Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Excerpt: "LDS Roundup"

"For reasons that aren't completely clear, Ned Colletti never addressed his bullpen in-season, and that neglect is coming home to roost in October. Scott Elbert was a excellent reliever once and he may be again, but right now he's a guy coming off an injury who wasn't even that good in the minors this year. Using him in a tied playoff game is a cry for help. Rostering him is a cry for help."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Excerpt: "NLDS Catchup"

"However, we also have to acknowledge that many decisions are closer to even, that they're 60-40 choices or 55-45 ones or even 52-48 ones, and using the outcomes of those decisions to pretend they were 95-5 discredits all analysis. The choices made by Don Mattingly on Friday and by Matt Williams on Saturday were defensible, and had each chosen the other's path, that would have been defensible as well. At least here, neither manager deserves scorn for his particular choice just because of the outcomes."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Excerpt: "Tigers/Orioles Preview"

"The one clear advantage for the Orioles comes late in games. They, in no small part thanks to Showalter, have a very tough bullpen and one that includes a number of righty-killers. Darren O'Day held righties to a .164 BA and .247 SLG. Brad Brach, a .192 BA and a .277 SLG. Ryan Webb had a 24/2 K/BB against righties. Throw in Tommy Hunter, and the Orioles are very well positioned to exploit the Tigers' lineup imbalance once the starters leave. It's not unfair to think of this series as having two halves -- the first six innings, and the final three. The Tigers will be favorites in the first, the Orioles favorites in the last. How many games will swing in those final three innings?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Excerpt: "AL Wild Card Game"

"Ned Yost does not understand the relative skills of his players. He doesn't understand the range of potential outcomes of a plate appearance. He doesn't appear to understand how leverage changes within an at-bat. He doesn't know how to look ahead in an inning. He just knows the things he learned about baseball 40 years ago."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My Award Winners

Excerpted from the latest newsletter:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber
AL Rookie of the Year: Jose Abreu
AL Manager of the Year: Buck Showalter

NL MVP: Clayton Kershaw
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
NL Rookie of the Year: Billy Hamilton
NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy

Monday, September 29, 2014

Excerpt: "Sputtering to the End"

"As we know, there's no relationship between how a team ends the regular season and how it plays in the playoffs. Let's hope that there's also no relationship between how a league ends the regular season and how it performs in the playoffs."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Excerpt: "Derek Jeter"

"Jeter may not have always made the best decisions in pursuit of winning, but in that moment last night you saw that the fundamental unit of success, the team win, is still what lights him up."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Excerpt: "Felix Hernandez and Sadness"

"For Hernandez, last night was the closest he's ever gotten to that kind of moment. It's sad for him, it's sad for Mariners fans, and it's sad for baseball."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Excerpt: "Bruce Bochy's Best Work Yet?"

"Bochy, though, has them in position to steal the division from the Dodgers this weekend. How much credit to assign to Bochy is an open question, but we know that he didn't let sentiment get in the way of wins."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Excerpt: "Major League IV - Fountains of Youth"

"We may have reached the point the Kansas City Royals' 2014 reason where a movie producer would be rejecting their tale as unsuitable for production. Last night in Kansas City, the Royals stole a game they desperately needed in a manner that called to mind a movie classic."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Excerpt: "Waiting"

"We have to get better about waiting. Any individual baseball story might be interesting, but when you chase all of them, those stories just become noise. There's always some team that's won nine of ten. There's always some pitcher with a 7.44 ERA in four starts. There's always some player who made a mechanical change and started hitting better, because players are always, always making mechanical changes."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Excerpt: "Incentives"

"There are QO free agents that can help these teams, but if the cost is the #11 or #12 pick in the draft, plus the draft budget attached to that pick, there's a massive disincentive to sign one. Forcing a rebuilding team to choose between the draft and free agency is terrible industry policy. Drawing a bright line that says a .468 team has to make that choice and a .463 team doesn't is just unconscionable."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Excerpt: "Ron Washington"

"Focusing just on the baseball aspects, I think this ends up being a very good outcome for the Texas Rangers. They can give Tim Bogar a spin now and spend a lot of time vetting Bogar and other candidates for the job, choosing a new manager well before having to deal with what will be a complicated offseason. Losing Washington will not be the significant loss it is perceived to be, not just because they'll be better off between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., but because Washington's oft-praised clubhouse skills may not have been universal, but rather specific to a certain set of players."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Excerpt: "The Royals"

"The funny thing about that profile is that if the Royals can win the division, they will be a dangerous postseason team. I've written a lot about batting contact rate as a leading indicator; in what we'll call the Strikeout Era, dating to 2009, the team with the higher batting contact rate is 26-9 in postseason series. Those teams were 4-3 last year, with all three series losses to the eventual champion Red Sox. That 4-3 is the worst this indicator has performed, tied with 2010, in five seasons. It also correctly forecast the 2012 Giants, no one's pick heading into October, as World Series champs. In fact, those 2012 Giants look a bit like these Royals: a core of young veterans, a dominant young lefty starter, a lights-out bullpen, and that great contact rate."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Excerpt: "Juan Lagares and Defensive Statistics"

"Lagares' defensive numbers at baseball-reference are absolutely insane. Per b-r, he's saved 60 runs with his glove so far in his career, better than one every three innings in the field. That's more than twice as good as Andruw Jones was in his career. At Jones's defensive peak, he was saving 30 runs a season while playing 1400 innings a year. Lagares is matching that in 60% of the playing time. Lagares' performance is six times better on a per-inning basis than Willie Mays's, far better than Mays at his peak. Per b-r, Lagares has had two of the top ten defensive seasons of all-time by a center fielder, and he hasn't played a thousand defensive innings in either of them."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Excerpt: "On Not Claiming Colon"

"The phrase "new market inefficiency" has become a punch line, but this may be one. Buying older starting pitchers carries much less financial risk than signing prime-age ones does. There's a projected performance gap, but only when compared to the very top of the market. I'd rather sign Greinke or Sanchez or Cliff Lee, #1 or high-#2 starters for market-level money. Once you're on the next level down, however, it's better to aim for older starters who require a shorter commitment."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Excerpt: "The Nationals"

"The Nationals stand out dramatically, however; they have the fewest times caught stealing (tied) and fewest position-player sacrifices. Matt Williams, supposed leader of men, is actually a better tactical manager than he is a people manager."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Excerpt: "The Great Talent Dilution"

"What James didn't consider, and what I certainly didn't until today, is that expansion might dilute the level of grounds crew talent. That 1990s double expansion left us not just with 15% more MLB stadia, but 15% more baseball stadia throughout the professional ranks. It's taken a while for that effect to show up, but I think what we've seen in Chicago and New York this summer is the bleeding edge of a crisis that threatens baseball diamonds around the country."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Excerpt: "The Case For Automated Strike Zones"

"I look at the catcher-framing data and see an indictment of home-plate umpiring, one so clear as to demand immediate change. What the framing data tells me is that umpires are not calling balls and strikes based on where a pitch crosses the plate, but based on what happens when it hits the catcher's mitt. What I see in the catcher framing data is the most clear evidence yet that umpires are not enforcing critical clauses of Rule 2.00."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Excerpt: "Wanted: Chief Baseball Officer"

"I'm not naive enough to suggest that baseball shouldn't have a CEO. I think, though, that it should also have a commissioner, or if perhaps that word is too fraught, after Landis and Kuhn and Selig, perhaps a Chief Ambassador. I'm not talking about waking up Tommy Lasorda for two innings and having him tell a story, I'm talking about a face for the game that's young, that knows not only who Mike Trout is but who bats in front of him for the Angels. I'm talking about someone who'll spend 140 days a year in ballparks, not in a suite, but in a seat, or walking a park, talking ball with fans. I'm talking about hiring someone who not only knows how to use e-mail, but also the Play Index and who often has both of them open while sussing out trades for his fantasy team."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Excerpt: "The Orioles"

"The Orioles are next-to-last in pitcher strikeouts in the AL, ahead of only the Twins. Even with that, however, they have allowed the sixth-fewest hits in the league and the eighth-fewest singles, despite playing in a pretty good park for hitters. (Three of the four lowest singles-allowed totals come from the AL West trio of the A's, Angels and Mariners, which indicates a park/unbalanced schedule effect.) It's because of the defense. When you hit a ground ball against the Orioles, it becomes an out at a very high rate."

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Excerpt: "Third Third Previews, Part II"

"The Brewers have repeatedly beat back charges by the Pirates and Cardinals, but it feels like they're running out of time. I'm thinking about the 2012 White Sox, who held first place for most of the season, but succumbed to a better Tigers team in the season's final two weeks. The Brewers, like those White Sox, are a righty-heavy team that leans heavily on the longball and surprisingly good starting pitching, have benefited from the division favorite struggling for most of the season, and have by and large kept their starting lineup healthy. That White Sox team was ten games over .500 two years ago right now and closed 27-29 while the Tigers went 31-24 to overtake them."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Excerpt: "The Lester Confluence"

"My argument in all of these cases, which is relevant to the Red Sox and Lester, is as follows: even if you want to retain the player, trade him away. You guarantee yourself the talent acquired in trade, you can still go out and sign the player in the free-agent market, and when you pursue him you should be in a stronger position to convince the player to rejoin your team because of the prospects acquired in return."

Monday, July 28, 2014

The BBWAA/Hall of Fame Changes

[NOTE: I should make it clear that the changes discussed herein were made by the Hall of Fame, not by the Baseball Writers Association of America.--JSS)


I was thinking it would be hard to miss much Saturday morning, what with it being the weekend and there being just one game scheduled before 4 p.m. So I was surprised, as I cavorted with Marina in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to get a cryptic text from a baseball friend. As it turned out, the BBWAA had picked Saturday morning to announce some changes to the Hall of Fame voting process. These changes have been panned in a number of places, but I can't share the outrage.

The change that got the most attention cut the time in which a player is eligible for BBWAA consideration from 15 years to ten, while grandfathering in three currently-eligible players who have crossed the latter threshold. I have suggested this in the past and I think it's a terrific change. The 15-year number stems from a time when we didn't have the access to the tools to evaluate a player's career that we do today. Given the number of players eligible for election and the greater reliance on contemporary observation and oral history, a long window for reflection and discussion made sense. Now, it no longer does. We're not writing letters and publishing columns in newspapers and digging through Total Baseball anymore. For one, the Hall passes judgment on almost all players in the first ten years; in the past 30 elections, just three players have been elected to the Hall past their tenth year on the ballot. That includes two of the BBWAA's worst picks -- Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter -- and Bert Blyleven, who may have ended up a ridiculous omission but for the work of Rich Lederer. That's one par-or-better Hall of Famer elected after the tenth year since 1985. It seems quite clear that the BBWAA doesn't need those last five years.

(Based on history, you might even want to cut that down to eight years. Hall of Famers elected in years 9-10 on the ballot over the past 30 years include Andre Dawson, Rich Gossage and Tony Perez. With due respect to Dawson, five of the last six players elected after Year Eight on the ballot are among the weakest ever selected by the BBWAA. If they had instituted an eight-year cutoff in 1985, the Hall would be stronger than it is today.)

Think about the conversations we have about these players. Nowadays, we pass judgment on Hall cases 20 minutes after a player retires, and those judgments don't change much over 20 years. Look at the players on last year's ballot. Do we need more time to talk about Don Mattingly or Lee Smith or Alan Trammell? This isn't 1948. We have scads of data, and we have huge video archives, and we have a series of tubes through which we talk about this stuff incessantly. We just don't need to talk about these players every year for 15 years. As I note above, eight might very well be plenty. I'd actually have gone one step further and shortened the time from retirement to the ballot as well, probably from five to three years in a couple of steps. These arguments can be had, and had well, over 10-15 years. They can generally be had over 10-15 months. This change was a boon to the process.

The one mistake the BBWAA did make is in not grandfathering in more players. Not that Trammell, Smith or Mattingly are getting in, but it would have been unfair to just remove them from next year's ballot. However, the same courtesy should have been extended to everyone on last year's ballot. The negative reaction to the change is correlated to the strong feelings many people have about candidates such as Tim Raines (entering his eighth year), Edgar Martinez (sixth) and Larry Walker (fifth). Those players will have less time to advance through the process now, with Raines in particular -- a fully-qualified candidate now down to three years with which to advance -- getting shafted. The BBWAA undercut its good decision by not extending the grace period to all players who reached the ballot under the 15-year rule. Changing a player's eligibility retroactively is bad form, and gives support to the idea that this change -- which, again, is a good one and long overdue -- is actually more about ridding the group of the Barry Bonds Question than improving the process. This is a correctable error, one I hope they will address next year.

The other changes to the process are a bit vague and deal with who gets to vote. This should be a net positive -- there seems to be a intention to keep the ballots in the hands of people who remain part of the baseball conversation -- but there's also talk of a "code of conduct", which I imagine is going to be less about limiting grandstanding moralists and more about preventing a situation such as what happened last year between Dan LeBatard and Deadspin. There's probably value in limiting the possibility of a repeat of what LeBatard did, but we'll have to see how the BBWAA uses this new tool before passing judgment on it.

I am most encouraged by what the BBWAA did not do, which is expand the ballot. There have been a lot of voices calling for the ten-player limit to be expanded, but as I have repeatedly argued, this is a non-solution to the real problems with the current ballot. Those are about a lack of leadership -- or, if you prefer, a lack of ability to think critically -- on the issue of fully-qualified players who had the temerity to play at a time when using illegal drugs to enhance performance was suddenly and ahistorically demonized. The average number of votes per ballot was in decline for decades prior to 2013, and making a rule change due to conditions that are temporary is bad policy. As I wrote in some e-mails (edited slightly here for readability) last week:

"Expanding the ballot doesn't really get at the problem -- no one not listing Bonds/Clemens/McGwire will add them at 11-15. Average ballot size has gone up the last two years, but it's entirely a PED-nonsense issue. Expanding the ballot helps the people who would vote for everyone but doesn't address the morons who vote for three guys."

Then, in response to why I think this is the last year of the "logjam:"

"Three [will get in] at least, in Biggio, Johnson and Pedro. Piazza has a chance, Smoltz a smaller one. Now you've cleared at least seven spots (with Morris falling off) in two years. You've elected six in two years, and then in 2016 they'll elect Griffey, probably Piazza, maybe one of Bagwell/Smoltz/Raines. Maybe nine guys go in the front door in three years, which has never come close to happening in modern times.

"Only one credible candidate comes on in 2016 (Griffey), and just three (Pudge 2.0, Vlad, Manny; only Rodriguez is a lock) in 2017. Trammell falls off after 2016, Smith after 2017. [Edit: Raines, too, if not elected absent a change.] This 'logjam' is no longer going to be blocking Craig Biggio, it's going to be blocking the kinds of players we've always argued about. Your 2016 ballot will be Griffey; 3-4 qualified holdovers in Piazza, Smoltz, Raines, Bagwell; Bonds and Clemens; Mussina and Schilling; and that Walker/Kent/Edgar group. Oh, and Lee Smith, good luck with that. That's not a particularly crowded ballot unless you're a big Hall-plus-steroid apologist guy, and the subset of voters that describes is small.

"This problem peaked last year. It's a lesser problem this year, and it fades sharply after that. We had 35 years of players-per-ballot shrinking until 2013, and if they don't change the rules, that number will go down again in 2016.

"Besides, if you water down an honor, is it still an honor? Say they expand the ballot and Tim Raines gets elected with 76.4% of the vote. The conversation will be, 'Well, if they'd had a 15-man ballot in Gil Hodges' day…'. And believe you me, expanding the BBWAA ballot will cause every constituency of a VC guy to rise up and demand justice for their guy."

There's also the problem of an electorate that has failed to adapt its standards, particularly its pitcher standards, to account for changed usage over the last 30 years. From another e-mail that I never did turn into an article:

"The Hall's standards for SPs -- leaving aside Clemens -- have never adjusted for modern SP usage. Guys like Mussina and Schilling, who are WAY over the line, have to go in before we even look at the next tier down.

Maddux, 355 wins
Glavine, 305 wins
Blyleven, 287 wins and a war
Ryan, 324 wins

"The Hall has voted in four starting pitchers in 15 years, none with fewer than 287 wins, and that guy had a huge number of strikeouts, was absurdly overqualified and still took 14 ballots.

"So really, while this is always the kind of fun exercise to BS about, the actual path for getting into the Hall for any starting pitcher is much, much harder than it looks like to us."

I'm amused by the idea that guys like Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are building Hall cases in a world where Mike Mussina is going to be the best returning pitcher on the ballot for a while. The electorate has to figure out that Mussina (and Schilling, at minimum) are Hall of Famers before we look anywhere else.

Bottom line, the problem of a packed ballot isn't structural, it's an electorate that, for one reason or another, is doing a terrible job of evaluating players in the context of their time and the historical standards for election. So when I look at what the BBWAA did over the weekend, I see one overdue change, one process change that should be a net positive, and the avoidance of a rule change that would have been a terrible idea. I think they did a very good job. There are still things that could be changed, but most of them would have to come from the Hall itself rather than the writers.

Excerpt: "The Angels' Rotation"

"It's the back end of the rotation, and we'll include Richards in that category, that is the single biggest difference between the 2014 Angels and the two disappointing teams that preceded this year's version."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Excerpt: "Variance"

"There just isn't very much difference between the 2013 Red Sox and the 2014 Red Sox. One team hung a flag, though, and the other is about to wave one."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Excerpt: "Big Red Taxi"

"So you wonder if now Reds fans and the local media, which have been so hard on him, will now appreciate what Joey Votto brought to the team. Votto, like Adam Dunn before him in Cincinnati, like Frank Thomas before him among MVPs, took endless criticism for staying committed to a selective, patient approach at the plate, a commitment that sometimes meant accepting walks in situations where a walk didn't have the immediate value of a base hit or even just a well-struck ball in play. Votto's refusal to be an "RBI guy" in the mold of St. Brandon Phillips was seen as a failure of a player making $20 million a season to take on responsibilities commensurate with salary."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Excerpt: "The Brewers"

"What the Brewers have gotten from these three players has helped push an offense that at the start of the season looked to be OBP-challenged, even with the return of Ryan Braun, to near the top of the league in runs scored and wOBA. This is important. Look around the majors and see how many teams are being undercut by their inability to turn prospects into players. The Royals may see a decade-long rebuilding project fail to bear fruit because of it. The Mariners have churned through a number of hitters, both draftees and trade targets, who have flopped. Recent Padres teams have seen a crop of hitting prospects fade into obscurity. The Phillies are worse off because Domonic Brown and Cody Asche haven't worked out. The Brewers have gotten ten wins of value so far by getting young hitters they either drafted or traded for to peak in the majors."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Excerpt: "It Shouldn't Count"

"Let's abandon the idea that the MLB All-Star Game is going to be what it was in 1962, when the leagues were separate in all ways, when they had identities, when the All-Star Game was the only way we had to determine which league was better. Dangling 5% of a small carrot isn't going to make up for the aggressive elimination of almost all of the differences between the leagues. You're not going to make Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig rivals the way Al Kaline and Willie Mays were rivals. That's just not how baseball is structured any longer, and in fact, there are few players left who played in a time when that was so. Like the NBA All-Star Game, the MLB All-Star Game is the interconference gathering of a fraternity."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Excerpt: "All-Star Voting"

"As ever, the players brought nothing to the table in selecting All-Stars. The players' participation in the voting is what led to the exclusion of the high-profile superstars that MLB needs in the game."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Excerpt: "The A's/Cubs Trade"

"The Cubs had squeezed the most out of Samardzija and Hammel, and traded both players at the peak of their value. They used what was left to acquire one of the top prospects in baseball. Addison Russell, or perhaps players later acquired for Russell, will play in World Series games at Wrigley Field. For the Cubs, this was also about flags flying forever."

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Excerpt, from "Thinking Inside the Box"

This clip is from "Thinking Inside the Box," an occasional newsletter feature that uses boxscore lines as jumping-off points.


"Signing Ibanez, knowing that he would have to squeeze Dyson for playing time, is just the latest sign that Dayton Moore can't process what he's watching. The Royals' problem is getting guys from home to first, and he thinks the problem is getting them from first to home."

Monday, June 30, 2014

My All-Star ballot

As always, filled out at a ballpark rather than at a desk, in this case, on June 12 at Angels Stadium:

American League

1B: Miguel Cabrera
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Alexei Ramirez
3B: Adrian Beltre
C: Salvador Perez
DH: David Ortiz
OF: Mike Trout, Jose Bautista and Alex Gordon

National League

1B: Joey Votto
2B: Chase Utley
SS: Troy Tulowitzki
3B: David Wright
C: Yadier Molina
OF: Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Yasiel Puig

Friday, June 27, 2014

Excerpt: "The Royals"

"I had them going 85-77, +49 RD; they're on pace for 83-79, +27 RD. I had them scoring 682 runs and allowing 633; they're on pace for 664 RS and 637 RA. I don't make these points to pat myself on the back. I make these points to illustrate that the Royals, no matter the shape of their first half, are essentially the same team they were projected to be."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Excerpt: "Josh Byrnes"

"In 2 1/2 seasons as GM, Josh Byrnes put together a mixed record, spending a lot of money unwisely, but showing an ability to win second-level trades. Just looking at 2014 performance, he seems more responsible for the good things the Padres are doing than the bad ones."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Excerpt: "Clayton Kershaw"

"In a week marked by death and tears and sadness, we needed Clayton Kershaw. We needed to be awed, to be wowed, to be left staring slack-jawed at what baseball can look like when played by the very, very best, to be reminded why we invest so much of ourselves in this silly game to begin with."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Excerpt: "Tony Gwynn"

"Gwynn didn't hit for power and he didn't walk much, and to a young man who had recently discovered Bill James and sabermetrics and secondary skills, Gwynn represented an approach that was more style than substance, slapping singles rather than displaying the more sophisticated traits of taking pitches and launching dingers. The arrogance of youth, you see. In rejecting Gwynn I was rejecting my own childhood, which was spent hitting the exact same way that Gwynn hit, using an inside-out swing to line singles to left field and doubles down the third-base line, rarely striking out, but just as rarely -- never, in fact -- launching a ball over the fence and trotting around the bases to the cheers of my teammates. Jeez, even I could do what Gwynn was doing, but look at Phil Plantier!"

Monday, June 9, 2014

Excerpt: "Manny Machado and Maturity"

"Manny Machado is what he is, certainly not the 43-year-old father of two last year's coverage made him out to be, and certainly not the bat-throwing toddler he appeared to be in your morning paper. The gap between those two poles isn't Machado; it's us. It's what we do. If it makes money or generates clicks to build up a 20-year-old into a grown man, we do that. If it works to turn him into a punk, we do that. If it works to do both over time, well, the public has a short attention span and there's a mortgage to be paid, so shut up."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Excerpt: "A Better Draft Day"

"Remember that it's not just the picks, but the budget; and adding a top-ten pick dramatically increases a team's strength. The Marlins' pick at #2 has a value of $6.8 million; the Rays' entire allotment is $5.8 million. (Oh, we can get even more stupid -- four of the six highest draft budgets belong to large-market clubs (Houston, Chicago twice, Toronto), while the A's and Rays combined have less than the Astros do in total. It's a spectacularly bad system.)"

Monday, June 2, 2014

Excerpt: "Mark Buehrle"

"Let's just not confuse any of that with being the best pitcher in the league, even for two months. Buehrle's 2014 performance is right in line with his 2013 and 2012 and on and on, not some special peak season. I am admittedly surprised by this; I expected to see some skill change that explained the ERA, some Keuchel element to this story, but it's not there. Buehrle is the same average-plus metronome he's been for 15 years, roughly Andy Pettitte with worse teammates. It just happens that in addition to getting the run support and the bullpen support, he's getting an above-average distribution of outcomes on batted balls, one that seems to be more about variance than skill. By the end of the season, this will probably have washed out; I would expect Buehrle to end the year with an ERA in the mid-3.00s, and I expect his ERA the rest of the year to be very close to that 4.08 xFIP mark. "

Friday, May 30, 2014

Excerpt: "The $36 All-Time Team"

"Having spent just $7 on a pitching staff, I blew the profits on my outfield, snatching up Babe Ruth ($5) and Willie Mays ($5). After that, the ballots drop off a bit -- I'm not sure you can justify going below the second spot at either position. So much for timelining. Thanks, I'll start with two of the seven best players ever, paying full value for the pair. If you want to argue for saving a buck and taking Ty Cobb in center or Hank Aaron in right, I can't object too strenuously."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Excerpt: "The Demon"

"In that same time frame, 18 starters have averaged 95.0 to 95.9 mph in a single season. Four of them are already part of the 96-mph class. Of the other 14, three (Felipe Paulino, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez), went on to have Tommy John surgery. Three others, A.J. Burnett, Wily Peralta and Josh Johnson, had Tommy John surgery prior to posting these velocity numbers. Two pitchers in this group are on track for the Hall of Fame in Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. The other seven include some of the remaining good and healthy starters of 2014 -- among them Jeff Samardzija, Garret Richards and Chris Archer. The raw data includes a lot of wait-and-see guys."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Excerpt: "Jose Abreu"

"I rarely have nice things to say about players with a 7/1 K/UIBB, but in this case, I'm optimistic. Abreu need reps against major-league pitching, lots of them, so that he can begin to identify the pitches he can crush from the ones he can't even reach. He's made a huge leap in competition, and he's done so while maintaining his core skill -- power on contact -- which is a great sign. What Abreu can do, while his ankle heals, is work on pitch recognition. He can just stand in a batter's box, no bat in hand, while a pitcher throws to a catcher and he watches MLB stuff, learns what it looks like, learns how quickly he has to make the decision. There's a payoff to the practice. The more soft stuff outside the zone that Abreu takes, the more fastballs inside the zone he will earn, and that's where he's going to make his money."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Excerpt: "Stephen Drew Signs"

"The Red Sox -- both the manager and the front office -- are kicking a young man in the crotch, queering their relationship with an enormously valuable baseball player for what may be very little in-season benefit and significant risk to the development of someone who should be helping the Sox win when Stephen Drew is taking over as manager of the Visalia Oaks.

"It's as if the people handling him think Xander Bogaerts is a stat-generating robot. Boop, boop, beep."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Q&A with Jeff Passan, Author of "The Arm"

Jeff Passan's The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports is the must-read baseball book of the year. Deeply reported and passionately written, The Arm attacks one of the biggest problems the sport of baseball faces: keeping young pitchers healthy. Passan uses rehabbing major leaguers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey as his framework, but touches on everyone from a youth hurler in California through the deceased Dr. Frank Jobe to get at the problem of why pitchers get hurt, what can be done to prevent injuries, and what happens after an elbow blows out.

I talked to Jeff about the book -- which you should buy --  for the Newsletter.

The Arm begins with a prologue that touches on this a bit, but I want to ask you directly: How did you arrive at this idea for a book? Where did you start? Was there a "Eureka!" moment?

You know how around 3 a.m., your mind can drift to the most delightfully creative places...and a second later you realize what seemed so brilliant was actually rather senseless?

Well, it was 3 a.m. in May 2012, and I was feeding my one-month-old a bottle, and I kept thinking about recent conversations I'd had with Alex Anthopoulos and Dan Duquette about how they were handling Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez [then Blue Jays prospects] and Dylan Bundy. Those thoughts branched into other approaches, and those angles multiplied, and by the time my mind stopped racing it felt like I had enough for a book.

When I woke up the next morning and catalogued the previous evening's thoughts, I realized this wasn't some middle-of-the-night delirium but a legitimate idea.

The Arm spends a lot of time with amateur players in travel-ball leagues, and you make the argument that this is where the problem is beginning. What can be done about youth coaches emphasizing winning a game versus keeping developing arms healthy?

The solution to coaches is parents, and the solution to parents is coaches. Checks and balances at the youth level come down to at least one of the parties being educated. Even then there are appeals to authority and other biases that complicate the matter.

More specifically, what are the solutions to the moral hazard of coaches rewarded for winning rather than sending kids to the next level?

Winning is a hard one to adjudicate. Because every time I have the temerity to suggest winning doesn't matter for 9- and 10- and 11-year-olds, I hear gasps, cries; I am told I'm an un-American heathen. How we devolved to the point where children are going to tournaments and throwing hundreds of pitches in a weekend or three times in two days -- it happens all the time -- is a testament to the commodification of children and how Major League Baseball let its youth space get co-opted by profiteers.

So we need to start emphasizing proper development over winning, particularly at the youngest ages. We need strict pitch counts on arms that simply cannot take the stress and strain of overuse. We need parents and coaches both to understand PitchSmart and to realize Tommy John surgery isn't some sort of sign that your kid has made it. We need them to make health a priority, not a secondary consideration.

For me, the most fascinating story in the book was about what I'll call Tommy John Lite: A new surgery, not yet tested on major leaguers, whose advocate purports to repair UCL tears with half the rehab time. What is the state of this procedure, and when will it make the leap to MLB hurlers?

Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, one of James Andrews' protégés, conceived of the surgery for partially torn ligaments and tested it on the perfect candidate: a high-school kid going into his senior year. Dr. Dugas's procedure -- using a suture tape dipped in collagen that theoretically would stabilize the ligament and promote healing -- worked well enough to allow the patient to pitch into college. Since then, Dr. Dugas has tried the surgery on dozens of kids, and the success rate, last I checked, was 100 percent.

Now, high-school kids in Alabama aren't professionals. They don't throw as hard, and that's what Dr. Dugas doesn't know: whether the ligament -- which because it uses anchors screwed into the bone instead of holes drilled through it brings pitchers back in less than six months -- can withstand the perils of velocity. I hope so. The idea of a pitcher with a partially torn UCL pitching through the end of the regular season, having modified Tommy John at the beginning of October and being ready for Opening Day is, absent us figuring out the arm and how to prevent the injuries in the first place, a pretty phenomenal upgrade in care.

MLB is a penny-wise, pound-foolish industry. Perhaps more to the point, it isn't an industry as much as a loose amalgamation of competitors. What has to happen to get 30 teams to put time and money into a solution that may take a generation to find, and whose benefits will be spread among all teams -- a zero-sum game?

An edict from Major League Baseball that injuries are now the domain of the league. While MLB has taken admirable steps with its injury-tracking system, the 2014 draft study and PitchSmart, it could do so many simple things. A twice-a-year draft combine not only would serve a functional purpose but cut deeply into kids' desire to play year-round competitive ball in order to be seen more often by scouts and decision-makers. Partner with the NCAA to invite college coaches and educate them on the subject of pitcher health, and you create another layer of people less likely to screw up an arm that could be on the cusp of the big leagues. MLB also needs a think tank similar to what the Dodgers built, in which it could conduct experiments with free-agent pitchers who may be on their last chance and looking for nothing more than an opportunity to salvage their careers.

I don't know that MLB focusing more on injuries and teams doing the same are mutually exclusive, of course. Ideally, sure, you'd like the research being done by the party likelier to spread its discoveries among the masses. If baseball were to grow into a research-focused industry, though, and that came about because the league itself was determined to keep up with the Dodgers and Rays and Astros and Indians and other standard-bearers of arm care, a small investment from all teams seems like a cheap price considering how much it could save.

Daniel Hudson, one of your two main protagonists, is pitching out of the Diamondbacks bullpen again. What is Todd Coffey up to?

He's closing for the Long Island Ducks. He has thrown five straight scoreless innings. Sent me a text a couple days ago: "Sat 94-95 tonight." He's convinced he's going to pitch in the big leagues again. And when he's 50 and pitching in a men's league in Rutherfordton, N.C., he's still going to be sure that guys in the major leagues ain't got nothin' on him. I wish I saw life the way Todd Coffey sees baseball.

You've pushed the book very hard to coaches and parents. Four or five years out, when you cover this ground again, what do you want implemented for the care of youth arms?

I want to stop getting DMs from coaches and parents telling me about the awful thing they saw in a regional game where a kid threw 175 pitches.

I want Major League Baseball to run an ad before Game 1 of the World Series with Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez and Yu Darvish showing off their elbow scars. One says: "This is not cool." And another: "This is not fun." And then: "This is not supposed to be there." And the last: "Don't let this be your child. Go to pitchsmart.org."

I want the Little League World Series games on TV to stop showing the stupid radar gun like it means a damn thing when it comes to 13-year-olds.

I want Perfect Game to stop being hypocrites.

I want, more than anything, for everyone in baseball to understand it's going to take at least a decade to change the culture, and not go hunting for immediate results. They won't be there. If it starts with the kids on my eight-year-old's team, so it's ten years until they're seniors in high school. Considering that a majority of these surgeries are done on teenagers, perhaps if the coaches and parents recognize how real this problem is, and MLB addresses it in savvy enough fashion, we can allow the coming technology to complement the burgeoning conscientiousness and see the game be better for it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Excerpt: "Mo' Pitchers, Mo' Problems"

"The data does suggest that velocity is, at worst, an interesting line of inquiry. From 2008 through 2013, these were the starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings with the highest average fastball velocity (thanks, Fangraphs):

"1. Gerrit Cole, 96.1 mph
2. Stephen Strasburg. 95.8 mph
3. Matt Harvey, 95.5 mph
4. Felipe Paulino, 95.3 mph
5. Nathan Eovaldi, 95 mph
6. Jose Fernandez, 94.9 mph
7. Wily Peralta, 94.9 mph
8. Chris Archer, 94.8 mph
9. Justin Verlander, 94.8 mph
10. Jeff Samardzija, 94.7 mph

"Strasburg, Harvey and Paulino have had Tommy John surgery. Fernandez is on his way to one. I'm not even pretending this as some kind of scientific study, but when four of the six hardest throwers in recent years -- almost by definition, four of the six hardest-throwing starting pitchers ever -- meet the same fate, you have to take a look at this new threshold of velocity as a potential cause of injury."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Excerpt: "The Effects of Roster Madness"

"This is just one of the many problems with modern roster construction. Already playing short-handed, teams are crippled when an illness or minor injury makes even one player unavailable for a day or two. There is absolutely no built-in flexibility to cover for the flu, for food poisoning, for a rolled ankle that will be fine in 48 hours, but which requires a day off to heal. In cases where teams are down two players to minor injuries, not the most uncommon happenstance over 183 days, they're effectively playing with no bench, no in-game tactical options."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Excerpt: "Time to Sign Stephen Drew"

"However, there are signs that Jeter, who turns 40 next month, is overmatched. His strikeout rate, 20.1%, is far and away a career high and explained away only partially by the uptick in strikeout rate leaguewide. Two seasons ago, Jeter struck out in just 12% of his plate appearances, far below the league average. Jeter's increased strikeout rate is paired with a higher walk rate -- 8.3%, within range of his career highs. Combined, the two numbers represent the sign of an older player working harder to reach base as his primary skill of getting the bat to the baseball declines. Jeter's rate of contact on pitches inside the strike zone, 86%, is lower than it has been in all but one season for which we have data (2002)."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Excerpt: "Mike Matheny's Terrible Choices"

"What I don't understand is the urgency. If you rank MLB managers by 'likelihood of being fired in 2014,' Matheny is going to be down at the bottom with John Farrell and Joe Maddon. A similar security envelops the front office. There is no baseball reason, no job-security reason, no organizational reason to panic after two weeks of baseball in April. Yet Matheny dumped two starters before Patriots Day. No, let me rephrase: Matheny dumped two new-guy starters before Patriots Day. See, Allen Craig was playing worse than both Wong and Bourjos were when they were benched -- .133/.184/.133, with poor outfield defense -- and was never challenged. Matt Holliday was at .214/.327/.310, also not helping in the field, through April 12. Heck, Mark Ellis has played considerably worse since coming back than even Wong did while he was here: .205/.273/.231. Matheny seems to have one set of standards for some players and a second set for others."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Excerpt: "Cliff Lee for Jorge Alfaro"

"It's not that Alfaro isn't a good prospect, it's that the path from prospect to championship-caliber player is far more fraught than fans seem to recognize. Alfaro is drawing ridiculous comparisons to Ivan Rodriguez. At 21, Rodriguez was in his third year as the Rangers' starter, so first of all, stop. But let's give Alfaro a path that looks pretty good. Let's say he moves up a level a year and is ready to be the team's starting catcher in 2017, at 24, and that he's actually good -- a two-win player as a rookie, worth three wins at 25, four at 26. That's awfully valuable, especially for a player making the minimum or a bit above in all those years. That would make Alfaro a success story -- nine wins in his first three seasons. Do you know how many catchers have been worth at least nine bWAR in their first four seasons (chosen to account for cups of coffee shorting players a "year") since Deadball II ended? Twenty-one. Once every two years or so, you get a catcher that good. How much better would you like Alfaro to be?"

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Note on Run Scoring

From Wednesday night around 10 p.m.:

"There have been just 45 runs scored today across seven full and five partial games. Record for a 15-game day is 79 (9/12/69), I believe."

By the end of the 7 p.m. starts, there had been just 40 runs scored in nine completed games. Some extra-inning contests would end up pushing up the day's total, but April 16 was still notable: the third-lowest scoring day of games with at least 15 games played. Here's the top five:

September 12, 1969 (79)
September 24, 2013 (82)
April 16, 2014 (83)
August 17, 1990 (84)
October 2, 2012 (87)

We didn't quite set the record Wednesday, but with three of the five lowest having come in the last eight months of baseball, it seems like we could be in for more challenges. A day of baseball in which we average just five runs, total, per game? Just more evidence that strikeouts are clogging the machine.

(h/t Cory Schwartz and MLBAM)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Excerpt: "State of the Game, Pt. 4"

"If you're going to fix the strikeout problem, one that is most prevalent in the late innings, this is where you start. The people who obsess over the pace of the game often make suggestions that target specialization and batter-by-batter baseball -- usually mandating that a pitcher must face multiple batters before he can be removed. That's a half-measure. The simplest, most elegant and most effective way to start fixing the strikeout problem is with one rule change:

"No pitcher can be removed once an inning has begun, absent evidence of an injury or at least six batters faced in the inning. A pitcher removed due to injury must immediately be placed on the 15-day disabled list."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Excerpt: "State of the Game, Pt. 3"

"For all the numbers I've thrown at you this week, we're dealing with something subjective: what should baseball look like? Is there some kind of balance between offense and defense, between pitchers and hitters, between three true outcomes and balls in play, that represents the best kind of ball? For too long, that balance has been expressed in terms of run environment. But as I've pointed out this week, the 4.17 R/G world of 2013 and the 4.12 R/G world of 1992 have nothing in common but the scoreboard. A simplistic reliance on run levels and home-run counts has led to the conclusion that somehow baseball is "normal" again, when what we actually have is the game from 15 years ago with strikeouts pumped up. Power, as measured in just about every way, hasn't changed all that much."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Excerpt: "State of the Game, Pt. 2"

"It is possible, and I'll admit this is rank speculation, that the increased velocity engineered into today's pitchers is breaking the dimensions of baseball. We've always known that hard-throwing pitchers have had an advantage; the ability to miss bats and generate strikeouts, a statistical proxy for velocity prior to the 2000s, was the best predictor of pitcher success and longevity. However, not everyone could be Nolan Ryan, and on balance, the pool of pitchers couldn't throw hard enough to upset the balance of the game. Now, they can."

Monday, April 7, 2014

Excerpt: "State of the Game, Pt. 1"

"Pitchers are dominating the strike zone like they never have before. After the 1968 season, in which MLB pitchers ran a 2.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 16% strikeout rate (on the heels of similar numbers in 1967), the game's powers that be made radical changes to the rules to restore order. Well, MLB pitchers have set records for K/UIBB in every one of the past three seasons, pushing the mark to 2.7 in 2013, with a 20% strikeout rate. Pitchers are dominating hitters today in the same way they were in 1968, with the difference being masked by the power modern hitters generate when they do make contact. Baseball today is basically baseball in 1968 plus weight training and equipment changes."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #1-10"

"8. Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76; second in NL West, wild-card team; 623 RS, 597 RA). The largest payroll in baseball history didn't buy a center fielder or a second baseman. It did buy a 32-year-old leadoff man with a .308 OBP from ages 29-31, a $10-million setup man coming off two seasons with a total of 15 2/3 innings pitched, and $27.5 million worth of old and slow on the infield corners. What bugs me about this projection isn't that it's out of sync with everyone else's; what bugs me is that I don't think the Dodgers are even this good. The laser focus on the lack of maturity displayed by a 23-year-old -- as if that's a unique story in baseball, sports or world history -- has distracted from just how flawed this roster is. It is entirely possible that it comes together, that I'm wrong about the patchwork center-field situation, too down on Wilson, and that Alexander Guerrero emerges at second base. What I see, though, is a team that's one serious Clayton Kershaw injury from collapse."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #11-20"

"18. New York Yankees (82-80; fourth, AL East; 704 RS, 683 RA). Remember that last year's team was outscored by 21 runs; this prediction expects them to be a fundamentally better team, thanks in part to all the money spent on free agents. There were critical losses, though, in Robinson Cano, in Mariano Rivera, hell, even in a month of Alex Rodriguez, that cancel out a lot of the gains. The Yankees need half the roster to stop the clock and arrest steep declines, the ravages of age, and that's asking too much. Even the position players they signed are risks for age-related decline. It all adds to up to far too much downside risk, and even 82-80 feels like an overbid."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #21-30"

"27. New York Mets (69-93; tied for fourth, NL East; 613 RS, 710 RA). They'll draw 2.6 million fans, though, because Curtis Granderson. The Mets are a little like Mariners East, in that they haven't been able to turn their prospects into players. Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis looked like secondary, maybe even core, pieces two years ago. Now, they're trying to hold on to jobs. Kirk Nieuwenhuis never even got that far. Travis d'Arnaud arrived and immediately got hurt. The Mets don't have the resources to patch over that kind of failure, running a below-average payroll despite playing in a nearly-new ballpark in the largest market in baseball and owning most of their own regional sports network. This is a bad situation that may get worse before it gets better, even as the farm system produces a bumper crop of young pitching over the next two years."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Excerpt: "An Ugly 2013 Report Card"

"The best prediction I made was on the Rangers, who were +97 (728 RS, 631 RA) where I had them at +102, but I was way off on the totals (833/731). The only real success here was the Reds. I was off on their run differential by 12 runs, and pretty close on the runs scored (698 actual, 706 projected) and allowed (589/609). I did all right on the Dodgers (649/582 actual, 637/591 projected). I missed by 100 runs of differential or more on more than half the league, and that's just unacceptable. I understand why I missed by 192 runs on the Red Sox, but that doesn't make it easier to see that number on the spreadsheet."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Excerpt: "2-0 and 0-2"

"The Diamondbacks, unlike the Dodgers, have no real holes. If they lack the potential six-win contributor -- save at first base -- they also seem likely to get one or two wins from every spot on the diamond. With a deep rotation, a top prospect on the way and a good bullpen, that's enough to be a part of the NL West race. Trumbo aside, this will be one of the better defensive teams in league as well. The perceived gap between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks is a lot less than the actual one."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Excerpt: "The Phillies and Their Shortstop"

"If Rollins were to approve a -- still theoretical -- trade to Detroit, he'd be a hero on the day he arrived, saving his new team from opening the season with a gaping hole at shortstop. Even in decline, Rollins would represent a one- to two-win upgrade, at minimum, over Hernan Perez and Danny Worth and Deivi Cruz and whoever else is in the mix for the shortstop job in the absence of Jose Iglesias. His playing time would be assured, and he'd be in a stronger position to extend his career by playing for a team that will be highly visible in 2014 and likely play into October. The Jimmy Rollins HOF audition tape will look a lot better if there are shots of Rollins playing ball in front of full stadiums deep into the fall spliced into it."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Excerpt: "Tiger Trouble"

"There are trade options. The Tigers can't get Nick Franklin without ripping a hole open at the MLB level; they don't have the prospects and the Mariners want to add a major-league player, anyway. They could conceivably -- this is Dombrowski -- work out a three-way deal, but again, the Tigers don't have much they can spare in the majors or at all in the minors. A run at Didi Gregorius should be less expensive, but the Diamondbacks are also trying to win this year. I remain a fan of Ruben Tejada, and I wonder if you couldn't get him from the Mets for a song right now. If signing Drew is too daunting, that's a phone call worth making."

Monday, March 17, 2014

From 351 to 68: Epilogue

I thought this bracket was maybe the best I've ever seen the committee put together. They picked the right teams, the seedings were mostly reasonable -- hold that thought -- and they managed to create a terrific set of first-round games.

That's not to say they were perfect. Well, i wasn't, anyway. I missed on one at-large slot, having Southern Methodist in the field and leaving out North Carolina State. It's a reasonable decision by the committee. Had I pulled SMU -- and remember, I had them as a lock when the week began and never moved them -- I would likely have landed upon Wisconsin-Green Bay as their replacement. The Wolfpack were my third team out; I understand why they were selected, as they had some very good wins away from home. As I said on Twitter, there was a pool of about 12 teams around the cutline that all had cases either way. Some pair of teams had to be #36 and #37.

With few inclusion issues to be angry about, the focus was on the seeding of Louisville. The Cardinals, defending champions and winners of the American Athletic Conference tournament, were bizarrely spoken of as a possible #1 seed in some corners. They ended up a #4, which many -- especially ones who work for a network that broadcasted most of the AAC's games -- disagreed with. I thought it made perfect sense, and the discussion illustrated the point that we come back to time and time again: the committee isn't evaluating what you are, it's evaluating what you did, and at that, it's evaluating what you did using some fairly rudimentary tools. So the fact that Louisville looked very impressive in beating Connecticut and Connecticut and Connecticut, or had the #2 rating in Ken Pomeroy's system, is meaningless in this context.

Louisville was the co-champion of the seventh- or eighth-best conference in the country, and won that conference's tournament, beating one postseason team in doing so. Louisville beat UConn three times and Southern Methodist twice. They split a pair of games with Cincinnati. I've just summed up their entire body of work. Their next best win was over Southern Mississippi, at home. Then it's Louisiana-Lafayette, also at home. The American was five deep, giving credit to SMU that it may not deserve, and Louisville's visceral and statistical edges were in no small part a function of that lack of depth. Louisville may be one of the top 12 or top eight teams in the country, but over the course of the 2013-14 season, they didn't build a top-12 or top-eight profile. They beat UConn three times and SMU twice (with those teams' ratings inflated by the same AAC imbalance blowing up Louisville's numbers), Cincy once and did nothing out of conference.

You may argue against that point by citing that #2 Pomeroy ranking. I absolutely take that seriously, and if I'm having a conversation about Louisville's quality, that's an important data point. I'm not having that conversation; I'm having a conversation about tournament seeding, and it's clear that whatever happy talk has occurred about the committee having access to non-RPI data, that data is not driving any decisions. Louisville was a #4. Tennessee is in the damned play-in game. Utah is nowhere to be found. Massachusetts is a #6.

You can criticize the committee for their loyalty to the RPI to the exclusion of other, better information. That criticism, however, is better saved for June, or September, when it's not about LOUISVILLE ANGRY SMASH but about making the process better, building a better bracket, building a better tournament. They weren't using that information last week. Based on the information they were using, Louisville was a #4 seed. Sorry you guys got stuck in Conference 2SA, best of luck in the ACC. It's not about what you are, it's about what you did.

I'll probably continue to guess the field for years to come, but it's definitely not as much fun as it used to be. I don't mean that in a hipster sense -- it's great that so many people do it now, and I think the democratization of the process has forced the committee to be more open about what they do. No, it's just that there are no longer interesting storylines to follow. We're eight years removed from Billy Packer's George Mason rant, three years past VCU and UAB getting in, and the game of college basketball has changed to chip away at the core conflict that made this so interesting -- big versus little. Between realignment that has pushed "mid-majors" upward into major conferences, and a lack of performance (in part due to a lack of access to games) by schools outside the top tier, there's no meat to the discussions. Wisconsin-Green Bay had a case, but it wasn't one you could really get behind, hanging mostly on a single win. Southern Mississippi didn't even have that. And that was pretty much it for the mid-majors.

There are nine true multi-bid conferences in the new college basketball landscape. The six that used to form the BCS, the Atlantic [$NUMBER], the American and the Mountain West. There's a sharp division between them and the Missouri Valley -- what will it be in a post-Creighton world? -- and the West Coast -- will the bottom of the conference improve to support the top as a multi-bid conference? Then, there's everyone else. (The current WAC Belt version of Conference USA is a one-bid league.) Those two had just the two champs and BYU tournament-caliber teams. Everyone else, produced a couple of bubble teams -- Green Bay, Southern Mississippi, maybe Louisiana Tech -- and nothing else. The MAC, the MAAC, the Colonial (destroyed by realignment, along with the WAC), the OVC…nothing. There were no good arguments to be had this year because that central conflict, between the haves and have-nots, has been won by the haves for a few years running.

I imagine there's some kind of one-and-done effect here, and it may be that the repeal of the 2-in-4 rule has been a net negative for mid-majors rather than a positive, leading to the rise of fakeaments that protect Big Six schools from themselves. I know that the true middle tier still can't get home games against the top tier, and nothing is going to change that.

In doing this, though, I miss being able to advocate for a George Mason, an Iona, a VCU or a William and Mary. I miss watching Manhattan or Northern Iowa or South Alabama squeeze out an at-large bid by taking advantage of the few chances they got against good competition out of conference. The past few years, those teams haven't had opportunities, haven't taken advantage of the limited ones they've had, and it's turned Selection Week into a bore.

Nothing can touch the tournament itself, though. I am psyched for Oregon/BYU and Gonzaga/Oklahoma State and the ridiculous 8/9 game being played on Wednesday, Iowa/Tennessee. For all of the arguments about who belongs and how they should be picked, we could probably take the next 68 teams left out, stick them in a bracket and be just as riveted come Thursday afternoon. With all due respect to great players past, present and future, it's the tournament itself that's the star.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From 351 to 68: Final. Final.

I started to do seeds, and then I realized that the bottom of the bracket is such a mess that how they committee slides the 11 16-seeds around will impact everything else as they avoid rematches and such. I do think Michigan gets the fourth #1 seed, even with today's loss, but I'm not terribly confident about that.

Oh, a bit of business left on the table: I wrote earlier this week that we didn't know what Kansas would be without Joel Embiid. The team had actually played three times without him, though none of those games were against tournament-caliber teams. It's clear, looking at those three plus Kansas' Big 12 tournament, that they are a substantially worse defensive team without Embiid. I can't imagine a 15-seed picking off Kansas, but that second game, next weekend, may be substantially more competitive than it might otherwise have been.

Here's my final field:

Automatic Bids (32):
Virginia (Atlantic Coast), SUNY-Albany (America East), Louisville (American), Saint Joseph's (Atlantic N), Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Providence (Big East), Weber State (Big Sky), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Michigan State (Big Ten+2), Iowa State (Big 12-2), Cal Poly - SLO (Big West), Delaware (Colonial), Tulsa (Conference USA), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Western Michigan (Mid-American), North Carolina Central (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Westwood CC (Pac-12), American (Patriot League), Florida (Southeastern), Wofford (Southern), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Texas Southern (Southwestern Athletic), Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt), North Dakota State (Summit League), New Mexico State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast):

On the Board (36):
Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, George Washington, Creighton, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Baylor, San Diego State, Arizona, Tennessee, Duke, Virginia Commonwealth, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Brigham Young, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State, Xavier, Dayton, Nebraska.

Last Four Byes:
Southern Methodist, Brigham Young, Colorado, Stanford

Last Four In: Arizona State, Xavier, Nebraska, Dayton

First Four Out: Wisconsin-Green Bay, Louisiana Tech, North Carolina State, Florida State

Next Four Out: Southern Mississippi, California, Minnesota, St. John's

I'm not confident the last two slots, but the only team in my last eight I can see taking a spot is Green Bay. I would not be surprised if that happened, although I think Dayton and Nebraska are a tick ahead of the Phoenix.

From 351 to 68: Final. Maybe.

It's a rare easy Sunday. There are five conference finals, and in four of them, both teams will make the tournament -- welcome, St. Joseph's. The other, the Sun Belt, will only see the winner advance, probably to the 13 line. Yesterday saw a lot of teams move off the bubble in one way or another. As mentioned, St. Joseph's locked up a bid by advancing to the Atlantic It Changes a Lot final; Providence and Stephen F. Austin did it the old-fashioned way, by winning their conference tournament. On the other side of the ledger, Georgia needed a win over Kentucky to keep their candidacy alive, and they didn't get it.

The board also filled up, as teams who are in lost to take spots on it. After Saturday's games, 28 at-large bids were spoken for by 24 named teams and the losers in the four conference finals today. That left eight slots for, after all was said and done, 19 remaining bubble teams.

Automatic Bids (27): SUNY-Albany (America East), Louisville (American), Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Providence (Big East), Weber State (Big Sky), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Iowa State (Big 12), Cal Poly - SLO (Big West), Delaware (Colonial), Tulsa (Conference USA), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Western Michigan (Mid-American), North Carolina Central (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Westwood CC (Pac-12), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Texas Southern (Southwestern Athletic), North Dakota State (Summit League), New Mexico State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast)

The following teams are no longer eligible for automatic bids and are listed as having clinched at-large bids:

On the Board (24): Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, George Washington, Creighton, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Baylor, San Diego State, Arizona, Tennessee.

There are 36 at-large slots this year. These eight teams are locks to be granted an at-large bid if they don't claim an automatic bid. They will claim four at-large bids, in total.

Locks (8): Duke, Virginia; Virginia Commonwealth, St. Joseph's; Michigan, Michigan State; Florida, Kentucky.

Let's sort out the remaining 19 bubble teams by culling the list. I held out on Oklahoma State, Colorado and BYU, but they're all safely above the line in this group. Similarly, I can't see the committee making its metrics stand on Utah, and road performance is similarly why Arkansas and Minnesota become relatively easy cuts. That leaves five spots for 13 teams. Let's cull Conference USA down to one spot, and say that Louisiana Tech's head-to-head win in the semis puts them ahead of Southern Mississippi. That's 12. I can't see the committee, protestations aside, putting seven Pac-12 teams in. Cal is clearly the seventh, so drop them.

Eleven to make five.

Stanford was just 8-11 against the RPI Top 100. However, they won at Oregon and at Connecticut, and they went 9-8 outside of Palo Alto. They're in good shape. They're clearly ahead of Arizona State, which played poorly away from home (5-10) and whose best wins all came in Tempe.

Let's try this with the Ohio teams. Xavier played a tougher schedule and didn't beat up on as many sub-150 teams as Dayton did. However, they did go 6-10 away from home. Dayton was 10-6 away from home, and the two teams were comparably good against various levels of competition. Both teams have some really good nonconference wins, but Xavier's are a little better. Xavier is a tick ahead of Dayton.

How about the ACC teams? Almost impossible to separate, with similar RPIs and virtually identical schedule strengths. North Carolina State won the only matchup, but it was a home game. Each team won at Pitt. Each has two very strong wins, and deciding which pair is better (N-Syracuse, @Tennessee/N-VCU, N-UMass) is a challenge. I can't separate them, which is bad for both.

This is how I stack the 11 bubble teams that I have remaining:

Arizona State
Wisconsin-Green Bay
Louisiana Tech
North Carolina State
Florida State
St. John's

The two Pac-12 teams go in. That leaves nine for three. I think I can lop off the bottom four as a group, which leaves five for three. This is going to come down to whether the committee takes the smaller-conference champion that didn't get it done in the tournament, or the big-conference team that converted some of its many chances for quality wins, or roughly speaking the Tennessee vs. Southern Mississippi call I got wrong last year.

Actually, I think I'm shorting Nebraska by saying that. This is Dayton vs. Green Bay.

I'm going to reserve the right to change this by 6 p.m., but here's what I have right now.

Last four byes: Oklahoma State, SMU, St. Joseph's, Stanford
Last four in: Arizona State, Xavier, Nebraska, Dayton
First four out: Wisconsin-Green Bay, Louisiana Tech, North Carolina State, Florida State
Next four out: Southern Mississippi, California, Minnesota, St. John's

Excerpt: "Braves Sign Santana"

"This isn't a panic move by the Braves, who aren't overpaying for Santana in cash or in years. It's an appropriate reaction to losing two starters with two weeks to go before Opening Day and a lack of internal options to fill the slots. The Braves are also concerned about Mike Minor, who is behind the other pitchers in camp due to an offseason illness, and who won't be ready for Opening Day. The Braves' rotation might have been something like Julio Teheran, Medlen, Minor, Beachy and Alex Wood. Prior to signing Santana, the rotation for the first two weeks looked something like Teheran, Wood, Freddy Garcia and David Hale."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From 351 to 68: Moving Days

You get a lot of clarity in 38 hours. St. Bonaventure and LaSalle tipped off a tick after noon Eastern time on Thursday afternoon. Cal State-Northridge closed out an upset of Long Beach State around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. In that time, 105 games were played, giving every bubble team one or two opportunities to make their case or make themselves scarce.

I love reading Bracketology content in-season. I love seeing the numbers go up and down. It's catnip to someone who loves college hoops and numbers in, if not equal amounts, proportional ones. However, I jump in at the end because for however much enjoyment I get from looking at mock brackets, I don't think you can generate conclusions off partial seasons. Not having those last one, two, three games against conference competition, good competition, in generally neutral environments, renders the conclusions reached up to that point insufficient. It's not that conference-tournament games are more meaningful than the rest, but that when you're teasing out the differences among teams with similar profiles, the additional data point -- a quality win, or a bad loss -- can swing the entire decision. We simplify this to "they played their way into the discussion" or something akin to that, but we're still looking at all the data -- it's just that conference games on neutral courts are an excellent barometer for a team's skill.

That's what the last two days do. They thin the herd. At this point, frankly, there's not much left to do. North Carolina State and Georgia are the only remaining teams whose status is in question who could still both pick up a win and not gain an automatic bid. For Louisiana Tech, Providence, Stephen F. Austin, it's a matter of whether they play their way in or whether they're good enough even with a loss of varying quality. For everyone else, we have all the information.

Among that information, by the way, is this: the bottom of the NIT is going to be much better than the bottom of the NCAA. Nine regular season champions with no shot at an NCAA at-large bid have lost in their conference tournaments. A number of others play today, with realistic chances of losing. We could see a dozen or more NIT bids end up in the hands of automatic qualifiers.

Let's see where we are as of early afternoon Saturday.

Automatic Bids (13):
Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

The following teams are no longer eligible for automatic bids and are listed as having clinched at-large bids:

On the Board (14): Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist.

Like a lot of people, I took another look at SMU after their loss to Houston. I elected to keep them on the board, but not only will they be wearing red later this week, they could conceivably slip into Dayton.

There are 36 at-large slots this year. These 21 teams are locks to be granted an at-large bid if they don't claim an automatic bid. Welcome, Pittsburgh and Baylor!

Locks (21): Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh; Louisville, Connecticut; Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State; Iowa State, Baylor; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

Those 21 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 12 and 15 at-large bids, leaving seven to ten slots for bubble teams.

Since I last wrote, four teams took losses that eliminated them from consideration: Middle Tennessee State, Illinois, Louisiana State and Clemson. All needed to pick up quality wins and probably to make their conference final; none did. Georgetown has also been removed.  (Note: this list omitted Arizona State the other day.) There are 23 teams currently under consideration. In rough order...

Bubble (23):

Brigham Young: The best RPI (31) in this group, an 8-7 mark against the RPI top 100, KenPom #49, made their conference final. A 1-5 mark against the RPI top 25 and 12 sub-150 wins on the other side of the ledger. They're probably in, with so few bid-stealers.

Colorado: Their early-season home win over Kansas buoys a a profile that would otherwise mostly be about what they did in conference. The numbers are there, and they did go 7-9 away from home, while playing well in the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie.

Oklahoma State: It seems most people are considering them a 21-9 team, giving them a pass for the three games they played without Marcus Smart. I'm not sure treating that as an injury sits well with me. At a full 21-12, it's not that great a profile -- 4-10 against the top 50 (although 14 top-50 games is notable) -- 3-7 in true road games, sub-.500 in conference. They rate this highly in part because of great possession-based numbers (KenPom #21) and whatever credibility you want to give subjectivity: they look, and have looked, like a tournament team.

They started the Big East tournament as a bubble team and they made the tournament final, which would all be more impressive if they'd gotten a win over an NCAA tournament team along the way. They're 14-11 against the RPI top 100, which reflects the lack of truly bad teams in the new Big East. I think they're high on the bubble; their non-conference schedule is littered with attempts to schedule reasonably well against teams that had bad years: LaSalle, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Rhode Island.

Stanford: The Pac-12 gives me a headache. i don't think any of the middle tier of teams is all that good, save a small crush on Jahii Carson and what he might do in the next week. As with Colorado, Stanford is living off one win back in 2013, theirs being on the road over Connecticut, and their win over Carson's Arizona State team on Thursday keeps them ahead of the Sun Devils.

Arizona State: As mentioned, Carson. Arizona State has been on the bubble all week, but at one point in the process, I thought they might have been in already, hence their absence from the earlier write-ups. They also had a non-conference slate fall apart on them, as wins over Marquette and UNLV are doing them no good today. It's hard to draw the line between Stanford and ASU; both are probably going in.

I expect the above six teams to get in. From here down is where it gets a little sticky.

St. Joseph's:
They're now 3-0 against Dayton, which helps to clarify the pecking order in the Atlantic 10. A win today over St. Bonventure wouldn't change much -- the Bonnies, even after their wins this week, aren't rated highly -- but advancing to the conference final would be the kind of thing that improves the profile just enough to make a difference. Losing to St. Bonaventure isn't going to help, either. Let's leave them here for a day.

Dayton: The #daytonindayton movement is about the best the Flyers can hope for after a crushing loss to St. Joseph's. Their decision to play the Maui Invitational -- where they picked up wins over Gonzaga and Cal -- looks very good right now, because if they make the tournament, that will be why.

Xavier: They seem to be in on most boards, which isn't unreasonable, although I wouldn't argue that they helped themselves in New York. I have Providence ahead of them at the moment. Two excellent non-conference wins, over Cincinnati and Tennessee, will probably be the difference for them.

North Carolina State: If they beat Duke, they're in. If they don't beat Duke, they have a case, one we'll revisit tomorrow.

Nebraska: Had they held an 18-point second-half lead, we wouldn't be having this conversation. They're 4-11 outside of Lincoln, although one of the four is a huge win at East Lansing. They're a good story, which may matter more than it should. Arguably helped by Minnesota losing as well. I suspect that if they're in, they'll go to Dayton.

California: They needed to beat Colorado more than Colorado needed to beat them. Now left with 13 losses, an RPI of 63, 4-10 against the top 100…they've more or less proven they can be beat by all the teams going to the tournament instead of them.

Louisiana Tech: They have UAB's case from two years ago, when UAB was a surprise pick for one of the final spots in the field, but without "we beat out Memphis" and "sole champion" to help. With so few teams helping themselves this week, they should get a look if they lose to Tulsa.

Florida State:
Like Xavier, two good non-conference wins (neutral-court over VCU and UMass) holding up a profile that didn't get as much bounce from its name conference than you would think. Losing to Virginia probably ended the dream. 3-9 versus the top 50, 6-12 versus the top 100 are killer numbers.

From here down, we mostly have teams who I don't think are going to make it.

Southern Mississippi:
The best profile of the various 13-3 Conference USA teams, it couldn't survive losing in the semifinals to a direct competitor. The lack of signature wins was always going to be a problem. Still, an RPI of 33, a 25-6 record, 13-6 away from home, 8-5 against the top 150…there's a numbers case here.

St. John's: The absolute zero in non-conference play -- San Francisco, Columbia? -- comes back to haunt them, as they lost some key games down the stretch and them a showdown with Providence. Given the likelihood of an NIT one-seed and the home games at Carnesecca Arena it comes with, they're a big favorite to play some more games at the Garden this year.

Georgia: Their RPI is now a not-ridiculous 66, and they'll get a shot to improve their top-50 record today. They're not in with a win, like North Carolina State is, but they will stay on the board with one -- and fall off if they lose.

Missouri: Hanging on due to a couple of good non-conference wins over UCLA and North Carolina State. Beating Texas A&M in double overtime on a neutral floor is a sign that you don't belong, not one that you do.

They went 4-10 away from home, which is the kind of thing you can survive if everything else looks good. They needed to beat Wisconsin.

Wisconsin-Green Bay: Not even making the conference final, despite a rigged tournament and home-court advantage, is a bad look that probably wipes everything else out, including a win over Virginia. If you squint, you can see some 2012 UAB or Iona here. If the committee surprises us, I suspect this will be the team they do it with.

Stephen F. Austin: Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, just two eligible teams have lost three or fewer games and missed the tournament -- Utah State in 2004 and College of Charleston in 1996. And unfortunately, the Lumberjacks look exactly like those teams, playing in small conferences and getting nothing done outside of the league. If they lose tonight…I guess the thing to keep in mind is that apparently Oral Roberts, out of the Summit League then, was right on the bubble two years ago. Win tonight, SFA.

Arkansas: It was just ten days ago that they hung 110 on Mississippi, but that's their last win. Losses to teams that aren't even going to the NIT, Alabama and South Carolina, have buried their profile.

Utah: A test case for whether the committee is moving away from the RPI and towards tempo-free stats. Utah is 36th in KenPom with an RPI of 78. Then again, they might miss just because they did little in the non-conference and went 3-9 away from home. It would reflect a sea change in the process if they were selected.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

From 351 to 68: Hoya Sackeda

We very nearly got through yesterday with absolutely nothing changing on the board or the bubble. Then Georgetown got involved. The Hoyas' loss to DePaul, one of the worst major-conference teams, likely ends their at-large hopes. I'm leaving them on the board for now, just in case the bubble falls apart. They do have five RPI top-50 wins, including three strong neutral-court victories over teams in the field, and in recent years good wins have seemed to carry more weight than bad losses.

Nothing else happened. The other bubble teams won games they had to win just to stay in the discussion, although Stanford and Colorado sure made it interesting for a while in the Pac-12 tournament. Oh, we added another NIT team, as Boston University was taken out at home by American U. That makes eight NIT bids from the 12 small conferences that have completed their tournaments.

In (13): Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

There are 36 at-large slots this year, While nodding to Colorado, 33 teams are locks to make the tournament::

Locks (33): Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Southern Methodist; Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Villanova, Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa; Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA, Oregon; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

Those 33 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 24 and 33 at-large bids, leaving three to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here's my spreadsheet bubble, listed in RPI order.

Bubble (29): Colorado, Southern Mississippi, Baylor, Brigham Young, Arizona State, Dayton, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Xavier, Minnesota, Missouri, California, Georgetown, Providence, Florida State,, Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, St. John's, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana State, Georgia, Clemson, Utah

We're going to see a lot of movement today, one way or another. By conference:

ACC: Florida State is squarely on the bubble and will stay there with a win or a loss to Maryland -- and we'll see what happens Friday if they win -- while Maryland needs this game and probably one more to stay in the discussion. Very, very big game for a Thursday afternoon. Pitt gets stuck playing an improving Wake Forest team in a quasi-road game. They cannot take a bad loss right now. North Carolina State is also in a must-win situation, because losing to Miami would both hurt their case and deprive them of a chance for a good win on Friday. Clemson has to win at least twice to be taken seriously -- they draw Georgia Tech.

As an aside, the first day of the ACC tournament was awful, a prima facie case against the expansion of leagues we've seen. Bad teams playing bad basketball in a region they have no connection to. The ACC tournament set the standard, and it's kind of sad to see what's happened to it. But at least the football championship game is a rousing success.

I don't believe I've ever seen a nominally major league with no bubble teams. This is the American's peak -- they trade Louisville for three bad basketball programs from Conference USA next year. Even if Temple bounces back, the American is going to be right on the line as a "major" conference, arguably more Atlantic 10 than Atlantic Coast.

Atlantic 10: A don't-dare-lose game for Dayton against Fordham, which won a postseason game last night for the first time since it was my safety school. There's probably a world where Richmond can win three times and get into the conversation, but we'll worry about that once they get past Duquesne.

Big East: Both Providence and St. John's can get into the field, but the team that loses today -- the two play at 2:30 p.m. -- is going to be pretty miserable until Sunday night worrying. The winner isn't in, but they get a leg up, not least for winning the rubber game against a direct bubble rival. Xavier may be able to lose to Marquette and still get in, but they shouldn't test the theory.

Big Ten: Illinois has to beat Indiana just to stay on the board. Minnesota's situation isn't quite that dire -- but their lack of anything away from home means that today's game is as much about location as it is opponent (Penn State). They're 3-9 in road and neutral games.

Big 12: The big story on what will be the best conference-tournament day all week isn't bubble-related; we'll all be watching to see what Kansas looks like in their first game without Joel Embiid. It's a tough spot for the committee, which is going to get roasted no matter what they do, but at least they'll get to see Kansas without Embiid to help make their decision. My opinion is that a loss today would be worth a seed line, a loss Saturday would not warrant any loss in seed, and a loss tomorrow would…be complicated.

Oklahoma State might be in even if they lose to Kansas, but a 5-11 mark against the top 50 would be a strike against them. They're in, clearly, with a win. The same goes for Baylor, if they beat Oklahoma. The Big 12 has done a very good job of maximizing bids this year, and may get seven from a ten-team league.

Mountain West: No bubble teams for the first time in forever. Thank Boise State and their penchant for collapses.

Pac-12: Utah might be in if they can beat Arizona -- their metrics are far better than the RPI would have you believe. They'll stay on the board even if they lose. Colorado and Cal may well both be in, but I think the winner of this game will advance on to the board immediately. The same is true for Arizona State and Stanford. When the non-meaningful game of the day is Oregon/UCLA, that's a strong day of games. Nice of the bottom four teams to get out of the way yesterday.

Southeastern: Missouri and LSU must win their games against also-rans Texas A&M and Alabama to stay on the bubble. Arkansas is in that no-win spot, where a win over South Carolina doesn't help, but a loss is terrible. The SEC is just barely a major conference the past few years; like in football, they have some amazing anchor programs carrying a lot of overrated ones.

Let's see…all the Conference USA bubble teams play, with Southern Mississippi -- the team with the best case -- getting a bad draw in that they have to play the host, Texas-El Paso. USM's case is going to be pretty good if they add a road win to a strong profile that, admittedly, lacks great wins. That's about it; other than my quixotic notion that Stephen F. Austin is a bubble team, there are no at-large candidates in the eight secondary conferences whose tournaments start or continue today.

We'll know a lot more in 18 hours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From 351 to 68: We Begin Again

Welcome to my annual trip into college basketball coverage.

I started trying to suss out who would make the tournament all the way back in college, when there was a lot less data and a lot more guesswork. I've been a huge college basketball fan since grade school, when the St. John's team led by Chris Mullin became an obsession. These days, about the only fandom that still really gets my blood boiling is USC basketball, which is exactly as sad a notion as it sounds.

A few years back, after launching Basketball Prospectus, I ported the work I'd been doing privately for years to the public, joining approximately 7.2 million people in the act. I don't do mock brackets and I don't seed the field. All I do is try and figure out who will make the cut, and why. If you're looking to know whether North Carolina will stay close to home or if Oregon will be wearing white, you want a different Joe. I do this because I really enjoy it, and I publish it because some vocal subset of people who read it ask for it each year. I don't pretend for a second I'm the best or most thorough at it.

One important note before I throw a lot of names at you: every year, it seems, guys like me complain about the soft bubble, where there are too many teams under consideration who haven't done anything. If anyone uses that term this year, ignore them. There are plenty of teams under consideration who would, in other years, be in great shape for a bid. There are few teams in the mix for an at-large bid as weak as some of the teams who made it right down to the end of the discussion in previous years. There are teams with flawed profiles, to be sure, but deep into the pool of teams under discussion are ones with good wins, good road wins and good metrics. This is not, relative to other recent years, a weak bubble.

There are 68 slots in this year's tournament. 32 will be awarded to the champions of their respective leagues, with 31 of those being determined by the winner of the conference tournament. Bless you, Ancient Eight. Twelve of those have already been determined.

In (12): Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

Note: of those 12, just five won their league's regular-season crown. I'm not terribly opposed to conferences who send their tournament champion to the dance, but for those who are, and who make strong arguments against it, this year is an excellent case study. Davidson, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Vermont went 44-4 in conference, and none of them even reached their conference final.

On the other hand, as someone who roots for NIT chaos, I like that seven bids in that event are already committed, as regular-season league champs are guaranteed NIT bids if they don't reach the NCAA tournament.

There are 36 at-large slots this year, down one due to the Big East schism. Oddly, due to the weakness of conferences like the West Coast and Missouri Valley, none of those bids have yet been claimed -- all at-large candidates have either finished their seasons on the bubble (BYU, Green Bay) or are still playing with a chance to win an automatic bid. Per my analysis, 33 teams are locks to make the tournament:

Locks (33): Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Southern Methodist; Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Villanova, Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa; Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA, Oregon; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

The closest calls here were George Washington, Kansas State and Tennessee, and we'll get into all of them over the next few days. I suspect the last of those causes the most raised eyebrows. I am, to some extent, projecting the committee to be using more tools than just the RPI. For all the data we do have, we're really just guessing as to how the committee members will integrate modern rating systems into their work.

Those 33 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 24 and 33 at-large bids, leaving three to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here's my spreadsheet bubble, listed in RPI order. Keep in mind two things: I am very conservative about moving teams from the bubble to the at-large board, and I try to include everyone at the start who might play their way into the field this week.

Bubble (29): Colorado, Southern Mississippi, Baylor, Brigham Young, Arizona State, Dayton, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Xavier, Minnesota, Missouri, California, Georgetown, Providence, Florida State,, Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, St. John's, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana State, Georgia, Clemson, Utah

The most interesting case on this board in Pittsburgh. Despite "feeling" like a lock, they have a shockingly empty resumé, having beaten no teams in the tournament field and just one team likely to make the tournament (Stanford, back on November 26). It is possible that they could end up having beaten zero tournament teams, pending what a few teams do this week. You wouldn't think you could go 23-8 as an ACC team with this soft a slate, but they went 1-6 against the RPI top 50 and played just five games total against the four good teams in the league. Pitt plays the Notre Dame/Wake Forest winner tomorrow, and cannot afford to lose that game.

I don't think all the Conference USA teams are at-large contenders, but I do think a tournament final between two of them would open the door to an at-large bid for the loser if the bubble fell apart.

We'll go deeper on all these teams as the week goes on. I think, right now, the Big 12 teams, the Pac-12 teams and BYU are all in pretty good shape.

There is some bubble action today in some of the bigger conferences. Colorado, Baylor, Georgetown and Stanford are playing don't-you-dare-lose games against the dregs of their leagues. Utah has a slightly tougher assignment, Washington, but can't afford a loss. Oklahoma State has a competitive game against Texas Tech; they wouldn't fall off the bubble with a loss or move into the field with a win, but with a 5-10 mark against the RPI top 100, they could use another game against a good team.

Also, Oregon plays Oregon State, but Oregon is in no matter what they do in Las Vegas.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Excerpt: "David Price Stays"

"The Rays still lack the one additional big hairy bat who would push the offense over the top. They prefer to use the DH slot to allow their veterans a day off, and because of that, they tend to not get much production from it. Coupled with their commitment to defense -- manifested most clearly in a three-year deal for James Loney -- it leaves them perhaps one bat short. They're again hoping Matt Joyce can recover his 2010-11 form, again hoping Desmond Jennings (who should be batting seventh against righties) stops getting beaten by good fastballs, again relying more on run prevention than run creation. It's a formula that has worked, but the presence of just one .360/.480 guy in the lineup, batting second or fifth, would change the team's projection considerably."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Excerpt: "The Coming Defensive Revolution"

"'Shifting' just begins to get at what optimal defensive alignments might be at any given point in a game. The important thing is to break from the idea of positions, as NFL and NBA teams have, and think in terms of where the play is most likely to be and how to put your defenders in place to make it. You have seven men and the offense has just one baseball. The more confidence teams have in how a given batter and a given pitcher will interact -- as OMGf/x (as Jay Jaffe dubbed it) collects that information -- the more confident they will be that any batted ball will likely end up in a certain area, and the more confident they will be in overloading that area with men and gloves. Eventually, we won't think in terms of shifts; we'll develop a whole new language for how teams choose to position their seven defenders, whether the football terminology I've borrowed here or something more colorful."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Excerpt: "Have the Orioles Done Enough?"

"Cruz, like Jimenez, isn't a high-impact player. Whereas Jimenez was worth 2.7 bWAR last year and a total of 2.7 bWAR the past three years, Cruz was worth 2.2 in last year's suspension-shortened campaign and a total of 5.9 over the same three years. As with Jimenez, the lowered cash cost of the contract makes Cruz worth the risk, especially since the Orioles can keep the increasingly poor outfielder limited to a DH role. The Orioles have holes in both left field and at DH, and can now keep their wishcasting about Nolan Reimold's health and Henry Urrutia's plate discipline limited to one lineup spot. At 33 and four years removed from his last big season, Cruz probably carries more downside risk than upside, and I say that as someone who doesn't think his association with Biogenesis had anything to do with his performance. He's just another good-not-great corner outfielder reaching his mid-thirties, a class that is all downside."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Excerpt: "The Kimbrel Opportunity"

"The Braves have an opportunity here. This isn't about bringing back the fireman; it's about taking the 70 innings that Kimbrel is going to throw anyway and applying them in a way that doesn't change his job one iota, but gives the Braves a better chance to win games. It's small changes. It's looking ahead in the seventh inning at the middle of the lineup coming up in the eighth, and choosing to use Kimbrel against it, rather than saving him for the bottom of the order in the ninth. It's getting him into a tied game in the eighth inning, or on the road in the ninth, rather than holding him out for a save situation. It's bringing him in, as necessary, to apply his preternatural bat-missing ability in spots where missing bats is paramount, as opposed to when all outs are created equal."