Monday, November 15, 2010

The NBA's Next Great Young Team: An Introduction

This past Friday I was treated to a pleasant surprise at my local bar.

No, it wasn’t free Budweiser night. The bar had the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers game on TV. For a born again NBA junkie like myself, this scratched me right where I itched.
Portland and OKC are both recent NBA darlings. While they do not yet have the mainstream appeal of the Boston/Miami/LA trio, each team has a lot of similar qualities to like that, coupled with a few positive breaks, could launch them to America’s team status.

Each team currently sports a great cast of characters. Likeable (i.e. appeals to the corporate crowd) star/superstar (Brandon Roy/Kevin Durant). Explosive second banana (LaMarcus Aldridge/Russell Westbrook). Quietly effective and underrated third wheels (Nicolas Batum/Jeff Green). Young, homegrown role players (Rudy Fernandez, Dante Cunningham, Armon Johnson/James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Cole Aldrich). Token white guys (Sean Marks, Luke Babbit/Aldrich, Nick Collison). Foreign-born players galore (Batum, Fernandez, Patrick Mills/Ibaka, Nenad Kristic, Thabo Sefolosha). Not to mention fellow UMass alum Marcus Camby and Greg Oden’s, um, manhood.

Moving beyond the players and looking at the laundry, we (that being the royal we) also find a lot to like. Each team has one of the best fan bases in all of sports. This makes a lot of sense when you consider both are the only pro game going in each state, unless we want to include the Tulsa Shock and Portland Timbers (hint: we don’t). The teams are run by very smart front offices that embrace new statistical analysis, excel in salary cap management and building through the draft that should keep these teams relevant for the next decade. Both franchises have NBA championships, though neither has won since the ‘70s and OKC won theirs in Seattle. In addition, both franchises maintain a tortured history in one form or another that includes Portland’s continued failure to draft a healthy franchise big man and the current Thunder owners stealing the team from Seattle.

But what I, and I think many other people, find most compelling about the current iterations of these two teams is the collection of young talent each has assembled over the past five years and the success and potential of that talent. These teams represent the most recent examples of “The NBA’s Next Great Young Team.”

So, in one of the most deeply buried leads ever, over the next few weeks I plan to use the Thunder and Trail Blazers as case studies for “The NBA’s Next Great Young Team.” I’m still not sure what this will entail, but it will include the following among other things:
  • How do we define “The NBA’s Next Great Young Team?”
  • A look back at each franchise to understand how each were knocked down before they could be built up again
  • How were the Thunder and Blazers built?
  • The tremendous expectations placed on each team in the year it was all supposed to come together and how they responded
  • The similarities and differences between the Thunder and Blazers
  • Looking at teams over the last 30 or so years to find other examples of “The NBA’s Next Great Young Team” and how they succeeded
  • Deciding whether or not this is a successful way to build a team and measuring different definitions of success
  • Examining the current NBA landscape to identify teams with the potential to claim “The NBA’s NEXT Next Great Young Team”
Hopefully this is something I will carry out to the bitter end because I think it will be a great way to look through some of the more exciting teams in recent NBA history both statistically and anecdotally. If anyone has any suggestions along the way on how to make the discussion better or would like to assist in the research please let me know. And I know this isn’t Boston sports, but I think we can all get our fill of that plenty of other places for the time being, like here.

Stay tuned for Part 1 of “The NBA’s Next Great Young Team.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Week 1 Thoughts

  1. I am slacking: Writing a sports blog, a burger blog, working 40 hours a week, having a girlfriend, and partying is a tough mix.  Some things have to suffer.  Unfortunately Sexy Boston Sports has taken the hit thus far.  I shoulda known my 25 player profiles were a little too ambitious.  I'm such a dick.
  2. We know nothing: Just as is in any other season, we do not "know" anything purely from Week 1.  Some previously formed thoughts are backed up and others are contradicted, but that doesn't mean anything is set in stone.  Yet.  Mostly.
  3. Jon Lester is cooked and Jason Varitek is BACK!!!:  Of course neither of these are true.  This is my point about not "knowing" anything after Week 1.  Lester has been a slow starter the past couple years for whatever reason and faced the best offense in baseball (Yankees) and a much much much improved offense in Minnesota.  And as for the Captain, 2 HR in his only game this year is a nifty trick (especially with one of them coming off Cy Greinke, who gave up 11 HR in 229 innings last year), but let's not go pushing Barry Bonds aside as the Home Run King.  If Tito handles his bench properly we should expect Tek's numbers to look much better this year than in years past.
  4. done: This may be one of those things we do know.  Despite his "hot" last four months last year (really from a DH these were only good months), his season overall was pretty pedestrian.  The truth is Papi is (listed) 34 years old, benefited to some degree from steroids at some point in his career, and his top comparable is Mo Vaughn, and Sox, Mets, and Angels fans all know how that went.  I really thought he would still be able to crush righties this year, but his bat has been slow and he is losing his formerly stellar batting eye to compensate.  Of course Tito has left him in against Sabathia and Pettite which should never happen at this point especially with Lowell and Varitek on the bench.  This should change.
  5. The Yankees are really good: They went 4-2 against the Red Sox and Rays on the road, easily the toughest first week schedule.  Their 2 weaknesses are age and bullpen, but if no injuries happen and if this particular group of relievers has a good season (which is mostly random chance) then this might be a scary good team.  Of course, I already declared them AL East champs months ago, so I guess I already knew this.
  6. What's with all the off days?: The Red Sox get 14 non-All-Star-Break days off this year (ya I counted).  Over 1/5 of those came in the first week of the season!  When players are most rested.  WTF schedule makers?  Must be in their name (Feeney).
  7. The offense is going to be ok: With the focus on "run prevention" this offseason, a lot of media members (especially a-hole Michael Felger on 98.5 the Sports Hub) assumed this meant the Sox offense would collapse.  "How could you possibly score enough runs without Jason Bay?"  "Mike Cameron is a striking out bum who does nothing!"  "Marco who?"  Well, what a lot of these idiots failed to notice was how deep the Sox bench got as well as the actual changes between this year and last year.  This year we have a full season of V-Mart, a big shortstop upgrade in the OBP department, a former top 3 prospect in Hermida as our 4th outfielder, a versatile backup IF/OF in Billy Hall, and two righties who mash lefties in Tek and Lowell.  Now we gotta do something about Papi...
  8. Baseball is still the best: Good God I love baseball.  Opening day almost brought me to tears.  So many intriguing teams this year.  Four great prospects who will make their debut this year (Heyward, Strasburg, Chapman, and Posey), all of whom play in the NL, hopefully closing the gap.  The Holy Trinity Teams of the AL East.  Roy Halladay playing Goliath to the National League's toddlers.  I could go on forever, but I just need to say how glad I am to have baseball back.
Hopefully I can put more words to screen over the rest of the season and I am sure to return to the Celtics now that the playoffs are starting soon and this mythical switch is about to be flipped.    I cannot wait to see how the rest of the 155 games play out this year.

Friday, March 5, 2010

6. Adrian Beltre, 3B

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:

31 499 58 27 1 17 62 34 79 9 3 .274 .328 .446 1.5

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"Beltre is an excellent defender and in most seasons an acceptable hitter, but he's not smart enough to wear a cup. The world found out more than it wanted to know about Beltre's privates when a bad-hop grounder, with almost Darwinian precesion, scored a bull's-eye on August 12th...Pitchers preyed on his weakened [shoulder], challenging him, and his walk rate nearly went the way of his testicles...Safeco Field has a strong prejudice against right-handed hitters...[Beltre hit] .276/.326/.485 with a home run every 24 at-bats on the road...Beltre will never again finish second on an MVP ballot, but he's young enough to recapture some of his old luster playing in Fenway."

X-Mark's Take:

I've already professed my love here and here (but of course MLB has taken the video of his defensive highlights down so you'll just have to wait until the season starts to see his brilliance; I will save my rant against MLB's video rules for another day), so at the risk of coming off as a stalker I will keep this brief and professional.

We already know his defense is going to be sublime. The huge question is what will he bring to the offense?

This is the first true hacker the Sox have had in a prominent role in quite some time. Beltre does not work the count and does not take a whole lot of walks. His OBP is batting average driven. It would be nice to think and hope that the Sox organizational philosophy will rub off on him a bit and he can bump his walks up over 50 this year, but this guy has been in the league since he was 19 (!) and pretty much what you see is what you get. The room for upside lies in his transition from Safeco Field, one of the toughest parks for right-handed batters, to Fenway, one of the most inviting.

If Beltre can learn to pepper balls off the wall this year he could turn in a really good offensive season. However, if we look at his splits last year, this may be unlikely to happen. According to Fangraphs, Beltre only hit 22% of his fly balls to left field in 2009. If he repeats this trend this year then that inviting Monster will go to waste. However if we think about this a little more and look at another number things start to look better.

First, we can infer that Beltre knew how hard it was to hit with power at Safeco having played there for 5 seasons. Knowing this, he could have begun to tailor his swing for the ball park, focusing on lofting balls to the opposite field.

Second, we can also look to his Home Run per Fly Ball percentage and see that Beltre hit 16% of his flyballs to LF for home runs.

If we put these together we can reasonably think that Beltre knows when to turn on a ball based on what he can do with it. If he brings this knowledge and ability to Fenway, he may be more prone to taking the ball to left and with his past ability to hit for power he could seriously exceed his 17 homer projection, assuming his shoulder (and testicles) is healed.

There are a lot of "ifs", "coulds" and "assumings" with my new man crush. But the man was brought here to own the left side of the infield and that is a fairly sure thing if there ever was one. So, anything he can provide us on offense we really have to view as creamy, thick, delicious gravy. Shit, so much for being professional.

5. David Ortiz, DH (for now)

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:

34 561 75 30 1 25 89 80 107 2 1 .259 .368 .479 2.1

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"Ortiz went from zero to hero last year...[hitting] .264/.356/.548 with 27 dingers in 419 PAs [after June 1]...Ortiz has largely stopped hitting lefties and hit just .223/.323/.415 on the road over the past two seasons."

X-Mark's Take:

This is where the Sox lineup takes a scary turn. If Ortiz does what he did in the last 4 months of the season last year then they should have a very solid number 5 hitter. But if his season resembles what he did overall last season with smaller peaks and valleys then this offense really could be in trouble.

But I think there is a clear solution that is really being overlooked here: a good old fashioned righty-lefty platoon that would make Earl Weaver brim with joy. That's right, I'm talking about my celebrity look alike (doppleganger? is that what it is Facebook?) Mike Lowell.

Realistically, the Sox will trade Lowell for 10 cents on the dollar AND absorb anywhere from 75%-90% of his 2010 salary, but why does this have to happen? Is this 36 year old man so fragile that he cannot get over being almost traded this winter? Can he really not get over being relegated to platoon DH and back-up first and third baseman? Mike, if you get truly down about either of these developments I suggest curling up in a big pile of your $12 million you are set to receive this year, stick your thumb in your mouth, grab your ear, and really think about what you are so upset about. If you stick around, face mostly left-handed pitching, minimize your short-comings in the field, and maximize this roster, you may have a shot at another ring and potentially another contract because teams will see all of your virtues this year and few of your weaknesses.

Last year, Ortiz hit righties to the tune of .250/.346/.488, which we could expect to see some improvement on this year if he is getting more rest and only focusing on righties. Last year, Lowell MASHED lefties at a .301/.363/.503 clip. Looks like a pretty damn good platoon to me.

There is some downside to this plan. First of all, Lowell has seemed to indicate he is not willing to play organizational soldier regardless of how much he is being paid. Second, this completely locks any other player out of getting significant ABs at DH this year, which is a spot I'm sure Theo and Tito would occasionally like to slide V-Mart into to save his body. Third, this would mean carrying 14 hitters and 11 pitchers, and even though this makes a TON of sense, it is just not done anymore by big league clubs.

This is all just wishful thinking. Most likely Ortiz is it for us at DH this year (although the team could still form a nifty platoon with V-Mart playing DH against lefties and Tek catching because he still actually hits lefties decently) and Lowell is still ticketed out of town (of late Minnesota has popped up as a possible destination, hopefully for this guy who I had a chance to scout a little this summer in my brief run as a sports agent apprentice).

What this all means is that a lot of the Red Sox offense really hinges on what Big Papi does this year. I was pretty optimistic about the offense a couple weeks ago, but now that I have started these player profiles I have to admit my sunny disposition is waning. We still look to have a pitching and defense monster on our hands, but I fear us dropping more to the middle of the pack or worse offensively than I previously thought. Of course a trade for either this guy or this guy or even my old buddy would cure a lot of ills.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B and sometimes 3B

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:
31 594 82 35 2 22 86 67 107 4 3 .283 .379 .488 2.9

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"He's an ugly, sweaty, man-beast with a pale, bald pate and a fondness for overgrown facial hair, he's got one of the game's most irritating batting stances, and he's a grade-A red-ass who takes particular exception to being pitched inside while standing on top of homeplate (most recently trying to Oddjob Rick Porcello with his batting helmet following an HBP). He's also one of the game's most valuable players."

X-Mark's Take:

Those nerds at BP sure are funny, good writers huh? I couldn't paraphrase that evaluation and leave out any of those awesome words. But obviously the takeaway is the simple, closing sentence, that our ugly friend is "one of the game's most valuable players."

With his ability to play two positions very well, take pitches and draw walks, fantastic defense at first and above average defense at third, and his surprisingly solid power spike over the past couple years, Yoooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuk has been in the conversation for top 5 position players in the AL the past 2 seasons (along with Mauer, Jeter, Cabrera, A-Rod, Longoria, Pedroia, and Shin-Soo Choo). His name is fun to scream at the pahk. His style is fun for Sox fans to root for. His ugly mug resembles that of Murph or Sully down at the docks in Gloucester. He battles every day with Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler for title of best active Jewish ballplayer (check out this video for Denis Leary's take on Youk's heritage). For better or worse he is our best player and face of the franchise.

So why is BP's projection system, PECOTA, so down on him?

First a clarification: A 2.9 WARP is comfortably above average and may even discount his defense a bit, meaning he's a bit better than this. So saying they are down may seem weird, but his WARP from '08 was 5.8 and from '09 was 5.5 so a 1.6-1.9 win tumble is really significant.

Well the answer most likely lies in his batted ball data. This is a compilation of percentages found at that show how often Youk walks, strikes out, homers, hits balls in the air, hits line drives, hits grounders, hits pop outs, and, most importantly for this discussion, hits fly balls out of the ball park.

If you click on the link and scroll down a bit, you will notice that all of these rates remain fairly constant within a percentage or two. But when you look at HR/FB (percentage of fly balls that are home runs), you see a huge spike in '08 to 14.9% that spiked again in '09 to 16.5%.

If this were 2002 you could easily explain this away with steroids. But it's not, so unfortunately (fortunately?) we have to dig a little deeper. Luckily, if you have spent (wasted?) as much time as I have over the years compiling the best baseball websites on The Net, you wouldn't have to dig that deep. The site is called Hit Tracker and it measures everything you would ever want to know about home runs including speed off the bat, altitudinal impact, and "Just Enough" (defined by Hit Tracker as " the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence") home runs. You may be able to see where I'm going with this: In '09 Youkilis finished second in the AL with 13 "Just Enoughs"; in '08 he finished fourth with 11; in '07 he finished fourteenth with 9 (out of only 16 total HR).

Now, a deep breath. If we take these numbers at face value we are lead to believe that in a year or two Youk is destined for Warning Track Power (or as I like to call it "Kevin Millar Power"). And this may be what BP's system is seeing in his unexpected power spike.

But if you look at the rest of the "Just Enough" leader board you will find it littered with Red Sox. Does this mean the entire team only has Kevin Millar Power? Hell no. What it means is that the Red Sox play in a very very unique park and as great a site and technology as Hit Tracker is, it clearly has trouble evaluating the effect of the Monster.

Look at the first definition for a just enough home run: "the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet." Well the Green Monster is 37' high meaning a ball has to be 47' in the air at the point of clearing the wall. Even at that short distance, this is really hard to do.

I think that it is really hard to change who you are as a baseball player, especially at 29 years old, as Youkilis seems to have done. Usually you can explain these supposed changes away as luck and random fluctuations, which you can do with these "Just Enough" homers. But I think you can slightly tweak the path of a swing, which I bet is what happened with Youk here allowing him to better take advantage of his home surroundings. So until I see a drop in power, I am going to expect Youk to continue to knock on the door of 30 homers for the next couple of years further cementing his place in the upper echelon of ballplayers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3. Victor Martinez, C and sometimes 1B and DH

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:

31 582 67 29 1 20 90 58 72 1 0 .283 .361 .459 3.3

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"Martinez made a full recovery from his injury-plagued 2008 season...Curiously his production at Fenway, both career and in '09, is a tick below that (.302/.377/.483)...The Sox want Martinez to spend most of his time behind the plate in 2010...Just 14 percent of opposing basestealers caught in '09."

X-Mark's Take:

As I discussed with Pedroia in my last post, it is really fortunate to have an above average to very good player at a premium position, and Martinez is just that. At 3.3 WARP projected, Martinez is certainly a very good player and probably the back up AL catcher in the All Star game this year (even the Nation can't propel V-Mart over Joe Mauer...or maybe we can, but I hope we don't, Joe is the best player in baseball and he deserves the start).

So why am I not really a fan?

For one, V-Mart is a free agent after this season which really puts the onus on the Sox to make a pretty serious decision on yet another aging veteran. If they plan to keep him around it will not come at a discount and as is very common with signing any player in his 30's to a long-term deal, the last couple years of the contract will probably look bad or even ugly.

For two, even though Victor is underrated as a catcher (he is not terrible as is mistakenly reported, he is much closer to average as a receiver), he is still not long for the position. 50+ extra base hits is great for a full time catcher, even Hall of Fame worthy, but if he has to shift to first base in a year or two, which I fully expect, he becomes merely average or below that making his likely $13-17 million dollar salary a bad contract.

For three, those caught stealing rates are truly alarming. As a former catcher I know that a huge part of catching would-be-base-stealers is having a pitcher who can hold the runner on. But 14% is really f'n bad. And from scouting reports I've seen, it does not seem that this is likely to change unless the Sox pitching staff revolutionizes the slide step move (unlikely as long as Beckett and Paps are around).

For four, well I've got nothing really else bad to say about the guy. He seems like a good teammate and he really is a great hitter for a catcher. I'm just really scared about the long-term contract we will probably throw at him because we don't have any really good catching prospects in the minors (the Yankees have 3...I guess their transition from Posada to the next wave will be rather smooth...basterds). So I guess we will have to see how the season turns out. Maybe Victor will get used to pounding balls off the Monster and maybe the pitching staff will help a brother out with some quicker moves to the plate and maybe some extra time at DH against lefties will allow him to stay fresh for years to come. It sure is fun to dream.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:

26 676 110 45 3 16 71 64 51 16 4 .311 .383 .484 4.9

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"[His downturn in 2009 was] more an indication of how good he was in 2008 than anything else...He shed so little power...His strikeout/walk ratio jumped off the charts...Even ranking second among AL second basemen in UZR [Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive statistic] for the second year in a row."

X-Mark's Take:

Not a whole lot to say here. The "scrappy little workhorse" is truly one of baseball's best talents. And it is not because he does the "little things" well and "gets his uniform dirty". It is because he provides decent power and a great batting eye from an up the middle position while also providing very good defense. That is what makes him an All Star. Not his height and not how much the club house guys dislike him for making them work extra harder to get his Boston whites clean.

But what is best about Dusty is what he means to the team: barring injury, for the next five plus years, the Red Sox do not have to worry about finding an above average second baseman.

You might wonder what is so special and difficult about finding an above average second baseman, especially with all the money the Sox have in their coffers. Which will cause me to respond (because I am in your head): how's that worked out at short stop? All that really sets a short stop apart from a second baseman is a little extra range and arm strength. Otherwise they are pretty much apples and oranges (that's right, apples and oranges are WICKED similar: round, fruit, skin on the outside, edible, orange and red aren't that different; think about this next time you compare two things that are very different and say it's like comparing apples and oranges).

The Sox have not had even an average short stop since the last two months of 2004 with Orlando Cabrera. That is 5 full seasons with below average production at a premium position. You can win with a shitty short stop, but you are making it much harder on yourself to do so. It is much easier to fill out a roster with talented first basemen and left fielders than short stops, second basemen, and catchers. Therefore, having a strong group up the middle allows teams to pick and choose from a greater talent pool when filling out the rest of the roster in the offseason.

So in closing this post, I want to thank Mr. Pedroia for what he has done for this team. While your diminutive stature is enduring and adorable and your giant swing makes crusty old New Englanders grin, it is the stability you bring to a premium position that makes you a true hero to the Nation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, LF

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:































Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"Classic case of speed and some highlight-reel dives distracting from bad routes, bad jumps, bad positioning, and a bad arm...Ellsbury's batting-average dependent production won't carry him in a corner...Unless you're Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines, stealing 70 bases is not a sustainable skill...Jim Rice thinks Ellsbury has Hall of Fame potential, which is true if you work under the assumption that the standards will continue to erode, thanks to the induction of players like Jim Rice.

X-Mark's Take:

It looks like BP is pretty down on the biggest Boston heartthrob athlete not named TFB. Usually I would completely agree with this assessment, and in a way I do. Jacoby is batting average dependent, meaning if he has a few unlucky months where some of his groundballs get swallowed up and his liners find the wrong people and he ends up with a .270 AVG, his above average OBP and solid-for-a-speed-guy SLG will start to look pretty awful.

And as fun as it is to watch Jacoby get on his mythical horse and chase down a deep fly to the triangle, he really did look confused in center last year (although I think his true talent is somewhere around average and last year was sort of an aberration).

But check this out:

25 691 94 27 10 8 60 49 74 70 12 0.301 0.355 0.415 2.4
25 624 93 37 9 11 80 32 112 50 10 0.315 0.355 0.466 4.2

The first player season is Jacoby from last year (shit, another guy who could really use a nickname; unfortunately the obvious ones are all Native American related and my guess is that would not really fly these days).

The second player season is Carl Crawford from 2007. The same Carl Crawford who is going to get a 6 figure deal from either the Red Sox or the Yankees in 2011.

There are some differences here. Crawford had a little bit more power, Ellsbury a bit more patience. And the WARP is better for Crawford but that is mostly because of Jacoby's outlier of a defensive season. But at the end of the day, they are both pretty similar in their age 25 seasons in value.

This really gives me pause because I've always been a big Jacoby detractor. But maybe the move to left will give him a little better health and the ability to drive the ball a little more. Also, his defense should almost definitely improve although in his 81 home games it will be a little bit of a wash (of course his presence will allow Cameron to shade a bit back and towards right therefore capably manning the triangle).

What I'm getting at is that Jacoby has some potential for a real breakout this season even beyond all the stolen bases and highlight reel defensive plays. With his improving patience at the plate he should be one of the better lead off hitters this year and challenge Crawford for the top defensive left fielder.