Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Architecture for a World Series Team

The Tigers appear to be nearing the last gasps of their championship window, which is leaving the station (if I could mix a metaphor or 3). This is a crucial offseason if they ever want to make this version of the team a contender ("this version" being the Verlander-Cabrera Micro-Dynasty). So far they've re-signed DH Victor Martinez and RP Joel Hanrahan, exercised options on C Alex Avila and RP Joakim Soria, and traded for CF Anthony Gose. Scherzer may or may not be gone, but Torii Hunter is DEFINITELY gone. So the 2015 is a little more solidified, with some holes to fill. But can the 2015 team be a CHAMPIONSHIP team? What needs to change for that to happen?

There are many ways to build a good ball club, but World Series teams have some very distinct similarities. I looked at the last 3 years of WS participating teams to see what trends I could spot on how these teams were constructed. A couple addendums - first off, if I were really dedicated to this (and didn't have a full-time job), I would've probably gone back more than 3 years. 10 years at least. Secondly, the Giants won 2 of the last 3 titles, so they probably skew the numbers a bit. Keep all of that in mind when looking at these numbers.

A few notes about methods before we get into it: I looked at WAR (wins above replacement) for every position (including DH, or in the NL whichever bench player had the most ABs), the defensive rating for the 8 position players and 1 bench/platoon player, and the OPS (on base % + slugging %) for each spot in the batting order. I wanted to list the batting order with OWAR (offensive wins above replacement), but I couldn't find a website that put OWAR with the batting order & was too lazy to cobble that together. OPS, while imperfect, will have to do. Some variance is due to manager philosophy (do you hit your best hitter 3rd or 4th, do you want a weak-hitting, bat-control guy as your 2nd hitter, etc.), and some is due to the fact that half of these teams are NL teams who bat the pitcher 9th at least 3 times a game. Onward:
 
 
Four trends we can spot right off:
1. C, SP1 and CF are easily the top 3 players on World Series teams. LF is 4th and then SP2 is 5th. Nobody's really bad, but then it's a WS team. You don't generally find bad starters on a WS team.
2. Middle defense is IMPORTANT. The top 2 defensive players on World Series teams are the catcher and shortstop. Centerfield is right behind, and then 2nd base. Every other position averages average or sub-average defense, with 1B being typically the worst defender. Interesting.

3. The pitching staff on these teams follows an obvious trajectory. A really good ace, pretty good at #2 & #3, and then just above average at #4 & #5. The closer isn't always the top pitcher in the bullpen but he's at least 2nd-best. Often the setup guy is actually the better pitcher but doesn't handle the closer role.
4. The batting order has a gentle curve until the #9 guy. The first 4 hitters are almost always the best, peaking at #3 or #4 depending on the manager's philosophy. After #4 it slopes downward, and then plummets at #9. Some of this is due to the NL batting the pitcher 9th, but less than you would think (2014 Royal's #9 guy - .584 OPS, 2012 Tigers' #9 guy - .603. 2013 Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut, so their #9 hitter's .703 OPS was terrible for them)

 

How does that structure compare to the 2014 Tigers? Well, their best players fit in at SP2, 1B, 2B and DH. They had good middle defense at C and 2B, average middle defense at SS, and bad middle D at CF (don't blame the Austin Jackson trade, A-Jax was nearly as bad as Rajai Davis in CF). Also, WS winners don't have TERRIBLE defenders (the losers might, and in the case of the 2012 Tigers, they had several). They might have a couple sub-average defenders, but no one with a defensive rating lower than -8 or so. The 2014 Tigers had TERRIBLE defenders at 3 positions (RF, 3B & CF), poor defense LF (despite Cabrera's low def. rating at 1B he's above average for that position), and at SS, a position where they needed A+ defense, they got a B-. If you averaged out the WAR for Detroit's starters, they'd be about a full point higher than the average starter on a WS team. If you did the same for the bullpen, Detroit's average RP would be half a point lower than the average RP on a WS team.

Lastly, the batting order. The 1 & 2 hitters were ok, not ideal. The 3, 4 & 5 hitters were spectacular. The #9 hitter was about what you would expect from an AL team, but the problem was that the 6, 7 & 8 hitters were about that good as well. Instead of a gentle slope, the Tigers' offense flatlined on the back half.


What is their outlook for 2015? They brought in Anthony Gose to either platoon with Rajai Davis at CF (Gose facing righties, Davis the lefties) or to take over the position entirely. That should improve the CF defense significantly, if Gose's weak bat doesn't keep him off the field. Torii Hunter (Detroit's worst defensive player last year) is gone and presumably whoever they pick up will be better. If they pick up a LF and slide JD Martinez over to RF, that would improve the defense at 2 positions. Jose Iglesias should be back at SS, moving the defensive grade there back into the A to A+ range. My hope for Castellanos at 3B is to be merely bad. If Castellano plays regular, bad defense at 3B, I'll be satisfied with that. He can't be the worst at the position again, but maybe he's growing into the position. Maybe.

The lineup situation is interesting. Most likely, Ian Kinsler will lead off, but he may bat 2nd depending on who the Tigers replace Torii Hunter with. If it's a guy like Nori Aoki, he'll slide into the 2 hole. If it's a guy like Yasmani Tomas, Melky Cabrera or Nick Markakis, he'll lead off. If we assume JD Martinez wasn't a 1-year wonder, the Tigers are well-fixed in the 3-4-5 spots as they were in 2014. The 6th spot? The 6th spot.
I'm stepping into my internal monologue for a moment to work this out. Nick Castellanos batted 6th most of 2014, and barring any drastic moves on Dombrowski's part, I expect that to continue. He wasn't a particularly good #6 hitter, just good for a rookie. He should improve in year 2, hopefully becoming more patient. If the Tigers get a guy like Tomas or Markakis to play RF and Castellanos develops as a hitter, he'd be a good #2 guy and Tomas or Markakis could bat 5th or 6th. Just a thought.
At the bottom of the lineup we have Iglesias, Avila and Gose/Davis. If Davis gets the start, he should bat 7th (I don't care that he's fast and the 9th spot is like the leadoff spot, bat the better hitters higher in the order. It's not rocket science... it's not even algebra). Otherwise, it's probably Iglesias-Avila-Gose. The Tigers will likely have James McCann up to spell Avila at C and to provide a right-handed option at that position. The question is Iglesias - is he the .300 hitter he looked like with Boston in the first half of 2013, or is he the .260 hitter he looked like the reset of the season with Detroit? If he hits even .280 next year, he's a great 7th hitter and Detroit's lineup is decent shape. If he's more like .240-.250, he's basically what we had in 2014 with better defense and the Tiger's lineup looks a lot worse.

Ok, now the pitching situation - Detroit is WAY too heavy on talent at starting pitching. They don't need 3 former Cy Young winners, and they really should spend Cy Young money on 3 guys when they can spend half as much on a guy who is 75% as good. If Detroit keeps Verlander, Price, Sanchez and Porcello as their rotation, they should be in fine shape picking up a guy like Edinson Volquez or even a Colby Lewis type. I'd really like them to spend some of the money saved by not signing Scherzer on their bullpen, which was possibly the weakest part of the 2014 team (after their defense). Get Andrew Miller, Gregerson, Neshek, or even Sergio Romo to either close or setup for Soria, and let Joe Nathan go. With a bit of a bounce-back year in play for Verlander, Price, and Soria, Detroit's pitching might even be better in 2015 despite losing their best guy in Scherzer.

Dombrowski has historically over-valued starting pitching and under-valued defense. His signings (and unsignings) this offseason have shown a slight shift in philosophy about defense, but he still needs to sign a big-time OF. Will he trade Castellanos for a LF and sign Hanley Ramirez to play 3B? Will he re-sign Scherzer and trade Price for an OF and prospects? Will he make a move to improve the bullpen? This is Detroit's most interesting offseason in YEARS.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bad officiating hurt the Lions, but wasn't the reason they lost

On a day when this post could very easily get negative and complain-y, I'm going to focus on a couple positives from the Lions' loss on Sunday. First, that defense looked pretty good. Aside from a couple of blown plays and a bit of shoddy tackling, they held down the Cards. They only allowed 14 points, they got 2 interceptions. That's more than enough to win, unless your offense is completely inept. Second, Joique Bell was great. He had some nice moments against Miami (I'll never get tired of this), but this week he looked All World. 85 yards on 14 carries which is good for 6.1 yards per carry, along with 3 catches for 30 yards. AZ was one of the top run defenses, and Joique ran all over them. That was nice.
 
Unfortunately, Joique was the only good thing about the offense. Calvin Johnson was targeted for 15 passes, catching 5. Golden Tate was targeted for 2 passes, catching 2 (seriously? 2 targets??). Stafford completed 60% of his passes (which is mediocre to average), but the reason that number is so high is because he often settled on a dump-off pass to a RB (11 targets for Bell & Riddick combined). Stafford was facing a good defense that didn't give him much time and also covered his WRs well, but he was also inaccurate on his longer throws and made poor decisions in the pocket and on who to pass to. 3 of his 4 sacks appeared to be self-inflicted, meaning a QB with good pocket presence would have moved differently and extended the play instead of getting sacked. One of his worst passing decisions was on the 4th and 2 attempt, when he missed a difficult pass to Calvin (who was covered) instead of throwing a much easier ball to Tate (who was open).
 
Obviously this can't ALL be on Stafford. His 1 interception was basically a punt & I don't know what else he could've done. He was under a lot of duress (although, again, it was self-inflicted to some extent). Lombardi's playcalling hasn't been the greatest... and that's a bit of an understatement. His 3rd down calls were pretty much all bad (except a couple of screen passes that were well executed), and his run on 1st down % is pretty high...
Let me break down that last comment a little further: running on 1st down is predictable. OCs like to get a chunk of yards on 1st down to open up some options on 2nd down and 3rd down. 2nd & long is usually a passing down, 3rd & long is almost ALWAYS a passing down. This is Pop Warner-level playcalling though. An NFL OC should aspire to be unpredictable. Run when they expect you to pass, etc. Out of 19 running plays, 8 came on 1st down and 2 came on 3rd & short. Probably the worst playcall of the game was on a 3rd & inches, when Lombardi had Stafford in the shotgun and he handed off to Riddick (not a short yardage back). If he was going to run, put Stafford under center, have a FB in there and give Joique the ball.
On top of Lombardi's predictability and spotty playcalling, I though Caldwell made a couple of questionable decisions as well. There were two 4th & shorts (one of them only inches) that Caldwell decided to either punt or kick on. This offense had very few sustained drives. The first was a 4th & 1 on Arizona's 10 yard line, with 30 seconds left in the half and down 14-3. Prater kicked the FG & Detroit never got closer to the end zone. The second time was on 4th & inches on Detroit's own 45. This is just after the ill-fated Theo Riddick counter-play on 3rd down that netted 0 yards. Still, it was 4th and inches, Detroit needed a TD badly, and they were 4 inches away from extending the drive. They punted instead, and I'm sure they regretted that later.
 
Detroit's offense was TERRIBLE, their coaching was poor, and they committed a ton of penalties (12 called, 9 accepted for 80 yards), 1 of which negated an INT that would've prevented Arizona's first TD. That said, there were 3 bad calls by the refs that didn't help.

 1. Eric Ebron's 1st down that wasn't.
 
 
The 1st down marker was just inside the 9, Ebron caught it, leaned forward and got knocked out of bounds. The official marked the ball where Ebron's foot was, not where the ball was. Since it there was less than 2 minutes to go in the half, the booth official decided the play needed to be reviewed. On TV, Mike Perreira (who has REALLY good judgment on these things) said it looked like Ebron got the 1st down but spot calls rarely get overturned. He was right. They upheld the call on the field, despite it being most likely the wrong call. Detroit ended up kicking the FG instead of going for it, so the call probably cost Detroit 4 points.
Here's another look. Ebron's 6'4" with a foot on the 10 and he's leaning forward, which means the ball is at about the 9. Replay should've overturned this, but this officiating crew is TERRIBLE

2. Possession? Possession. Possession???
 
Originally it was ruled that the Arizona player batted the ball back in play to avoid the touchback. Cardinals HC Bruce Arians threw the challenge flag, stating that Justin Bethel had "possessed" the ball on the 1 yard line before tossing it back in play. He's subject to the same "complete the process" criteria that Calvin Johnson was on his complete the process TD catch in Chicago 4 years ago. If that's not a catch, Justin Bethel chucking the ball to avoid the touchback isn't "possession". Somehow Jerome Boger (who is a pretty crappy ref, btw) overturned the call and cost Detroit 49 yards of field position that they deperately needed.
  
3. Not again.
 
 
With time ticking down and all the timeouts used up, Detroit had forced Arizona into a 3rd and 11. Stanton threw a ball to Larry Fitzgerald over the middle that was caught but immediately cleaned up by Mohammad Seisay. When Fitzgerald's feet came down he was a yard short, and Seisay tackled him several yards back. Forward progress should have given the Cards a 4th & 1 situation. Instead, the refs gave them a generous spot. Detroit was out of timeouts, and since the play didn't happen AFTER the 2 minute warning (2 minutes was reached shortly after the play was whistled dead), the play was ineligible for booth review and Detroit, having no timeouts, was unable to challenge it.

The yellow line is the 1st down marker, on the Lions' 49. Larry Fitzgerald is clearly inside the yellow marker, and the ball is closer to the 50 than the 49 yard line. Instead, Jerome Boger marked the spot a full yard ahead of where he should have, sealing the loss for Detroit.
 
Don't get me wrong, Detroit lost because the offense couldn't move the ball against a good defense. Even with a short field after a pick they couldn't do it. But a loss like this is harder to take when it feels like the officials were piling on. The reversal of the downing of the punt was unbelievable. I've never seen that play called that way, and if that was correct then they've been screwing this up for years. The NFL's VP of Officiating agreed with the call on the field because OF COURSE HE DID (99% of the time, the VP will affirm the official call and give some explanation that flies in the face of common sense and history - this was NO exception). Former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Perreira had no reason to cover up for a crappy ref, and this was his take on it after the fact:
  


Moving on, I think we all learned a bit about the Lions this weekend. Stafford will probably never be more than what he is now - an average QB with a strong arm, and mediocre accuracy & decision making. He looked bad and my general impression was he was being lazy and doesn't know where to look, so he chucked it to Calvin most of the time. Joe Lombardi isn't a great OC yet. He's not even a good OC yet. Do I long for the days of Scott Linehan? Well, he's calling plays for Dallas right now and they're 6th in yards/game & 6th in points/game. What do you think?
 
The defense was pretty good, shutting down Stanton and Co after a bumpy 1st quarter. The pass coverage looked shaky early on, and the tackling was iffy, but the Lions picked Stanton off twice, one of those pick prevented a third score by Arizona. They got less pressure on Stanton than I had expected, netting 0 sacks and only 5 QB hits, but they were pretty effective against AZ's run game. Special Teams was kind of meh. Prater doinked in a 50-yarder and drilled a chip shot (they should've gone for it!), coverage was pretty good... if Ross's punt return hadn't been overturned, this would've been better.
 
The bottom line is, this was a winnable game and Detroit's offense came out flat. They need to stand up for these big games, or they're looking at a 1 & done playoff appearance. Green Bay is looking better every week & Detroit just stays the same. At this rate, Detroit may go 4-2 down the stretch, finish behind Green Bay in the division and settle for a Wild Card, and then see somebody like Seattle, Dallas or San Francisco in the playoffs.
 
The Lions face the Pats in Foxboro next, and New England is a MONSTER. They're on a 6 game winning streak during which their average margin of victory is 19.2. Detroit is SCORING less than that per game. Time to put on your big boy pants, Lions.


Friday, November 14, 2014

2014 Lions vs. 1991 Lions, also may face the 2014 Cardinals

On 97.1 The Ticket yesterday, Mike Valenti posed the idea that Sunday's game vs. Arizona is the biggest game (regular season) the Lions have played in 20 years. Obviously this is dependent on how you define a "big" regular season game, so let's go over the implications of this game.
  1. Arizona has the top record in football. In the NFC, Detroit is tied with Philly for #2, Dallas is half a game behind at 7-3, and Green Bay and Seattle are a full game back at 6-3. If Detroit wins, they take over the top spot in the NFC.
  2. Whether you believe Arizona is really the top team in the NFL or not (I don't), they are still REALLY good. They are missing Carson Palmer, but earlier in the season they had to do without him and went 3-1 with Stanton, beating NYG, SF and STL by 11, 9, & 17, and losing to DEN by 21. They still are the toughest team Detroit has played yet, even without Palmer. A win over the Cards would legitimize the Lions' record, which currently features several "lucky" wins and losses to 5-5 Buffalo and 3-6-1 Carolina
  3. Arizona has traditionally been a bad team, much like Detroit actually, but since 2001 the Cardinals' record head to head vs. the Lions is 7-3. Detroit has played a disproportionate number of games in Arizona recently (4 out of the last 5, 6 out of 10 overall) and have lost to the Cards every time they've played in AZ. This will be their 11th meeting in 13 years, and the 7th of those 11 meetings that takes place in AZ. If the Lions are going to create a culture shift & rid themselves of the SOL tag, a big win on the road over the Cards would be a sign that it's happening
The last time the Lions won a playoff game was in 1991, which was 23 years ago (for those you too lazy to do the math). That team went 12-4 in the regular season (getting HOUSED by WAS & SF in the regular season, but beat the Cowboys & Bills), had a 1st round bye, beat the Cowboys in the 2nd round, then had to face Washington in the Conference Championship and were slaughtered by 31 points. Since then the Lions have had 3 10-win seasons and 6 playoff appearances, losing in the Wild Card round every time. The biggest regular season game that year was the week 17 OT win over Buffalo (who finished 13-3). That win was over a high quality opponent and sealed a 1st round bye for Detroit. This Cards game is the biggest regular season game since then.
 

Reviewing the 1991 Lions, they had 1 Pro Bowler on offense (Barry), 2 on defense (Spielman & Jerry Ball), and 1 on special teams (Mel Gray). They had a middle of the road offense and a middle of the road defense. They mainly lost to good teams (WAS, SF, CHI) but they also managed to lose to the 3-13 Bucs. They also beat some pretty good teams (DAL, CHI, BUF). How does this 2014 team compare?

Golden Tate should make the Pro Bowl if he's able to relatively maintain production with CJ back in the lineup. The Miami game was an indication he can do that. Calvin would need an amazing 2nd half, but we all know he's capable of that as well. Nobody on the O Line is making the Pro Bowl, Stafford almost certainly isn't, and none of the RBs are. So call it 1.5 Pro Bowlers on offense. Suh should make it EASILY on defense, and Levy should as well. An outside case could also be made for CB Darius Slay and DE Ezequiel Ansah, but both have a similar problem: Slay doesn't have the INTs to make him stand out and Ansah doesn't have the sacks. They're both having incredible seasons, but it's unlikely either will make the Pro Bowl, so call it 2 on defense. None of the special teams guys should make it, although punter Sam Martin has a long shot. 

So far in the 2014 season, Detroit has lost to a bad team in CAR and a meh team in BUF. They've beaten a couple of good teams in GB and MIA, and if they beat a really good team in AZ this Sunday, they could very well finish with 12 wins for the first time since 1991.

 
So how about that game? The line BARELY favors AZ (anytime the spread favors the home team by <3, it's a good sign for the road team), and the Over/Under is pretty low at 41 (which figures with a game that features two top-5 scoring defenses... Naturally this game will be like 41-35 or something). The matchup everyone talking about is Calvin Johnson vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson. Peterson is considered one of the top cover CBs in the game and is an incredible athlete. He's also one of the few that isn't giving up a ton of size vs. Calvin. Antonio Cromartie isn't too bad himself, and he'll probably see a lot of Golden Tate, although I expect to see some of the Honey Badger on Tate as well. I expect both Tate and Calvin to see their share of opportunities despite the tough matchups, but the question is whether or not Stafford will be accurate enough.
 

Arizona is starting Drew Stanton with Carson Palmer being out for the season, and as you can see, there is a considerable dropoff. The Cards go from a slightly better than average passer to a much less accurate passer who won't throw it down field much. He's got a couple of good targets in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, and his line is a good pass-blocking line, but then so was Miami's line. Arizona's run game is much like Detroit's - non-existant - but they may run a lot more than usual with Stanton in the game instead of Palmer. The Cards' defense is 5th in the league going by Football Outsiders' "Weighted Defense" and Defense DVOA, while more conventional metrics like "Yards Allowed/Game" and Points Allowed/Game" have them at 15th and 5th respectively. The generate a LOT of turnovers, getting the edge over Detroit here due to an obscenely high % of fumbles recovered. Their offense has only given up 7 turnovers so far (Detroit has 12 giveaways).

Stafford is a better QB than Stanton, but he'll need to limit his turnovers. CJ & Golden Tate are probably the best 1-2 WR punch this season now that Calvin is healthy. Additionally, the Lions are getting all 3 TEs back this week for the first time since Fauria jacked up his ankle chasing after his urinating dog. This give Stafford receiving threats at all levels, better options in the red zone, and slightly better blocking. The offensive line is dinged up (Warford is out, Waddle may be as well), but fortunately Arizona isn't a team that gets a lot of pressure on the QB. The Cards have a stingy defense, but I expect the Lions to put up more than 24 points, which they haven't done since week 1. There aren't any changes on the defense since last week, so I expect a similar result. Good pressure on Stanton, and he should throw a couple picks.

Detroit has the #1 defense (I never get tired of saying this, I feel like Magic Johnson loving the sound of his own voice when ever I utter those words, verbally or in text) and are far better than any defense Arizona has faced. Keep in mind, the Cards saw the #2 defense in Denver (with Stanton as QB no less) and were held to 215 yards and 20 points. Denver beat the crap out of whoever was standing in at QB with 3 sacks and 11 hits. Detroit puts a similar level of pressure on opposing QBs, registering slightly higher in sacks and QB hits. Detroit's D is rough on QBs (33.9 QBR) and Stanton hasn't been good in the red zone (only 30% TDs in red zone appearances). Put me down for a final score of 27-17, and Stanton has a rough day.

***

Yesterday I went on a bit about the posibility that the Tigers bring in Melky Cabrera. Another possible option is Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas. He's got decent power and a short swing, but probably needs to learn some plate discipline (have him hang out with Victor). The down side is what he will cost. The Tigers lost the bidding war to get Rusney Castillo, who signed with Boston for 7 years at roughly $11.5M/yr. Tomas is reportedly looking for a bit more than that.


Melky Cabrera would most likely hit for a higher average, but he's older, has less power, is probably a worse defender, and he'll be more expensive. Melky turned down a $15.3M qualifying offer in the hopes of getting a 3 year, $50M deal, which would average out to $16.7M/yr. That's nearly what Detroit signed Victor for, and Victor is a much better hitter. Tim Dierkes in MLB Trade Rumors predicts Yasmany Tomas will go for 7 years, $105M. That averages out to $15M/yr, which the Tigers would most likely backload if they were to agree to such a deal. If his rumored 30-HR power is real, I would take that deal any day of the week.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Pistons are Mixed Nuts, the Tigers are Making Moves...

Let's review the Pistons' performance through the first 8 games of a VERY young season, with a new coach and several new players (the short version - it's been bad).

First, the 2 main contributors Stan Van Gundy brought in this year (Cartier Martin and Jodie Meeks) have logged a total of 0 (that's ZERO) minutes of regular season basketball. Second, Greg Monroe missed 2 games for a DUI suspension, so Detroit's already anemic offense was further handicapped. Third, the Indiana Pacers were supposed to contend for a title this year before they lost their best player in Paul George, and now they have a worse record than Detroit. So maybe let's reel it in a little and wait for a) Martin and Meeks to get healthy, b) SVG's offense to gel a little, and c) the struggling young players to figure it out.

I think the poor starts by KCP and Drummond have a lot to do with people not knowing their roles. Jennings doesn't know when to pass or when to shoot. Drummond is trying to hard to create and is fouling out. KCP can't figure out where he fits in on offense, and he's probably playing 5-10 too many minutes per game right now (going from <20 last year to >35 this year). Check the worst 3 players on Detroit, based on VORP (value over replacement player):
 

Ok, it's a little hard to read. The bottom 3 names are Kyle Singler 9th, KCP at 10th and Drummond at 11th. The offense has been terrible across the board, with Greg Monroe as the only bright spot (and by bright spot I mean "less dim"), but KCP and Singler are emblematic of the general team malais. Drummond, like everyone else on the team, has not shot well (okay, a drop from shooting .623% to .420% is basically falling off the cliff), but his major problem has been the fouls.

Right now the team is 2-6 (with wins over NYK & MIL) and you can literally SEE the fight going on between a team that has been rudderless/leaderless since 2008 and a coach who is trying to mold a team in his image (not literally, thank god). This is like rehabbing a house. SVG shows up wanting to open up the floor plan, update the kitchen and finish the basement, but then he does some demo and discovers the wiring is all messed up and he has a mold problem.

Jalen & Jacoby discussed a variation on this problem that the Cavs are having right now on their podcast - namely, that the young Cavs players are having trouble molding themselves to a style of play that translates to winning. The Pistons don't have any super stars coming in to provide a clashing element to the incumbent players, but the problem is very similar. They have adapted their style of play to fit the situation. SVG is trying to bring them out of the muck, but it's an arduous process.

This 2-6 start is about what I expected from the Pistons, but I really expected better games from Drummond and KCP. They aren't this bad and they'll get better, especially as Martin and Meeks get healthy. I'm still expecting a move from SVG to swap out either Jennings or Smith (or both) for a player he can use, but that's a couple of months away. This team as constructed is probably a .500 team, but it'll be at least another month until they start playing like it.

Actually, they remind me more of your classic sports movie team, like Major League's Cleveland Indians, when they're just a bunch of misfits and before they have that galvanizing moment that gives them purpose and gets them to use their talents together. I don't know if SVG will have that Lou Brown moment... in real life these things don't usually pan out. Right now Drummond is trying to figure out who he is, Josh Smith is trying to deny who he is (which is anything and everything other than a shooter), and the 2 guys SVG brought in to help his offense work are both injured. This is going to take a minute.

***

The Tigers managed to re-acquire Victor Martinez for 4 years, $70M (that's $17M/yr average) and traded a prospect 2B to pick up a potential starting CF Anthony Gose. In my speculating a week ago, I moved forward with the assumption that both Martinez & Scherzer will be gone. That said, I'm not surprised Martinez came back. Dombrowski said re-signing Martinez was the top priority, V-Mart has tight relationships on the team with JD and Miguel, etc., and he was the best hitter last year. I get it. If it was me, I'd want to upgrade the defense at 3B and either move Castellanos to DH or trade him. But Martinez was the best hitter on the market and Detroit is already losing their 3rd or 4th best hitter in Torii Hunter.

The other move, trading for Anthony Gose is a bit of a risk for a team trying to win a title. Gose doesn't hit much (.226 w/ 2 HR last year) but he's fast (15 SB in half a season) and he plays a decent CF.


Yeah, he's in LF in this clip, not CF, but that is a NICE throw. Now they mention that he was way off-line on an earlier throw, but Rajai Davis didn't make that throw all year. Neither did JD Martinez. Ezequiel Carrera wasn't actually that good defensively, despite that nice diving catch vs. the Yankees in his first start. There weren't many good options for CF (or any, depending on how you feel about Rasmus) short of making a trade. Well, they made a trade and picked up a 24 yr-old no-name guy with some promise. I'm kind of meh on this. Dombrowski traded away the top guy in their farm system for Gose. The HOPE is that the same hitting coach that turned JD Martinez from a .250/.272/.378 hitter in Houston to a .315/.358/.553 hitter in Detroit can do something similar with Gose. If Anthony Gose plays plus defense in CF, hits something like .250/.330/.400 and snags 30 bases, I'll be happy with it.

A rumor currently gaining traction is that the Tigers are interested in bringing in Melky Cabrera to fill the Torii Hunter void in the lineup. Melky is a nice hitter. In fact, last year was pretty representative of his game - .301/.351/.458 hitting, 16 HR, 73 RBI and 6 SB. He's not a great OF, but JD Martinez was actually pretty good when he played RF last year and Melky was less bad than JD in LF, so this would be a decent defensive upgrade over the Martinez-Davis-Hunter OF from this past season. Melky is also primarily a #2 hitter, meaning that the Tigers' lineup would read 1. Kinsler, 2. Cabrera, 3. Cabrera, 4. Martinez, 5. Martinez... It's like a law firm or something.

In that same Melky Cabrera article, Dombrowski says the plan for the bullpen in 2015 is to go with Nathan as the closer, Soria as the setup guy, and Rondon as the 7th inning guy. The problem(s) with that?


This is a list of the top 15 closers in the AL. Look at the WAR (wins above replacement). Nathan is the worst at -0.2, Soria is the 2nd worst at -0.1. Soria had a couple of injuries and is only 30, so I'm willing to excuse him. He had a good WHIP, an okay ERA, and he was striking guys out. On the other hand, Nathan is 39 and his numbers fell off the planet. He's not good anymore. He might be better next year, but his upside is pretty low and Soria will be better anyway.

So Dombrowski's plan is to bring back the worst closer in the league, Soria (who struggled last year), and hope Bruce Rondon is recovered from Tommy John surgery? None of those guys are NOT a question mark. I hope he's not serious.

P.S. - Alex Avila might be out the door. I like his defense ok, but he's barely a major league hitter. In fact, he's really not. Pick up Geovany Soto or promote James McCann. I'm done with the patented Avila strikeout-looking-with-2-outs-and-men-on-base.

Monday, November 10, 2014

GIF-tastic Review of the Lions Win & Looking Ahead

The Lions are tied for the 2nd best record in the NFL right now and are the runaway leader in the "ugly wins" category. By my count, the Lions needed to come back in each of their last 3 games, and the Atlanta game was only won by a nose. The last comfortable win was on October 12th, and it was a 17-3 win over Minnesota. Not exactly total domination. Still, record counts above all else, and 10 ugly wins will get a team into the playoffs over a team with 8 dominating wins and 8 close losses.

With all these "ugly" wins, where do the Lions fit among the top teams in the NFL? Well, there are 3 other teams that are 7-2 or better (Denver, New England, and Arizona), Philly is 6-2 and plays tonight, and then there are 5 teams that are 6-3 or better (Green Bay, Seattle, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dallas and Kansas City). After yesterday’s win over Miami, I have a pretty good idea where Detroit is right now, so let me try to put this in perspective. I think Detroit is better than Philly, Cleveland, Kansas City, Dallas and Seattle. I think they’re really close to Green Bay, Arizona and Indianapolis, and both Denver and New England are better than the Lions. If I had to give Detroit a rank right now, I’d put them at 5th in the league. I know they beat Green Bay already, but that team is on a serious tear right now. With Carson Palmer out, Detroit should be better than Arizona, and Indianapolis looks like a bit of a paper champion to me.


Before we get into the deeper implications of Detroit's win over Miami and look ahead, let's enjoy the win. It's nice to have Calvin Johnson back, right? He crossed Grimes up to get open here with an inside-outside-inside move & Stafford's bomb was perfect. It was a thing of beauty. Here it is in moving pictures:
 


I was watching the game with a group of friends, and when CJ pulled that ball in, everyone watching stood up and made the "OOOOOOOHHHHHHHH!" sound. When Stafford airs one out like that and I know Calvin Johnson is in the game, my confidence on the success of that play goes up about 900%. The next time Stafford tried a throw like that, he underthrew CJ and got picked off by one of the more athletic plays of the NFL season.
 

Grimes was one of the top corners in the league going into the game, and I was pretty worried about him going into the contest. Yes, Stafford underthrew CJ, but not by a ton. Calvin could have made the catch if Grimes wasn't there, Grimes had to make an incredible play to pull that in, and we were kind of left shaking our heads (totally agree with this tweet).

This was a wacky game. There were 3 fake punts, 2 by Detroit and 1 by Miami (successful, but negated by a penalty). Detroit's 2nd attempt looked like an audible when the outside guy for Miami uncovered Detroit's gunner, but Martin's pass was bad and by the time Qudus pulled it in, the defense had recovered. Here's their first attempt:


This was a much easier pass than the sideline pass he had to throw to Qudus on the 2nd fake punt attempt, and you can see Martin isn't about to challenge Stafford in the arm strength department. I liked this call, and I didn't mind the 2nd call that was unsuccessful. Of note, on this play I believe the RG Larry Warford suffered a knee injury and might miss considerable time. RT LaAdrian Waddle also left the game and didn't return, but that seemed more precautionary than necessary.


Listed 3 key matchups for this game on Friday. How did they play out? Well, Tannehill vs. Lions' front 7 I'm calling a win for the Lions. They sacked him three times, hit him 9 times (Suh being the biggest meanie with a sack and 3 hits), and kept him to 2 carries for 0 yards. I was worried about Tannehill's rushing being a wild card and putting the defense in disarray. The DEs stayed home and they kept him in check. He was on his back much of the afternoon, and took several punishing hits. One was flagged (blow to the head, iffy call since they actually hit him in the upper chest) and Suh got nailed with a facemask penalty, which was legit. This one? Not flagged.


I'm pretty sure that move isn't legal in MMA. Anyway, Tannehill finished the game with a QBR of 27.1, which is 4th from the bottom this week (so far, 1 game to play). Stafford fared quite a bit better in his matchup, Stafford & Calvin Johnson vs. Miami's DBs. Stafford got picked once on the aforementioned incredibly athletic play, but he finished with a QBR of 52.1 (average) and 2 TD passes, including the game winner.


Ok, let me express how amazing this throw is. Stafford is rolling to his left, making it harder to step into the throw to put some omph into it. Then he has to open his hips to make the pass go to Riddick instead of, say, the camera men on the sideline. This makes it even harder to put any power into the throw. Riddick is covered, but somehow Stafford puts an insane amount of zip on the ball, placing it where only Theo Riddick can reach, and Riddick makes a nice play on the ball. Calvin had a better game than Stafford, getting 113 yards and a TD on 7 catches, including this one:


Plays like that are why Calvin Johnson is The Man. CJ over the top and over the middle opened up things for Golden Tate as well. Tate experienced zero dropoff in production, despite being the #2 WR now that Calvin is back. He was used often on that bubble screen, which was always good for at least 5 yards and usually more. The Miami DBs did ok, getting the pick and knocking down some passes, including what would have been CJ's 2nd TD catch, but they were overmatched in the end.

I'm going to call the last matchup, Lions' O-Line vs. Dolphin's D-line a draw. Detroit was running the ball pretty well until they went strictly to the pass (Reggie Bush averaged 5.0 yards/carry before he limped off, Joique Bell averaged 4.4 yards/carry & by all accounts had a decent game. Just ask Cortland Finnegan). Stafford USUALLY had time to throw it. Miami's defense was credited with 3 sacks, although 1 was a tackle with no loss of yards (which isn't really a sack is it?), and on 1 the ref absurdly blew the whistle when Stafford was barely tied up and got free in less than a second. 
Let me put in a not-so-quick aside about how ridiculous this call was: it was 3rd and long, Stafford got tangled up with Wake and kicked free. He wasn't wrapped up - Wake had him by the ankle - and no one from Miami was coming to clean it up. This whistle was REALLY quick and infuriating, like on a hockey play when the goalie goes down on a shot, the ref loses sight of the puck & blows the whistle just as the puck appears across the line. When Stafford extends a play like that, there is a really good chance he's going to find somebody in the end zone, like on that game-winning throw. I get that they want to save the QB, but I've never seen that play blown dead before.
 Still, 3 sacks, 6 QB hits for Miami looks good on a stat sheet. Detroit had to overcome the loss of 2 linemen on the right side and the replacements did ok. We'll call it a draw.
The Lions out-played the 'Fins for most of the game in most facets of the game. There were 2 big swings in the game by Miami, one being Grimes' INT in the end zone right after Ihedigbo had a pick with a big return off of Tannehill. That pick probably took points off the board from Detroit. The biggest turnaround in the game was in the 3rd quarter, when Prater's 42-yd FG attempt was blocked and returned to the 3 yard line. That was a 10-point swing. Take those 2 plays away and this game isn't close.

So, on to Arizona, the #1 team in the NFC (and top record in football). Their defense is top notch, but I'm suddenly MUCH less frightened of their offense. Carson Palmer went down with an ACL injury and should miss the rest of the season. Drew Stanton, former MSU QB/former Lions 3rd-string QB, will step in again as the starter. Stanton didn't play all that well when Palmer was injured earlier in the season (doesn't Carson Palmer get knocked out for the season like every other year?), although the Cards won every game he started except the Denver game. From the "Losers" section of Grantland's NFL week 10 Winners and Losers column:
"Arizona is 8-1, and although any stat ever conceived pokes holes in that record, this team was legitimately frightening. Without Palmer, the Cardinals get much less scary. Drew Stanton has played admirably in Palmer’s absence, but Arizona’s ceiling without its starting quarterback takes a serious hit. Palmer currently ranks 10th in QBR. He was completing 63 percent of his passes. Even if the extension was ill-advised, it happened because Palmer was playing well — or at least well enough to win. Stanton can’t consistently do that."
 Even without Palmer, the Cardinals are a really good team. Under Stanton they beat the Giants by 2 scores and San Francisco by 2 scores, and they lost to Denver by 21. Their pass defense doesn't look particularly good overall (30th in yards allowed), but they have some ballhawks (Patrick Peterson, the Honey Badger, Cromartie, and Jerraud Powers to name a few) and rate #1 in interceptions. Their running game is about where Detroit's is and their decent passing game (13th to Detroit's 9th) is taking a hit with their #1 QB out. Their D line doesn't get after the QB much (only 14 total sacks - Calais Campbell is back, but they lost their #1 pass-rusher John Abraham and a nice DE Darnell Dockett at the start of the season), but their O line doesn't allow any sacks either.

It'll be a really tough game, but the door is a little more open. If the Lions win next Sunday... IF the Lions win next Sunday, the door to the top spot in the NFC is open (scroll down about half-way to the NFC clump 1 section). Their remaining schedule would contain 1 REALLY good team (New England @ Foxboro), 1 pretty good team (Green Bay @ Lambeau), and a bunch of duds (Chicago twice, Minnesota and Tampa Bay). That's potentially a 12-4 record. I'm not ready to predict Detroit running the table, but a win over Arizona could (and very probably WOULD) lead to the Lions' first 1st-round bye since...gulp... 1991!

That was fun. See you later for the mixed bag that is the Detroit Pistons.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Lions Stats Behind the Stats, Week 9 Scouting Report

The Lions are ready to start the second half of their 2014 season. The first half went pretty well, finishing 6-2, and while there is some cause for concern (injuries on the defense, history of 2nd half collapses, etc), things seem to be looking up.
 

Bill Barnwell is a writer for Grantland who specializes in the NFL, and he tends to go deep into statistical analysis. It can get a bit dry, but his writing is packed with information. He wrote an article analyzing the stats behind the stats for the 1st half of the 2014 season to see what we might expect in the 2nd half. There is quite a bit of relevance for the Lions here, so I thought I'd call some of that out.

Pythagorean Expectation: So-called due to its resemblance to the pythagorean theorem, the theory behind it is that point differential is a better indicator of how good a team is than their actual record. The Lions come in as the 3rd "luckiest" team in the NFL, with a Pythagorean win expectation of 5.2. This basically means they should be 5-3, not 6-2. Also of note, the Cardinals (Detroit's week 11 opponent) are the luckiest team with 5.0 expected wins instead of 7, and the Patriots (Detroit's week 12 opponent) are the 5th luckiest with 6 expected wins instead of 7.
Performance in Close Games: This is the team's record in games decided by 1 score or less (<=7). The Lions are tied for 1st with the Bills and the Cowboys, all at 3-1. This is interesting because a) the Lions were really bad in close games the last 2 years, and b) the Lions would be 4-0 (and 7-1 overall) in close games had their kicker not shanked 3 FGs in the Buffalo game.
Strength of Schedule: This is pretty easy to explain. Through their 1st 8 games, the Lions have played the 4th easiest schedule. The Jets at -8.0 SRS, the Falcons at -5.9 SRS, and the Panthers at -7.3 SRS are the Lions' lowest rated 1st half opponents. Detroit's 2nd half schedule is a mixed bag, featuring several monsters (the Pats at 9.3 SRS, the Dolphins at 8.4, and Arizona at 5.7) and a couple of duds (the Bucs at -14.0!!!, the Vikes at -4.6, and da Bears twice at -4.0).

What does this mean for the next 8 games? Well, the Lions have featured the offense of a 2-6 team and the defense of an 8-0 team. Weird kicking issues aside, they're kind of lucky to be sitting where they are. With a tougher 2nd half schedule and possibly some regression to the mean in their Pythagorean expectation and performance in close games, could we see another 2nd half implosion by the Lions?

Maybe. But their kicking game WILL be better, and Detroit is getting Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, and Joe Fauria back this week. A healthy CJ alone should bump this offense from terrible to merely mediocre. How this offense progresses through the next 3 games is crucial to how the Lions finish the season. That murderer's row of Miami, New England and Arizona happen to be Detroit's next 3 games. If Detroit makes it through that stretch with 2 wins or more, they win the division. If they win one or none, they could still finish 10-6 but it gets harder. We all saw how the wheels came off last year as the Lions trumped each unbelievable loss with a more unbelievable loss. As my old coach used to say, they were on skates when they needed to dig in.


Focusing in on Sunday, what should we expect in the Detroit/Miami matchup? The Dolphins are 5-3, featuring a solid defense and a decent offense that scores a bunch. Miami is the #11 offense in yards/game, #9 in points/game. Their defense is 3rd behind Detroit and San Francisco, tied for 2nd in takeaways with 18 through 8 games (Detroit has 12, being less lucky in fumble recoveries). On top of that, the Dolphins have scored 3 TDs off of turnovers.

The good news? Coming off of a bye week, the Lions are healthier than they've been since week 1. Nick Fairley is still out, but Van Noy should be ready to contribute on a limited basis and basically all the offense is returning. That's the stage, who are the players? There are 3 key matchups to watch for on Sunday.

1. QB Ryan Tannehill vs. the Lions' Front 7: Tannehill is in his 3rd season and his having his best season as a pro by far. He's completing a nice percentage of his passes, he's throwing it about 35 times a game and netting 238 yards. He also runs a read option, and in this 3-game winning streak of Miami's, he's taken it himself about 5 times a game and gotten about 48 yards. Tannehill is Miami's 2nd leading rusher. Teryl Austin will need to draw up a nice plan to keep him hemmed in. A strong effort from the front 7 is crucial, needing a good pass rush that doesn't expose the edge for a long scramble. Suh needs to have one of his monster games, providing pressure in the middle and pushing the pocket towards one of the DEs. Either Levy or more likely Tahir Whitehead will be tracking Tannehill on passing plays. Pressure, as always, is key to forcing Tannehill into a bad passing day. And then the DEs need to stay home on the read option (more on this below).
2. Stafford & Calvin Johnson vs. Miami's DBs: Golden Tate has been phenomenal through 8 weeks, but CJ makes this offense go. Miami has the #2 pass defense, and credit their defensive backfield - Cortland Finnegan, Brent Grimes, Louis Delmas, Reshad Jones, and Jimmy Wilson. Grimes has 4 picks, good for 2nd in the league, and will most likely get the Calvin Johnson assignment. Stafford needs to be crisper on his passes than he's been and can't lock onto Calvin when he's triple-covered. 
3. Lions' O-Line vs. 'Fins' D-Line: For some reason, Detroit went from one of the better pass-blocking units last year to one of the worst. Losing Waddle/Hilliard hurt, but then Waddle returned and they weren't much better. There may be some issues with protection assignments in this new offense, which I'm hoping got straightened out in the bye week. Stafford with time looks like Aaron Rodgers, Stafford under pressure looks like Jake Delhomme. Well, 'Fins DEs Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon can get after the QB. This is probably the best pass rush the Lions will see all year, so no more ole' blocks, no more checking-outside-while-the-blitzer-blows-by-you (I'm looking at YOU, Raiola). Tighten up.

The run blocking has never been good, so an average effort will do this week. The keys will be limiting turnovers by the offense and giving Stafford time. Miami's closest thing to a standout star on offense is Tannehill. Mike Wallace can fly at WR, but Tannehill spreads his passing around. They have a good rushing attack, largely due to Tannehill and the read option.

But the read option is simple to defend, if you are prepared. The QB reads the DE, who is unblocked. Based on what that DE does, the QB either hands it off, keeps it, or pitches it outside (if there's a pitchman... like most read option teams, Miami doesn't use one). I played DE in high school and LOVED facing option teams. My job: hit the QB. Green light. He's a runner, he's coming towards you, hit him. The sooner & harder you hit him, the sooner he pitches it. When the pitch happens early, the pitchman might not be ready for it, he'll probably be deeper in the backfield, and the defense has more time to track the play down. Read option is a bit different than a run option, but the idea is essentially the same. Tannehill will take the snap in the shotgun and hold the ball out for the RB. If the DE stays home, he hands it off. If the DE gets sucked in, he pulls it back and takes off for a large gain.
 

They run this with a wing on the side opposite of the direction of the play. The wing pulls and does a kick-out block on the LB if the DE gets sucked in. If the DE stays home, or better yet, attacks and blows up the pulling wing, the play ends in the backfield. It sounds simple, but it requires the DE going against instinct. Normally when he goes unblocked, the play is designed to go away from him. On many of these plays that go for big gains you see the DE come flying around the corner, trying to catch the RB from behind, only to watch the play go right by. Play this wrong and it will go for at least 20 yards.

I hate making predictions. I'm emotionally invested, so if I pick the Lions I feel uneasy and if I pick against them, I feel like a douche. On top of that, I'm not sure how good Miami actually is. They're rated pretty high, but they lost to Buffalo (badly, unlike the Lions who win if they make a FG), Kansas City and Green Bay (Miami's D got picked apart by Rodgers at the end of that one). Their signature wins have come over New England (when they were playing POORLY) and more recently over San Diego (in a classic Rivers wet-the-bed game). Their defense is for real, but I'm not sure about that offense.

On the other hand, how good are the Lions? Their big wins have been over Green Bay (when they were playing POORLY) and a tight one over New Orleans. Will the offense come around? How will the defense sustain the loss of Fairley? They get CJ Mosley back after his team suspension, so they may not miss Fairley that much, but the D Line is now thinner than before. Calvin Johnson should be at or around 100%, and all 3 TEs are back. I'll say the offense finally shows up, despite facing a top passing defense, and Detroit gets into the end zone more than Miami does. Home field is probably the difference in this one, these teams are evenly matched.

***

Denard Robinson is doing well as an NFL running back. His last 3 games he's rushed for 127, 108 and 94, averaging over 5 yards a carry each game. I always liked Denard, though not as a QB. I wonder if he ties his shoes now... Nope!

This should be a lesson to Devin Gardner, who will never be an NFL quarterback. If he wants to play pro ball, he needs to work on being the best WR he can be. I think he could cut it as a slot WR or a #2 option.

***

The Ray Rice hearings are going on, and Goodell looks to be in trouble. He's switched his story like 17 times, and it seems like Rice has been upfront about what happened since the beginning. Goodell's punishment of Rice on his 2nd attempt was what everyone wanted from the beginning, only it wasn't really fair according the discipline policy at the time. It's not even fair according to the current policy. I doubt Rice will play again this year because he has no team, but the NFL will have to settle with him.

***

The Red Wings have 6 wins, 3 losses, and 4 OT losses, 2 of them in shootouts. They've got 2 OT wins, 0 shootout wins. Shootouts were a problem last year. They finished the 2013-'14 season with 15 OT losses (tied for 2nd most in the NHL) with a 5-9 record in shootouts. No other playoff team had as many losses in shootouts. This wasn't a problem in the past, since Datsyuk was gold, and Detroit had other guys like Bertuzzi, Hudler and Filpula that had some good moves for shootouts. Now it looks like After Datsyuk and Nyquist, Detroit doesn't have the same type of playmakers it used to. Add to that the fact that Datsyuk isn't quite the shootout menace he used to be, and this team needs answers.

*** 

I was about to put a baseball FA tidbit in here, but it's nothing and I have to call it quits until next week. Go Lions!