Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The ACC Perch

Last night I watched intently as the Pitt Panthers charged into Charlottesville to battle the #2 Cavaliers in a key ACC game.  Virginia had just squeaked by a paltry Wake Forest squad by one point on Saturday, and most likely would have lost the contest if their stingy defense didn't hold the fort at the final possession.  The Panthers, meanwhile, had saved all of their lights-out shooting for the visiting UNC Tar Heels some 55 hours earlier, thumping then #12 UNC for their strongest victory of the season.

The game last night unfolded as maddeningly as any Pitt fan would have expected.  The Panthers "show-up" for the opening tip (lead 4-0), go through long droughts on offense (two times failing to score in a 5-minute span) and finish the first half down 25-15.  Pitt closed the deficit to three points with under eight minutes in the game, but it never felt like the team would be able to withstand Virginia's pressure or continuously force misses on the defensive end.  The Cavaliers prevailed by 12 and Pitt now has until Saturday to find answers before heading to Syracuse to face the Orange.

Virginia has a tremendous basketball team.  They move in unison on offense and defense.  They understand the importance of spacing and timing.  They've bought stock in the philosophy that holding opponents to 50 points per game will lead to a lot of victories.  It's easy to understand why they will contend for a Final Four and a National Championship.

Fans and pundits alike agree that Pitt is currently outside of the NCAA Tournament bracket.  Wins over UNC, Notre Dame and Syracuse are nice, but there isn't enough consistency in their play against the middle and bottom of the conference to reward the Panthers with a tournament berth.  I, for one, don't think Pitt needs any more glamour victories to make the tournament.  Pitt needs to take care of business with the games in front of them.  It's cliché to say "take it one game at a time," but Pitt's next big opponent is whoever is next on the schedule.  They've proven they can beat very good teams (UNC,) lose to terrible teams (Virginia Tech) and try to lose against less-than-mediocre teams (the list is long.)

Pitt Basketball is not too far from Pirates Baseball for me.  Part of the love for both squads is the never-ending spin cycle of hope, expectations and bitter disappointment that comes with falling short to bigger, better teams.  The Steelers and Penguins both provide and provided underdog stories that ultimately led to championships.

Now that Pitt is in its second rodeo in the ACC, what should my expectations be?

For starters, let's take a look at the last four seasons' best and worst teams in the ACC, as found in the standings heading into the conference tournament:
The Best
2012: #1 UNC, #2 Duke, #3 Florida St., #4 Virginia
2013: #1 Miami, #2 Duke, #3 UNC, #4 Virginia
2014: #1 Virginia, #2 Syracuse, #3 Duke, #4 UNC
2015: #1 Virginia, #2 Notre Dame, #3 Duke, #4 UNC and Louisville

While this isn't earth-shattering news, it should be noted the stranglehold UVA, Duke and UNC have on the ACC.  Like it was noted in the broadcast last night, Coach Tony Bennett now has the players to fit his system.  Keep in mind their best defender, Justin Anderson, missed his third game and will be out until March and they still only have one loss on the season.  The system isn't going anywhere which means Virginia isn't going anywhere.  North Carolina and Duke have pedigree that speak volumes and will be at the top of the conference mountain as long as they aren't on probation.  Louisville won a national title in 2013 and reached the Final Four the year earlier.

You might wonder how this might be any different from Kentucky in the SEC or Arizona in the Pac-12 or Wisconsin in the Big 10 or Kansas in the Big 12.  These programs are consistent winners.  The difference in these conferences is the parity surrounding the top.  Kansas, for example, has won or tied for the regular season Big 12 title every year since 2005.  They have been in the discussion for the Final Four for just as long, boast a storied tradition, and marvelous records.  However, the teams in the top four of the Big 12 are consistently rotating:
2011: #1 KU, #2 Texas, #3 Texas A&M, #4 Kansas St.
2012: #1 KU, #2 Missouri, #3 Iowa St., #4 Baylor
2013: #1 KU, #2 Kansas St., #3 Oklahoma St., #4 Iowa St.
2014: #1 KU, #2 Oklahoma, #3 Texas, #4 Iowa St.

If you review the Big 10, Pac-12 and SEC, you'll find the same outcomes, as well.

Now let's quickly glance at the teams in the caboose of the ACC:
The Bottom
2012: #9 Wake Forest, #10 Virginia Tech, #11 Georgia Tech, #12 Boston Coll.
2013: # 9 Georgia Tech, #10 Wake Forest, #11 Clemson, #12 Virginia Tech
2014: #11 Georgia Tech & Wake Forest, #13 Notre Dame, #14 Boston Coll., #15 Virginia Tech
2015: #12 Wake Forest, #13 Georgia Tech, #14 Virginia Tech, #15 Boston Coll.

I am never writing-off these programs to ascend towards the middle of the conference for a couple of reasons.  First, all of them have very good coaches that have been hired within the last two seasons.  Second, they've had players and successful seasons that each can reference to promote promise and stability.  Third, their styles of play are different (up-tempo vs. half court vs. front court heavy) making each difficult to prepare for in their own way.

Where does this leave Pitt?  If recent history is any indication, there's one chair at the table remaining for any other program that might want to claim it (FSU, Miami, Syracuse, Notre Dame.)  Is the expectation for Pitt to be satisfied hibernating year after year somewhere between a #7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a #5 seed in the NIT?  Should we expect a victory or two against some of the conference's top teams before falling to the like of the Demon Deacons in Winston Salem?

As pessimistic as I might be about this season's ultimate fate, I'm looking forward to the benchmark the Panthers create for themselves.  It's because of victories against North Carolina that make you feel like you belong in the best basketball conference in the land.  Currently sitting at 17 victories, it would be a nice feather-in-the-cap to reach 21-22 wins, considering this young squad only has two games remaining at home.  And while I hope these Panthers make the Big Dance, it would be an even better feeling for this season if they beat the teams they should.  They're not yet at the top of the perch, but here's hoping one day, the big boys will save them a seat.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Josh Harrison, Better in 2015

It was Saturday, May 3, 2014.  For the sixth consecutive May, it had been a rite of passage for me to venture home for the Pittsburgh Marathon.  The previous two marathons, in particular, offered a chance to hear the family, the town, and sports radio buzzing about the Pirates strong start to the season.  That certainly wasn't the air around PNC Park heading into the 2014 race.  The Buccos were well under .500 (11-19 upon arrival on May 3) and our 2013 Buctober was quickly seeming like a flash-in-the-pan bonanza than the standard moving forward for the next handful of years.

The season turned around that night.

Sure, the Buccos dramatic 8-6 victory gave them two come-from-behind victories against the Blue Jays.  And Mark Melancon notched his first save of the season, establishing himself as the new hammer in the bullpen.  But May 3 was all about Josh Harrison.

Harrison's night was the tipping point in the Pirates' season, igniting a stagnant offense in need of a consistent threat at the plate and on the base paths.  Harrison provided that, and then some, all the way to being selected to his first MLB All-Star game and being voted ninth in the National League MVP balloting.

So why do I bring up a game nine months ago?  It serves as the catalyst to the prediction that Harrison will be just as strong if not, better in 2015.  Granted, I might not be in the majority with this opinion.  Similarly to Zach Duke's or Oliver Perez' rookie year or Jose Castillo and Craig Wilson in the mid 2000s or, more recently, Alex Presley and Andrew Lambo in today's game, Harrison brings a potential, an excitement and an optimism that stability is accompanying his skills and the Pirates might just be set for the foreseeable future with an everyday third baseman and Swiss Army Knife.  We thought this for the aforementioned players only to be reminded how daunting it is to have consistent success at the Major League level. 

But many question just how lucky and/or under-established Harrison is.  After all, 12 months ago, no one, not even Josh and the Harrisons, expected #5 to be gracing the cover of magazines and serving as the mainstay to a second straight playoff dash.   And doubt looms around Bradenton and Pittsburgh about Harrison's durability.  Check out fangraphs.com's assertion: "Josh Harrison has little upside and a huge amount of downside going into 2015. I just don’t see myself hedging my bets on a player who at best may end being Omar Infante or Tony Graffanino. At worst, he could be back in the minors.  He had a great 2014 season, but I would not expect a repeat in 2015."

And take a look at what rantsports.com said about Harrison going into the year.  Two-thirds of the article seems to be founded on opinion, of which I don't agree or understand.  One part of the article reads, "The main reason to expect Harrison to decline is that he has never put up this strong of a season in his career.  Last season, Harrison put up a triple slash of .315/.347/.490, numbers only the best players in baseball put up.  But the highest triple slash that Harrison had before that was only .250/.290/.409." 

Going into that May 3 game against Toronto, Josh Harrison was hitting .208.  He started only two games in 2014, where he was 3 for 10 and had only 23 at-bats on the season leading to his leadoff start against Toronto.  Most Pirates fans would agree that Manager Clint Hurdle was wise in keeping Harrison in the starting lineup, pretty much a no-brainer maneuver that was rewarded with MVP-caliber production.  But what can we make of Harrison's 2014 season?

Harrison has been a major leaguer with the Pirates since 2011.  Here are some statistics that you might find interesting:
* In 2011, Harrison had 195 ABs with 53 hits.  He pinch-hit eight times, going 0-8.
* In 2012, Harrison had 249 ABs with 58 hits.  He pinch-hit 29 times, going 4-29.
* In 2013, Harrison had 88 ABs with 22 hits.  He pinch-hit 29 times, going 6-29.
* Going into the May 3 game against the Blue Jays, Josh Harrison had pinch hit 13 times and earned two hits.

Here, then, are Josh Harrison's pinch-hitting averages for his career:
2011: .000
2012: .138
2013:  .207
2014: .154 before May 3, 3-20 total for the year (.150)
Career: 13 for 86 (.181)

Let's eliminate his pinch-hitting numbers for these seasons and tab Harrison's Plate Appearances / At-Bats / Hits / Average / (Average for the season)

2011: 196 / 187 / 53 / .284 (.272)
2012:  247 / 220 / 54 / .245 (.233)
2013: 66 / 59 / 16 / .271 (.250)
2014: 530 / 500 / 161 / .322 (.315)
Career: 284 for 996 (.285)

Baseball Reference.com has Harrison's 162-game average at 139 hits in 469 at-bats.  That's a .298 batting average, including pinch-hits.  Assuming he continues at a .181 clip as a pinch-hitter, that would place his 162-game average without pinch hits at .304.

Obviously it's much more difficult to deliver pinch-hits when you've been sitting on the pine and the manager summons you to drive home the tying run against the team's best reliever.  But how many times have the Pirates (or any team) ridden a player too long, giving him opportunity after opportunity only to see that player wilt to a .230 average?

I am of the opinion that Harrison will have an even better 2015.  He's never had to prepare for being the table-setter for any lineup heading into spring training.  He never withered last year during the most grueling months and charging into October.  His batting averages by month in 2014, excluding pinch hits include:
May: .325 (26 for 80)
June: .317 (32 for 101)
July: .286 (24 for 84)
August: .356 (42 for 118)
September: .327 (34 for 104)

He's never had to focus on plate discipline because he had to be the spark to drive home runs or get on base or move positions three times in one game.  Look at what he said in Pittsburgh Magazine back in July: “It’s hard to try to keep up — and try to perfect — five positions,” says Harrison. “What I’ve found is that it’s easier for me to just go out there and be an athlete, as opposed to trying to doing it the textbook way. Because it’s never going to be textbook when you’re not there every day.” 

Think about how much damage Harrison can do when he's worked at third base for an entire off-season and spring training.  Think about how many baseball players are peaking in their late 20s.  Think about how Harrison is a bargain at $2.8 million for one year and how he's playing everyday like he has something to prove. Then think about how his numbers as a starter have been strong during his four years in the Black and Gold.  Is it really that unfathomable to believe Harrison will be a force at the top of the lineup in 2015?

Unfortunately, in three months when I return home for that first weekend in May to run the marathon, the Pirates will be on the road in St. Louis.  By May 3, they will have had 24 games in the books.  Regardless of their place in the standings or their individual performances over the first month, it will be enjoyable to reflect on this day one year earlier, the day the Pirates found their secret weapon.  When you look at the body of work, though, maybe it wasn't really a secret.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Immediate Super Post Game Trivia

Now that we've had a whole ten minutes to digest this classic Super Bowl, here is some cranium stretching trivia to dazzle your friends and family:

You actually had a decent shot at guessing Tigers, so if you did guess Tigers, good for you.

Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie out of West Alabama, just made his alma mater, his football team, and all of New England very proud.  In a lot of ways, I'm very proud of him, as well.  The small schools and underdog stories are what we less-talented folks yearn to achieve.  

Quick, how many yards per carry did Marshawn Lynch average in tonight's Super Bowl?

That would be 4.2 yards per carry.  Replicated 100 times and given two opportunities per replication, Marshawn Lynch carries the ball into the end zone something like 98.5 times from the opponent's 1-yard line.  It's very easy to second guess, but that's not even second guessing.  That's more arrogance on Pete Carroll's part.  

Quick, can you guess the number of times Russell Wilson threw to Chris Matthews this season before the Super Bowl?

That would be zero.  The undrafted rookie had no catches for no yards on no targets.  He was possibly 36 inches away from being the game's MVP.

In control when it's needed most
With that in mind, Quick, how many of Seattle's active receivers were drafted in the NFL at ANY POINT EVER?

Again, that would be ZERO.  Do you understand what that means?  Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Bryan Walters, Ricardo Lockette and Matthews were all UNDRAFTED.

Quick, how many different receivers caught touchdown passes?

Three ... Four ... Five?  Nope.  Six different receivers caught six touchdown passes from the Tom Terrific and Mr. Wilson (Brandon LaFell, The Gronk, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman for the Pats and Matthews and Doug Baldwin for the Hawks.)

Quick, how many Super Bowl touchdown passes does Tom Brady have in his career?

With his two fourth quarter touchdown passes, the 37-year old has amassed 13 touchdown passes for his career.  His play in the fourth quarter was nothing short of flawless.  He certainly earned his third Super Bowl MVP to tie fellow Northern California resident, Joe Montana.  His touchdown pass to Edelman with 2:02 remaining in the contest was his 53rd of his postseason career.  Just remarkable.

Quick, how many Super Bowls have been played in Arizona?

Three ... tonight, Super Bowl XLII (Giants over Patriots) and Super Bowl XXX (Cowboys over Steelers.)
Way to go, Vic!

Finally, can you guess the number of Super Bowls the Patriots have won since I've joyfully associated with my in-laws?

That would be one.

I think it feels like the Patriots have won 10 Super Bowls since 2000, but the punishment they dealt the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh was only during the championship runs against the Rams and Eagles (with a Panthers victory sewn in-between.)  I am happy for my father-in-law, Victor and his best bud, Mark.  There aren't two more loyal, dedicated, and devoted people in the world than Vic and Mark, not only to their families, but to their allegiances.  It's been a pleasure having them to our house to watch the Patriots on the Sunday Ticket and I know they've been sweating through this instant classic since the Colts were sent home two weeks earlier.  They are the first people on my mind with this championship organization and I hope they savor this title for as long as possible. 

My mom texted me, "all congrats to victor."  My sister texted, "I'm completely okay with that ending."  If my dad could text, he'd probably say something nice, too.  

I'm happy for Patty, who now holds one Stanley Cup (Bruins,) one World Series (Red Sox) and one Super Bowl (Pats) since the day of our glorious and unbinding marriage.  Patty's stone-cold placidity in the face of tense, edgy and sometimes neurotic impulses is the stuff of legends.  As soon as the game was over ... right to bed.  How does she do it, ladies and gentlemen?  And will she allow the good folks of Pittsburgh to ever enjoy a hometown championship ever again?

Good job, New England.  Feel free to send your own trivia to this posting.  We all want to be just a little bit smarter than our friends, just like Malcolm Butler.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reminder: Baseball Runs Deep

I received an email on Sunday afternoon from someone that I hadn't expected to write me. It wasn't from my dad or from Gaetan or Cousin Karina from New Hampshire.

It was from Rob Manfred.

Rob Manfred, the newly elected commissioner of Major League Baseball decided to take time from his coronation into the most powerful position in the sport and express his love for the game and his determination to make it a staple in the American fabric.

The timing of Mr. Manfred's letter, to me, was perfect. On Sunday afternoon, we had the aftershock of Bill Belichick's take on Deflategate, a NHL All-Star game, Durant vs. LeBron, college basketball match-ups galore and the Australian Open. (By the way, I love January for this reason and we'll visit the top sports months in a later entry.) His letter, though, signaled to me that baseball is taking its approach to modernizing and globalizing the game very seriously, not seasonally.

His letter was highlighted by two very poignant and passionate paragraphs:

"The mission before us is clear: To honor the game's history while welcoming new people to our great sport - people who will one day pass their love of baseball down through the generations. That is what our parents and grandparents did for us, and it is what we are doing for our own children. Baseball is a game firmly rooted in childhood experiences, and its vitality and growth rely heavily on giving young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to play and watch baseball."

Baseball tugs at the chords of my core like no other sport can. Its dynamics, symmetry, strategy and history all resonate in a very powerful mix that I revisit every February during Spring Training and carry through to the Fall Classic. Between those Major League checkpoints, I remember having my most enjoyable moments as a Little League in Aspinwall, a Colt Leaguer in Indiana, a Legionier in Springdale and an outfielder at Fox Chapel. Baseball elevated my dad on a higher pedestal when fatherhood took a passenger seat to manager and Mom and Christa become cheerleader #1 and #1A.

I never played organized football or hockey, or the relationship I had with the Steelers and Penguins was indeed adrenalized and fervent. Both enjoyed great success through my childhood, especially in the 1990s and remain iconic to the national and global sports scene. The Pirates were different in a lot of ways, partly due to their futility from 1993 through 2012 but also due to their accessibility. Three Rivers Stadium was, literally, 11 minutes from my house. This was a personal connection I was fortunate enough to feel with my family and friends as weekends were checkered with $5 tickets in the outfield or a Wednesday night showcase with the family after school and work.  Manfred's letter aided in this reminiscence and certainly seems like a goal that I hope he can consistently reflect upon.

His second-to-last paragraph was an important one, but could be dangerous:
"Another priority for me is to continue to modernize the game without interfering with its history and traditions. Last season's expanded instant replay improved the game's quality and addressed concerns shared by fans and players. We made a dramatic change without altering the game's fundamentals. I look forward to tapping into the power of technology to consider additional advancements that will continue to heighten the excitement of the game, improve the pace of play and attract more young people to the game."
Baseball's purity and history are central to its attraction.  It's understandable to desire to use technology to improve and attract, but hopefully Manfred won't dull its luster by cheapening its marketability.  In a New York Times article, Manfred said, "I think it’s really important that we use technology to make the game as user-friendly in the ballpark and during broadcasts as we possibly can. You can enhance and provide real fans with information via technology that makes the game move faster and keeps people engaged during the game."  The national television ratings consistently indicate the average age of viewers in the fifties.  Did you know, though, that almost 6 million people open the MLB At-Bat app every day and the average age of those techies is 30?

Did you know, too, the average MLB game take 13 minutes less than the average NFL game?  If technology speeds games by another 13 minutes, you're entering into NCAA basketball time-of-game territory.   Additionally, MLB seems to be taking this pace-of-play thing rather seriously.

Hopefully that doesn't mean eliminating defensive shifts, or lowering the pitcher's mound, or shortening the fences or pumping music as play is unfolding.

Baseball is not short on cash.  Bud Selig captained the sport through troubling times after the 1994 strike and saw it manifest into a $9 billion profit with a stronger steroid prevention policy and a more leveled playing field that saw the Kansas City Royals make the World Series.  Common sense led Manfred to eliminate any mention of creating more money for the game in his letter, which was a nice touch to his opening salvo. 

Are there areas that need improving in baseball... absolutely.  The good news is every sport needs improving.  An effective commissioner, though, should be able to identify areas of improvement without compromising the worth of its stakeholders.

Commissioner Goddell and Commissioner Bettman have set the bar awfully low for Manfred and Commissioner Silver is just now leaving the honeymoon phrase of his NBA leadership tenure.  Commissioner Manfred can do a lot of good during his time on the job.  His letter to me was a very nice commencement to his journey moving baseball forward.