Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Some Super Thoughts

The Super Bowl is annually the most over-hyped, over-analyzed sporting event. According to some commercial that ran all football season (I think Visa), it's the most epic day of the year, and while I don't really know what that means, I guess I agree. Since there's only so much you say about a game that hasn't happened yet, the talking heads at ESPN invariably start discussing nonsense. One of the main stories on ESPN yesterday was about the experience of watching game film with Bill Belichick and we're still a week away from the game. I'm sure we'll hear about where the players go to eat in Indianapolis, and invariably some player who's playing for some child with terminal illness. Also, does anyone know which city's mayors bet dinner on this game? I would guess Boston and New York, but the Patriots nominally represent New England and the Giants play in New Jersey, so I'm really not sure. I am sure that I'll find out, whether I want to or not. And I can't wait for the daily uninformed speculation about Rob Gronkowski's ankle. What I'm saying is every damn angle gets beaten into the ground, and you know what? I concede. I will not come up with an original angle because it's pretty much impossible.

So I'm not going to try. Instead, here presented for your reading pleasure is the first a collection Super Bowl storylines and my take on them.

First, I'll tackle the general outline of each team. Tomorrow, I'll delve into questions of legacy, and Thursday the questions about era that this game brings up. I'm going to do my best to stay away from the more superfluous Super Bowl storylines, but that may prove impossible.
    Giants: The Giants might suck. They were outscored throughout the course of the season, and while they've been hot in the postseason, they also got blown out in week 15 by the Rex Grossman and the Redskins. They have two great wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and a good (not great) quarterback in Eli Manning. Their front four on defense is great, as goes their ability to get pressure rushing four so goes the rest of the defense because they are not particularly great in coverage. Basically, the Giants do two things really well: create big plays in the passing game and pressure the quarterback. That's about it.

    Patriots: The Patriots, on paper, are a much better team. Their defense is much maligned, but the Patriots gave up 58 less points during the season than the Giants, so the weak link looks to be the Giants. The Pats also scored 199 more than the Giants. They have one of the all-time greats at QB, a great receiving corps (and their tight ends have vastly outgained any other tight ends in the history of football), and a distinct advantage in the coaching staff. The Patriots had a habit of letting bad teams get early leads on them this year, but almost every time roared back to dominate the game. They also, in a Patriots tradition, employ wide receivers in the secondary, and while they gave up a ton of yards, they were fairly stingy with points.

    I would give the Patriots the advantage in every facet of the offensive game. Neither team can run, but the Patriots have a better short passing game and run a little bit better. Manning is good, but Brady is better. Gronkowski's health is important, but even with just Welker, Branch, and Hernandez the Patriots' receiving corps is at least the equal of the Giants'. Neither team is great defensively, and the Giants have a huge edge in getting pressure (which was the key in 2007 as well). But again, the Patriots gave up almost 4 less points per game. It's hard to believe their defense is actually worse, yards be damned. Additionally, the Patriots have a phenomenal short passing game, hitting slot receivers and tight ends on quick routes, and that should negate the Giants' pressure to some extent.

    The Giants did beat the Patriots earlier this year, and yes they seem to have the blueprint for beating them - get pressure on Brady so he can't get into a comfort zone and hold the ball for a long time so Brady stays off the field - but I just can't see the Giants beating the Patriots twice in one season. The public doesn't agree with me. The Patriots are only 3-point favorites for this game.

    One of the reasons many have for choosing the Giants is that they are the so-called "hot team." I just don't get that. They've played well during the playoffs but THEY GOT BLOWN OUT BY THE FUCKING REDSKINS BARELY MORE THAN A MONTH AGO. The Patriots put up some bad halves around the same time, but they at least turned it around and won. By weighted DVOA, which rates teams according to their season-long performance but gives weight to more recent games, the Patriots finished the season ranked 4th. The Giants were 16th. Maybe something changed in the playoffs, but I don't know what it is.

    Granted, we're just talking about one game, and the 2007 Super Bowl clearly showed that one game is variable. The Giants were definitely not better than the Patriots that year (and maybe not even that day), but they won. This year, I expect the Patriots to return the favor.

    Out of this world but not the best ever

    Blake Griffin's evisceration of Kendrick Perkins deserves to be mentioned whenever we discuss the best in game dunks of all time, but it is not the best ever. In 1991, Michael Jordan spun baseline faking out two Knicks defenders and dunked over and down onto Patrick Ewing. If you factor in the teams, the bitter rivals, the stakes, MSG (the NBA's Mecca), the quality of opponent, Ewing being a quality shot blocker his entire career (2.4/game in the 91 season), and the difference in height (six inches), Jordan's dunk is clearly better. Jordan did not jump higher than Griffin or throw the ball down with more force, but sheer athletic ability is not the end all be all for me when measuring dunks.

    Before I discuss Jordan's dunk in-depth, let's discuss the Griffin quickly.

    Blake's dunk was unbelievable, his athletic ability is either the best in the league, or he is .00001th behind DeAndre Jordan. However, he benefited by getting a running start,without the hindrance of dribbling, from 16-17 feet. Griffin caught a perfect pass and jumped higher than just about anybody in the world can. However, had he been forced to dribble or change directions would he have still been able to finish, or even attempt the dunk?

    Griffin's height, 6'10'' also gives him an added advantage, something which hurts his ranking, fair or not, and must be considered. On a scale of 1-10 in terms of difficulty, Griffin's is probably an 8.5. Not his fault, but something that hurts his chances. Additionally, DeAndre Jordan acted like a big bumbling lineman ruining a choreographed touchdown dance by immediately snapping Griffin into a bear hug. This thoughtless move prevented an epic stare down or at a minimum a chest pound (but also probably saved Griffin from Perkins killing him). Griffin smartly snapped Jordan off him but not quickly enough. His chance to include his celebration in our permanent memory of the dunk was lost. It begs the question I know we were all thinking: was DeAndre Jordan protecting a fellow Jordan by tarnishing the legacy of the dunk? We may never know, but I have a hint that Jordan is more than just a common last name.

    Vince Carter's dunk, while perhaps even more athletically impressive than Griffin or Jordan's, loses points in my book because of his competition. Frederick Weis may be 7'2'' but he is also not a real NBA player; he is French and simply stood still while Carter jumped over him. Carter might have well been dunking over a cardboard cutout. Also, I don't think I'm okay living in a world where Carter owns the best dunk.

    Getting back to Jordan's dunk, let's see how he stacks up on the random criteria I created to serve my argument. Degree of difficulty: 10.0. Jordan had to change directions, shake two defenders, and meet one of the league's best shot-blockers without the benefit of tons of momentum. The rivalry: 10.0. Bulls-Knicks was the preeminent rivalry of the early 90s and Ewing and Jordan were the faces of their respective teams. Jordan was giving up six inches to Ewing. Swagger: 10.0. Jordan's stare down of an emasculated Ewing epitomizes the swagger that helped win the Bulls six rings. Jordan effectively sprayed diarrhea all over one of his biggest rivals and left him to clean up the mess.

    Unfortunately for Jordan, his dunk came before our current digital era. And not to get all Simmonsy, but had his dunk happened yesterday, wouldn't it have gotten the same attention? It was the era and the scant airplay the dunk gets that made an avid NBA fan like our esteemed E-I-C forget Jordan. Steve, it's not too late to change your mind and give his Airness the title of the sky he deserves.

    Can We Talk About What We Just Saw?


    Let me preface this by saying that I didn't see this live. Like a bitch, I was in bed sleeping. The lesson here is: never trade sleep for basketball. If Lob City is on the tube, sacrifice whatever sleep you were going to get to watch them. I'll never make this mistake again.

    I know people will come up with a million arguments against statement, but this is my absolute feeling: that is the best NBA in-game dunk that I have ever seen. His nose is at the rim, the ball is at the top of the square, his legs are kicked up, my dude Kendrick is murdering him, and he just hangs in the air, cocks the ball back, and throws it in the direction of the rim. If I had seen this live, I think I would have had one of two reactions: either I would have sat there, mouth agape, for a good minute and a half, eyes wide open, barely breathing. That's how I reacted after I saw this live. My other possible reaction would have been jumping up, screaming, and perhaps running around the apartment a little bit and being unable to sit down for 3-5 minutes. That's how I reacted when I saw this live. This would have been well beyond my standard reaction to awesome plays, which is just sitting there with a face like I just took a huge bite of a lemon. That's how I reacted to this, and that's a seriously crazy play. But Griffin's dunk over Perkins? Goddamn. That deserves a much, MUCH more dramatic reaction.

    There are a couple of questions that the basketball fan must ask in the face if such a life-changing dunk. The first question is this: is this better than the Mozgov? After reassessing the Mozgov:

    the answer is clear. Yes, the one on Perkins is better than the Mozgov. (Also, watch the whole video because it also contains Blake's crazy fast break dunk on Gallinari) First of all, let's just get this out of the way: the Mozgov isn't a dunk. It's a Mozgov. He throws the ball into the rim without touching the rim. So if we're really comparing them as dunks, there's no comparison because one of them actually isn't technically a dunk. However, if we just generally compare them as plays, they're pretty close. The Perkins dunk gets the nod, however, for a few reasons:

    1. Blake gets even higher on the Perkins dunk. His nose is at the rim against Perkins, whereas his eyes are at the rim against Mozgov.

    2. Perkins fouls the shit out of Griffin, making the degree of difficulty even higher. Mozgov just stood there a took what was coming to him.

    3. The force with which Griffin throws down the Perkins dunk appears to be a tad greater than the force with which he Mozgoved. And the forcefulness of this dunk is one of the key factors that makes it great.

    Good. That's out of the way. Now here's the next question that basketball fans must ask regarding this dunk: is it the best in-game dunk EVER? That is, is it better than any dunk in any other game besides NBA games? This question ultimately boils down this: is this dunk better than Vince Carter's 2000 Olympic dunk over some French guy? Here's that dunk for reference:

    GEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TOO good.

    Okay, so what makes this dunk the best ever? First of all, he clears a straight-up seven footer. He just hurdles that dude. He launches from about 10 feet out, fully extended, jumps over a man who stands at over SEVEN feet tall, and throws the goddamn ball to the floor. He doesn't get as high as he's ever gotten, but he jumps from a significant distance and (I can't stress this enough) he jumps over a guy who is over seven feet tall. This dunk also inspired the design for my favorite shirt that I own. That is an absolutely disgusting dunk.

    I'm not even gonna attempt to decide which dunk is better. The fact that I can't decide, that I can't even make an attempt to decide, just shows how unbelievable Blake's dunk is. Blake's dunk reminds me why I love sports as much as I do. I enjoy sports for a lot of reasons: the strategy, the intensity, the stakes, and the emotions that come from rooting for your favorite team. It's a really satisfying emotional experience to be a sports fan. But if that's all that mattered in sports, I might as well just go watch high school basketball or pee wee hockey. What makes professional sports awesome is what we just saw. Blake Griffin can just do that. He just did that. His body allowed him to accomplish that. I don't think it's art, and I don't think it's beauty. I think it's just amazing. I'm amazed by it, and I can't wrap my mind around it. It just doesn't make sense.

    If I could do that, I would never complain about anything again. I dunked once in my life (a number of years and a bigger number of pounds ago), and I have to admit that it was the coolest feeling ever. I can't imagine what dunking like that feels like. Blake Griffin must be the happiest person in the entire world. If he's ever feeling down, he can just go to the gym and do that. He's got it made. That's the best anti-depressant in the world.

    Sports is better than anything. Watch all the plays in this post and try to prove me wrong. You can't. Like a Jew saying that Chanukkah is better than Christmas on December 25th. There's just no argument. I love sports.

    Update: I just watched the Griffin dunk again and almost threw up from how disgustingly unbelievable it was.

    Monday, January 30, 2012

    Stop thinking inside the box and other rants

    MLB, the NBA, and the NFL are all bereft of creative coaches and innovative strategies because of who they hire. Franchises continuously try retread coaches with failed styles rather than thinking outside the box. A coach's pedigree seems more important than his actual ability to win games. Because someone once thought you were good enough to be a coach, that automatically makes you qualified. That's the logic behind Chan Gailey, Wade Phillips and Mike Dunleavy. As much as fans like to complain about the inequality between small and big payrolls, smart organizations in all major sports will be and have been successful. Mark Cuban took advantage of there being no limit on how much he could pay coaches and hired one of the best coaching staffs his money could buy. The extra 2%, the ability to extract every possible advantage possible by thinking outside the box, starts with a coaching staff.
    Smart owners and general managers need to start thinking outside the box when they hire coaches. Being a former player or a coach of a team that previously won does not make you a good coach. You need someone who can reach young men and create a system that puts players in positions that maximize their strengths. To make this clear, this doesn't mean have one style and try to mold players into your system, DO YOU HEAR ME MIKE D'ANTONI!

    The reason Bill Belichick is the best coach in sports is that he doesn't have one style. He is constantly developing new strategies depending on his personnel. I watched Dom Capers repeatedly try and fail to get pressure on the quarterback because he refused to accept the fact that Cullen Jenkins' absence meant that no one was going to supply pressure opposite Clay Matthews. A season's worth of double teams and roll-outs away from Matthews' side contributed to the Packers' defense going from above-average to a liability. Capers's 2010 strategy was effective not because he is a defensive genius -- he's not -- but because he figured out a system that worked for his personnel. His stubborn refusal to adjust his style doomed the Packers and is emblematic of the plague of creativity afflicting major sports.

    So the next time you hear a fan complain about the systematic inequality ask them about their coaching staff. Coaches and organizations that think inside the box in hiring and game planning will continue to fail, not because the system sets them up to do so, but because they do it themselves. (Andy do it to yourself?)

    • The Sports Guy wrote an absurdly long column as usual today calling it a "review" of the NBA season. Simmons spent roughly 10% of his column talking about what kind of teams are winning and losing because of the new schedule and then with the chore of analyzing the actual goings on of the league finished, he moved on to his usual shit. The Sports Guy used to crack me up when he made fun of Hubie Brown saying "you" but he's just as bad with his "we." Simmons used to speak for fans but he's lost touch, something his writing reflects and something he can't admit to himself. Every time he says "we" I cringe at the thought of him hanging out with players and talking to GM's while trying to keep up his regular fan attitude. His half-baked ideas about changing sports were fun when he didn't take himself too seriously, but now they are insufferable. No one wants to read an entire column about a cool fantasy idea or how long the NBA season should be. Simmons needs to realize that no one takes his shit seriously. Get over yourself and write a real fucking column.

    • The best basketball game of the year is going to be the Olympic Gold Medal game between the US and Spain. I am legitimately worried that a team of Marc and Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Ricky Rubio could beat the US. Who does the US run its offense through at the end of the game? Kobe? Lebron? Durant? I'm worried that a long season will hamper Chris Paul and that the US won't have a point guard that makes everyone better. Which obviously begs the question: should we consider taking over Canada to get Nash? No matter what, both teams are better than anything the NBA has to offer and I hope that it happens.

    I'm going to try and end all of my columns by using my favorite phrase -- if blank is the answer you're asking the wrong question -- three times.

    • 1. Bucs, if Greg Schiano is the answer, you're asking the wrong question.

    • 2. Magic, if Stan Van Gundy is the answer, you're asking the wrong question. Get him out of there if you want any chance at keeping Dwight Howard.

    • 3. Super Bowl, if Madonna is the answer, go fuck yourself.

    Friday, January 27, 2012

    So long, Prince

    As a Brewers fan, I'm sad to see Prince Fielder go. I had come to grips with the fact that he was on the way out. He's a Boras client, a few times turned down a pretty big extension offer from the Brewers, and he pretty boldly hinted all last year that this would be his final season in Milwaukee. I don't begrudge him wanting his money, and I'm actually glad the Brewers didn't try to overextend and match Detroit. The Tigers just gave a 27 year-old who is charitably listed at 275 pound and, in spite of his last name, can barely field the least important position on the diamond a 9-year contract worth over $200 million. At 36, he will make $24 million and he will almost certainly weigh over 300 pounds. If he lives up to this contract, it will be a minor miracle. The Brewers will definitely miss his presence in the lineup, but he's also almost definitely not worth that much money.

    * An interesting (and kinda technical) aside. Fielder (or Cabrera) might be more valuable as a DH than as a first basemen, at least according to WAR. Currently, the plan is for Miguel Cabrera to move back to his "natural position" of third base. That's not going to work. Cabrera was a bad fielder 40 pounds ago. Instead, one of these guys is going to have to DH, possibly this year especially because the Tigers' nominal DH, Victor Martinez, is out for the year. Weirdly, there aren't very many good players DHing. In terms of value over the average DH, either hitter would almost definitely be the best DH in the league by a long margin. I don't love defensive wins above replacement, but both guys are worth an average of -1 wins per season as first basemen. DH, according to WAR, is only half a win less valuable than first base. Thus, if one of them puts up the same stats as a DH, and especially because so few other teams have great DHs, Cabrera or Fielder could absolutely be more valuable DHing than at first. It is counterintuitive because it's always more valuable to get the same production out of a position player than a DH, but because both are such poor fielders at such an unimportant position I think it'll be a wash. *

    As Steve alluded to in his ode to big fat athletes, there was something cosmically right about Prince Fielder playing in Milwaukee, for a team called the Brewers. He was a joy to watch play, and that's a rarity in baseball. Pujols, A-Rod, and quite a few others are undoubtedly better but they're not nearly as fun to root for. Pujols' persona, at least on his Sportscenter commercial, was literally a machine. He's great but not that compelling. A-Rod just comes off as a narcissist who tries too hard to be liked. Fielder, on the other hand, seems like a goofball. He inspired articles like this and this (God bless The Onion). Here was an obese vegetarian who swung as hard as he could, probably harder than anyone else in baseball, but he also always ran hard down the line. I watched him, on more than one occasion, tire himself out on the basepaths to the point that he would make sloppy plays in the field the next half-inning. I distinctly remember a late-September game this past year where Fielder hit a double and having this gut feeling while watching that he was going to make a terrible play in the field. Sure enough, the next inning Fielder dropped a throw that came right to his glove, and I wasn't even surprised. It was a little maddening, but I didn't mind because Fielder was such a joy to watch play.

    Cheering for a team like the Milwaukee Brewers doesn't bring a lot of rewards. Unlike basketball, where one talent can turn a team around (or at least drastically alter its fortunes) it takes a long time to rebuild in baseball. The Brewers built a solid core of prospects and twice made big deals for pitchers, trading prospects for CC Sabathia and then Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and they've made the playoffs twice in the last four years. The preceding two decades were a little barren. The Brewers didn't play in a playoff series from 1982 until 2008, didn't even have a winning season from 1992 until that year. And they were just so mind-numbingly dull. I used to almost hope for blowouts so the great Bob Uecker would start telling stories. There were years when Richie Sexson was legitimately the best and most exciting player on the team. Cal Eldred was pretty clearly the Brewers' best pitcher in the 1990s. What I'm trying to say is that there were some lean years cheering for them. And Fielder was anything but lean. Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, and this new generation of Brewers turned it around. Last year, especially with the addition of the gentleman Tony Plush (nee Nyjer Morgan), was the first time cheering for the Brewers was legitimately fun. They clowned around, had a lot of personality, and had a lot of talent. They got as chippy as you can legitimately get in baseball and had a particular hatred for the Cardinals. They were a real team, man.

    I'm sure the success drove how much I appreciated them as a team. If this were the 2002 team that lost 106 games the shtick would have worn through pretty quickly, but these players could back it up. And Fielder was the epitome of that team, high fiving everybody after any given home fun and generally being the second funniest fat athlete in Wisconsin (number one would be BJ Raji).

    I have a feeling everything's about to change. Braun is most likely suspended (and I'll write more about that as more facts come out). The team built a solid core of number two starters, but Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf are due to regress. Nyjer Morgan can't really get any crazier, and he also played out of his mind last year. And at the top is Fielder, the fat goofball patriarch no longer of the team. They'll miss his production, but as a fan I'll just miss knowing that I could watch him play every day.

    Thursday, January 26, 2012

    Lest We Forget: Justin Verlander Won the AL MVP Last Year

    I'm going to try my best to get away from football and Super Bowl coverage for the next two weeks. I'll just post my thoughts here after this colon: the Patriots are the better team, but they beat only 1 team with a winning record this year (if you don't count the Broncos' playoff win as making them 9-8 when they played New England), and that game, as we all know, was a ridiculously close game for the Patriots.

    But let's move on to something that makes me really mad. The Most Valuable Player Award this year in the American League went to Justin Verlander. If you recall, Justin Verlander pulled out gutsy performance after "gutsy performance" to work his way to 24 wins this year. He led the American League in wins, winning percentage, ERA, starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, and Hits/9 innings. He was a no-brainer for the Cy Young Award. If you're a reasonable person, you can see that he was the best pitcher in the American League. And indeed, he did receive every first place vote for the Cy Young Award.

    And then a funny thing happened on the way to the MVP voting. The media picked up the "Verlander as MVP" argument at just the right time, right as the season was ending, and then...it happened. In a crowded field of truly worthy position players, Justin Verlander won the American League MVP. It wasn't even really that close. He got 13 out of the 28 first place votes for MVP, and the next-highest number of first place votes received was five (Jose Bautista). The actual points were pretty close (Verlander only beat Jacoby Ellsbury by 38 points in the voting, which is a relatively small number; for instance, Joe Mauer beat Mark Teixeira by 152 points in 2009), but the first-place voting tells it all. Almost half of the voting baseball writers believed that Justin Verlander had the most valuable year of anyone in the entire American League.

    Let's look at the people who finished behind Verlander. Jacoby Ellsbury led off for the Red Sox, and had a stellar year. He hit .321, OBP at .376, slugged .552. He led the league in total bases and his OPS+ was 146. Add to that 39 steals, and you see that when Ellsbury got on base, he was always a threat to advance, and often did. He hit 32 home runs, 46 doubles, 105 RBI and 119 runs scored. This is all from the leadoff spot, and playing an above average center field. Crazy good year.

    Jose Bautista (my pick for MVP, but I went back and forth between him and Ellsbury about 9000 times), came in third in the MVP voting. These are the categories in which he led the majors (not just the AL): home runs, walks, slugging, OPS, OPS+. He also just casually hit .302 and had an OBP of .447. That's an incredibly valuable stat line. He also can play outfield and third base, which was truly valuable to the Blue Jays this year. Jose Bautista was an absolute beast, and he deserved some serious recognition besides a damn Silver Slugger.

    In a very interesting breakthrough in MVP voting, Curtis Granderson came in 4th and received 3 first place votes. This is a breakthrough because, despite Granderson's relatively low batting average (.262), he had a tremendous year, with a 138 OPS+, a majors-leading 136 runs scored and an AL-leading 119 RBI. Add to that 85 walks, 25 steals, and playing the very valuable center field position, and Granderson had an awesomely valuable year. This is the type of stat line that has been historically under-appreciated by MVP voters, so it was nice to see Granderson get some recognition.

    Miguel Cabrera, who is on Verlander's own team, had an outstanding year as well. He came in 5th in the MVP voting. He led the majors with a .344 batting average and a .448 OBP. He and Bautista each had a whopping 181 OPS+. He played 161 games this year for the Tigers. There's gotta be value in a guy that plays every single day, right?

    All of these players were more valuable than Justin Verlander. Justin Verlander started 34 games, and he pitched extremely well. Kudos to him. But a starting pitcher needs to be pretty damn awesome to be considered more valuable than a position player. A starting pitcher can affect the outcome of one out of every five games. Granted, a starting pitcher's effect is more pronounced when he is in the game: he throws every pitch for the time he is in there, whereas a hitter only sees pitches when he bats or when a ball hit in play concerns him as a fielder. But a position player can affect the outcome of every single game in which he plays, which, for these guys, was just about every game in the 162-game schedule. They always play the field, and they go up to the plate 4-5 times per game. The good that an effective hitter can do vastly outweighs the good that an effective starting pitcher can do for a team's overall success. For a pitcher to win the MVP, he needs to have been out-of-this-world good, and there need to be no hitters that really jump out as MVP candidates (this year, to my mind, there were at least 3, maybe 4 such hitters).

    Here are the reasons why Justin Verlander won the AL MVP, and the reasons why those reasons are wrong:

    1. He had 24 wins. That's a lot of wins. No doubt. But what does a win really measure? A starting pitcher receives a win if a) he pitches at least 5 innings and b) his team is leading when he leaves the game (or takes the lead before another pitcher enters the game), and then goes on to never relinquish that lead and win the game. What does that really measure? Most starters go at least 5 innings in their starts, so that's not a particularly difficult criteria to attain. What does that next criteria measure? It really doesn't measure much. In a somewhat nebulous way, one could argue that it measures a pitcher's ability to hold a lead when his team attains it. It also vaguely measures how much a pitcher "put his team in a position to win." Those are not the measures that I would look to in determining the effectiveness of a given pitcher.

    Wins are so circumstantial that I put essentially no weight in them when evaluating a pitcher's performance in a given year, especially not compared to other, more telling statistics. Wins are, at best, an indicator of a pitcher's performance over a long period of time. A single season (30-34 starts) is such a small sample size that it is difficult to garner much information about a pitcher's performance from a hazy indicator like wins. Wins has, however, been a historically overvalued statistic when evaluating pitchers' performance, and it was certainly overvalued in this case. Baseball writers are starting to put less weight into wins (Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010 because he was clearly the best pitcher even though he had a 13-12 record), but apparently they haven't turned the corner completely.

    2. There was no clear frontrunner for the MVP. I mentioned the 4 players who came in 2nd through 5th place in the MVP voting. With the possible exception of Granderson, all of those players had very strong cases for being the MVP, and they were all very close at the top of the MVP list. Because of this, they largely split the voting and Verlander ended up being able to sneak in and take the award. This is, of course, bullshit. If the baseball writers who vote on MVP actually knew anything about baseball (which they largely don't), their thought process would have to have gone something like this:

    Gee, I can't decide between Ellsbury and Bautista. Both were so valuable. Well, since I can't decide between the two hitters, I'll just choose the pitcher. ESPN says it's okay to do that. That way, I won't have to make this difficult decision, though both of those players definitely deserve the MVP more than Verlander. Great, that's done. Now I'll just go cast my ballot to keep Tim Raines out of the Hall of Fame again and continue my crusade to get Jack Morris in.Goddammit. Just because many position players deserved the MVP doesn't mean Verlander was better than they were. That obviously doesn't make any goddamn sense. But that's exactly what the baseball writers implied by giving Verlander almost half of the first place votes. They're idiots.

    3. The teams of the top 2 contenders for the award didn't make the playoffs. This is another old MVP voting habit that's absolute bullshit. For a player to be voted the Most Valuable, he needs to have led his team to the playoffs. The last time a player won the MVP on a non-playoff team was in 2004 when Barry Bonds won it (his OPS+ was 263 and his OBP was .609 that year...I think he might have been the most valuable). Though position players are more important than starting pitchers, position players still cannot will their team to the playoffs. An MVP can be the tipping point between a good team and a really good team, or an 89-win team that misses the playoffs and a 94-win team that does make the playoffs. But one player cannot just carry a team to the playoffs. That's crazy talk. The Blue Jays missing the playoffs does not mean that Jose Bautista is less valuable than, say, Evan Longoria (the best player on a playoff team). Maybe in other sports this should matter. In basketball, one player can make a gigantic difference. But if you put Justin Verlander on the Twins this year, they're still a piss-poor team. Maybe they'll win some more games, but there's no way they make the playoffs because of Verlander's "value." It's the MVP award, not the "right place at the right time" award.

    4. Media hype. ESPN got on the Verlander train at exactly the right time. This is why Dustin Pedroia won the MVP in 2008, this is why the Cowboys are a sexy pick to win the NFC East every single year, and this is why some people honestly think that Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron James. I don't need to explain why this does not make Justin Verlander a more valuable player.

    When Justin Verlander won the MVP award, I know one of my first reactions was this: Well, if Verlander won the MVP this year, then Pedro should have won it in 1999. Pedro had a much better year that year. And indeed, I am absolutely correct in saying that Pedro had a much better year in 1999. I may even be right in saying that Pedro deserved the MVP that year (Manny Ramirez, who came in 4th, would have gotten my vote. Pedro definitely deserved it more than Pudge Rodriguez, who did end up receiving the award). But that got me thinking: is Justin Verlander's year this year historically good? Is it better than other pitchers' Cy Young years? Is Justin Verlander's 2011 an exemplary year, the way that Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 are? Upon just a little bit of research, the answer is a resounding NO. Verlander had a Cy Young-caliber year, but other pitchers in the very recent past have had comparable, if not better, years.

    If I had to choose one statistic to evaluate a pitcher's performance in a given year, I would choose ERA+. ERA+ is calculated by taking the league ERA, dividing it by a pitcher's ERA, adjusting that ERA for ballpark effects, and multiplying that number by 100. An average pitcher will, by definition, have an ERA+ of 100. It is a statistic that takes a lot of relevant factors into account, and takes a very good statistical indicator (ERA) and makes it even more accurate.

    Justin Verlander had an ERA+ in 2011 of 170. That led the majors. That is a stellar ERA+. Felix Hernandez, as mentioned before, won the Cy Young award in 2010. His ERA+ was 174. He came in 16th in the MVP voting. He also came in 2nd in the Cy Young voting in 2009 with an ERA+ of 172. Zach Greinke, that year's winner, had an ERA+ of 205. Greinke was 17th in MVP voting. For those of you keeping track, that's 2 AL pitchers in 2009 with an ERA+ better than Verlander's in 2011. For good measure, 2 NL pitchers had better ERA+s in 2009 (Tim Lincecum 173 and Chris Carpenter 182). You have to go back to 2008 to find the last time Verlander's 2011 ERA+ would've led the majors (among starters). That year, Cliff Lee's ERA+ was 168 and Tim Lincecum's was 169.

    I could go on and on with these examples. Justin Verlander's year was out of this world, but it was not historically good. And, for me, in a year where there are plenty of worthy MVP candidates, a pitcher would have had to be historically good to garner an MVP award. Justin Verlander simply was not historically good. Just for shits and giggles, Pedro Martinez had an ERA+ better than 170 six times in his career.

    I know this may seem like I'm cherry-picking one statistic, but I think it is the best indicator there is in evaluating a pitcher's performance in a single year. Sure, Verlander had more wins than any of these guys, and he had more strikeouts than most of them (not Lincecum), but to me, those are not really effective indicators of overall success. If Pedro Martinez came in fifth in the MVP voting in 2000 (ERA+ of 291 goddamn), then Justin Verlander certainly did not deserve to come in first in 2011.

    Can't wait for baseball.