Dustin Ackley hitting the ball the other way

Dustin Ackley post preceded by an obligatory ode to BaseballSavant.com. Skip if desired.

Oh BaseballSavant.com, you are a very good website. I like to use your filters to sift through mountains of pitch f/x data in my spare time. You are a good friend. I want to take you to Chuck e Cheese and let you have all of my ski-ball tickets to buy that light saber that you always wanted. Or a remote control car if I got on a roll and did better than I usually do and got more tickets. That would be even more fun than a light saber. Especially since you wouldn’t need to find somebody else with a light saber to play with. You could just mess around with the car by yourself. I would even go into the ballpit and weed out all of the hypodermic needles in there. Unless you want me to leave them in there. Then I would test them all for STDs and leave in the clean ones. Unless you don’t want me to do that either. I would do all of this for you. I am selfless. 

Anyway, let us use some of this data to do things.

Dustin Ackley was hitting rather well to start the season. His doing so briefly earned him a spot batting 2nd in the lineup, a position he usurped from former optimism-paragon turned overnight-disappointment Brad Miller. There has always been one thing that Ackley does better than nearly anybody. That thing is making contact. Ackley made a lot of contact last year. He also spent much of last year being terrible. Putting the ball in play does not ensure success in the Major Leagues. There are people out there. People with gloves.

I want to take a quick look at one of Ackley’s big issues last year. I want to look at Ackley’s tendencies towards grounding out to the right side of the infield. Let us gaze upon a spray chart, and wonder.

Ackley spray chart filtered

This looks pretty stupid at first glance. I have filtered out most of the less common events just to clear away some of the dross but this is still a messy picture. What I want to point out on the above spray chart, however, is the disparity in results between when Ackley pulls the ball and when Ackley takes the ball the other way.

Ackley hits the ball on the ground fairly often. This, as Mariners fans, is something that we are all too familiar with. Last year, when Ackley was playing poorly he was beating the ball into the dirt directly towards second base. This is reflected by the maroon cluster-fuck one can see in the above chart.

Let’s look at another spray chart real quick.

kenji spray chart filtered

Similar maroon garbage. Except in this case, said garbage is located on the left side of the infield, rather than the right. This is a spray chart from Kenji Johjima in 2008. 2 years after he had weaved the mirage of competency which had since dissipated under the crushing weight of countless groundouts to the pull side.

Johjima and Ackley are not the same player. They are not even particularly similar players. But they went through similar stretches of mediocrity brought on by a common tendency: attempting to pull balls on the outside of the plate only to beat the ball mercilessly into the dirt.

In Johjima’s case, we can see that most of the success he had was to the pull side. While he made several outs over there, and was generally awful overall, all of his dingers went straight out to left field and most of his hits in general did so as well. His spray chart indicates that when he went the other way, the result was typically meek, shallow fly balls to the right fielder. Johjima’s success was predicated around an unsustainable tendency (in his case) towards pulling everything. The league made the necessary adjustments and Johjima was not able to adjust in turn and achieve sustained success after his rookie season.

Ackley’s chart deviates from Johjima’s here, and therein lies the hope that a change in approach can result in marked improvement.

Dustin Ackley’s chart indicates that the majority of his offensive success came when hitting the ball the other way. The only exception to this rule is dingers which, in Ackley’s case, were strictly to the pull side (as was the case with Johjima). Ackley only hit 4 of them. So who the fuck cares.

It is clear that Ackley’s success will be built around his 91% contact rate on balls in the zone, and his ability to generate solid contact to left-center field for singles and hopefully some gap doubles as well. Ackley has never been a guy who profiles for much power, but that’s OK. We learned last year that a team can hit a lot of dingers and still find themselves mired near last place in terms of runs scored. If Ackley maintains the approach he adopted towards the end of last year, he should reach base at a solid clip and hit his fair share of doubles in the process. In this way, Ackley likely profiles as the team’s best option at leadoff- although he is a natural fit in the 2-hole as well.

That being said, having suffered through a recent slump of absolute shittiness, maybe it is best we just put Ackley out to pasture and talk about more important things like why racism is bad and why spiders may be worse.

On Donald Sterling and the Ugliness of It All

In light of Donald Sterling’s stupidity. And extended stupidity. I’m struck by a profound sadness. A sadness for Deandre Jordan, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, and the rest of the Los Angeles  Clipper players who have to carry the burden of being that team. For Doc Rivers, placed, yet again, at the intersection of race and responsibility. A sadness for Elgin Baylor, who may finally see vindication. I even reserve a small sadness for Rochelle Sterling, who probably (hopefully) doesn’t share the same inclinations as her (estranged?) husband.

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In Bill Bradley’s seminal Life on the Run, he paints an intimate almost innocuous exchange with Hall of Fame teammate, former New York Knick great and current color commentator Walt Frazier about being black. In the South. In the 70s.

“…I still feel the tension of segregation.”

“How?”

“Just by walkin’ in the stores and how people wait on you; like here at the Marriot, the way the lady gives you change. They’re just little things I can relate to because I grew up in the South, and it reminds me of that again. The same thing in Phoenix; the other day I went into a store and four saleswomen just stood there looking at me asking each other, ‘Who’s going to wait on him?’ Anywhere in the South we go on Delta or Eastern Airlines, I can feel the tension between white and black, starting with the stewardesses; it’s different when we fly United or Northwest.”

“Will the South ever be different for you?”

“It will always be the same.”

“Why?”

“Because of the parents,” says Frazier. “Kids know no prejudice. They just go out and have a good time playing. Then the parents start saying black is wrong, don’t play with black kids, don’t be a nigger lover. So they change early in life and that’s the problem.”

There are so many intersections between Clyde’s experience and Sterling’s expectations, it’s shameful to imagine their remarks being separated by half a century.

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As this unfortunate drama plays out on every news outlet in America, it’s easy to forget or altogether ignore, the setting. This is, after all, one of the most riveting first rounds in NBA Playoff history.

And where the first round is usually reserved for the great talent disparities, cakewalks and tune-ups, this post season, more so than any other in recent memory, has three to five team—the Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies (and to a far lesser extent, the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets)—aiming to upend that paradigm. With only half the series having played four games, the NBA is poised to break a ton of telling records.

With 16 road wins at a whopping .533 winning percentage, this year’s playoffs is outpacing the record 19 first-round road wins record set in 2005. No playoffs have ever seen more than 10 overtimes. Already, we’ve seen seven.

This is what basketball analysts should be talking about. This is every NBA fan’s dream.

But instead, this visage of vitriol…

…has been seared, at least temporarily, into America’s consciousness.

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Everyone has an opinion on what the NBA, the Clipper players and coaching staff should do—in protest and in sanctions. They need to do more, is a common thread. But when your employer has a pathological history of racism, there isn’t much you can do. This league has almost always been about black players making old rich white men richer, and there is very little in this moment that has the force to change that.

Calls have been made to exert the maximum penalty and strip Sterling of his ownership—which Commissioner Adam Silver probably could do and certainly has the public support to do. But doing so raises all sorts of slippery slope questions. If a billionaire owner has ties to a separatist group supplying arms to a militia committing humanitarian crimes in Eastern Ukraine, should they have a team? If another billionaire owner prone to enjoying copious amounts of cocaine, strippers and booze uses his venture capital firm to dismantle American manufacturing jobs, leaving thousands unemployed, crippling entire communities, do they deserve ownership of an NBA franchise?

In the morass of so much cynicism, scorn and condemnation, it’s difficult to discern the few voices that truly matter. And even then, it’s harder to find the more salient points, to balance the fair-minded with the emotional pull and still frame it in a larger historical context.

There are many questions here, with few and difficult answers.

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That a man of such vitriol exists and wields so much power in the universe of this game represented by the most diverse and progressive league American sports has to offer, is a testament to a forever unfinished work of social progress.

If there’s any benefit to all this stupidity, it is that this slumlord modicum of a man serves as a vanguard for every idiot who has ever claimed we’re somehow beyond racism, that we live in a post-racial society.

I love the game of basketball. By extension I love the NBA. It’s a beautiful game at its best when five players work in physical, mental and emotional harmony. That, in part, is what makes this episode harder to bear.

The Los Angeles Clippers (along with San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami) were among the four teams generally regarded as serious contenders. Superstars, a deep bench and a championship—they finally have it all this season. And if twenty years from now, the 2014 NBA Playoffs still exist in our consciousness as that one year that one racist owner said those racist things, God help us all.

Kyle Seager and the streakiness inherent in hitting the ball in the air all of the damn time

Joey strokes the Seager boner of the Mariners’ early season confusion-orgy.

This is a necessary post to remind us all of why we love Kyle Seager.

Less sitting, more hitting.

Mariners’ fans are familiar with Kyle Seager. He has been a lone bright spot on a team that has had very few bright spots over the past few years. If you consider an average, productive, worth-having major league position player to be worth roughly 3.0 WAR, then Kyle Seager is the lone Mariner to qualify as a productive everyday Major Leaguer on this club for the past 2 seasons. This is pretty unfortunate, given how 3.0 WAR is kind of the low-end cutoff for this degree of productivity and most teams have a few of these sorts of players if not 5 or 6 of them.

The Mariners have Robinson Cano and Corey Hart now. This is cool and something that makes watching the mariners a tiny bit less depressing than it was the past couple of years. These are veteran players with proven track records who have been more or less the same guy throughout their careers and are now firmly operating within their prime years. The Mariners have had veterans before, but these veterans either had not been good players for a few years (Ibanez), or were simply never good players to begin with (Morse). It can be pretty depressing watching a team that is riddled with question marks. It is more depressing watching a team entirely comprised of question marks. The term “riddled” is used to describe some surface filled with a bajillion holes and thusly rendered into something resembling Swiss cheese. A lot of teams have had this Swiss-cheese consistency. The Mariners the past few years haven’t even really had any cheese at all which makes the term “riddle” not even really work. The no-cheese Mariners, some would call them (Nobody would ever call them that).

But there is more cheese here than meets the eye! Kyle Seager exists. He is the tiniest of morsels remaining after a drunk-five-year-old-with-a-hole-puncher-esque onslaught of inconsistency. And he isn’t even that consistent within his own consistency. That was a silly sentence. How can a player be consistently inconsistent? The term I would use: streaky.

Imagine if you will a coin. A coin when flipped has (basically) a 50% outcome of being either heads or tails. Let us then assign a positive outcome to one of these events. In the case of heads, you get 1 dollar. In the case of tails, somebody changes the channel at your apartment to the Hallmark Channel and then subsequently shatters your remote control. It’s all about the O.

Bad analogy do-over. Kyle Seager has been a player who can look terrible for stretches, but whose numbers have in our recent experience eventually trended towards a certain, predictable result over the course of an entire season’s worth of ups and downs. We have recently been provided some empirical evidence to support this claim. Kyle Seager spent the first two weeks of this year being absolutely terrible. Prior to this last week, Seager was arguably the most maddeningly awful player in the Mariners’ lineup. Yet, we as fans have come to expect Seager to be a solid contributor. How can these two outcomes coexist within the same paradigm and both be true? Streakiness. Seager is not alone in his up and down ways. Just look at Mike Zunino…

But what about Seager’s play results in this kind of streakiness? It is easy to assign a certain nebulous, platonic understanding of streakiness to a player without looking deeper into the player’s skillset to determine if there is perhaps, an underlying manner of playing the game that can result in this day-to-day inconsistency.

“Kyle is just hot right now” people might say. If those people were talking about Kyle Seager the way people talk about Hansel in Zoolander.

I believe that in Kyle Seager’s case there is a rhyme and perhaps a reason to his streakiness. Kyle Seager is a flyball hitter. Kyle Seager is also almost strictly speaking a dead-pull hitter. This year, there has been a record-setting pace for the number of infield shifting being done around the league. Teams are no longer simply shifting for big, obvious dead-pull guys in the traditional mold of a David Ortiz or Prince Fielder. Teams are noticing that little guys can be one-trick ponies too. Kyle Seager is one such player that could see more shifts in his future.

Let’s look at a Kyle Seager spray chart courtesy of baseballsavant.com. I have went ahead and filtered out the groundballs for a clearer picture into what I am looking for with Seager’s game.

Kyle Seager spray chart leftandright flies

Bingo bango bongo. As we can see, Seager’s success comes when he pulls the ball. Period. There is really no other interpretation to be drawn here. Seager is a dead-pull flyball hitter who shows impressive power to the pull side which the eyeball test validates by noting one of the more beautifully classic lefty uppercuts that I have seen in a while– let alone by a player in Mariners’ blue.

There is an upside and a downside to this kind of hitter and that is fairly easy to qualify. Fly ball hitters’ success is governed by the quality of their contact more so than a player who sprays the ball around and hits groundballs with more frequency. A guy like Cano is going to hit for a higher average and a higher BABIP than Seager because Cano is primarily a line drive hitter. If Cano misses a pitch, he may send a soft, broken-bat line drive into shallow center for a single. If Seager just misses a pitch, he is going to most likely be serving up lazy fly balls to right. When Cano hits the ball the other way, he is likely to get a few more singles as soft line drives drop down in front of the left fielder. When Seager hits the ball the other way, he loses distance and with it some of the success his pull-side power grants him, again, serving up lazy flyballs to the outfielder.

Players can change over the course of their careers, and Seager has several years of good baseball ahead of him. All indications point to Seager carrying the success he has had into the future- but if his style of hitting remains static he will likely remain prone to cold spells when his flies aren’t leaving the yard or crashing into fences.

This doesn’t bother me at all. We have seen what happens when Seager is squaring pitches up. Seager has carried the Mariners to 3 victories in the past 5 games. No player exists in a vacuum, and credit should be given to the guys who got on base in front of him in both of his go-ahead blasts this past week. That being said somebody has to sack up and hit the ball hard to drive those guys in. That guy has been Kyle Seager. The Mariners would do well to capitalize on this stretch, as it should be clear to everyone with eyeballs and the gumption necessary to sit down and watch the Mariners play baseball that when Kyle Seager plays well this team is astronomically superior to when he is mired in one of his slumps.

At the end of the year, Kyle Seager’s numbers will look good. They won’t reflect the AL player-of-the-week numbers he put up this past week. They don’t have to. As long as the hot stretches properly balance out the (hopefully shortened) slumps, the aggregate total will be a solid, above-average major leaguer. The Mariners don’t have many of those. We should all be grateful that he graces us with his presence. We should be doubly grateful that he seems to be superbestpals with Justin Smoak. If we were to get rid of Smoak would Seager’s production dip? Is Smoak required for moral support in order for Seager to continue to be productive? Would Smoak have to start for this to work, or could he be maintained in a symbolic role? This is something to be monitored moving forward, as I delve into the depths of their relationship via anonymous sources and idle social media speculation.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that Seager is doused with frigid Gatorade more often in the coming weeks. Sorry boss.

Umbrella!

100 Hours: More WHOA!, Less Woe

 

“Sports is human life in microcosm.” -Howard Cosell

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The NBA Playoffs have started. THE NBA PLAYOFFS HAVE STARTED!!! THE NBA PLAYOFFS HAVE STARTED!!!!!!! THE NBA PLAYOFFS HAVE STARTED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

People can barely contain themselves. Okay, I can barely contain myself. But actually, they can’t contain themselves at all.

In T-Dot (Toronto, for the uninitiated), frisky GM Masai Ujiri is dropping F-bombs and mics:

while thousands of fans frantically cheer on a screen outside the Air Canada Centre. Outside. In Canada. Thousands. Outside. I’m pretty sure Oh, Canada is permanently blanketed with three feet of snow, the Northern tundra where white walkers roam, and, like, the polar vortex.

T-Dot is emblematic of the craziness that has transpired in last 100 hours of the most inspired basketball this season.

There have been three overtime games in the last three days of the playoffs—two of which ended on the last possession. Of the 13 games played this post-season, five finished within a five point scoring differential. Four of the five matchups that have played two games have split, and five of eight top-flight seeds have already lost home court advantage.

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Sport’s obvious limits are what draw us to it.

Life is messy. Between work, school, families and what have you, the relationships within and without come with an unmitigated set of motions, motives and reactions.

In basketball (as in every sport ever) there are actual lines that frame the boundaries of the game. These lines are guidance. They represent, within them, where and how to move, provoke or deter motives and test one’s reactions. It projects the illusion of order. Well-played basketball is an exercise in ordering the chaos.

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The San Antonio Spurs have come the closest of current teams to have mastered the playoff chaos.

They will beat the Dallas Mavericks in 5. There’s a pretty good likelihood they’ll be pulling out the dustpan next Monday, but Dirk Nowitzki has a rare kind of playoff magic that’s itching to flare up in one final burst of glory. That Greg Popovich and his Spurs have been so good for so long they are only now shedding the yoke of being “boring” is the price of excellence.

The Los Angeles Clippers (to an indescribably lesser extent) have shown flashes of being boring this post season as well. Last night’s 40-point victory over the Warriors was utterly mind-numbing. And if we’re being honest there were moments (Blake Griffin’s 19 minutes and 14 seconds, specifically) in game one—despite the loss—that were pretty dreary too.

(That might be first time Blake Griffin’s involvement in any basketball related event was called boring. Sorry, Blake.)

The Miami Heat-Charlotte Bobcats series is also boring, especially with esteemed maestro of the low block Al Jefferson out or questionable. Like Carl Sandburg once wrote about life the first round of the NBA Playoffs being an onion: sometimes you sweep.

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The great irony in our demand for order is that we crave chaos. Primal. Carnal. Basic. The universe in its resting state. Chaos.

Here enters the Game—what some call the human element. Unpredictable. Primal. Carnal. Basic.

Above the guiding lines of the hardwood, an infinitely unfolding series of events is playing out—all related, yet largely independent of one another. And as the clock winds down, we hold our breath while crowds hum waiting for that perfectly distilled moment of chaos that defies the relentlessly constant limits of the court.

CHAOS REIGNS SUPREME:

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In the competitive series—of which there are six (Pacers-Hawks, Rockets-Blazers, Bulls-Wizards, Clippers-Warriors, Raptors-Nets, Supersonics-Grizzlies)—there are great basketball games being played. The three overtime games thus far have come from this pool of matchups. In each OT game, the home team has lost. Beware the OT-fenokee swamp.

RipCity’s Lamarcus Alrdridge has had the best game of the postseason, leading PDX to victory with 46-18 on 17/31 shooting in overtime, despite fouling out late in OT. LMA has a clear size advantage on the Rockets. Fronting LMA with Houston’s center leaves Robin Lopez to operate on smaller players, which was okay in game one (6-8 on 2/7 shooting) but will prove problematic over the course of a series.

The Bulls-Wizards OT game last night also came down to the wire. Unfortunately, the Bulls just don’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Wiz who zip the ball around well. Nenê looks like an All-star, and the Bulls looked tired in the end, scoring only six points in the last 11 minutes of regulation and overtime. The Bulls are the only team in the NBA that had five players average 29 or more minutes a game during the regular season (not including Luol Deng and Derrick Rose, who logged 37.4 and 31.1 mpg in 23 and 10 games, respectively). Jimmy Butler is averaging 48.5 minutes a game in the playoffs. He’s young. It’s only two games. BUT THERE ARE ONLY 48 MINUTES IN A BASKETBALL GAME! And he averaged 39 mpg during the regular season to boot!

The OKC SuperSonics were a .gif making machine Monday night–unfortunately for them, in a losing effort. The OKC-Memphis matchup is battle of styles. If Tony Allen can keep Kevin Durant to an honest less than .500 field goal percentage, and the rest of the team stays at par on D, we might have ourselves a real live upset. Grit and size win. But at least we’ll always have these:

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There is another layer of chaos v. limits (there are always more layers of chaos).

It’s the limits of the Game. Not simply the boundaries, but the physical limit of humans. In cliché, this is “leaving it all on the floor.”

I don’t know what that looks like for me. And for the plebeian 99.9% of us—the non-professional-athlete humans on this earth—our lives do not rely on the physically observable skill of athleticism (luckily for me).

Watching KD do this:

is, in fact, witnessing a human being reach the limit of his ability, aspiration and everything that makes him human.

The sheer joy (and anxiety) of watching someone else, all at once, transcend limits and embody chaos simultaneously—that is the thrill of sport.

The Mariners’ bullpen situation examined through a lens of misery

New and exciting way to quantify Mariners losses for the diehard fan!

Lock a loaded pistol into your nightstand or any such desk that has a locking drawer in it.

Take the key. Lose it intentionally. Perhaps give it to a friend to hide. Perhaps lose it in a river. Throw it into the ocean. Tie it to a piece of bread, feed it to a duck and then scare the duck away. Feed it to Anna Paquin and have her construct some sort of homemade dirigible to guide a herd of geese into the southern hemisphere. She loses her father in the process, but gains an experience and an adventure that is timeless, classic. Jeff Daniels. Deff Janiels.

I don’t actually remember if her dad dies in that movie, but they are flying Ultralights. Ultralights are a death sentence. Thus, they both died in that movie.

I’m in love with a stripper.

Once the key is thoroughly lost, a friend or other observer be they psychiatrist, truant or parole officer, can gauge the Mariners’ success (read: failure) by the number of claw marks left near the handle of the drawer in which the pistol (representative of the sweet release of the NFL season) is locked.

Experiment end.

Since my fingernails are all filled up with splinters typing is kind of hard.

The Mariners have suffered through what is the first, but will not be the last, prolonged stretch of ineptitude in the long, long MLB season. Yesterday the Mariners brought up a guy who struggled mightily in a starting role in Brandon Maurer.

Maurer was already well on his way to being transitioned into a reliever. They brought him up, not fully stretched out, in a starting role. He proceeded in delivering 4+ solid innings in which he surrendered 1 ER, walked 2, struck out 4, and generally looked solid all around. Maurer looked to be throwing free and easy, his fastball touching 97 on multiple occasions with some great late movement. He kept the ball out of the middle of the plate, thusly limiting the hard contact that made him suck last year. His changeup looked far better than the minus offering we saw in his starting appearances last year. Basically, his performance was everything the Mariners could have asked for. He left the game with a lead and the Mariners’ bullpen merely had to come in and seal the deal.

Unfortunately, this bullpen is tired. And this bullpen is kind of bad. The walking of the bulls.

What even is this?

McClendon initially brought in Joe Beimel who took care of his batter in short order.

Then McClendon brought in short person and relief pitcher extraordinaire Danny Farquhar, who walked a batter but otherwise got out of his inning with a relatively minimal dose of drama.

Then the Furbush arrived. And in this case, the carpet totally matched the pubes as Furbush proceeded to issue a hit to one of the two batters he faced, leaving a guy-on-second-fire to be put out by…

…Tom Wilhelmsen, the bartender. Alcohol is flammable. Alcohol is also inflammable.

I am generally against bringing Wilhelmsen into the game in most situations. I am categorically against bringing him in for high leverage situations in which a runner is already on second and the Mariners are clinging like Leonardo DiCaprio to a one run lead.

The Bartender is broken. There is no doubt to this. The guy goes 3-0 to every batter he faces. The stuff is still there, but his mind just is not right and has not been since the beginning of last year when he was more or less untouchable.

As a Mariners fan, it is one thing to lose a few games to a team that is objectively shitty. It is another thing entirely to go out and blow leads over and over in the 8th inning to said teams. The offense is one thing. The Mariners have not scored that many runs. But still, playoff teams win games where they take leads into the 8th. Winning teams win games that are winnable. What a stupid fucking sentence!

The best course of action for the Mariners is to continue to dip into a deep farm system for help. That help is there. The help is named Carson Smith.

Can I help? I am The Help. Who helps The Help? The Illuminati.

Similar to Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, Carson Smith and Dominic Leone are two guys who I have always imagined as being super best pals. This is probably because they were linked in terms of both their Major League expectations as well as their timetables. Leone is up, pitching in the Mariners’ bullpen and doing a solid job thus far. Carson Smith has spent limited time in AAA but, in the past 2 seasons has posted a better-than 11 K/9 rate with stuff that projects as ready for a Major League bullpen ASAP Rocky.

So please Mariners. Stop putting out bushfires with alcohol. All of my fingernails and 1 of my toenails are already embedded into a wooden drawer in my apartment. Scrabbling at locked doors is hard to do with your feet. Don’t send help (to me, that is). Do bring up Carson Smith though. That would be an excellent idea!

Last night the Eastern Conference Playoffs got sexy. That’s right. Sexy.

Dujie continues his weird thing with evangelizing the Eastern Conference. We’ll do something on the West soon, but they, like, play real basketball over there, so it takes us a bit longer.

Last night marked the conclusion of another fantastical, probably overdrawn, NBA season. I’m probably still in denial. I tried turning on League Pass today, and the Xbox told me to get a life.

A lot has changed in the last week. Somehow, from the fecal mess that is the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference, events far greater than man have yielded first-round playoff matchups that are not simply “not bad.” Upon closer examination, they’re actually interesting! Have compelling narratives! And nuanced matchups! Olé!

East 18Indiana v. Atlanta

Whiffs of 8-1 upset here. The Hawks’ stock is rising, having won 7 of their last ten. While the Pacers stock has struggled in the home stretch.

We have no idea which Pacers team shows up this weekend. If it’s the November Pacers, it’s a sweep. But most likely, they’ll still be showing cracks, giving the Dirty Birds a shining sliver of hope.

This season’s Hawks have, at moments more frequent with a healthy Al Horford, shown flashes of something special on offense. They have the personnel to space the floor, the IQ to move the ball and one mean Popovich Padawan at the helm. The Dirty Birds are also going into the playoffs shooting and passing the ball as well as they have all season—top 5 in both categories over the last ten games. It’ll be up to the Pacers to live up to their own hype, make stops and not implode. They absolutely have the defensive ability to do it. Hopefully they can cobble together enough of an offense to get them by.

The Indiana-Atlanta series features some great matchups: Voegell v. Budenholzer. Offense v. Defense. David West v. Paul Milsap, two of the best true PF in the East. Playmaking wings v. 3s and Ds wings. White basketball haven v. one of the blackest cities in America.

The one I’ll be watching most closely: Pero Antic v. Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert’s greatest asset—and right now, only real asset—is mucking up offenses by clogging the lane. Antic’s ability to reliably shoot the three forces Hibbert out of defensive position. At that point, not only is your boy Roy totally uncomfortable on the perimeter, but the change in scheme butterfly effects the whole team, disrupting all the defensive rotation flow the team has spent the last 18 months making second nature. In fact, this phenomena has played out in the regular season to mixed results. In two losses (85-89 @Atl and 90-108 @Ind), Antic found individual success, scored 34 points on 6 for 10 from the three point line. More disturbingly, the Jeff Teague-Kyle Korver-Demarre Carroll-Paul Millsap-Antic lineup has outscored the Pacers an average of 14.5 points in the +/- differential.

Those losses also came before the Indy implosion. Foreboding stuff.

Indiana in 7.

east 27Miami v. Charlotte

Somehow, miraculously, mercifully, we don’t have to plod through an Indiana-Charlotte series. I’m certain His Eminence Adam Silver is still thanking God, prostrated in a corner somewhere reciting his bajillionth Hail Mary.

Of course Miami’s going to win this one. BUT. The point guard and center positions are still their weak links, and Charlotte’s strongest. Kemba Walker can moonwalk all over Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.

I don’t buy the Chris-Bosh-is-a-center-now snake oil Spoelstra’s been peddling for awhile, and Al Jefferson is a maestro on the low block, averaging just a tick over 25 pts and 15 reb against the Fiery Balls. Most likely, they’ll try the Bosh thing, see it isn’t working, then bring out the big swinging, um, guns.

HOLY SHIT GUYS, GREG ODEN IS PROBABLY GONNA PLAY IN HIS FIRST PLAYOFF GAME EVER! Watching him will be a weird combination of pent-up joy and anxious anticipation of when his femur will crumble into dust. Fuck it. 20-17-4.5. I’m calling it. Your NBA Finals MVP, ladies and gentlemen, Greg Oden!

Miami in 5.

eaast 36Toronto v. Brooklyn

The big international mystery. This may prove to be the most entertaining, or the most uninspired of the first round matchups. Wait I forgot, the Bobcats are in this and they’re playing the back-to-back-champions.

Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that my Phoenix Super-Suns-ics (why are they my Super-Suns-ics? I promise I’ll get to it once I have fully processed my grief) had the same 48-win record as the third-seed in the East, but those guys will be watching these games from home. His Eminence Adam Silver, please fix.

This is a good team matchup. Both teams are deliberate on offense (78-82 fga/gm), team-defense minded (7th and 11th in oppg) and have individual players worth watching if for the entertainment value alone (PSYCHO T ALERT!). Both Toronto and Brooklyn are coming into the playoffs bringing the mojo. The Raps have won 9 of their last 12, while the Nets are coming of a 12-4 March. Brooklyn plays much better at home, so if they can snag one in in Oh, Canada, it’s upset city in BK.

Kevin Garnet is back, and it’s the playoffs. He’s liable to do some crazy shit. I’m pretty excited to see him guard Jonas “I’M OPEN, I’M OPEN, DAMMIT I’M OPEN” Valanciunas. KG thrives on  camping out in people’s domespace, and generaally being one of the scariest dudes in the NBA, and Jonas is, well, kinda pretty,  European and wide-eyed.

I mean really:

jonas v KG

Also at what point is Tyler Hansborogh aka Psycho T going to try too hard, only to realize it was against KG and have another one of these moments? They play four times in a row–at least! We might have more than one moment like this! Grab the popcorn kids!

Brooklyn in 6.

east 45Chicago v. Washington

Oddly, the Washington Wizards have made the playoffs—gotta love the Eastern Conference! Odder, Chicago lost the season series 1-2.

Washington runs and guns and is more athletic than Chicago, but there isn’t a a more tough-minded team, probably in the NBA, than the Bulls. The toughest challenge for them will be to contain the Wiz’s play makers John Wall and Bradley Beal. Combined, they averaged 34.4 pts, 11 ast, 7 reb, and 3.4 stls a game in the season series. It’s a tough duo to cover with the likes of Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and Jimmy Butler. Only Butler has the foot-speed and on-ball tenacity to keep up with either of them.

The opportunity for Bulls Coach Thibodeau is at an all-time high. In shades of last year’s first round, Joakim Noah will have to summon his Samson strength to cut through the Wizards’ cast of lonely conjurers. Lots of WoW / peeing jokes to be made here. Homie don’t play dat dough.

Chicago in 7.


 

The ‘Uncanny,’ ‘Can they?’ Pacers

“[The “uncanny”] undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread.” –Sigmund Freud

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Watching the Pacers has been an exercise in exciting dread. They’re tough. Meteoric. The Dream team 2.0. They’re soft. Don’t have it. Toothless. They’re the best. Paul George has arrived. The Pacers are losing it. Floundering. A letdown. Unfocused. Ill-prepared.

Navigating the Indiana Pacers’ last ten months on the internet resembles something like freshman orientation—a self-conceived eminence, an ill-fated air of superiority, the necessary fall, even a pregnancy scare or, at least, rumors of one.

With cadres of internet universes dedicated to the voyeuristic exploits of the Indiana Pacers (not to mention the 29 other teams and the National Basketball Association’s, you know, corporate-industrial complex telling you how to feel and what to buy, man), it comes as no surprise to anyone that competing narratives exist. That story has been writ large, and is by now the norm.

The taste of metal in the back of my mouth that sometimes accompanies watching Pacers games, however, doesn’t arise as a result of the outside noise, but what’s unfolding inside the lines. What makes them truly uncanny, frightening and dreadful (not the-Bucks-taking-the-court-bad-basketball kind of dread, but the profound-starts-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach-Insidiousssss-creeps-up-invokes-night-sweats-and-the-experience-of-approaching-death-hey-Herb-Kohl-is-here-too kind of dread) is that both their brilliance and debacling exist in the same sphere; as a result, when they win games triumphantly, like their last one over OKC, it feels right—yet strange because it’s the same team that sat its starters previously, slept-walked to a two-point victory over said hapless Bucks and got thumped by Clevelend, THE CURSELIERS EVERYBODY!, two weeks prior.

Barring major changes in personnel, NBA teams aren’t supposed to experience such violent swings  in such a relatively short time.

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David West: Played strong POWER Forward basketball on 9 for 11 shooting. The consummate professional. The embodiment of this teams aspirations. He acts tough so that his teammates can get tough. Doles out wisdom on a team in desperate need of it. Of the Pacers’ ascension and subsequent poopiness:

“I don’t think we handled success the right way. As a group we didn’t feel like we had to earn it.” -David West

He flexes his pecs. He flashes his teeth. It’s cool. Histrionics as fuel.

Lance Stephenson: His fifth triple double (17 pts, 11 ast, 10 reb) to lead the league this season. Histrionics as adornment. One of the most talented players in the NBA. He is. Lightning in a bottle. Can provide enough of a charge to lift a team above its potential—in doses—but that same electric energy can and sometimes does cause raging wildfires. His ceiling: a modern-day Oscar Robinson without quite the scoring punch. His floor: JR Smith. So there’s that.

Roy Hibbert: Anchor on defense. 0 for 7 against OKC, despite good looks. He’s a black hole on offense at times. His sheer defensive presence though makes it hard put the turbulence at Hibbert’s concrete mixing truck feet. He is, however, absolutely responsible for the biggest ironic quote of the year:

“Some selfish dudes in here. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.” -Roy Hibbert

Well, we’ll probably be talking about it for another month. And if it’s an early playoff exit, for another 6 months. YAY!

George Hill: 3-2-0-0-0-0. Will the real George Hill please stand up? At least one of those 0s were for turnovers.

Paul George: Scored and rebounded well; 20-12 against OKC. As for the last three months, I can’t do better than the juxtaposition of these two graphics:

pg wings

AND…

The Bench: The B-line-up looked exceptional Sunday. Against every bench-heavy unit in the East playoffs, I’ll take C.J. Watson-Evan Turner-Paul George/Lance Stephenson-Luis Scola-Ian Mahinmi. The return of Watson is critical (20 points on 4/7 3fg), as a secondary, sometimes primary scoring option for this unit. If Watson continues to splash, it frees up ET to do what he does best—run and gun facilitating. The Scola-Mahinmi duo is a sieve on defense. But between Scola’s IQ and Mahinmi’s bouncability, they make a surprisingly competent high-low-post pairing.

I like the natural fit of this line up. They took it to OKC, and were responsible for the first “Ok, the Pacers have got this” moment after back-to-back Turner to Watson buckets.

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I meant to only touch on the key personnel, but when you’re “superstar”-less, everyone becomes important. When everyone becomes important, no one can take a night off. When more than one player takes a night off or a few weeks off, you get LKSALDFA;MBAKLUIW;ALKVM;AS a lack of coherence. When an untested team faces a lack of coherence, they question themselves. When a team questions themselves, they can’t win.

Basketball is so much about confidence—not just individually but in the team you have around you. NBA seasons are long. Intensity is required, desired and often coerced out of players just to win games.

Maybe the Pacers don’t have it. Maybe they do. Certainly, Pablo Torre, et al. were too quick to compare them to MJ and the greatest team 1996 in the history of the universe ever Bulls to exist in all times—no matter how loosely. Maybe they’ll use tonight’s game against the Magic to tune up and get right for a deep playoff run. Maybe they’ll take a collective dump on the court and hit up Disney World.

They might find a way to do both and that’s what’s so exhilaratingly frightening about them!

They’re an acid trip, and I can’t believe I’ve spent the last 80 consecutive hours thinking / plunging into sortable stats on this. This is all I have to show for it?  Man I need a new hobby.

I better post this before the Pacers mess everything up for me.

That’s right. It’s their fault.

 

Letters. Factors. Mike Zunino and why he is a player to watch moving forward

Last night the Mariners decided to do some really un-Mariners things and shake up all our increasingly pessimistic worldviews with a nice little game. Admittedly we benefited from the Rangers booting the ball around a bit in the field, but regardless anytime the Mariners are even in a position to take advantage of a team’s mistakes it is still something that qualifies as being fairly un-Mariners-like and this is no exception.

There are multiple, un-terrible storylines that can be derived from last night’s game. Some of those storylines even lend themselves to narrative leads about boats and Cuba and the steely-eyed will of a young man struggling to achieve his dream, struggling even…to survive!

Fuck that though.

I want to talk about a top 3 overall draft pick from Florida! I want to talk about Mike Zunino!

Yum!

Let’s start first with a hilarious tweet from Jeff Sullivan, formerly of Lookout Landing web-fame and un-formerly contributor to both USS Mariner and Fangraphs.

Mike Zunino tweet

As much as I am not typically disposed towards using slash lines for player evaluation, this one is so odd and hilarious and telling that it is worthy of inclusion. More or less, what this slash line tells us is that Zunino is playing exactly as he looks to be playing: unbelievably shitty most of the time until he stumbles drunkenly into a baseball at which point in time one is inclined to lean their head back and think, “This guy was drafted No. 3 overall, once.”

Zunino is a player who we have seen experience wild fluctuations in effectiveness over a reasonably small sample size.

He was rushed aggressively to the Majors, after which it was exposed that there are holes in his swing (several, in fact) that need to be addressed if he is to get on base with any degree of consistency in this league.

Counter to that negative evaluation is his extremely respectable work behind the plate, where he has proven to be a far better defensive catcher than any Mariner in recent memory whose name doesn’t rhyme with Fran Frillson.

I will avoid, for now, using pitch-framing numbers for Z. at this point. The sample size from this season is so small that any such numbers could be wickedly skewed by circumstance, umpires, etc. even more so than these numbers already are. I will have to, in the meantime, rely on scouting reports and the eye test, which Zunino consistently passes with flying colors.

Mike clearly is a mature guy who handles his business and provides great defense at a premium defensive position. Oftentimes the best judge of a catcher are the opinions of the pitchers he works with. Felix loves Zunino. Felix is the King. Zunino is his queen. Queens are the most flexible pieces on a chessboard. Catchers have to squat for a couple hours during a game. Illuminati.

The defensive qualities being what they are– what really separates Zunino from his peers is his raw talent, particularly when it comes to the bat.

Mike Zunino’s swing isn’t particularly sexy. It reminds me a lot of Brett Boone’s steroid-hack, intended to convert as much corned beef into bat-speed as humanly possible and do so based on educated guesses at where the baseball probably is. This is obviously not an exact science and has been exposed as such. But, that isn’t to say there is no value in this approach, if at least Z. shows some willingness to improve his strike zone recognition as he matures. The dude is only 23 years old.

Let’s talk for a second about x-factors.

I only trust people after seeing a quarter of the surface area of their throats. Dude on the left babysits my kids. Dude on the right is my secret keeper.

Referring to professional athletes as X-factors is often the faculty of concussion-stricken NFL analysts talking about Darren Sproles. It can function as an excuse to elevate a player with a unique and limited skillset to a position of great supposed importance in order to sidestep boring people by talking only about those players who would almost certainly make a larger and more predictable impact.

X-factors are often discussed in the way they are because of their volatility. These are players that do one or two things extremely well. Boom or bust. Sometimes they suck, sometimes they suck much less.

The boom or bust label actually extends to the perception of the analyst as well. When an analyst proclaims some B-list player to be an x-factor he is taking a calculated gamble whose reward is an “I told you so” to his colleagues and a hopefully meteoric rise in his audience’s perception of him as a clever, insightful guy. There is no such gain in applying that term to a Robinson Cano type. There’s little risk and less reward. An X-factor is a surprise, is volatile, much excite, wow.

I am legion

All that being said, this hearkens back to an earlier post in which I equated production from Cano with an improvement to the team’s baseline (read: expected) production. Robinson Cano comes into a game and consistently does what he does. If you had a team filled with players exactly like Cano, then that team would be consistently spectacular. Nobody has a team filled with players exactly like Cano. That would be fucking stupid.

What we have instead are teams whose secondary parts bridge the gap from the baseline provided by consistently outstanding performers to the peak that only comes as result of a larger, concerted effort.

I think Zunino represents this bridge-from-baseline-to-peak x-factor perfectly. Mike Zunino has had several forgettable games in a Mariners’ uniform. He has had a few forgettable games already this year. But Mike Zunino is a guy who will win a team games over the course of the year because of the surprising value he can add on a good night, as well as the fact that he has his own baseline of efficacy that is represented by his consistently solid defense.

Most catchers are not huge offensive contributors. When a catcher is an offensive threat, you end up with teams like the Giants. The Giants’ lineup has been pretty lame the past couple of years. They have, however, been pretty lame with the benefit of also having the best offensive catcher in baseball. A league average contributor in a corner outfield position is still an offensive contributor (the swing is upwards of .60 OPS, on average). A league average catcher can often be an offensive black hole. By virtue of this, a team whose catcher periodically explodes for effective, productive nights adds a good deal of value over what another team is throwing out there. A team with a consistently outstanding offensive catcher can win World Series Titles with some real bullshit filling out the rest of the lineup (read: hunterfuckingpence)

Did somebody say, kids?!

Last night, Mike Zunino crushed a HR to deep center to snap a scoreless streak for the Mariners which had become longer than I care to recall or count. His counterpart, J.P. Arencibia, was 0 for 2 and was pulled from the game for a pinch-hitter. If Zunino sucks tomorrow, and Arencibia remains predictably meh, then it is a wash. If Zunino has another outstanding AB or 2 tomorrow then the Mariners are at a distinct advantage.

For those games where Zunino is a valuable contributor, you just added a bat at a position that your opponent is often lacking. While this won’t always be the case, with the odd Mauers and Poseys floating around, there is a good chance that there will be nights where Zunino’s offense is the bonus dragging the Mariners from victory to defeat.

The X-factor.

Or Z-factor.

I’ll go fuck myself now.

Mariners open game thread – 04/11/2014

Happy Felix day everybody.

For the first time this season, Felix Hernandez takes the mound at Safeco against the fucking A’s and Tommy Millone.

As it is Felix’s first game of the season, a special “Supreme Court” crowd has been marshalled. I myself will be in attendance, clad in a golden t-shirt trading the deed to my car for 3 Coors Light aluminum bottles. You know, the ones that are so fucking cold that you have to pry your frostbitten tongue out of the top like you were just performing cunnilingus on the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia .

Nightmare-zone

Felix has been absolutely dominant since giving up that dinger to Trout on opening night. He struck out 11 Angels in that outing. In his subsequent outing he proceeded in steamrolling the A’s to the cacophonous tune of what sounded suspiciously like a rape-whistle giveaway night, which, even if an accident speaks volumes to the differences between our two fair cities. Macklemore bobblehead night, here we come.

 

Mlb.com preview here.

Comment, share, and such.

 

Ode to the Old, Unheralded and Ollie

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” –John Wooden

 

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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At the start of any pick-up game, there’s a certain deference afforded to the most grizzled and greyed ballers. Cut from years of asphalt-pounding and hardwood-hounding, he purports himself with a Zen-like ease. His aura is easy to spot. He’s usually sporting a now-irrelevant pop culture shirt—cutoffs—that outdates half the players on the court, a model of Converse sneakers no longer in production and always multiple braces on any assortment of joints.

(This one’s for him.)

During warm-up shots, no one imagines that he could ever be the best player on the court. Still, everyone remains wary. As if the force of his sheer age had already bent the outcome of the games in his favor.

Naturally, as games wear on, roles are extemporaneously defined. Cream rises. Mediocrity sinks. He—neither oil nor water—buoys. Et cetera, et cetera.

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In the current era of analytics-driven free agent and rookie signings, one of Sam Presti’s most important moves for the Oklahoma City Supersonics was signing then 36 year old veteran point guard Kevin Ollie. Yes, that Kevin Ollie.

That Kevin Ollie who spent the first two years of his professional basketball career in the CBA. That Kevin Ollie who bounced around 12 teams in 13 seasons. That Kevin Ollie who averaged an unimpressive 3.8 points and 2.3 assists in 15.6 minutes per game over the course of his illustrious career. That Kevin Ollie that coached his ass off and led his Hungry Huskies on a historic NCAA title run this past Monday over Sith Coach Calipari and his Wistful Wildcats.

Few have led as storied and unheralded a career as Kevin Ollie. From side-kick status and obscurity, Ollie has ascended, seemingly meteorically, to the highest order of the basketball universe. How did a point guard who could have easily never made it to the NBA—whose greatest asset was due entirely to his longevity—arrive at the pinnacle of pro sports?

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Experience wins. Not just games but titles. It is the reason San Antonio came a Jesus Shuttlesworth dagger away from winning it all last year. Dallas beat the Heat in 2011 because of it. And though their playoff run was underwhelming, the oldest team in NBA history (32.7) posted a 54-win season last year.

Look at the six oldest teams in the NBA at the start of the season (per HispanosNBA):

ages2

Each of these teams is making the playoffs. Even more telling, all of these teams are either contenders or very undesirable matchups. Their tenacity, teamwork and willingness to help defend cover up what weaknesses they do have. With the exception of Brooklyn (which, as a team, has had the least amount of time to gel), all have established cultures of expectations—each a variation on the sum being greater than their parts.

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It’s probably a little misguided to lay the Oklahoma City Supersonics’ success entirely at Ollie’s feet. It probably has more to do with The Other Kevin’s ridiculous 32 points per game average this season, or Russell Westbrook’s improbable transformation from UCLA backup to a top-10 NBA player on both sides of the court.

Still, in an interview with Bill Simmons back in February, Kevin Durant cited Ollie’s influence as laying the foundation for his and the OKC Supersonics’ success (it should also be noted that that the 1 year Ollie spent with OKC was the first year KD made it to the playoffs…):

“[Kevin Ollie] was a game-changer for us. He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. Just his mind-set, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that and we wanted to be like that. It rubbed off on Russell, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden — and everyone that comes through now, that’s the standard you got to live up to, as a Thunder player, and it all started with Kevin Ollie.”

 

It all started with Kevin Ollie.

Ollie made it to the Elite 8 in 1995 and became a Sonic great with Ray Allen in 2003. He made it to the 2001 NBA Finals alongside, and later was playoff-stymied with Allen Iverson. In 2003, the Cleveland Curseliers signed Ollie to his first major contract—nearly $2.5 million (per Basketball-Reference.com)—for the expressed purpose of teaching newly-minted rookie Lebron James how to be a professional. Add Andre Iguodala’s first few seasons with the 76ers and a year with Kevin Love in Minnesota before his swan song with Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka, and suddenly you have Ollie intersecting with 9 of the 20-25 best players in the last two decades—mostly in the formative years of their careers.

No basketball head can say it with a straight face. Kevin Durant alluded to it. But Kevin Ollie just might be one the most influential basketball players of the past 20 years.

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While the everyday fan might not see it, the GMs and coaches in the NBA recognize the value of veteran leadership. Code words: glue guys, an important voice and (my personal favorite) locker room presence.

This year’s trade deadline was roundly seen as uninspired. It was.

Lost in the fury of the silence though were important moves by the Washington Wizards and the Golden State Warriors to snag Andre Miller and Steve Blake, respectively. Miller is 38. Blake is 34. Look at the winning percentage disparities before and after the trades were made:

ode to the old_was gs pre post trade

Both teams certainly needed to bolster their benches and upgrade their unfortunate backup point guard situation. Miller and Blake solve those problems. They aren’t household names by any stretch of the imagination, but both are savvy, play within themselves, aren’t matadors on defense and manage games exceptionally well. Most importantly, their locker room presence will provide stability to two young teams come playoff time.

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Old man game it’s called. Old man game is not age specific. Old man game is not spectacular. Old man game doesn’t even require any real athleticism. Old man game relies on court awareness, aims to minimize mental lapses and takes nothing off the table. Though practitioners of the old man game excel at nothing, they have the most coveted of skills in all the sports realms—the intangibles.

Sure they might try hard, pass the ball well, have good hand-eye coordination or even shoot the midrange jumper at a shockingly high percentage, but the precise source of his knack for basketball is undefined. If anything, it is the irregular confluence of that player’s unique skills—or lack thereof.

Basketball is a continuum of interdependent events with each player’s actions and reactions—a screen, a cut, staying out in the corner—affecting floor-spacing and the way opponents defend. The old, the unheralded, Kevin Ollie and others like him know that each possession is an unfolding of those events and know how to define and exist within their role as actors within each event. Perhaps most critically, they understand that the manipulation of those events happen on a plane far above the hardwood.

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