a person and player that would be just fine.  But, I have slowly come around to the fact that he may really have earned an earlier promotion based on his impressive hitting and surprising base stealing.  The big issue here is not only whether the 21-year old Tabata is ready, but also what to do with Lastings Milledge.  I am certainly not a fan of sitting Milledge in favor of Ryan Church, which has happened far too frequently in May.  But Milledge has now had 399 PAs as a Pirate and has hit 4 HRs and has a .702 OPS.  He's 25, so it's time to discard the prospect tag.  The argument that Tabata needs to develop his power before being called up also rings a bit hollow with Milledge giving the team so little.  The important point here is that Tabata's promotion basically closes the door on Milledge, at least for the rest of this year.  He becomes the team's fourth outfielder and will have to share at bats, at least conceptually, with Church and Delwyn Young.  That may mean the door closes on Milledge in Pittsburgh permanently, which may be a bit premature.
The poster child for the youth movement is Pedro Alvarez and he, surprisingly, may be the last of these four to get the call.  General Manager Neal Huntington and Minor-League Director Kyle Stark have implied that Alvarez's promotion depends, at least a little, on the performance of others.  As mentioned above, Milledge's performance effects Tabata and Clement's effected Pearce, etc.  Pedro is being "blocked"--for lack of a better term--at the moment by his struggle to hit for a better average, largely due to his lack of success against lefties, and the incumbent Andy LaRoche.
The parallels between LaRoche and Milledge are starting to become apparent.  LaRoche has now had more than 900 PAs with the Pirates and has 18 home runs and a .671 OPS.  As much as I have wanted him and Milledge to be successful, it really may be time to start moving on.  It's difficult to argue that they haven't gotten an opportunity.  LaRoche had a great September last year and a torrid stretch at the end of April, but it now just appears that he just has a propensity to be streaky.  And, unfortunately, that streakiness has carried over to the field where his once-believed-to-be-above-average glove had been anything but this year.  
I have strongly advocated LaRoche taking pregame grounders at second for over a month now so that he can eventually compete with Aki and Walker for playing time there, but that apparently has yet to happen.  I have no idea why.  If the Pirates were willing to experiment with Delwyn Young learning the job on the fly in real games last year, they should at least be exploring this idea because when Pedro comes up he is certain to play everyday.  Unfortunately LaRoche's lack of lateral mobility may signify that the switch may not be as easy as I hoped.  He eventually may become this year's Bobby Crosby.
Obviously the Tabata, Alvarez and Pearce moves (returning from the DL) will need corresponding roster moves.  It would be incomprehensible to me if the first of these is not DFAing Iwamura.  This has been covered enough, but it is the best move for the team as Aki is 31, a free agent at the end of the season and no longer in the team's plans.  The second and easiest move, albeit contingent on performance, will be sending down Jeff Clement when Pearce comes back--which could be up to four weeks if he does a full rehab stint in Indy.   I'm all for the chance Clement has gotten and that should continue, so this move will be evaluated based on his production over the next month.
This then brings us to the more difficult decisions, but only because they involve the team potentially losing assets.  Let's be clear.  We are talking about fringe roster positions here (see John Raynor), so it shouldn't impact the organization long-term, but will effect the composition nonetheless.  The last decision involves what to do with the group of Delwyn Young, Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby.  Crosby's position appears to be safe for the year as he is the only remotely adequate backup to Ronny Cedeno at short, so he mostly likely stays.  Young turns 28 in June and really lacks a position defensively.  He is a reasonable backup outfielder and has shown some success as a pinch hitter.  His career OPS is .712 in 645 PAs and I think that is a fair description of who he is.  Church is 31 and has a career .779 OPS  and is a solid fourth outfielder.  He had a disappointing season last year with only 4 HRs in 399 PAs--exactly the same as Milledge has in the exact same number of PAs in his Pirates career by the way, and has only a .633 OPS in 93 PAs this year.  With his age and injuries I think we have seen the best of Church.  Earlier this month manager John Russell made the laughable statement that is was hard not to keep running him out there, implying that he was playing so well.  (That has only been topped by Russell's gem that leadoff hitter Aki Iwamora's inability to get on base was not the reason the team wasn't scoring runs.)  Church hasn't been good, but he may have a little value at the trade deadline.  The Pirates own his rights for another year, which means he would probably make about  $2 million next year if he were to go to arbitration.  The team controls DY for another four years and could renew him for about $450K.  I guess I would look first to trade Church.  If that didn't work I think I would DFA him over DY, but I'm sure others might feel differently.  My reasoning is there is a small chance DY is with the team next year at $450K and I see very little chance of keeping Church for $2 million based on his performance, not cost per se.
In July the Pirates will then be approaching another trade deadline and that date has produced fireworks the past couple of years.  Catcher Ryan Doumit has value, but with Tony Sanchez at least two full seasons away I don't see him getting moved.  That leaves pitchers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke and various members of the bullpen.  This is just rampant speculation, so I will leave Maholm and Duke for another time.  The one point that I think is worth making is that Octavio Dotel has a reasonable club option on his contract for next year at $4.5 million.  If he continues to pitch as he has in May, he could bring a solid return at the deadline.  With Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek looking like the real deal, there is no reason to keep Dotel around if the team can get a good baseball return.  Brendan Donnelly, D.J. Carrasco and Javier Lopez could all bring small returns at the deadline, but I wouldn't expect much.  Rather, I would hope the team would consider resigning each of them.  Donnelly could elect to become a free agent, the other two would be arbitration-eligible.
I'm not sure I would call it the cavalry, but it appears to me that change is definitely upon us and the team is moving in the right direction.  There appears to be some good talent in the system that is pushing its way up the ladder.  Supplemented with another good draft, the course, in my opinion, appears sound.  The evaluation process continues.  We should have some new pieces to look at starting today.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jason Bay & Joey Bats

This past off-season the Mets signed 31-year old Jason Bay to a four year $66 million contract.  The former Red Sox and Pirate outfielder swatted 36 homers last year, had a .921 OPS and was generally seen as one of the two most desirable free agent hitters on the market.  The Mets jumped at the chance to sign him, even though it appeared they were bidding against themselves.

Jose Bautista, another former Pirate, played for the Toronto Blue Jays last year.  Playing in 113 games the now 29-year old Bautista put up some of the best numbers of his career.  He hit 13 home runs and had an OPS of .757, finishing the season hot, hitting 6 home runs in his last 35 at bats.  In the off-season he re-upped with the Blue Jays,  agreeing to a one year $2.4 million contract, avoiding arbitration.  It is the same salary he earned the year before.

In an odd coincidence, both Bay and Bautista have had 153 at bats so far in 2010.  Named American League Player of the Week on Monday, Bautista clubbed his 12th homer of the season yesterday.  Bay is still looking for his second.

As mentioned Bautista finished last season on a tear with 6 homers in his last 35 at bats.  Bay had zero home runs in his last 35 at bats last year.  So, in the pair's most-recent 188 at bats Jose Bautista has now out-homered Jason Bay 18-1.

New York Mets GM Omar Minaya might want to have a different JB, as in Johnny Black, after reading this post.  

Best Bullpen in MLB? Here's a Surprising Case for the Pirates

Here are the numbers for the major contributors to the Pirates bullpen from May 1 thru May 19th.
Dotel 8G  8IP  2Hits  4BBs     12Ks  0HRs  1ER  1.13ERA  30BF  .080/.233/.160
Han. 10G  9.2IP  6Hits  2BBs  14Ks  1HR  1ER  0.93ERA  37BF  .176/.243/.324
Meek 8G  11IP  8Hits  3BBs  12Ks  0HRs  1ER  0.82ERA  44BF  .205/.279/.256
Lopez 6G  6IP  3Hits   0BBs   4Ks  0HRs  1ER  1.50ERA  22BF  .136/.136/.227

Total --- 34.2 IP 19Hits  9BBs  42Ks  1HR  4ER  1.05ERA  133BF (3HBP, O Sac flys)  .158/.235/.250  0.808 WHIP

The team is 8-10 during this stretch in May and has lost four of those games by one run.  The other six losses have been by four runs or more.  In the four one-run losses the four pitchers listed above have pitched 8.1 innings and given up one run and took the loss.  In the eight wins, the group has a win and six saves.  During the year the team is 12-1 when tied or leading after six innings.
The Pirates still have many problems, but they may have the most effective bullpen in the majors at the moment. Certainly it's the most cost effective.  The total salary of the four guys listed is just a touch over $5 million for 2010.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Great Lines from Guys on Blog Boards

The thread on Bucs Dugout was discussing whether Pirates prospect Neil Walker was good enough defensively to play second base in the majors:

"Considering that he only has to play better than Young and 2 statues (the bronze one of Maz outside the park.....and Iwamura)....he shouldn't have a difficult time being a better fielder at 2nd."----Thunder

Very solid.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Smorgasbord: Pirates Style, Leading Off with Another JR Special

Last week I skewered John Russell for this quote on Aki Iwamora.  Yesterday he produced this gem when asked about Ryan Church who had started the last four games, and had started eight in a row before hurting his wrist.  The question from Dejan Kovacevic was asking if Church had become an everyday player.
I don't know about everyday.  The way he's been playing, it's hard to keep him out of there.
Here are Church's stats this year.  Suffice it to say his triple slash line of .211/.250/.382, three walks and 16 strikeouts makes one wonder what glue factory Russell is living next to.   Even worse, Church's May numbers are .150/.190.350.  His 1 for his last 25 (.040) with two walks and eight strikeouts is genuinely Akiesque.

In last night's impressive win over Phillie ace Roy Halladay, Church failed to get runner home from third with less than two outs on two occasions.   I guess that all made it a little easier for JR.  Both Aki and Church are out of the lineup tonight for only the second time since April 30--although Aki is still dinged up.

Here are a bunch of links from around the web relating to the Pirates:

•With the 49th pick in the supplemental first round of the 2009 amateur draft the Pirates selected hard-throwing right hander Victor Black out of Dallas Baptist University.  Black, pitching for the Class A West Virginia Power, got a late start to the season due to an oblique injury.  Here's a look at his first outing thanks to the Charleston Daily Mail.

•In a pay-to-play website ESPN's Keith Law reviews his Top 25 Prospects and re-calibrates now that we are a quarter of the way through the season.  No Pedro Alvarez and no other Pirates farmhands on the list.

•It has been a year since the Pirates-Braves trade in which Nate McLouth and Charlie Morton were the principals and it isn't looking too good for either team at the moment.  Morton is 1-7 (the Pirates are 16-15 in games he hasn't started) and questions are being raised about whether Nate will keep his starting job in Atlanta.

•Bryan Morris is the first minor-leaguer to get promoted as he makes the jump from High-A Bradenton to AA Altoona.  Morris absolutely dominated in Bradenton.  Here's what I wrote on Bucs Dugout:

•The Bucs signed six Latin American amateurs:

•Former Bucco Jose Bautista is tied for third in the AL with 11 HRs.  Late-bloomer?  Here is a look at what is going on from MLBTradeRumors. (Note: Ex-Pirate Ty Wigginton is tied for second with 12.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dumb Baseball Quotes

If I compiled a list of the dumbest things said by athletes I think the internet might crash.  Sure, there is the occasional Yogi Berra or Satchel Paige--legendary for their quick-witted and comical quips.  When it comes to laughing out loud due to unintentional comedy Micky Rivers and Rickey Henderson had few peers.  But most of the time you get inane or just downright dumb stuff.  Here is Zach Duke with the latest edition, courtesy of Dejan at the Post-Gazette:
I just need to try not to do too much, which the competitiveness in me always wants.  I always want to do more, always want to be better.  When I do that, though, it tends to spiral the other way.  It's a matter of being comfortable with what I'm doing, to be more in control.
What?  Just go out and try to suck tonight Zach.

RESULT: Zach got it right last night.  He went out and twirled a gem--against the best offense in the National League, no less.  Six innings, six hits, one run.  He beat the Phillies and Roy Halladay 2-1.  Nice win.  The secret of Zach's success?  He has yet to comment other than to say "I just needed to get back on top of the ball."  Hmmmm......Just don't overthink it Nook.

Monday, May 17, 2010

More Aki! and a Hometown Boy

The Pirates have a nice little opportunity to make a roster move today that could pay bigger dividends in the long run.  Let's hope they make it.

As I surmised when Aki Iwamura couldn't get his bunt down on Saturday and then grounded into a double play--pushing his May average below the age of our President--he also hurt himself.  I don't wish for Aki to be hurt, but he is, so let's make a good decision here.

DL Aki and promote Pittsburgh native Neil Walker today.  A tight hamstring doesn't heal in a day or two.  Aki is going to be out four or five days minimum, and I would bet it is more likely to be a week.  In promoting Walker, it is important to note that his service time is right on the borderline and he will become a Super Two if he comes up before July.  Without getting into the technicalities, it is better for the Pirates if Walker doesn't come up this week and stays a minor-leaguer for about three more days.  

Having said that here is how the Bucs can have the best of both worlds:  1.) Aki needs a break, but he is too experienced to just send to the minors.  Now that he is hurt he can spend a week healing and a few days on a minor league "rehab assignment." 2.) When Aki's 15 day DL stint is done send Walker back to AAA, no matter how well he performs, in order to guarantee an extra year of control.  It would be hard to argue with the move.  If Walker plays great with the big club, the Pirates can just take a week or two to figure out their next roster move and bring him back up.  There would be no grounds for a grievance on Walker's or the Players Union's part.

Here is the larger point.  I am not nearly as concerned about Walker's arbitration clock as I am about Pedro's or Lincoln's or Morris' etc., but if the Pirates can manage it, great.  This is the perfect "excuse" to give Aki a rest and then give him some time in AAA on the backside to work on his approach at the plate without embarrassing him.  (Not that I think anyone should care about that when an individual is making $4.5 million, but if you can avoid it, better still.)  At the same time the team rewards Walker and gets a good two week look at him while still being able to manage his year's of service.

Having the team play a man short for the next five to seven days is silly.  Recalling Walker now actually benefites the team.  Do it.  In my mind this is a no-brainer.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

You Gotta See This Music Video

I take no credit for finding this (credit to Joe Poz and he found it from another as well) and I hate to have an entry supersede my fantastic Playoff Predictions and Trivia entry.  And it isn't even sports-related.  I almost have nothing to say.

But, there is sooooo much to say.  How does Lady Gaga dance in those shoes?  Where do you even find shoes like that?  Why doesn't Debbie Harry get a solo verse?  Who are the people who run on stage about half way through and then why are they joined by the NYU men's water polo team?  Or is that Elton John's entourage?  Why can't the girl doing the video figure out when Sting is singing and get the camera on him?  Who kisses Bruce at the end?  Way too many questions.  To answer some, here is the New York Times' review of the concert.

You might want to check out some of the comments on Joe Poz's blog as well:
  • Not exactly James Wong Howe with the camerawork there.

  • "Simon Cowell":  It was a little karaoke for me.  Sorry, sorry, it was.

  • What's with the reincarnation of  the Indian from the Village People playing the drums?

      Some good comedy.  Fire away if you can top those.

      On the Record and Two Great Trivia Questions

      Predictions: I went three for four in the quarterfinal round of both the NBA and NHL playoffs.  No, don't look for it, it isn't on the blog.  Trust me, I did.  It wasn't hard.  While not everything has gone to form, the chalk largely held up last round.  There were two legitimate upsets, the Celts over the Cavs and Jaroslav Halak over the Penguins.  I got 'em both wrong.  But I did have Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness.

      What's interesting about the next round?  Well, for one, the MVP of both sports is out of the playoffs.  LeBron's out, of course, but how can you know about the NHL, they haven't named their MVP yet, you ask?  Crosby (Penguins), Ovechkin (Caps), Sedin (Canucks) are the three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy and they are all joining LeBron as spectators.  Interestingly only two of the top seven vote-getters for the NBA award are still around, Kobe and Dwight Howard.  And that leads me to today's first trivia question:

      How many times have the winners of the NBA and NHL MVP Award heralded from the same country?  For bonus points name the years and players.  I'll give the answer tomorrow for those who don't google it and offer a prize for the first to get it right in the comments--assuming they can convince me they didn't search the net for it first.

      The NBA: LeBron is done and his exit has elicited a maelstrom of speculation led by a) Why was he so bad the last three games of the Celtics series? and, much more importantly to most, b) What is he going to do July 1 when he can become a free agent?  I am convinced there are more people interested in where LeBron signs than who actually wins this year's title.

      Western Conference: Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers.  You can get your in-depth analysis anywhere you want.  It's pretty simple.  The Lakers are favored because of their size and the fact that they can shorten their rotation in the playoffs.  The Suns will try to outrun and outgun them because they won't be able to defend well in the half court sets.  Okay, I'll bite.  Phoenix in six in a big upset.

      Eastern Conference: Boston Celtics vs. Orlando Magic.  The Magic haven't lost in the playoffs.  The Celtics are showing signs of rekindling their magic of 2008.  A healthy Garnett and an unstoppable Rajon Rondo are a tough combination and Boston just waxed Orlando in Game 1 on the Magic's home court.  Naturally I'll take Orlando in six.

      Trivia question #2:  In the decade from 2000-01 until this year, how many of the NBA MVPs were born in the U.S.?

      The NHL: The one and two seeds in the West and the seven and eight seeds in the East are what's left.  Needless to say whoever survives the Campbell Conference tilt will be a heavy favorite to hoist the Cup.

      Western Conference: Chicago Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks.  This will pit the speed of the Hawks against the size of the Sharks.  I think Chicago is deeper and as I pointed out in my Rank the Goalies piece, the big difference is in goal.  I think Niemi is the best goalie left and Nabokov has been terrible in big moments.  I'm riding the Hawks in six.

      Eastern Conference: Nothing good for Penguins fans here.  Halak stoned Sid and the boys and Philly is the hated enemy.  I think Philly has more guys who can score and I don't think Halak can continue to carry such a big load.  He's been extraordinary so far, but I'm betting it ends in a train wreck.  Philly in five. (Philly leading 1-0 in Game 1 as I type.)

      Feel free to express your opinion in the poll on the right or in the comments.

      Saturday, May 15, 2010

      Organizational Fail or Pirates vs. Penguins

      Many of you probably don't know or care that the Pirates leadoff hitter this season has been a gentleman named Akinori Iwamura.  Aki is 31.  He's Japanese.  By all accounts he's a good guy who cares about his performance and the team's success.  Banzai!

      Unfortunately for Aki and the Pirates he has one hit in his last forty at bats.  Just to shine a light on it, that's .025 in batting average terms.  Let's shine a bright light on it.  Aki's triple slash line (average/on base percentage/slugging) is .161/.255/.234 as we approach the quarter pole of the season.  The Pirates pitchers are 4 for 57 for the season for a .070 average.  Aki's hitting a little better than the pitchers.  On the season.  In May Aki is hitting .049 and the pitchers are .118, so they've got him there.

      Aki is supplementing his hitting with little power and defensively has shown the range of a couch.  A big, heavy pullout couch.  He plays second as if he has to unbuckle his seat belt every time he starts to move.  It's not good.  He is coming off a knee injury and that would seem to be having an effect, but all in the know insist that it isn't hampering him--unless something is being lost in translation as Aki uses an interpreter.  Maybe "hurts like hell" in Japanese sounds like "fine" in English.

      Aki's had a nice career in Japan and in the U.S. to this point.   He was the starting second baseman on the Tampa Bay Rays team that made the World Series in 2008 and the Pirates picked him up in a trade this offseason.  They also picked up his contract.  Aki is getting paid very well.  He is making $4.25 million this year, the second highest-paid of all the Pirates.  But, it is clear that Aki is not producing, and in today's day and age with every game on television, recaps on all the highlight shows and countless bloggers and talk show people analyzing every move, it's tough to hide somebody's performance.  The stats are there for all to see.  Which is why this quote from Pirates manager John Russell is incomprehensible:
      "Just keep going, that's all he can do," Russell said of Iwamura.  "It's got to be a team effort.  It's not one guy.  Aki not getting on base is not the reason we're not scoring runs."
      I'm going to go out on a limb here and say players not getting on base is a very strong contributor to the team not scoring runs.  Your leadoff hitter going 1 for 40 is in fact one very large reason you are not scoring runs.  I'm going to posit that getting on base is actually the key to a team scoring runs.

      The Pirates have enough problems.  I recognize you don't always want to be critical of a player when he is struggling, but when your organization is getting ridiculed nightly by the national press--when it cares enough to pay attention--making completely asinine statements brings everything into question and makes your fans think you have no idea what is going on.

      Just as a comparison, lets look to Dan Bylsma, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.   This Bylsma quote is in the same Pittsburgh paper the exact same day, a day after the Penguins unexpectedly got bounced out of the Stanley Cup playoffs when they were prohibitive favorites to beat the Montreal Canadiens.  Bylsma is discussing two of the Penguins stars Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, courtesy of Shelly Anderson of the Post-Gazette:
      Coach Dan Bylsma didn't try to cover up the fact that Malkin and Fleury had disappointing years and drew criticism for it.  Fleury won 37 games but was inconsistent.  "With the status they have, the meaning they have to our team, the quality of players that they are, when things don't go well, you get criticism," Bylsma said.  "Evgeni Malkin was roughly 40 points less than last year.  There's going to be some questions and some criticisms.  I think [Malkin] feels those.  We think [Malkin] is a 114-point guy.  He wasn't that this year for us."
      The new management of the Pirates has made a point of constantly stressing accountability.  There will be no scholarships, everything will be done on merit is the motto.  That's fantastic.  Banzai! again.  And while I have two or three suggestions as to how the Pirates can best solve the problem at second base, I'll save those for another time.  What I will suggest is, if the team wants to have any credibility with its fans don't completely ignore the elephant in the room.  Address it.  The answer doesn't have to be "Aki's terrible and he's killing us."  But, take a lesson from the Penguins.  Being accountable means discussing things in a reasonably honest fashion.

      The organization gets to decide when changes should be made, the fans don't.  Maybe the team wants to stick with the player a while longer to see if he can turn things around.  Fine.  The fans may not like it, but it is the team's decision.  But, don't tell the fans that problems don't exist when they are so blatantly obvious.  It makes the manager and the organization look like fools.

      Okay, one more suggestion.  Sayonara means goodbye.  Time to cut Aki loose.

      Thursday, May 13, 2010

      "Best Lines" Hall of Fame, Third Inductee

      "Rondo's gettin' better, we fittin' him in.  At some point he's going to take this team over.  That's a big adjustment for us.  But he's a great addition to our team.  I think the chemistry's startin' to be sound now."--Kevin Garnett following Boston's game six win over the Cleveland, clinching the series four games to two.

      Rondo is the fifth longest-tenured Celtic, his four years being one more than Garnett himself.  He was the starting point guard on their Championship team three years ago.  He just averaged 20.7 points, 11.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in the six game series, leading the team in all but rebounds where he was third.  His game four performance where he went off for 29,13,18 and 2 was historic.  Rajon Rondo meet Kevin Garnett.  Kevin, Rajon.

      That's a nice new addition they just got.  Good of Kevin and the boys to fit him in.

      Dead or Canadiens?

      Remember the game?  Peter Jennings, John Denver, John Candy, Michael J. Fox?  When they do the autopsy on Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens they won't need to call in the forensics experts from CSI.  Cause of death was clear.  Blunt force trauma to the back of the net.

      I haven't seen or heard an interview or read anybody else's take, but you don't need a graduate degree in iceology to know the better team won.  Pittsburgh was the better team in each of the first six games, yet the series was tied 3-3.  Last night was a blowout.  I had suggested that the only way the Canadiens had a chance in this series was if they dominated special teams.  I was wrong.  Through six games the Canadiens hadn't dominated special teams, yet they were right in it.  Last night they did dominate special teams and the game was never in doubt.  In 1967 Jean Beliveau scored the first goal in the Civic Arena as the Canadiens welcomed the Penguins to the NHL with a 2-1 defeat.  Brian Gionta put a big bleu, blanc et rouge bow of symmetry on the old building when he cashed in at 10:00 of the third period to seal a 5-2 Montreal win.

      There was little drama.  Sidney Crosby took a penalty ten seconds in and for the third time in the last four games the Penguins found themselves behind in the first few minutes.  There was a moment at the start of the third period, down 4-2, when there was a chance for the home team.  The crowd was into it.  The momentum was turning.  With a four on three power play to start the last twenty, the Penguins could  close the deficit to one.  But forces, namely Hall Gil and Josh Georges, conspired against them.  And as was the case with their other five chances, they failed to score.  All that remained was the handshake line, a wonderful tradition, but such emphatic closure for the loser.

      Jacques Martin put together a fabulous game plan.  Jaroslav Halak was tremendous in goal.  Mike Cammalleri continued his Guy Lafleur impersonation and the Canadiens played solid, responsible and opportunistic hockey throughout the lineup.  On Pittsburgh's side the finger pointing can start at the top and include virtually everyone.  Ray Shero's trade deadline acquisitions added little this year.  Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for two goals in the series.  Sergei Gonchar played his worst game in five years and hardly seemed to care.  Marc-Andre Fleury continued to be spectacularly inconsistent and, for a change, failed to come up big after a loss.  Few others stepped up to help carry the load.

      The full post-mortem can be written another day, but suffice it to say the Penguins did not close the Civic Arena in grand fashion.  It is a wonderful old building with the charm that comes with age and, more importantly, memories.  I wonder if, in a nod to history the schedule makers will have Montreal help the Penguins open the new one this fall, because that's the next time the Penguins will hit the ice in any meaningful fashion.  Congratulations to Montreal.  Last night it was better to be the Canadiens.

      Wednesday, May 12, 2010

      History Will Be Made

      There is nothing like a Game 7 in hockey.  The drama, the intensity, the sudden shifts in momentum are unmatched in any other sport.  Now forge one in America's most hockey-crazed town, where the fans' passion for the sport and the team is approaching a level once reserved only for American football's most successful franchise.  Make it such that the home team is the defender of the most iconic of sports trophies, the Stanley Cup.  Pit as the opponent the sport's most successful franchise, whose name has been engraved on that Cup twenty-four times.  For good measure make the storied-franchise the underdog and then play the game in the defender's building, the oldest in the League, a place where one of the game's immortals, now the home team's owner, made his name.  A building where the visiting team was the first to ever play the host, a game the visitors won 2-1 on October 11, 1967.  Play it on an ice sheet that will never host another contest if the home team loses again this time.

      And here we are, May 12, 2010.  Not bad for drama.  Games that aren't part of the Stanley Cup Finals don't get bigger than this.  The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens.  One team is an expansion franchise from 1967 with an odd mascot that didn't begin to record its hockey identity until the 1990s.  The other is one of the Original Six, defines the word venerable and reeks with tradition and gravitas, the preeminent team in the sport and the country where it is king.  The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in 1991.  The Canadiens won their last in 1993.  The Penguins have been to the Finals the past two years.  The Canadiens haven't even made the Conference Finals since their Cup run in '93.

      The subplots are equally sublime.  Sidney Crosby, possibly the most-recognized Canadian on the planet, captains the Penguins.  Less than three months ago he scored the winning goal in the Olympic gold medal game between Canada and the U.S.  On Canadian soil.  He is booed mercilessly in Montreal.  The Montreal blueliner in charge of keeping Crosby off the scoresheet is Hal Gill.  Gill, an American, was an integral part of the Penguins Cup-winning team last year, his name engraved just a few spots away from Crosby's on Lord Stanley's hardware.

      The backstops add even more to the storyline.  Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the first pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, is from Sorel, Quebec less than sixty miles from Montreal.  He's 25 and has helped the Penguins to consecutive Cup Finals, winning last year.  If he can get them to a third he will be the first goalie to do that in 25 years.  In Montreal he is the enemy.  Instead, Habs fans support Jaroslav Halak a native of  Bratislava, Slovakia,  who was taken 271st in that same 2003 draft--270 picks after Fleury.  Tonight will be only his fourteenth career playoff start.

      It's impossible to know whether one of these four will be the central figure in tonight's drama.  It's unclear whether Gill will even play after suffering an injury in Game 5.  Will Crosby, who has been overshadowed by Mike Cammalleri and his series-leading six goals, find his goal scoring touch and push the Penguins along in their title defense?  Or will Halak, the best goalie in the playoffs thus far, lead the Canadiens to another improbable upset, the day before his 25th birthday.

      It's tied at three games each.  Tonight is Game 7.  Tonight we will have an answer.  Tonight the NHL's playoff tag line finally fits.  History will be made.  Enjoy it.  It rarely is ever better than this.

      Tuesday, May 11, 2010

      Game 7s/Pittsburgh

      The title conjures up images of Bill Mazeroski, a home run over the left field wall of Forbes Field and a 1960 World Series triumph over the New York Yankees.  That's it.  That's all we have.  For all the titles that the former Steel City or City of Champions has enjoyed over the last eighty years, no other has occurred on home soil, let alone come from a Game 7 victory in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates' '71 and '79 triumphs over the Baltimore Orioles went to seven games with the Bucs making stirring comebacks each time, but both of those closed with wins at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.  The Steelers don't play Super Bowls at home and the Penguins closed out their three Stanley Cup wins on the road.  So Maz's homer is your only championship on home turf if you're a Pittsburgh native--and you have to be sixty or seventy years old to have seen it.

      For the younger generation the term Game 7 stirs a few demons that need to be vanquished.  Baseball fans remember ex-Pirate Sid Bream sliding home with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves.  While few losses could be as crushing and the Pirates haven't sniffed the post-season since, it did occur in the ATL.  The Steelers tortured their fanbase under Bill Cowher by going 2-4 in home AFC title games, but, while dramatic, it isn't the same as a seven-game series.

      Game 7s in hockey are a different animal and we haven't seen one here in a long time.  For the Penguins the early results were mixed.  Back in '75 there was no hardware in the trophy case and no banners flying from the rafters of the Igloo when the Penguins blew a three games to none lead to the New York Islanders--one of only two teams ever to squander such a lead--losing Game 7 at home 1-0.  Fortunes changed in 1991 when, down three games to two in the first round to the New Jersey Devils, Frank Pietrangelo, playing in place of an injured Tom Barrasso, made "the Save."  The Penguins then rallied to win Game 7 at home and won their first Stanley Cup later that year.  The next year saw another first round comeback as the Penguins were down three games to one to the Washington Capitals before winning three straight, taking Game 7 in Washington, and cruising to their second Cup in as many years.  

      But, from there the trail is largely gilded with rousing success on the road and littered with heartache at home.  In '99 and '01 the Pens won a Game 7 on the road each year and the 2009 playoffs saw the Penguins not only win a Game 7 at Washington, but also a Game 7 in Detroit to win their third Stanley Cup.  On the flip side, in '93 David Volek scored at 5:16 of overtime in the second round of the playoffs and the New York Islanders ended the Penguins' Cup run at two at home, defeating the team many think was the Penguins' best ever.  And in '96 the Pens blew a 3-2 games lead and again lost Game 7 of the Conference Finals on home ice to the Florida Panthers.  

      So, when you wonder why the fans are quaking in their boots Wednesday night when the Penguins host the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7, just look at the record.  History doesn't seem to favor them.  The team has played eight Game 7s since 1992.  They are 5-0 on the road including a Cup clincher last year in Detroit, but only 1-2 at home.  The team hasn't hosted a Game 7 since 1996, so none of the current players were around.  But many of the fans were.  And if they want to see that second title won on Pittsburgh soil in the last eighty years, they have get over the first hump Wednesday night.

      Thursday, May 6, 2010

      Rank the Goalies

      Barry Melrose said this morning on ESPN radio that he thought, of all the teams remaining in the playoffs, Boston was playing the best.  He is clearly expressing his opinion and most opinions have validity at some level.  Unfortunately, Barry's doesn't.

      San Jose has won six games in a row after being down 2-1 in the first round against Colorado.  Pittsburgh is 6-2 after losing their opening playoff game to Ottawa.  While Boston has won four games in a row, three were on home ice, and the last three wins have come against a seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyer team that is missing Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne and is backstopped by Brian Boucher.  In the first round they beat a Buffalo team whose leading goal scorer missed three of the six games.  Yes Boston is playing well, but there has to be some grade for degree of difficulty--even if it isn't the Bruins' fault.  I think you can make an airtight case that at least two teams are playing better at the moment.

      Now that I've skewered Mr. Melrose for his stance, I'll take one of my own.  Feel free to begin the skewering.  Here is my ranking of the eight goalies that are left in the playoffs.  This isn't based on stats.  It also isn't necessarily a reflection of how far a guy's team is going to go in the playoffs.  It's the order I would take the netminders FOR THE REST OF THIS YEAR'S PLAYOFFS, all playing with an equivalent team.

      • 8.  Brian Boucher (Flyers): He tries hard.  It's nice he won a playoff series for the first time since 2000.  At 33 he's unlikely to ever be back this way again.
      • 7.  Roberto Luongo (Canucks): He won a gold medal with Canada, but he's never gotten past the second round of the playoffs.  He is the most overrated player in the NHL.
      • 6.  Jimmy Howard (Red Wings): The 26 year-old rookie had a great regular season, but the playoff stage looks a little too big for him at the moment.
      • 5.  Evgeni Nabokov (Sharks): Another who has never risen to the occasion in past playoffs.  He was a sieve when it mattered in the Olympics.  Why will it change now?
      •  4.  Tuuka Rask (Bruins): I'm sure Bruins fans wouldn't trade him for anyone on this list (they aren't so smart to begin with though).  At 23 he may have actually been the best goalie in the league this year although his name isn't in the converstaion because his team was terrible most of the season.  He's the reason they are in the playoffs.
      •  3.   Jaroslav Halak (Canadiens):  See above.  Flip a coin.
      •  2.  Marc-Andre Fleury:  Proven winner.  Only Cup holder in the group.
      •  1.  Antti Niemi (Blackhawks): The other 26 year-old rookie also had a big regular season, seizing the starting job from Cristobal Huet.  He's a wild card, but he reminds me of a young Dominik Hasek, who got his first playoff taste with the Hawks back in 1992.  He's the only goalie with two shutouts so far this playoff season.  I just don't think he knows better.
      That's my list.  I think it is interesting that the West may have three of the four best remaining teams, but only one of the four best remaining goalies.  I think we'll see numbers 1 & 2 in the Final, but not just because of their goalies.

      Tuesday, May 4, 2010

      Buildings and Banners.

      The Bell Centre isn't the historic Montreal Forum.  It has only been around for 14 years and has already changed its name.  Its tenant, the Montreal Canadiens, has won 24 Stanley Cups, but none since they relocated on March 16, 1996.  Les Habitants aren't the dynasty of years past, but let's be clear, one thing hasn't changed.  The fans in Montreal bring it.  Every game.  Hockey is the loom that weaves the French and English speaking Quebecois together, and what could top hosting a playoff game against the defending champs captained by league and Canadian poster boy Sidney Crosby?

      The twenty-one thousand and change in attendance on Tuesday night brought it big time.  Penguins announcer Mike Lange asked his radio audience if they could hear him because he couldn't hear himself.  That energy carried over to their beloved bleu, blanc et rouge who came out flying.  No Jordan Staal (lacerated tendon), no Billy Guerin (illness), and a smoking hot opposing goalie in Jaroslav Halak didn't breed optimism in the Penguins' faithful.  The first twenty minutes only heightened their concern.

      But, to the fans chagrin, the two guys I have pointed to as being the keys to another successful Cup run for the defenders brought it as well.  Marc-Andre Fleury stoned P.K. Subban in the first, Mike Cammalleri early in the third, robbed Tomas Plekanec late and made fifteen other saves to post his fourth career playoff shutout.  For all the heat that Fleury takes from a portion of his own fanbase, he consistently makes the big save and comes through when the Penguins need him most.  He gives up more soft goals than one would like.  His GAA and save percentage aren't among the league leaders.  But he's been to consecutive Cup finals and if he can help the Pens return again this year, he will be the first goalie to backstop a team to three straight finals appearances since 1983.  Fleury is rarely the belle of the ball and tonight he might not even have been the belle of the Bell as Halak continued his own spectacular play.  But it's about results.  Fleury gets them.

      Teammate Evgeni Malkin finally shifted gears and played at the level that earned him the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP a year ago.  Geno exasperates with his up and down performances, but at his best his peer group wouldn't make up a complete foursome on the first tee.  During the last 40 minutes he was the best skater on the ice, dominating at both ends and attempting to make sure the Penguins don't have to worry about tee times for at least another couple of weeks.

      After being off the scoresheet the past four games, Malkin netted the game winner early in the third period.  His power play marker came off a beautiful pass from countryman Sergei Gonchar as he posted up at his favorite spot just above the right circle and ripped a slapper past Halak.  Malkin spent two years living with Gonchar when he first moved to Pittsburgh and they worked on that pass countless times in Gonch's backyard.  The practice paid off for the duos' fourth power play goal in this year's playoffs and proved to be all Fleury needed at the other end.  Pascual Dupuis' empty netter put a ribbon on the 2-0 victory and the Penguins moved back ahead in the series two games to one.

      The Penguins are now 4-0 on the road in this year's playoffs and will look to make it five on Thursday.  With Staal's injury apparently not as serious as first feared, Justin Leopold returning from concussion and continued strong play from depth guys like Jay McKee and Mark Letestu all appears to be in place for the Pittsburghers to continue playing into June.  If Fleury and Malkin are in top form as they were Tuesday night the Penguins might inaugurate their own new building this fall with the banner that the raucous fans in Montreal have yet to see their faithful earn in the Bell Centre.