MLB Season Preview

 

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After a long, cold winter, the calendar has finally flipped to April indicating the start of Major League Baseball. Opening Day marks a time of hope and optimism for fans around the country despite what the analysts and experts have to say. As a long-time fan, I fall into the same trap every year, but understand that the season almost never goes as expected. Here is a preview of how I think the season will play out.

Division Winners:

AL East- Toronto Blue Jays

The only thing standing in the Blue Jays way is their pitching staff. They have a loaded offense that features reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki. By all measures the best middle of the order in all of baseball. In addition, they are getting back starting pitcher Marcus Stroman who went 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA over 7 starts last season (including the postseason). If he can step up and be the ace they expect him to be, they will be in good shape to repeat as division winners. This is the closest division in all of baseball in terms of all 5 teams and they should beat each other up all year long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the division winner hovers around 90 wins and is decided in the last week, if not the last day of the season.

AL Central- Kansas City Royals

I want to pick the Indians to take the Central. Their pitching rotation is one of the scariest in all of baseball with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco (who you will hear about later), Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer. But their hitting just isn’t quite there yet. The emergence of sensational shortstop Francisco Lindor would be big for them, but the wild inconsistency of Carlos Santana and a weak outfield will hurt them (Rajai Davis, Tyler Naquin, and Marlon Byrd).

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Los Angeles Angels
Royals Manager and Former taxidermist, Ned Yost

The Royals lost a bit of pitching with the departure of Johnny Cueto, but even he was not the same pitcher in KC that he was in Cincinnati. This team just knows how to get it done and has one of the best coaches in the league in Ned Yost. He knows how to get the most out of his guys and the Royals should take care of this division by a few games at least.

 

AL West- Texas Rangers

The Astros seem to be the sexy pick this year after coming within 5 outs of downing the would-be champion Royals in the ALDS. Carlos Correa very well could win the AL MVP in his second full season and he makes up half of the best double play combo in baseball with Jose Altuve. But their pitching is too much of a question mark for me. On paper it seems OK, but outside of AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel, what can they expect? Colin McHugh clearly will not win 19 games like he did last year with a 3.89 ERA, and can Doug Fister bounce back in Houston after the worst year of his career? Maybe. But, I believe the Rangers lineup is potent and will cause big problems in a division not known for its pitching. The middle of their lineup displays Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, Ian Desmond, and underrated Mitch Moreland. Combine them with young speedsters like Delino DeShields and Rougned Odor and that’s a frightening lineup. This isn’t the popular pick, but I like their roster top to bottom more than the Astros in a division race that should be very tight deep into September.

NL East- New York Mets

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Mets Outfielder and Car Collector, Yoenis Cespedes

In this day and age, pitching reigns supreme, and the Mets have a lot of it. Their rotation is the best in baseball and it’s not even close. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom should be fighting each other all year for Cy Young votes, and Noah Syndergaard and Steve Matz should emerge even brighter this year after showing us last year what could lie ahead. The Mets also have a solid offense, but were carried in the second half by OF Yoenis Cespedes who had a line of .291/35/105 (Batting Average, Homeruns, RBI’s). His career average is .271/27/92). However, comfort and a change of scenery can be important in baseball and he managed to hit 17 homeruns and 44 RBIs over 57 games with the Mets, which translates to 48 Homers and 125 RBIs over 162 games. Will he have these numbers? Probably not, but I am a believer that guys can be elevated by their surroundings, which is what we saw with him last season. The only team that could give them a run is the Nationals who poached former Mets playoff hero Daniel Murphy in the offseason and will get a full season of 3B Anthony Rendon. But their wildly inconsistent pitching staff, outside of Max Scherzer, will spell doom for this team in the dog days of August and September. This divisional race could be closer than expected, but the Mets pitching should carry them to the postseason.

 

NL Central- St. Louis Cardinals

What?! What about the Cubs?! Did you see who they signed this offseason?! Yes, yes hear me out. Let’s see what the Cardinals lost and gained. OF Jason Heyward left for the Cubbies and so did pitcher John Lackey. However, Heyward will be replaced by a full year of youngster Stephen Piscotty whose season last year projected over 162 games reflects a line of .305/18/100 compared to Heyward’s full season of .293/13/60. On the other hand, the loss of John Lackey was significant, but they replaced him with Mike Leake, who is a very solid pitcher himself and should provide over 200 innings with an ERA in the low to mid 3.00’s. Plus, the Cardinals seems to have some voodoo magic when it comes to pitching, as seen by Lackey’s reemergence last year, so don’t be surprised if Leake also opens some eyes this year. In other word, the Cardinals are not much different from the 100-win team last year, plus they are getting back ace Adam Wainwright. Could I be dead wrong about this pick and the Cubs win 100+ games and easily take the division? Absolutely. But there is something to be said about consistency and the Cardinals have epitomized that word for the last 5-10 years despite major adversity. Call it a hunch, call it history, but I’m taking the Cardinals by a small margin here.

NL West- San Francisco Giants

2010- World Series Champions. 2012- World Series Champions. 2014- World Series

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Pitcher Johnny Cueto, seen here smiling

Champions. 2016- World Series Champions??? Maybe not. But I do believe they take care of this division. Outside of the Mets and Indians this could be the best pitching staff in the bigs. This offseason, they added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija who are both coming off disappointing seasons. However, they are still valuable assets in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Pair them with ace Madison Bumgarner, and veterans Jake Peavy and Matt Cain and this could be the best pitching staff the Giants have had since their 2010 World Series team. Over in Phoenix, the Diamondbacks are much improved with the addition of Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, but simply do not have a deep enough offense to keep up with the dominant pitching in the NL West Division. The Dodgers should pose the most serious threat here, but need production from guys like Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson. Both have shown tremendous potential in their first few seasons, but have yet to put together full seasons of success. Also, the back end of the pitching rotation remains a major question mark between guys like Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda. Overall, the Giants have the best pitching staff and a very underrated lineup that finished with a team batting average of .267 last year (4th in MLB).

 

AL Wild Card Game- Astros vs. Red Sox

The Astros are the best AL team remaining on the board and the Red Sox boast a new staff ace of David Price. IF the Sox can stay healthy, which has been a major problem for them recently, expect them to be there in October with a young, exciting core of Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.

NL Wild Card Game- Cubs vs. Nationals

Okay, so here are your Cubbies! They are arguably the best team in baseball and could easily win the division, but for reasons mentioned above I liked the Cardinals to win the NL Central. I picked the Nationals to outpace the Dodgers for the second wildcard spot behind a deeper pitching rotation and reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.

MVP/CY Young Award Winners:

AL MVP- Manny Machado

This pick may come as a bit of a surprise, but he should have gotten more consideration last year than he did. Hidden on a sub-par Orioles team, he hit .286 with 35 homeruns and 86 RBIs. The RBI total is slightly lower than normal, but like Bryce Harper (who won the NL MVP with 99 RBIs), it was a matter of opportunity in a less-than-stellar offense. He only had 114 at bats with runners in scoring position as opposed to AL MVP Josh Donaldson who had 136. Machado’s power numbers have steadily increased each year he has been in the majors, (excluding 2014 during which he sustained a major knee injury). I would not be surprised if he progressed to a line of .300/40/110, which would put him right in the thick of MVP consideration.

NL MVP- Paul Goldschmidt

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I’ll just leave this here so  you can actually recognize him this season

This is straight up one of the best players in baseball and nobody really knows who he is. How many players consistently hit over .300 with 30+ homers and 100+ RBIs? You can count that list on one hand these days. In 2015, Goldy put up a line of .321/33/110. In 2014, he was hurt after 109 games, but his numbers over 162 games would have been .300/28/103. And in 2013, he went .302/36/125. These types of years are reminiscent of guys like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols in their prime, with slightly lower power numbers. This is the year I think he will eclipse 40 homers and force people to take notice of his production.

AL CY Young- Carlos Carrasco

This is a true underdog. Coming off his first really solid season, what makes me think he will ascend to CY Young status? First of all, it doesn’t hurt that everyone in the Indians organization raves about the guy. He has amazing stuff and proved last year for most of the season that he has the poise to pitch at this level. He combined a unique mix of ground ball pitching and strikeouts that finished him 20th overall in groundball rate in the majors last year (52.57% of outs) and 4th overall in strikeout rate (29.59% of outs). That means over 82% of his outs come via strikeout or ground ball. This compares relatively similar to last year’s NL CY Young award winner, Jake Arrieta, whose ground ball rate was 57.07% and strikeout rate was 27.13% (84% of his outs overall). Now, Carrasco needs to pitch more innings (only threw 183 2/3 last year), which is a result of him not getting as deep into ball games, but this usually comes with experience and time. His teammate, Corey Kluber, shot onto the scene to win the AL CY young in 2014, why can’t Carrasco do the same?

NL CY Young- Clayton Kershaw

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Miami Marlins
Clayton Kershaw, probably striking somebody out

The fact of the matter is that this guy is a beast. AS long as he stays healthy, he is a virtual lock for 230 innings and 250 strikeouts, with the potential for 300 strikeouts like he had last season. He had the third best ERA in the league last year (2.13), the second best strikeout to walk ratio (7.17) and was third in walks and hits per innings pitched (0.88). He easily would have won the hardware last year if not for the fact that Zack Greinke had the lowest single season ERA (1.66) since Greg Maddux in 1994 (1.56) and Jake Arrieta had 22 overall wins and a 0.75 ERA over his final 15 starts for a surprising Cubs team. Without Greinke in town, we will see just how valuable and dominant this guy is and he will emerge as the most dominant arm in all of baseball.

 

Playoffs-

NLCS- Cubs over Giants

ALCS- Blue Jays over Astros

World Series- Cubs over Blue Jays

2016 ACC a new Big East? Not Quite.

accIt’s about that time in March when your favorite team is eliminated and your bracket is long since busted. The Masters is two weeks away, but the tournament is heating up as the general public loses interest. That’s when you look up and see 4 ACC teams (North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia) in the Elite 8 and wonder how this could be? Only 7 times in the last 20 years has a single conference sent 3 or more teams to the Elite 8, only 2 of which managed 4 teams (2009 Big East and 2016 ACC). People are quick to call this the greatest conference performance in recent history, if not all time, but I’m here to remind you that it’s not even the most impressive output in the last 5 years.

The hype surrounding the ACC is certainly legitimate as they have consistently produced title contenders year after year for a while now. However, calling this one of the greatest conference performances ever is a bit of an overreaction. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey claimed, “I just remember the grind of the Big East and this is the same grind with the depth of this league now”. This is not completely untrue, but I am remissed to make the comparison to the dominant Big East seasons. I mentioned the 2009 Big East sending 4 teams to the Elite 8 (UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Villanova), but that’s not even the most impressive season in the last 20 years. I contend that the 2011 Big East season was far more dominant than this 2016 ACC season.

Previous_Big_East_Conference_logoThe 2011 Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, which equates to 68.75% of the entire conference (11 of 16). These teams include Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. Johns, Syracuse, Villanova, and West Virginia. This years ACC sent an impressive 7, which was 50% of the conference including Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Virginia. Beyond just the tournament, the entire Big East Conference fared very well based on an overall season ranking system known as RPI. RPI (Rating Percentage Index) is essentially a ranking of all 300+ Division I college teams based on their own wins and losses, the wins and losses of their opponents, and the wins and losses of their opponents’ opponents. In other words, it’s confusing and nobody quite understands it without an advanced analytics degree, but it does a pretty good job of sorting teams on various factors that judge quality.

From top to bottom, The 2011 Big East outperforms the 2016 ACC in average RPI. The average RPI of all 16 Big East teams was 59, as opposed to this year’s ACC 76. Now obviously each conference has outliers that inflate this number so for the sake of this metric let’s eliminate teams that fall outside 100 ranks of the aforementioned mean. In the Big East, these teams include 2011 DePaul (RPI rank 217), 2011 South Florida (RPI rank 160). In the ACC, only Boston College (RPI rank 250) is removed. With these teams omitted, The Big East’s average RPI over its remaining 14 teams is 40.6 as opposed to The ACC’s 62.6. Thus, major outliers aside, the average Big East team ranks over 20 positions higher on the RPI ranking index. In terms of this year’s RPI, that is the difference between Wisconsin and the University of Georgia. That’s a fairly significant difference.

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Uconn Legend, Kemba Walker

This year’s ACC has higher ranked teams at the top end of the RPI, but experiences a noticeable drop off. The ACC has 4 teams in the top 25 RPI rank, 2 of which are in the top 5 overall (Virginia and North Carolina). The Big East on the other hand had 9 teams in the top 25 rank with 0 in the top 5. This is certainly impressive, but often misleads people into overrating the conference as a whole, without considering the incredible depth of the Big East.

Another important factor to consider about this current ACC Elite 8 run is the tournament competition they have beaten. UNC opponents have an average RPI of 93, Virginia’s have an average RPI of 79, Syracuse’s have an average RPI of 48, and Notre Dame’s have an average RPI of 56. This compares to 2011 UConn, the only Big East Elite 8 team that year, who beat an average RPI of 42. Also, UConn’s most impressive win came against #3 San Diego State, whereas the most impressive RPI win for an ACC team this year was against #23 Iowa State. The ACC team’s this year have been solid all tournament, but in only one game have they been the worse seed (10 seed Syracuse vs. 7 seed Dayton).

So how can we really know which conference season was more impressive? There is no direct science, but claiming that the 2016 ACC is the greatest conference ever is premature and over exaggerated. Their Elite 8 run is certainly impressive, but not indicative of the conference as a whole and not quite as impressive as it looks on paper. Because of the way the bracket is aligned, the ACC is actually guaranteed a spot in the finals since all four remaining teams are matched up with each other from here on out. UConn was able to produce a championship for the 2011 Big East. Will the ACC have the same fate after such a great conference run? We will wait and see.

A Hidden Dynasty

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Uconn head coach, Geno Auriemma

Why is it that women’s basketball gets no attention? Is it that we don’t see high flying dunks, spectacular passes and excessive showboating? Perhaps fundamentals are out of style. But the answer is that it’s predictable. Every year in April we see the usual suspects: UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor, did I mention UConn?

The bottom line is that UConn women’s basketball is the most dominant sports team that has ever stepped on the field of play and nobody wants to admit it.

Since taking over as head coach in 1985, Geno Auriemma has a combined record of 951-134, all at UConn. For those of you grabbing your calculators, that is a win percentage of 87.6%. Let’s see how this unfathomable number compares to some of the other coaching greats of the last 70 years. John Wooden coached 27 seasons (1948-1975) at UCLA and compiled a win percentage of 80.4% (620-147). Urban Meyer has a win percentage of 85.1% over 14 years (2001-2015) at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, and Ohio State. Mike Krzyzewski boasts a winning percentage of 78.8% over a 36 year span (970-261) at Duke. Heard enough?

The most impressive part of this unprecedented success is that it came out of nowhere for the Huskies’ program. When Auriemma came to campus in 1985, his first team finished at 12-15, which was good for 7th in the Big East and involved no post-season play. It took him a mere 6 seasons to reach his first Final 4 and only 10 seasons before his first NCAA title. That may sound like a while, but is pretty impressive considering he inherited a no-name program in lonely Storrs, CT. Since the beginning of the 1995 championship season the team’s record is 759- 53; a winning percentage of 93.5%. That is no typo. That includes 10 National Championships and 15 Final Fours along the way. Only 5 times in the last 20 years have they failed to make the Final Four. To put this in perspective, the men’s college basketball team with the most Final Fours IN THEIR HISTORY, is North Carolina with 18. North Carolina has had a team since 1910…

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Uconn Star, Breanna Stewart

So what is this success attributed to? Is it coaching? Recruiting? Well UConn does attract great high school prospects, but prior to the 2015/2016 season they only signed on 2 players from the ESPNW top 10 and only 3 from the top 25. To put that into perspective, Duke’s men’s team has 3 top 11 recruits coming to Durham next season, including the top 2 overall, and Kentucky’s men’s team has 4 of the top 15. They are also very dominant programs, but not nearly on UConn’s level. This is partially due to the “One and Done” nature of men’s basketball as well as the talent gap in the women’s sport. However, it is crucial that Auriemma has the opportunity to coach these fantastic athletes for 4 years each, allowing them to mature under his coaching style and buy into a system of winning. The culture he has created at UConn has now become synonymous with championships and banners, which he is able to uphold year after year. His ability to capture and develop talent seems unmatched at the college level and is a huge part of his team’s success.

So the big question still remains why do the Huskies not get the attention they so rightfully deserve? I think it is just a matter of boredom. Fans love parity, they love upsets, they love to root for the underdog. UConn simply doesn’t lose, so most of the country has nothing to look forward to with the women’s game. Even when UConn has lost in the past few seasons it has come at the hand of a worthy adversary. For example, their last 4 losses, which spans 4 full seasons including this year, have come to Stanford, Notre Dame (twice), and Brittany Griner. Excuse me, Baylor. None of these teams finished the season outside of the top 4 by the end of the year. UConn is simply a machine and takes no prisoners when it comes to winning. They are the greatest program in sports, and that’s the bottom line.