Royals Come Up Aces With Cueto

If there was a better fit for Johnny Cueto than the Kansas City Royals, I can’t imagine what it is. The Reds dealt their ace to Kansas City yesterday for two minor-league pitchers and talented young reliever Brandon Finnegan. The acquisition of Cueto makes the Royals the clear favorite to win the American League pennant, regardless of what other trades happen the next few days and their odds at winning the World Series went up markedly.

My statement that Cueto makes Kansas City the AL favorite may seem strange, given that according to Las Vegas they already were the favorite to get back to the World Series. They had, after all, won last year’s AL flag and had the league’s best record this season. What more did you need?

I needed to see a true ace at the top of the rotation, or at least a legitimate horse like they had last year with James Shields, since departed to San Diego. Someone you could rely on for seven innings or so every fifth day and could reasonably match up with the aces other teams have in the playoffs.

Depth wins in the regular season and Kansas City has a lot of that, especially in the bullpen. But it’s elite players that tend to carry teams in October, where the span of a short series gives them greater impact. And the Royals’ pitching staff was not suited to win in the postseason.

Kansas City’s pitching overall has been excellent this season, as evidenced by their best-in-the-AL team ERA. But if you look at starters’ ERA, they drop to 10th. If you look at innings logged by the starting rotation, it gets worse—no rotation in the league pitches fewer innings than KC’s.

Even with Cueto, the Royals are still going to rely on their bullpen, but you can’t tax them that much during the season and even in October, you need a handful of games where a starter can go deep. While the Royals’ starters were averaging only 5.5 innings per start, Cueto was averaging 6.9. Problem solved.

The acquisition makes Kansas City, already in command in the AL Central, now highly likely to maintain their healthy 7 ½ game over the Minnesota Twins, who have overachieved just to stay that close. That means the Royals will be able to line up their rotation as they want it for the playoffs and that means Cueto on the mound for Game 1 of the ALDS at home.

Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in baseball. He’s spent his career in the very hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and posted phenomenal numbers.

In 2012, he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 217 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s love of the great story of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

In 2014, Cueto was even better, 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 243 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s rush to exclude anyone not named Clayton Kershaw from the discussion.

Even Cueto’s recent “bad” year, the injury-plagued 2013, was pretty good when he was available. In eleven starts, his ERA was 2.82.

The team that came within a run of the World Series title a year ago has added the best arm in the game to their rotation. The best teams in baseball are still in the National League—the Cardinals, Dodgers and possibly the Nationals if they can kick it into gear. But the acquisition of Cueto has quickly vaulted Kansas City to the status of betting favorite to not just win the pennant, but to win the whole thing. The Royals shoved their chips onto the table and bet big. And they came up aces in this deal.

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The Premature Burial Of Peyton Manning

When ESPN’s Mike Sando released his quarterback ratings this past week it created the usual buzz that comes with these silly overblown rankings. Is RG3 done? Is Andrew Luck now elite? Those were the questions buzzing around the media. What I found most interesting was the seemingly universal consensus that Peyton Manning is no longer an elite quarterback.

In the aftermath of the rankings I watched ESPN talk shows from Pardon The Interruption to First Take. A common theme was that there are two quarterbacks head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. After that there’s everyone else. Clearly, Rodgers and Brady are in that elite group. But why is Peyton suddenly left behind?

Of course I know. He finished last season on a down note. The NFL media, and for that matter, its personnel infrastructure, who was surveyed by Sando in his ratings compilation, is notoriously short-sighted. In a league where job security is non-existent, it’s all about what have you done for me lately. And when we last saw Peyton Manning, he was clearly not himself in struggling through a home playoff loss to Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.

The problem with writing off Peyton based on this is that we all know he was hurt. He was playing with a torn quad. It obviously impacted his play. He’ll be healthy for the start of the season—it’s a torn quad, not a broken neck. Although we know from past experience that he’s recovered from the latter too.

People have short memories. After three weeks of last season, Rodgers had to tell everyone to R-E-L-A-X, because the Packers were 1-2 and the offense had been inept in two road losses. All he did was win the MVP award. After four weeks of last season, everyone screamed that Brady was done, following a disastrous Monday Night game in Kansas City. All he did was author a fourth-quarter Super Bowl comeback against the best defense of the last decade and win game MVP honors.

Peyton had the misfortune to get hurt at the end of the year rather than the beginning, so everyone’s had several months to stew on that game and overreact to it.

The overreaction is reflected in the betting odds. Denver is 13-1 to win the Super Bowl. That’s not bad, but the favorites, Green Bay and Seattle are up around 6-1, a spot the Broncos have occupied the past couple years. Indianapolis is 8-1 and New England, even with no one knowing when Brady will be available, is 9-1.

There are going to be challenges ahead for Peyton. The Bronco offensive line is being re-tooled, with Ryan Clady out for the year and Orlando Franklin departed for San Diego. But offensive lines in today’s NFL are often in flux year-to-year. Peyton knows how to get rid of the football quickly and that will ease the transition.

In the meantime, C.J. Anderson represents the best running threat Denver has had in the Manning era. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are an excellent receiving tandem, and the raw talent in defense is capable than more than their #16 ranking in points allowed last year shows.  The addition of first-round draft choice Shane Ray, a solid edge rusher, is going to give the Broncos one of the best pass rushes in football, going along with Malik Jackson and Von Miller.

Denver has gone 38-10 in the three regular seasons since Manning arrived and they’ve reached a Super Bowl. The fact he tore a quad at the wrong time last year does not invalidate that. Enough with the overreaction. I don’t know if I’ll pick the Broncos to reach the Super Bowl. I do know that at a value of 13-1, they’re a good bet. Because after their great quarterback demonstrates how prematurely he was buried, those odds are going to tank back down in a hurry.

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Arkansas Is Coming In The SEC West

The Arkansas Razorbacks closed last college football season as the team on the rise in the SEC West. After going through a miserable 2012 season under John L. Smith, followed by twelve straight conference losses to begin Bret Bielama’s tenure, the Hogs got rolling down the stretch.

They shut out LSU & Ole Miss, got bowl-eligible and then hammered Texas, one of the few bright spots in a bowl season where the SEC West generally imploded. Now it’s time to ask if the Razorbacks are ready to move past simple bowl eligibility and into real contention in the SEC West.

I say yes. Bielama’s imprint on this program clearly showed at the end of last season. I’m a Wisconsin fan and was well-acquainted with the head coach’s ability to implement a physical attack and in a college football culture dominated the spread, the air-raid and any other number of fast-break strategies, the Hogs were a welcome throwback to authentic football.

They produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both are back this season, as are three starters on the offensive line, including projected All-SEC guard Sebastian Tretola. They have a quarterback who knows his role and takes care of the football. Brandon Allen threw just five interceptions last year. Forcing tempo against the Hogs is just not that easy.

Arkansas’ defense made big strides at the end of last season and its ability to continue that improvement is where the ultimate success of 2015 will really be decided. They return six starters, which is the positive. The negative is that two of those that were lost, defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon, were playmakers up front. The Razorbacks need someone to establish they can disrupt blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.

All of the above is the reason I expect Arkansas to not only improve on its 6-6 regular season record from last year, but to take a substantial step forward. Las Vegas shares my sentiments and has set the Over/Under for the Hogs at 8. I’m taking the over and saying they will go 9-3.

Arkansas plays the usual SEC non-conference fare, which is to say it’s an automatic three wins and one game (Texas Tech) that’s marginal. The Hogs should sweep these four, then go 5-3 in conference play.

If you think that’s too bullish, keep in mind that Mississippi State is likely to take a step back. Is it asking a lot to suggest that Arkansas is now better than Ole Miss or Texas A&M? Or that the Hogs could win a home game with Missouri—whom they nearly beat on the road last year when the Tigers were playing for an SEC East title. That leaves just one more win to get, among the Alabama-Auburn-LSU power trio in this division, along with a road date at Tennessee.

In reality, Arkansas’ results probably won’t break down this neatly. The good news is that Alabama-Auburn-LSU all have question marks, the Hogs have demonstrated an ability to compete with them and can definitely win a head-to-head battle. The bad news is that football is a game of attrition and I think Bielama may need to pile on more recruiting classes to get the depth necessary to avoid an upset.

But somehow, some way, I think this balances out to a 5-3 conference finish, putting Arkansas in probably the Capital One Bowl at worst, and maybe even sneaking into the New Year’s Six.

The Hogs haven’t played in a major bowl game since 2010, when they went to the Sugar with Ryan Mallet at quarterback. That was the only big-time bowl they’ve reached since joining the SEC in 1992. But their time is coming.


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It’s Time To End Baseball’s Sabermetrics Revolution

I became familiar with the sabermetrics movement in baseball the way a lot of people in my generation did—through the writing of Bill James, which I read in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a college student (usually while consuming massive amounts of beer by myself, but that’s another story entirely).

I was a big proponent of what James was doing, bringing fresh statistics to the fore and seeking to better measure players and teams. I supported him and his acolytes against the old-school types. Today that’s come full circle, and it’s time to call an end to the sabermetrics revolution.

For those that aren’t familiar with sabermetrics, the term, practically speaking, applies to the movement to throw out traditional baseball stats and replace them with new ones. I understand that’s a simple definition, but for a blog post it will have to suffice.

To me, the strengths sabermetrics brought were basic. Batting average and home runs were clearly insufficient to measure offensive contributions. What about walks? What about doubles and triples? There was no way to quantify these under traditional baseball measurements, and the advent of on-base percentage and slugging percentage were the result. Baseball is the better for it.

Circa the late 1980s, I also felt RBI producers got too much credit at the expense of those who scored the runs. After all, how do you drive in a runner who doesn’t exist? Yet only the man who got the RBI was getting his due in the classic Triple Crown categories.

There was also the age-old debate about how to measure starting pitchers. Sabermetrics doesn’t like wins as a tool. I tended to agree then, and still tend to agree now. It was more appropriate when pitchers routinely went the distance or at least up to the eighth inning or so.

This is just a snapshot of the work James and those that followed him did, and I sympathized with their efforts to get their voices heard. They were dismissed by the old guard types, the ones who said mere number-crunchers couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute to the discussion. The old guard was wrong and they were arrogant in their being wrong.

Now that’s come full circle and this revolution has gone places I never wanted to go. For instance…

*In reducing the importance of RBIs, it was never my intent to discount them altogether. How many times does a manager, after a loss, lament the lack of a key hit with men in scoring position? I just wanted credit given to the complete package that produced the run, not just the hitter with the RBI.

*The arrogance has now shifted. Now it’s old-guard types who are routinely dismissed—with one high-profile notable exception in Anaheim recently—while the stat geeks carry themselves with a pomposity that says to disagree with them is to challenge the very basis of science itself.

*Thinking that wins are an inadequate measurement of a starting pitcher doesn’t mean I think the concept of pitching differently with a lead, or having the moxie to simply be better on a night when you have to be was irrelevant. I do think ERA and innings pitched are still the most important parts of being a starting pitcher, but wins can’t be dismissed.

*The sabermetrics movement has also moved to dismiss the quality of finesse pitchers who don’t get strikeouts. The mindset behind stats like BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) and other advanced stats is that once a ball is in play, the pitcher is at the mercy of luck. And therefore, the pitchers that are truly good are the ones that get strikeouts.

This is not a view I ever held and one I would immediately separate myself from. Continue reading “It’s Time To End Baseball’s Sabermetrics Revolution” »

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Will The Indians Or Reds Heat Up Ohio In The 2nd Half?

The state of Ohio has enjoyed a good sports run recently. They won the national championship in college football with Ohio State, reached the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers and both teams looked primed for a lot more in the seasons to come. Baseball hasn’t gone so well, with the Reds and Indians each sub-.500 as the second half gets set to start tonight. But with the second wild-card in play, both teams are on the radar. Is there any reason to have hope?

I’ll admit to an emotional stake in favor of both teams, which is why I’m including the Reds when, quite frankly, they probably shouldn’t be. Cincinnati is as close as I have to a favorite National League team. I say “as close as I have” because I am a Red Sox fan and I’m not into the whole secondary team thing. I feel like it’s keeping a backup wife and I’m not a sports Mormon.

Nonetheless, in practice, I do tend to cheer for the Reds as long as they’re alive, and my pedigree as a Red Sox fan gives me great affection for Terry Francona in Cleveland. Along with the fact that as a writer, my all-time favorite client lives in the Cleveland suburbs and likes the Tribe.

Let’s start with the Reds, because the answer is the easiest—the answer is that they have no shot and I doubt even the most partisan Cincy fan would disagree. They’re 7 ½ games back of the Cubs for the last wild-card, but there are five teams between Cincinnati and Chicago. Moreover, they appear almost certain to trade staff ace Johnny Cueto in the next two weeks leading up the July 31 non-waive trade deadline.

If the Reds kept Cueto, it would be out of a belief that they could sign him to a long-term deal and still put a respectable team around him. It’s highly unlikely, but if that happened, there would be reason for optimism in 2016. Cincinnati’s been hit hard by injuries—Homer Bailey has been out for the year and Tony Cingrani has been injured, effectively strip-mining the pitching staff. In the everyday lineup, Devin Mesoraco and Zack Cozart are hurt and Cozart, along with Billy Hamilton simply needs to learn to hit.

Ultimately, Cincinnati is paying the price for foolishly letting Dusty Baker go after the 2012 season. I said when it happened that the Reds would indeed “reach the next level”, which is the justification teams always use for firing successful managers, but it would be the next level down, not up. Which is exactly what’s happened.

Now let’s move on to Cleveland, where prospects are much brighter. To begin with, the Indians are a bit closer to the goal than are the Reds. The Tribe is 5 ½ back of the last wild-card with four teams to jump. There are no trade vultures circulating the team and they have a great manager in the dugout.

Cleveland also has good pitching. After a slow start, Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber has settled into a nice season. Kluber, Trevor Bauer and the promising young Danny Salazar all have ERAs in the 3s. Carlos Carrasco is at 4.07. The Indians are seventh in the AL in ERA even with Kluber’s bad start and I think that ranking is going to keep improving in the second half.

The bullpen could use some depth, but at the very least Bryan Shaw has stabilized the ninth inning, with 11 saves and a 1.71 ERA. This is another area of the team that is going to be stronger in the second half than in the first half.

It’s the bats that have to wake up. Cleveland is only 12th in the American League in runs scored. Jason Kipnis is the best second baseman in the American League, with a .401 on-base percentage/.487 slugging percentage and he deserved to start the All-Star Game over Houston’s Jose Altuve. Although after the Kansas City Machine nearly elected Omar Infante, I’m certainly not going to complain too much about Altuve.

But Kipnis is to the Indians offense what LeBron was to the Cavs offense this spring—a guy who needs some help. Continue reading “Will The Indians Or Reds Heat Up Ohio In The 2nd Half?” »

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