Sunday, February 29, 2004

I've just returned from my brother's wedding. I meant to tell you all that before i left thursday, but it slipped my mind. I'm beginning a new article this very moment, and will have it up sometime in the next 24 hours.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Celebration - in full sweet swing
Of everyone and everything
That causes hopes and dreams to rise
Bringing love light to your eyes
Bringing laughter to your heart
Celebration, let it start

"Celebration" Phil Lesh / Robert Hunter

Forget about Puxatony Phil, if you want to know when spring will arrive, one need only wait for those beautiful words "pitchers and catchers report", and you can be sure that spring is soon to come. More importantly, it means that baseball is near. Another season of home runs and strike outs, of seventh inning stretches, day games at Wrigley, and Barry Zito curveballs. Another summer wondering if Barry Bonds is really human, or if there was some kind of mix up in a hospital on Krypton. I'm guessing the latter. And please, no BALCO jokes.

Maybe it's the tie in with winter turning into spring, or maybe Americans just have a habit of romanticizing our game. Whatever the reason though, there is no doubt that spring training is special, meaningful in a way that the pre seasons and exhibitions of other sports are not. Nobody cares when the exhibition season starts for the NBA or the NHL. NFL mini camps and training camps are minor stories in the local paper of each team. But when spring training starts it's a different story. From the day pitchers and catchers report, you can count on daily reports from Florida or Arizona in newspapers of every major league city. Sports Illustrated, ESPN and many others will do extensive season previews and spring training reports. Baseball fans everywhere begin talking of the new season, always full of hope. And the season is still 6-7 weeks away. What other sport can boast such enthusiasm, so far from the actual start of games?

I'm no different, i start talking about the new baseball season long before i do football, or even hockey, even though (as i've mentioned), hockey is actually my favorite sport. Even though we're still a month and a half from games that actually count, and with the NHL and my Islanders deep into the push for the playoffs, more and more of my thoughts are devoted to baseball, and the Mets. With that in mind, i thought i'd do a little spring training writing of my own. over the next couple of weeks I'll be taking an extensive look at.... well, whatever i feel like really, but rest assured it will all be Mets related in that happy, sometimes overly optimistic season preview sort of way. So, let's get to it.

Biggest Stories going into Spring Training

1. The Move

Kaz who? New pitching coach? Reyes is moving where? What Mets fans really want to know this spring is what's the deal with Piazza moving to first. There's little doubt that Piazza has been in a decline , his OPS, and his IsoP have all gone down four years in a row. But even if he so, he's a future hall of famer, hopefully in a Mets cap, and still by far the biggest star on this team. So while it's certainly not the most important story of the spring, at least in how it relates to our season, there is no doubt that the long anticipated switch to first base for Piazza is the number one story of spring training. Once Piazza breaks the home run record for catchers, there's no reason he shouldn't be playing first base full time, despite the defensive liabilities. The move has been delayed long enough. It's time to give Mike's knees a rest and see if good health can return his MVP like ways at the plate. Unfortunately, all signs point towards Piazza still catching 80 + games this year, and not making a complete transition to first base. If this move had been started last year, or the year before, as many called for, then Piazza could already be comfortable at first base, ready for a full, hopefully healthy season there. Instead he'll still be subject to the riggors of catching semi daily. We can only hope he avoids the injuries that have plagued him the last two years.

2. The Pitching Guru

If you ask me, and i'll pretend you did, this is the most signifigant move the Mets made this offseason, perhaps the most signifigant move since the Piazza and Leiter trades that changed the face of the franchise. Rick Peterson and his bio mechanical analysis driven techniques changes everything about the pitching throughout the organization. To quote Peterson "In God we trust, all others must have data". Peterson's philosophy could have an effect on any number of pitchers through out the organization, but most importantly, it should be a big help to players like Jae Weong Seo, Aaron Heilman, Scott Kazmir, Matt Peterson, and the other young starting prospects in every level from A-ball to the majors. And his hiring is a first sign that maybe, just maybe, this organization is starting to take notice of what's been going on in Oakland, Toronto, and Boston. Whenever i get frustrated with the bad decisions, and start to think the Wilpon's will just never learn, i remember that we hired Rick Peterson, and some hope returns.

3. Kaz Matsui

The latest star player to come over from Japan, Kaz Matsui's transition to the majors is one of the key factors to the Mets season. A superstar of the highest caliber back home (think A-Rod with 30-35 instead of 50+ home runs), Kaz passed up a lot of money to come to America and try his game. So how will he do? It's very difficult to say. There's lots of player who have played in various levels of baseball here, that have moved to Japan. But there's only three Japanese hitters that have ever come to the majors. That means that it's very difficult to measure the leagues respective difficulties, or make any informed judgements on how Japanese players statistics translate to the majors. So whatever anyone says is simply their personal opinion, and nothing more, though admittedly some people are much more qualified to offer their opinion then others. I am in no way qualified to offer my opinion on this, but I'll give it to you anyway. I think Matsui will be good. I think there's a very good chance he'll be good enough offensively to justify 7 million a year, assuming he's defensively superior, as said. (Though it should be noted that without looking at any numbers for Ichiro or the other Matsui, i think it's a real safe guess that Matsui will generate a few million dollars worth of revenue in Japan, so he doesn't really cost 7 million). Whether or not he'll be good enough to justify shifting Reyes is another matter.

4. We have a center fielder again!

And it only took 15 years. Hey, maybe we can address that right field hole by 2010. I know, I know, one step at a time. All kidding aside though, i'm a supporter of this move. No, he's not Carlos Beltran, but i think it's been well established amongst the statistically oriented community that Make Cameron has grown into the best defensive center fielder in baseball. And he's pretty good with the bat too. As opposed to Matsui, there's very little doubt about what we can expect from Cameron, he has a well established level of play in the majors. As i went over on my site at the time of the signing, the production of Cameron and Andruw Jones on the road has been fairly similar over the last three seasons. That is, needless to say, pretty good for a center fielder. And he comes for just three years / 19.5 million, with a team option for a fourth year at 7 million. Considering the price, this is a very low risk sign. We know what we can expect from Cameron, and while he is past the age where we might expect improvement, he is not yet at the age at which we should begin to expect decline. If he's the player that he was in Seattle, that's just fine. If we get lucky, and moving from Safeco helps him, even better. This was a real good move by Duquette.

5. The other move
So let me get this straight. A 20 year old shortstop with superior range, arm strength, and running speed comes to the majors and hits 307 over 274 at bats. Not only that, but he increases his batting average every month, hitting 330 in July, and 355 in August. And if that weren't good enough for you, he increases his IsoD (Isolated Discipline OBP - AVG) every month as well. Oh, almost forgot, he stole 13 bases in 16 tries (81%), including 12 in his last 13 attempts. The kid's got future star written all over him. Then, instead of going out and looking for a second basemen, or a stop gap until a second base solution comes along, the team decides to go and sign a shorstop of somewhat unknown quality, and makes the phenom learn a new position in his first full year in the majors. So you can understand why many Mets fans, myself included, are still far from sold on this whole situation. Only time will tell how it works out. But here's a bit of irony for you. Playing second base, the best case comparison for Reyes would now have to be none other then Roberto Alomar.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Well, the big news in baseball these days is A -Rod in New York. I'm not trying to downplay this, because it's a travesty, but i think people are over reacting to how much better this makes the Yankees this season. A-Rod is a better hitter then Soriano, primarily because he draws more walks. But Soriano is far from unproductive. He's the second best offensive second basemen in the AL ( see Boone, Bret), and he's all of 26 years old. He's got two seasons under his belt where he just missed 40/40, and he hits in the .290-.300 area. Unless your trading for Barry Bonds, there's just so much of an offensive improvement your going to get from that, espeically on a team that already had a chance at 1000 runs. A-Rod's bat is worth at most a couple of wins over Soriano's over the course of a season. That coule be huge, one or two games could mean the division title, but can we please stop talking about it like this team should all of a sudden win 130 games? I actually heard Harold Reynolds say tonight that "A-Rod could be the first right handed hitter to put up 30-40 home runs as a Yankee in quite awhile. People can't really be so wrapped up in this that they've become that short sighted, can they? Assuming he hits 30-40 homers, (which seems like a given), Rodriguez will be the first Yankee right handed hitter to do so since..... Alfonso Soriano, the last two years.

I think that part of it is hows everyone always refers to Alex Rodriguez as the best player in the game, and when you talk about adding the best player in the game, everyone just seems to assume that he'll make the Yankees so much better without really thinking about it. Well here's a news flash folks. Playing third base, Alex Rodriguez is not necessarly the the best player in baseball anymore. A-Rod is a fantastic hitter, there's no doubt, but noone has ever claimed he's the best hitter, or even the best right handed hitter in baseball. He was the best player in baseball because he was such a fantastic hitter, while also playing excellent defense at a super premium defensive position. becuase of Yankee stupidity, A-Rod will no longer be playing short stop, but instead will be asked to learn third base. Where he'll be a superstar no doubt, a perrenial MVP candidate, but he simply will not be the unquestioned best player in the game anymore. In fact, just to name one, i see very little chance that A-Rod is a more valuable all around player then Jim Edmonds, if Jim is healthy for 2004. Edmonds had a higher OPS in 2003 then Rodriguez, and he plays a gold glove center field, as opposed to Rodriguez, who used to play a gold glove short, but now will play a decent (at best, for now) third base.

None of this is to say that A-Rod isn't a fantastic player (he is), or that this move doesn't make the Yankees a better team ( it does). Just that it's not nearly as drastic a change as most people are making it out to be. The Yankees are not guarenteed to win the World Series, or even make the playoffs. The AL East is just as much of a toss up today as it was two days ago.

P.S. The Yankees payroll is now an astounding 190 million, not counting Gabe cross, who is likely to get at least 2 million in arbitration. Is there any chance they don't top 200 this season?


Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The GMs of the NHL passed recomendations today on ideas to improve the on ice product of the league. The major changes are as follows:

1) Goalie pad width reduced from 12 in. to 10 in, the pre 1990 limit
2) Goalies can no longer play the puck behind the goal line
3) The net will be moved back 3 ft towards the end boards, to 10 ft, the pre 1990 distance. The blue line will also be moved 3 ft, to keep the offensive zone the same size. This will increase the neutral zone from 54 feet to 60 feet.
4) The tag up rule is back. This allows attack players to touch up at the blue line and re enter the zone on a delayed offsides call.

Before i discuss the actual changes that are being proposed, i'd like to talk a little bit about the idea that NHL needs changing. Where have these guys been when there teams have been playing? I can't tell you how many great hockey games i've seen this season. Tonight's Isles-Avalanche game was amazing. I was on the edge of my seat for the last 10 minute of the 3rd and all of overtime. I saw half a dozen jaw dropping saves. Oh yeah, the game ended in a 1-1 tie. Exciting hockey isn't about goals, it's about passion. Plain and simple, if the players are into it, hockey is amazing, no matter what the score. It's when they're tired, or un motivated that you see the boring games. My evidence? The Stanley Cup Playoffs. The run for the cup is the best post season of any sport, period. And please remmeber that that statement comes from someone whose loved basbeall since age 5. If you've ever watched your favorite team play in triple overtime, you know what i'm talking about. It's all about the play of the game, not how many pucks actually get through the net. How is a beautiful play that ends in a goal really any better then a great play followed by an equally brilliant save? That said, you don't get fantastic games like that every night, and usually when you do, they're not a 1-1 tie. My point though, is that the goal here should be to try and get that level of play every night, not trying to generate excitement by putting more pucks in the net.

To that end, there are two things i think could greatly improve the game without any signifant changes to the on ice game.

Shorten the schedule

I love hockey, i love watching every Islanders game, and as a fan i'm not thrilled about less oppurtunities to watch them every year. But 82 games is too much. There are too many games where the teams are just exhausted. In football, the only other major contact sport, they play once a week. Hockey players play 3-4 games a week. Guys are injured, sore and just plain tired. I'm not suggesting we get crazy and go back to 60 games, but how about 70? That will give the players an extra day off every other week, and should help to keep the better rested. And as a fan, i'd rather see 70 games where the players are well rested then 82 when they're exhausted for 25 of them. The problem with this is that the owners would oppose the loss in revenue. The simple solution to that would be to cut player's salaries by the same percent as the schedule. Then the lower revenues would be offset by lower costs. Of course the problem with that is that the players union would almost certainly have strong objections.

New, um.. or old, i suppose, playoff seedings

This is an idea i haven't heard yet. There's been talk of eliminating inter conference play, in an attempt to reduce the travel and fatigue that goes with it. But i'm just not buying that idea. For one, it's not a fancy hotel room, but these charter planes the teams take aren't exactly you and i flying coach either. And whatever help it might give, it would give substantially more to the Eastern Conference then the West. In the East almost every team is on the east coast, or close enough that the difference by flight is meaningless. Out west, teams are spread from Phoenix to St Louis to Calgary. And that's not even mentioning Nashville and Columbus. So instead of seperating the conferences, let's get rid of them entirely, for playoff purposes. Remove the division winner/ "wild card system" and go back to the old system where teams are ranked based simply on points. And i don't just mean going back to conferences ranked 1-8. Let's rank them 1-16 Don't eliminate the divisions or the unbalanced schedule, they're good for regional rivalries and the divisional championship banners are good for pride, but don't award top seeds to the division winners either. I know it's become the accepted way of doing things in pro sports, but it's inherently unfair, as "wild card" teams with better records often get seeded lower then division winners who faced inferior competition. Case in point, Tampa Bay, they are 6th in points in the east, but currently stand as the 3rd seed. It also decreases the competitive level in some games by lowering the number of contests in which teams are fighting for playoff position. Can you imagine if it were simply 1-16? Every night of the season's second half would feature multiple games of teams in direct competition for a playoff spot or seed. Just think about the scramble in the final two weeks as instead of 3 or 4 position battles playing out, there are a dozen. Five team battles for the final playoff spot. It would be great! This would be a fantastic way to inject more passion into the game.

That's how i would have gone about "fixing" the game, but hey, i'm not an NHL GM. We're beyond theory at this point, so let's talk about what they actually did.

1) Goalie pad width reduced from 12 in. to 10 in, the pre 1990 limit

I've got no objections to this. There's no doubt that goalies today take up more space in goal then ever before. Shooters have less to shoot at, and that's a big reason for the reduction in scoring. I don't think this will make a huge difference, but it will definatley generate a few extra goals. More then anything else, i think this will seperate the truly great goaltenders even more from the rest of the pack ( anyone looked at how closely bunched goalie stats are in the NHL these days?).

2) Goalies can no longer play the puck behind the goal line

Ok, this one is just plain stupid. This is a direct result of guys like the two Martin BRodeur and Marty Turco, who handle the stick exceptionally well, and will often play the puck back out of the zone after a dump. It's like having a third defenseman on the ice is the term being slung around. To which i answer. So what? Deal with it. This is a part of the game. Not allowing the goalie to play the puck behind the goal line isn't just tinkering with some things, it's changing a very basic part of it. There stickhandling ability is part of what makes Turco, Brodeur and goalies like them so good. A goalies job is to keep pucks from getting in the net. Anything he can do to do that short of penalties is fair game. This isn't wearing huge pads to limit shooters space, it's a legitimate skill, and it's unfair, and completely unreasonable to tell goalies they can't go play the puck. Here's a thought. Instead of making it illegal for goalies to paly the puck behind the line, how about we come up with ways to discourage all the dump and chase play that constantly puts the puck behind the line?

3) The net will be moved back 3 ft towards the end boards, to 10 ft, the pre 1990 distance. The blue line will also be moved 3 ft, to keep the offensive zone the same size. This will increase the neutral zone from 54 feet to 60 feet.

This one i like. There's no need for 13 feet of space between the net and the boards. I know the players are bigger, but ten feet of ice is plenty. And the real advantage here is the increase in the neutral zone, which should give players a little more space to work with. More space means more room to use their skill. That means more exciting play for all of us. The GM's did a real good job on this one.

4) The tag up rule is back.

Another good decision. This will eliminate alot of whistles, and keep the game flowing more. And hopefully it will encourage more agressive forechecking. That's a plus simply if it means we see less of the trap.

If it weren't for the goalie rule, this would be a great job by the GMs. Unfortunately the sheer stupidity of not allowing goaltenders to play the puck behind the net offsets alot of the good they did with the return of the tag up rule and the moving back of the nets. But then i suppose any time a group of sports executive have one of these meetings and three of the four are good suggestions, it should be considered a success.

As i wrote earlier, i don't believe that a lack of scoring is the reason for the boring games you see in the NHL. I think it's got more to do with fatigue and lack of motivation in some games. But if they are deadset against shortening the schedule (and i doubt my other idea has even been discussed), then i can understand the desire to increase offense in the league. The problem here is that i think the NHL has confused offense with goal totals. It's not goals that make offense exciting, its the speed and skill of the plays. Generating a couple of extra goals by penalizing the goaltenders does nothing. Generating a couple of extra goals by helping forwards would improve the on-ice game a great deal more. There are a few things that could be done to open up the game.

1) Legalize the two line pass

What does this rule do besides limiting long down ice break out passes, one of the most beautiful and exciting plays in all of hockey? This isn't youth hockey, noone is going to hang out at center ice waiting for a break away. And if they do, i'm sure the other team will be more then happy to take advantage of the pseudo power play they're given. This would increase break outs, generating some extra offense, and it would showcase the amazing skill level of some of the league's slick puck moving defenseman to read the ice and make stunning passes that shouldn't be possible.

2) Tighten up on stick/obstruction/interference pentalties

The NHL says it's going to do this every year and never actually do it. It's like baseball with the strike zone but it's been going on a lot longer. Start calling hooking, slashing, obstruction, interference, etc. Don't just call the bad ones, call them every time a player is starting a rush and he is hindered by a stick hooking him from behind, or slashing at his hands. How did this ever become accepted? I understand that this is hockey, the sport where you get into a literal fight in the middle of the game and are back on the ice 5 minutes later, and that things like this are much more accepted then in other sports, but you've still gotta play the puck when using your stick. You can't just hack and hook guys and not get penalized for it so long as you only do a little of it. It's part of the game you say, that's the way hockey is. Sorry, not buying it. Hockey, the rough physical part of it, is about checking, and battle in front of the crease, and in the corners. It's not about dealing with illegal stickwork. It is absolutely not part of the game, it's things that have become commonly accepted even though they are clearly against the rules. That's how bad it's gotten, when a player has a step and he's slowed by a stick hooked around his mid section it's not only accepted, but expected. More then anything else, simply letting the skilled players play without constant illegal stick and obstruction penalties would add excitment and offense to the game.

3. Allow larger curves to stick blades

I played hockey for a number of years, and i've experienced the difference between small curves and large curves first hand. I want to see what some of these guys can do with a euro curves.

4. Widen the ice surface

This one is a bit radical, but i'd be in favor of widening the ice surface. All the way to international size would be fine, but even smaller increments would help. As i mentioned earlier, anything that creates more space for players to work is good. There is an amazing amount of speed in skill in the NHL. Speed, skill, and space equals exciting, beautiful hockey, and happy fans. The physical, defensive players would still be a vital role to every team, and in every game, but it would keep them from dominating play in what's becoming a very crowded rink with how big and fast today's players are. There's no question the game was more open in the past, and that the skilled players had more open ice to work with.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Another tidbit on Peterson i came across.

"Braden Looper reportedly is delighted with the brief time he got to work with Rick Peterson and has apparently added a couple of extra MPH to his fastball by implementing Peterson's techniques."

Pitchers and catchers haven't even reported yet, and Peterson has added a couple MPH to our closer's fastball? You gotta be kidding me. Seriously, how much have Kazmir's chances of success gone up?
This might, just might, have been the most beautiful thing i've ever read.

"Most of the candidates for the open fifth slot in the Mets' rotation remained in camp working with coaches Rick Waits and Randy Niemann on perfecting the drills that are the first step in Rick Peterson's new training regimen."

After pausing to reflect on whether or not it was a problem that the hiring of a new pitching coach by a baseball team that I have no actual involvement with ranks as one of the major events of my life over the past few months (i decided it wasn't, as if there was ever any doubt), it finally hit me that Rick Peterson is actually our pitching coach. I wonder how much Scott Kazmir's chance of success went up based simply on this alone.


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