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Monopoly Money


Taking a look at what Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey and Mike Trout could fetch in free agency… someday.

@BreakTheHuddle

Ted Turner

“Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country,
and we’re f—— it up.” -Ted Turner, 1995. The quote hardly applies anymore – in the two decades since then, baseball has practically starting printing money.

Two weeks ago, I detailed my disdain for the absurd contracts being demanded by (and given to) starting pitchers. My poster child for this madness, Anibal Sanchez, referred to a $48 million, 4 year contract offer from the Tigers this week as “an insult,” meaning we live in a world where a mundane, mediocre pitcher can thumb his nose at a $12 million annual salary.

Baseball’s booming economy doesn’t just benefit those who lace it up every fifth day, however; position players are also reaping the benefits of the current cash grab in baseball. B.J. Upton and Mike Napoli, far from “superstar” free agents, have already inked multi-year deals that will pay them eight figures annually (more on them later). Russell Martin, who hit .211 last season, and Melky Cabrera, who was busted for PEDs and missed the Giants’ entire postseason run, both earned two-year contracts worth at least $8 million per season. Even the aging Torii Hunter (he’ll be 38 in July) signed a 2 year, $26 million agreement with the aforementioned Detroit Tigers.

Fox_sports_west

This network is going to pay close to half a billion dollars PER YEAR to air Angels’ and Dodgers’ games.

The driving force behind the monster contracts is television money, a factor that is finally being reported on and explored to its fullest implications. The New York Yankees raised eyebrows back in 2002 when the partially team-owned YES Network hit the airwaves. Television revenue was discussed, briefly, last winter, when the Angels spent over $300 million in one day on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They were able to do so thanks, in large part, to the $2.5 billion, 17 year broadcast rights deal it struck with Fox Sports West.

Other than that, it has been the draconian method for some franchises to make ungodly sums of money, and others to merely reap small fortunes.  But it’s now understood by most people who follow the game closely that television deals will shape baseball’s next century – having a lucrative agreement will afford certain teams privileges that other teams simply won’t possess. The Dodgers, for instance, are putting the finishing touches on a $6 – $7 billion, 25 year agreement (also with Fox Sports West) which will bring in between $240 and $280 million, annually, to the franchise. By comparison, the Tigers receive $40 million per season from Fox Sports Detroit, and will continue to do so until 2017. The Twins are locked in at $29 million, and the Indians at $30 million, for the foreseeable future.[i]

That infusion of capital into franchises allows for salaries to skyrocket; we are seeing the beginning of this new reality in baseball. The value of 28 of the 30 MLB franchises increased in 2011[ii], which is unparalleled growth in the sports industry… especially when as many as a dozen NBA teams and two dozen NHL teams are hemorrhaging money. The NFL pools its national television money together and has a hard-and-fast, restrictive salary cap – Major League Baseball franchises are unencumbered by such nuisances. Each team is its own autonomous entity, so to speak, and the “luxury tax” hasn’t proven itself to be all that prohibitive to spending.

Because of the hard work of Marvin Miller (pictured below), the real beneficiaries of all this are the players. Baseball has the strongest players association in sports, and maybe the most powerful union in the history of the world.[iii] Unrestricted by any salary cap, teams can spend themselves into contention (or into a laughingstock, if they aren’t careful) without hesitation. It’s not the most popular sport in America, but it is, for damn sure, its most profitable.

Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller (1917-2012) is not in the Hall of Fame, and Phil Rizzuto is. If you find a more eloquent example of why the Baseball Writers Association of America is a joke, let me know.

The burgeoning salary demands of mediocre players, coupled with the evolving economic realities of the sport of baseball, got me thinking: what would some of today’s best young players fetch on the open market?

The test group for this silly experiment will be: Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout. I tried to find the best comparable players and contracts available. Though a lot could change between now and 2016 and 2017 (when those guys could be free agents[iv]), here’s one thing I’d bet on: all three will get paid a lot of money, whether through extensions with their current teams, or a free agent deal from a new one.

How much money? Let’s see…

 

Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants, Game 3Buster Posey

San Francisco Giants

Position: Catcher / First Base

Born: 3/27/1987

Free Agent: After 2016 season, when he’ll be 29 years old.

Posey has two World Series rings already, which isn’t too bad for a 25 year old. He also has a Rookie of the Year, a Batting Title and an MVP trophy. The fifth overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, Posey has been sensational from the beginning, a true franchise cornerstone in the Bay Area. The Giants are delighted at his production, as well as delighted at the fact that he is under team control for the next four seasons, and won’t hit the open market until October of 2016.

Here is how he stacks up against 31 year old Mike Napoli, another Catcher / First Baseman, who recently signed a 3 year, $39 million deal with the Boston Red Sox.

Batting

Line Splits

HR

RBI

GMS

SO

WAR

Napoli

(10-12)

.261 / .355 / .520

.875 OPS

80

(27)

199

(66)

361

(120)

347

(116)

8.4

Posey

(career)

.317 / .384 / .509

.893 OPS

46

(15)

191

(64)

301

(300)

181

(60)

12.2

 

Fielding

As C

As C

As 1B

As 1B

Napoli

(10-12)

Starts:

185

CS %:

2010: 23%

2011: 36%

2012: 21%

Starts:

118

UZR:

2010: 1.8

2011: -1.4

2012: -3.0

Posey

(career)

Starts:

227

CS %:

2010: 37%

2011: 36%

2012: 33%

Starts:

61

UZR:

2010: -1.0

2011: 0.7

2012: 1.0

 

Napoli has appeared in more games the past three seasons, but is by no means more durable; he’s  appeared in 140 games in a season one time, and averages 104 games per season for his career. He routinely battles minor injury concerns. Posey, on the other hand, broke his leg on a freak play at home plate, which caused him to miss most of the 2011 campaign – other than that, he’s been mostly healthy.

Posey doesn’t hit for the power Napoli does, but still possesses the better OPS and WAR. He’s also shown himself to be a more capable defender at first base when the team puts him there to keep his bat in the lineup on days he isn’t catching. It should be noted that Posey is also a better backstop than Napoli by just about every advanced metric.

Mike Napoli, at 31, is past the statistical “prime” of his career, or at least, the prime of most ballplayers’ careers. Time will tell if he ages well, but given his body type and injury history, it’s far from a safe bet. He’s an average to below-average defender and only does two things really well – he hits for power, and he draws walks.

Despite all this, he got $13 million per season. Four years from now, Posey will be standing in Napoli’s shoes, only he’ll be two years younger, far more recognizable (due to his postseason success) and a more suitable candidate for a switch to a full-time first baseman.

So, how much will he get?

My guess: 8 years, $225 million.

Let me explain:

Maybe Mike Napoli was the wrong comparison, but I did it to make a point. The obvious comparable player is Joe Mauer, who got a $184 million, 8 year deal at the age of 27. Mauer’s been objectively worse at the plate (OPS: .836) and in the field (thrown out 22% of base stealers since 2010) than Posey over the last three seasons, so if Posey continues producing at his current rate, expect him to get a better contract than Mauer did.

Couple Posey’s production with his winning pedigree, and simple inflation, and $28 million per season doesn’t sound outside of the realm of possibility.

 

StantonGiancarlo Stanton

Miami Marlins

Position: Outfield

Born: 11/8/1989

Free Agent: After 2016 season, when he’ll be 27 years old.

Stanton is the last remaining good player with the Miami Marlins franchise, but he could be on the move this week. Apparently, he’s voiced his frustration over the team’s latest firesale; it’s tough to fault him for that. He’s as competitive as they come, and his considerable talent would be wasted on a penny-pinching, cellar-dwelling team. Standing 6’5 and weighing in at 245 pounds, he was recruited to play football at UCLA and UNLV out of high school, but opted instead to turn pro. He quickly ascended through the Marlins minor league system and made his debut in 2010. All he’s done since is hit tape-measure home runs.

Also standing 6’5, at a slightly smaller 225 pounds, is Stanton’s divisional rival, Jayson Werth. After the 2010 season, and already 31 years old, Werth signed a 7 year, $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals. Like Stanton, he was drafted early, straight out of high school, and comes from an uner-athletic family. Unlike Stanton, who shot through the minor leagues, Werth worked his way up slowly, becoming a full-time starter for the first time at age 29.

Here’s how their numbers compare:

Batting:

Line Splits

HR

RBI

GMS

SO

SB

WAR

Werth

(08-10)

.279 / .376 / .513

.889 OPS

87

(29)

251

(84)

449

(150)

422

(141)

53

(18)

15.5

Stanton

(career)

.270 / .350 / .553

.903 OPS

93

(31)

232

(77)

373

(124)

432

(144)

16

(5)

13.1

 

Fielding:

Starts

UZR

Runs Saved

Werth (08-10)

405 (347 in RF)

2010: 17.7

2011: 4.2

2012: -7.5

2010: 7

2011: 2

2012: -5

Stanton

(career)

353 (all in RF)

2010: 12.6

2011: 3.5

2012: 11.7

2010: 13

2011: 3

2012: 10

 

Werth was durable in the three seasons leading up to his new deal, though he wasn’t beforehand (a high of 102 games played, plus an entire lost season in 2006) and hasn’t been since (missed 81 games in 2012). Stanton was called up midway through the 2010 season and dealt with injuries in 2012 – but would hardly qualify as injury-prone. Stanton’s prowess in the field atones for his middling ability to draw walks, as well as his so-so speed. Both guys strike out a lot.

Similar enough in nature, both Stanton and Werth are primarily power hitters – only Stanton will be hitting the market at a much younger age (27, entering his prime) than Werth (who was 31 and coming out of it) did. Stanton’s had minor injury troubles, and those could persist and knock down his value a bit, but consider this: Jayson Werth had missed an entire season due to wrist trouble (2006) and had only topped 150 games twice in 9 big league seasons, but still got $126 million. Stanton’s a better fielder, has the potential to be a bigger draw at the box office, and will be entering his best statistical years.

So how much will he get?

My guess: 9 years, $250 million

Let me explain:

Stanton is better than Jayson Werth. He’s from southern California, and two of baseball’s richest teams (the Angels and Dodgers) reside there. They’ll both be well into their multi-billion dollar television deals by November / December, 2016. He’ll still be young, they’ll still be rich, and with the way the salaries are inflating, why wouldn’t he nab around $28 million annually, much like Buster Posey?

 

TroutMike Trout

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Position: Outfield

Born: 8/7/1991

Free Agent: After the 2017 season, when he’ll be 26 years old.

I couldn’t bring myself to be rational enough, for a long enough period of time, to write an entire post about the American League MVP race. So instead, I summarize my feelings in one paragraph:

Mike Trout was the best player in baseball in 2012. His team missed the playoffs, but won more ballgames than the team with the other “viable” candidate, Miguel Cabrera, whose Detroit Tigers capitalized on a putrid division to earn a playoff berth. Mike Trout was one of the best defensive players in the sport in 2012. All the advanced metrics, as well as the “eye test”, bear that out. Trout’s offensive output (.963 OPS) was slightly lower than Cabrera’s (.999 OPS), but Trout stole 49 bases to Cabrera’s 4. In short: Trout excelled at three phases of baseball (hitting, base running, fielding), and Cabrera excelled at one (hitting).

Does that tell you enough about Mike Trout? He did everything mentioned in the previous paragraph at the tender age of 20. Taken with the 25th pick overall in the 2009 amateur draft, he shot through the Angels organization and made his big league debut in 2011, where he looked a bit overwhelmed. After beginning last year in the minor leagues, he was promoted on April 28th and never looked back.

B.J. Upton was also a big leaguer at the age of 19, way back in 2004. He spent 8 seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, never quite putting together his considerable athletic skill set. Last week, he signed a 5 year, $75 million free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves.

Here are Upton’s numbers the past three seasons:

Batting:

Line Splits

HR

RBI

GMS

SO

SB

WAR

Upton

(10-12)

.242 / .317 / .446

.753 OPS

69

(23)

221

(74)

453

(151)

494

(165)

109

(36)

11.5

 

Here is Trout’s 2012 production:

Batting:

Line Splits

HR

RBI

GMS

SO

SB

WAR

Trout

(2012)

.326 / .399 /.564

.963 OPS

30

83

139

139

49

 

10.8

 

And the fielding comparison:

Fielding

Starts

UZR

Runs Saved

Upton (10-12)

438 (all in CF)

2010: 1.4

2011: 1.4

2012: -2.4

2010: -19

2011: -7

2012: -4

Trout

(2012)

131 (CF, mostly)

2012: 11.7

2012: 21

It’s hard to say what Trout’s production will be in the coming years. Maybe he’ll deal with injuries. Maybe advanced scouts will pick up on tendencies and that will enable opposing pitchers to slow him down a bit. Trout does strike out at a relatively high rate, and his plate discipline is average at best. That said – if he’s a .290/.350/.500 hitter, with 25 home runs and 40 stolen bases over the next five seasons, that’s still okay. It’s better than okay, actually – it puts him in the MVP conversation on a yearly basis.

Now, add the hypothetical numbers to the real ones from Trout’s first full season, then look at B.J. Upton’s body of work. He doesn’t walk at all, strikes out once per game, has never hit for much power, steals a fair amount of bases, and has eroding defensive skills… and was still worth $15 million per season for 5 years.

So how much will he get?

My guess: 12 years, $400 million

Let me explain:

The Angels gave Albert Pujols a ten year, $240 million contract even though no one’s really sure how old he is.[v] We know that Trout was born in 1991, as hard as that is to believe. Keep in mind, also, that he plays in southern California, for one of the franchises already teeming with dough (the Angels) and a second possible suitor in his backyard (the Dodgers). Trout’s from New Jersey, so his eastern roots could bring the Yankees and Red Sox into the bidding as well.

Far-fetched? Sure. If the Angels are wise, they won’t let Trout explore Major League Baseball’s laissez-fair marketplace. And who knows what situation any of these teams will be in five years from now. But given the way the economy of baseball is moving, and the contracts already being given to players far below Trout’s caliber, why should $400 million be out of the question?

Smart spending? I have no idea. I don’t know enough about the in’s and out’s of the business model to speculate responsibly about that. What I deduce from the periphery is that the sky is the limit for player salaries. The numbers are so large, they aren’t even tangible anymore. It’s actually starting to resemble Monopoly money, to tell you the truth.

Monopoly Money

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[i] Want all the figures? Check out this incredible article from the fine people at FanGraphs: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/dodgers-send-shock-waves-through-local-tv-landscape/

 

[iii] Hyperbole? Sure. But you can’t convince me that this statement isn’t at least… in the ballpark. (Pun intended.)

[iv] Of course, all three of these guys could sign lucrative extensions before their time comes, a la Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, et al. But that would be sooooo lame…

[v] Jon Heyman and Dan Le Batard, two members of the national media, openly question and challenge Pujols’ age. Yours truly, a member of the not-so-national media, does likewise.

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Black and Blue Snooze


Examining the problems with Thursday Night Football

@BreakTheHuddle

Naturally, the week I plan on writing about how lousy the Thursday Night games are, the Thursday Night game is a good one (Falcons – Saints).

On November 30th, 2006, Cincinnati hosted Baltimore in the rebooted version of ‘Thursday Night Football.’ It was a rather ignominious start – the Bengals emerged victorious from the 13-7 clunker, a rather dull affair that featured 29 total first downs and a 6-0 halftime score. But the new reality was born. The NFL’s quest to dominate every free evening of the week had begun.

Contrary to popular belief, the NFL did not concoct the new scheduling wrinkle out of nowhere; the league has a long history of non-Thanksgiving Thursday games. From 1978-86, at least one game was played on Thursday, and in many seasons upwards of three took place. It was retired from 1987-89 but returned in 1991, with one game in Week 7 and a second one the week after Thanksgiving (most seasons).

In 2002, the NFL did away with the Thursday games save for the season opener (and Thanksgiving contests in Dallas and Detroit, of course). A year later, NFL Network was born, a cable channel owned, operated and managed by the 32 NFL ownership groups. It was a matter of time before it began broadcasting regular season games, the crème de la crème of sports programming.  In 2006, that’s precisely what happened.

Since then, games on Thursday night have increased from four (’06 and ’07) to six (’08 through ’11) to where it stands in 2012, with thirteen Thursday night games (weeks two through fifteen, with only the Thanksgiving games exempted). The league was obviously hoping to expand its brand into a new, dynamic, prime-time slot. Instead, what it’s gotten are gripes from fantasy owners, troubled with making lineup changes mid-week, pick-em league operators, forgetful of the new “early” deadline, and those without NFL Network on their cable or satellite package.

In other words, it’s been a difficult first season for the expanded lineup of Thursday Night Football. The previous trial runs (2006 through 2011) were neither lauded nor lamented; this year, however, dissonant voices are speaking up. Radio host Dan Patrick, who’s been the Lombardi Trophy presenter at the Super Bowl in recent years, spoke out in favor of getting rid of the Thursday night games altogether. Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, heavily involved with the issue of player safety for the Players’ Union, was also sharply critical of the expanded Thursday Night Football schedule, saying this:

Fujita

“I think the Thursday night game is one of the worst things you can do for a player’s body. For people who have never played football, I don’t know if they realize how tough it is to come back with three days in between games.”

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t make a solid argument, but here’s some more, just for the heck of it: the past few Thursday night games (Dolphins/Bills, Colts/Jaguars, Chargers/Chiefs) have been duds. Do the statistics bear out the premise that Thursday Night Football has been of a lower quality than the rest of the games? If so, what does this mean for the possibility of NFL scheduling creeping further and further into the work week?

The Numbers

Since the new Thursday Night scheduling system was put into place in 2006, there have been 42 true ‘Thursday Night Football’ games played. This, of course, discounts the season-opening game and the Thanksgiving contests. I made it my goal to find out if the Thursday games were of “lower quality” than the average NFL game.

When I think of a “low quality” game, I think of three things: penalties, turnovers, and garbage time – that is, sloppy play, mistakes, and blowouts. As far as high scoring games, it’s a give-and-take proposition. Some shootouts feel dull, some low-scoring games are exciting – but generally speaking, offense attracts viewers and excites fans. Given the rule changes in the NFL in recent seasons, somebody in the league office agrees with that premise.

First, let’s examine the following chart, which explores penalties and turnovers in Thursday Night games, compared with the league averages in those categories.

 

Penalties / Gm   Turnovers/ Gm  
Year

TNF

All Games

TNF

All Games
2009

11

11.8

2.5

3.4

2010

10.5

12.1

2.3

3.4

2011

12.2

12.8

3.7

3.2

2012

12.2

12.7

3.7

3.2

 

Oddly enough, participants in Thursday night contests have been flagged less often than they are on Sundays – and some years, it’s by a pretty significant margin. In 2010, for instance, there were one and a half fewer yellow flags per game on Thursdays. Without devoting time, energy and intelligence that I don’t possess to figuring out why, I can’t even begin to explain the reasons for fewer flags.

Studying the turnover differential is equally perplexing. In 2009 and 2010, there was an average of one fewer turnover per game. Now, there is half a turnover more. I hate chalking things up to pure coincidence- especially when this much research is involved – but in terms of turnovers and penalties, the Thursday night games are no more or less sloppy than Sunday or Monday night contests.

The scoring figures tell a different story, though.

 

Year NFL AVG PPG TNF PPG Difference
2009

43

38.8

-4.2

2010

44

41.7

-2.3

2011

44.4

37.2

-7.2

2012

46

37

-9

While the margins of victory don’t change much between regular weekend games and Thursday night games (fact: the average margin of victory in the NFL is approximately 12 points) the total points themselves drop significantly. This is probably because coaches barely have time to concoct new schemes or game plans, much less implement them, during a three day work week. Teams with young quarterbacks are really at a disadvantage – and as of now, more than a third of the league is starting rookies or second-year players under center. Veterans can add new wrinkles on the fly, while young guys have to stick with what they know; they are predictable, easier to stop, and thus, offense suffers.

 

What does it mean?

One prevailing theory is that the NFL would like to sell the rights to Thursday night games to a TV partner – if that’s the case, they certainly aren’t doing a very good job of showcasing themselves. The league currently draws more than $3 Billion annually from the TV networks (NBC, CBS, Fox) for the privilege of broadcasting games. Even if the Thursday night games are inferior to the rest, demand is so high that the Thursday night slate would certainly fetch upwards of $700 – $800 million on the open market.

If the NFL does not want to sell off the broadcasting rights, and instead wishes to keep the telecasts in-house on its own network, then why not get itself a better product? One idea is to have an 18 week season, with 16 games, and two bye weeks interspersed throughout. Currently, every team in the NFL is required to get at least one game in “prime-time” per season, an unusually egalitarian move for a league as profit-driven as the NFL obviously is (see: player lockout, 2011; see also: referee lockout, 2012). The Thursday night games could then be effectively managed so they come after a bye week – ten days off before a Thursday night performance, nine days off after.

Would there be a bit of a lag between games? Sure. But if the NFL is actually serious about player safety – and the jury is still out as to whether or not they are – this would go a long way towards helping matters. Perhaps the end game for the NFL is to have football on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday every week. That setup would be great for single guys, terrible for marriages, and make a lot of television money for the league.

The only problem is, under the current conditions, it’d be very difficult to make it work. Four years of evidence suggests offense is down in the Thursday games, and offense is what makes the league popular… and to be honest, Thursday Night Football just doesn’t pass the ‘eye test.’ Everyone looks tired, underprepared, and the road team is at a great disadvantage. A subjective argument such as that one is tepidly employed by yours truly, as I generally like to back my claims with research, but I believe it’s completely valid.

That said, while the games aren’t quite as good, it’s still the NFL, and the NFL is king. Expansion, heightened television exposure, game on more nights during the week – all of it’s on the table, and the reality is, all of it will be in demand. The popularity of the NFL knows no bounds.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

What Have You Done, A.J. Barker?


Legitimate gripes are nullified by their ill-advised reckoning.

@BreakTheHuddle

Sunday night, Minnesota sportswriters and media types settled in for a quiet evening. The Vikings were on a bye, the Timberwolves were in the middle of four days off, the Wild were locked out, and the Twins were not yet active in baseball’s hot stove.

Then, A.J. Barker happened.

A.J. Barker was the leading wide receiver for the Gophers’ football team, tallying 30 catches for 577 yards and 7 touchdowns in 8 games before getting injured against Purdue on October 27th. He accumulated those lofty statistics despite the fact that the disappointing Marqueis Gray and the mediocre Max Shortell were under center for 6 of his 8 contests. In other words, he was good.

He was good, past tense, because Sunday afternoon he quit the team.

He made the announcement via Twitter.

Which linked to something he wrote on Tumblr.

That “something” on Tumblr (think of it as a blog, all you un-tech-savvy folks) was a 4,000+ word… um, statement. It was titled “A Letter to Jerry Kill, Why I Quit.” I called it a “statement” because classifying it reveals a lot about what you think of Barker – some called it a “manifesto”, others a “diatribe”, still others a “scathing goodbye letter,” and finally, just “a letter.” You can read it for yourself here, if you care to do so.[i]

In summary: the statement alleges that Jerry Kill, the Gophers head coach, berated Barker in front of his teammates, made unflattering statements about Mr. Barker, questioned his commitment to the program, and followed public scorn and humiliation with an attempt at private reconciliation. In the statement, Barker calls Kill a variety of names, including “liar”, “manipulator”, and “intimidator.”

To his credit, Kill has handled the whole thing perfectly… though he probably deserves some blame for failing to know how to manage his most potent offensive weapon.

A few juicier details were also tossed in, but hardly elaborated upon: that one of the Minnesota assistant coaches called Barker a gay slur, that Jerry Kill had questioned Barker’s upbringing, and that the head coach used the fact that Barker was not a scholarship player as a stick rather than a carrot in his attempt to control the wide receiver. The disagreements stemmed, in large part, to the mis-diagnosis of a high ankle sprain and the differences of opinion between Barker, the training staff and coach Kill regarding how it should be treated.

So Barker quit. Once the shock of the news itself, and the brazen manner in which it was disseminated, wore off, instant analysis set in. It was an interesting evening to be on Twitter – general reaction was mixed, but a small majority seemed to agree that Barker’s handling of the whole situation was rather poor.

As for me, well, I’m not that smart. I don’t process things that quickly. I had no damn clue what to think. See, this story is about as nuanced as it gets in athletics –  scholarship/ financial concerns, health issues, new age sensitivities colliding with old school proclivities, social media…  there are a multitude of angles to consider in this case.

One thing I know for certain: it’s more complex than the simple certitudes of “A.J. Barker is a whiny crybaby” and “Jerry Kill is an outdated tyrant.” Those opposing viewpoints are easy to process, but belie the many facets at work. If you come down definitively on one side or the other – don’t sell yourself short. There’s a lot to learn by carefully examining all aspects of this episode.

To highlight a few:

 

Scholarships

“My father is proud to pay my tuition,” Barker writes approximately 3,000 words into his 4,147 (I checked) word statement. “I’m not looking for a hand out.” Some of the criticism of Barker centers on whether or not he deserved a scholarship. Superficially, it seems obvious – of course Barker deserved one. But since scholarships must be awarded no later than the first day of classes in a given semester, and as of that time, Barker had played in a grand total of 7 games (catching 4 passes) in two-plus seasons of eligibility, it’s understandable why he wasn’t.

1500 ESPN’s Phil Mackey was sharply critical of Barker, but his most biting critique was that Barker came across as “entitled” to a scholarship. It’s a fair enough point to make, but fails to take into account the strange world of collegiate athletics, and especially college football. Coaches at power conference schools such as Minnesota are millionaires, in charge of 115 players, 85 of whom are scholarship athletes. Among the 30 ‘walk-ons’ can be some valuable players to the program, who typically end up earning scholarships if they are productive enough.

Essentially, a millionaire can determine if a kid gets his tuition paid, or if he does not. And the millionaire is then able to use said power as a carrot, or a stick, in order to coax the best out of the player in question. Where else does a relationship as slanted as that one exist except for Division 1 college football?

Not that A.J. Barker was particularly sympathetic in this regard, either; his father paid his tuition. But perhaps the “scholarship” question was a matter of pride. If you were much better at your job than your peers, you would hope to be compensated equitably, no? And if you weren’t, you could exercise your right to leave and pursue other opportunities, yes? Barker was one of the best Gopher football players this season. College football is business – it’s the justification that’s used every time a coach weasels his way from one job to a slightly better one. Barker had a card to play – as a non-scholarship athlete, he can transfer and begin play next fall, without sitting out a year. He treated it like a business, too.

 

Evolving attitudes towards injuries

Jerry Kill attended Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, playing football there from 1979-1982. He began his career as a head coach in 1994 at Saginaw Valley State, working his way up through the coaching ranks at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before being hired at the University of Minnesota in December, 2010.

Forged in the brand of football played in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Kill has undoubtedly had to modify the tactics used on him when he was still in pads and a helmet. It’s a reality just about every football coach has had to deal with. No longer are water breaks a reward for a practice running smoothly, and players don’t get sent back on to the field after they get their “bell rung.” Neurological specialists and top-rate training staffs are present at every practice and game.

Another big loser in all this? Brevity. Barker’s 4,000 words has prompted a 2,000 word response from me. Oy, vey…

This incident is hardly a watershed moment in the evolution of football players, coaches and injury concerns, but again calls into mind certain ethical dilemmas. But as a non-scholarship athlete, doesn’t Barker have the right to seek his own treatment for sports-related injuries, if he so chooses? Perhaps utilizing and implicitly trusting the training staff is a written (or obvious unwritten) rule of collegiate sports programs; if so, is that right? Barker assumes risk by playing football, of course, but since the University has nothing invested in him, why should he be made to trust their medical staff?

Personally, my impression of Barker regarding his injury was this: he’s neurotic. He spends a great deal of time outlining the circumstances around the ankle sprain and the ‘bungled’ handling of it – but it hardly seems like something to quit the program over. His issue with Jerry Kill, who (Barker alleges) was trying to hurry him back, and was critical of the player because he wasn’t healthy yet, is also noteworthy. Should coaches have the right to behave in such a manner? I’m not arguing one way or the other. It’s a thought exercise I’m not smart enough to do. I just like to ask questions.

 

Social media

I didn’t have a problem with Barker making the decision to take his gripes to the public domain – but every decision he’s made since has been a bad one, starting with how he chose to do so. Apparently, a 4,000+ word statement wasn’t enough to explain himself fully. A day later, Barker spent over an hour speaking with two different shows on 1500 ESPN (Darren Wolfson and Joe Schmidt at 10, Patrick Reusse and Phil Mackey at 12:15). He also did an interview for Kare 11 News.

Contrast this with the case of Marquess Wilson. Eight days before Barker quit the Gophers, Wilson quit the Washington State football team. His method? A 377 word statement, which he let stand on its own. In it, he accuses coach Mike Leach and the rest of his staff of “physical, emotional and verbal abuse.” A second team All Pac-12 receiver in 2011, Wilson’s departure was sudden, swift and surprising… and handled perfectly. He said his piece, and then faded into the background, not wanting 15 minutes of fame or the attention from local media members.

Barker claims it was necessary for him to be a visible figure in order to bring Kill’s transgressions to light, and to prove that he wasn’t “the problem.” It can be argued his approach did him more harm than good. Few people really buy into all of the accusations, and Barker’s been vilified as a “quitter” or a “crybaby” by many in the sports-loving public. He also indicated he didn’t want to harm his teammates, and yet he published a letter sure to be used as a negative recruiting tool for Coach Kill for the rest of his time in Minnesota, thereby inhibiting their ability to win.

Also a problem for the 18-21 year old me? Paintball guns.

I guess I shouldn’t really have expected him to handle it perfectly. Barker is 21 years old – I wouldn’t trust the 21 year old version of myself with so much as a slingshot, let alone the talent to be a Division 1 football star with the attention it attracts. Anyone blasting Barker without first taking into account their own youthful misdeeds is being a bit disingenuous.

At the same time, I can’t help but resent A.J. Barker a little bit. For many, he’s come to symbolize the latest generation of young adults, of which I (a 25 year old) am a member. We are viewed, I believe, as lazy, entitled, know it all brats, eager to document every second of our lives and throwaway thought on the internet. I’m sure his actions Sunday buffered that viewpoint among our detractors a great deal.

Social media is a great way to speak out about passions, creativity, and issues that affect you; but there’s a proper place for it. This matter should have been handled in private, in a meeting with Coach Kill and his superiors. Barker should’ve brought in his parents as back up, rather than citing his mom’s friend as a source in his Tumblr rant.

It is sometimes best to suffer slights and injustices in quiet dignity – not everything needs to be broadcast to the world. And a misdiagnosed ankle sprain (and a football player getting yelled at) are hardly injustices. It isn’t important what “people” think of A.J. Barker. “People” don’t need to know every detail. To let your life be an open book cheapens the experience, somehow. Barker’s disdain for Kill would’ve gone on record with the people who matter (Norwood Teague, and others in the athletic department) just as effectively if Barker had taken it to them first, and decided to quit anyway. The method he chose to take for venting his frustrations obfuscates the subtleties involved – which is sad, because there’s much more depth to this story than how it’s being treated.

Instead, what he’s got is a digital footprint of one of the most bizarre “I quit” notes ever written, notoriety in his hometown, and no place to play football next season (yet). I hope, for his sake, that this doesn’t define his life in any meaningful way. But I guess that’s the wages of being a Divison 1 athlete – due to our obsession with sports, and the availability of all forms of media, you never know what will end up sticking to you.

Here’s to hoping he moves on from this – and that we all learn a little something from it. But I am afraid people will always remember the means of how, and not the reasons why, Barker decided to quit.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[i] WARNING: SEVERE, PRECOCIOUS AND AWKWARD POST-TEEN ANGST TO FOLLOW: http://ajbarker82.tumblr.com/

 

Hot Stove Junkyard


The stupidity of paying top dollar for mediocre pitchers

@BreakTheHuddle

“Wait, wait, wait… we’re going to ask for HOW MUCH?” – Anibal Sanchez, to his agent, as this photograph was being taken.

Have you heard of Anibal Sanchez?

He threw a no-hitter, once. It was his rookie season, 2006. Sanchez was 22 years old, fresh off being included in the blockbuster deal that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston and a bevy of youngsters (including young Anibal) to the, er, frugal Florida Marlins. On September 6th, in the midst of a splendid first-year campaign in which he went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts, Sanchez no-hit the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Other than that, he’s had a pretty normal career, as far as pitchers go. He’s spent time on the disabled list – all of 2003 (elbow, while he was in the minors), most of 2007-08 (labrum) and part of 2009 (shoulder pain). He put two fairly average seasons together in 2010 and 2011 for the Marlins and was in the midst of another one in 2012 when he was dealt to the Detroit Tigers for the stretch run. He pitched well in the postseason, posting a 1-2 record with a 1.77 ERA in 20.1 innings for the Motor City Kitties, who were swept in the Series by the San Francisco Giants.

His record the last five years is 36-47 with a 3.85 ERA in 121 games. He turns 29 in February and has already had three major health issues in his young career. For the sabermetricians in the crowd, he’s been a FIP darling, ranking in the top-27 in that department each of the past three seasons. For the non-sabermetric people, he’s a sub-.500 pitcher with an ERA just below league average over that same time frame.

He’s a free agent, now.

Want to know his asking price?

Do you?

Okay.

I’ll tell you.

It’s $90 million over six seasons.

“You think that I’m (messing) with you? I am not (messing) with you.” – Edited Glengarry Glen Ross

I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of topics, mostly because I’m a difficult person, but one thing that really bothers me is when sports fans complain about the high salaries of professional athletes. If someone’s going to offer a person a lot of money to do a job, why fault the person for accepting it? If anything, blame the guy offering the dinero if you think things are way out of whack. The players are engaged in a lucrative industry – one of the rewards for doing so is great monetary compensation. It’s the free market, people.

That isn’t to say fans don’t have the right to mock athletes for blowing their fortunes (see Young, Vince and Walker, Antoine) or even becoming angry at fat, lazy miscreants collecting paychecks despite their lack of effort (Curry, Eddy and Haynesworth, Albert). So Anibal Sanchez has every right to ask for $15 million per season – he’s shown no signs of Walkerism or Haynesworthism… yet.

I said all that so I can say this…

The average fan’s disillusionment with the game of baseball (read also: MY disillusionment) begins with the fact that Anibal Sanchez can ask for $90 million over six seasons, knowing full well that some team will be desperate enough to come at him with $60 million over four or $75 million over five. Even his consolation prizes seem preposterous. He’s never been much more than a number 3 pitcher on a decent team – a somewhat important player, granted, but hardly one who seems worth that kind of money. He’s not an ace – nowhere close to it – but he’s likely to earn an average salary in the neighborhood of what Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Jake Peavy make, regardless.

“Hi! I was good for a couple months a year and a half ago, will you pay me 5 and a half million please? You WILL?!? AWESOME!” -Baker to Epstein

The amount of money in baseball is absolutely staggering. Pitchers come at a premium and make exorbitant sums of money – even ones who are injury prone. Consider: Scott Baker, who missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery and hasn’t started a game in 15 months, got $5.5 million in guaranteed money from the Chicago Cubs. Mark Prior earned an extra few million dollars by signing four (FOUR) one year contracts with various clubs: the Padres (in 2009), the Rangers (in 2010), the Yankees (in 2011) and the Red Sox (in 2012), despite the fact his last big league pitch was on August 10th, 2006.

Apparently, Sanchez’s people are using C.J. Wilson’s 5 year, $77.5 million free agent deal that he signed with the Angels a year ago as a blueprint for what they’d like to see in an offer. Since Sanchez is younger (29) now than Wilson was at the time (he was 30), they added the sixth year to the request.  Wilson had only two years as a starter under his belt – Sanchez has three. Proffered this way, it doesn’t seem all that insane, does it?

… Until you consider that Dwyane Wade (30), Tony Parker (30) and Manu Ginobli (35) have all earned less than $90 million in their careers, and that all three were either core members of title teams (plural). When Rajon Rondo, the NBA’s second-best point guard, hits free agency at the age of 29, he’ll have earned around $60 million in his career. Chris Paul, the NBA’s best point guard, will be 28 next summer, with $77 million in his pocket already. If Sanchez actually gets this deal, he’ll earn more money than all of them.

So I guess it is insane. The whole thing is completely insane. No contract in baseball is as dicey as the long-term deal given to a pitcher, no matter how good the hurler might be. Johan Santana was a sure bet – little to no injury history, four seasons of more than 219 innings pitched, two Cy Young Awards – when he signed his six year, $137.5 million agreement to join the Mets. The result? Five seasons, one healthy, three plagued by injuries, and one lost completely due to shoulder surgery. Was it worth it? Even a pitcher with an incredible pedigree like that was a bust. So how will it work out, giving a mega-deal to a marginal pitcher with an injury history?

Consider the following resumes of free agent (or soon to be free agent) pitchers.

Anibal Sanchez:

Recent Statistics

(08-12)

36-47, 3.85 ERA, 121 starts, 8 K/9, 1.34 WHIP, 5 CG, 4 SHO

.300 career BABIP

Age Turns 29 in February
Notes Missed all of 2003 (elbow), parts of 2007 and 2008 (labrum) and part of 2009 (shoulder)… Top-27 in FIP past three seasons.
Salary Asking for 6 years, $90 million (earned $8 million in 2012)

 

Gavin Floyd

Recent Statistics

(08-12)

62-56, 4.12 ERA, 154 starts, 7.2 K/9, 1.27 WHIP, 4 CG, 0 SHO

.290 career BABIP

Age Turns 30 in January
Notes No major injury issues in his career… 29+ starts in each of the past 5 seasons.
Salary $9.5 million option picked up by team (part of 5 year, $25 million deal signed in 2009)

 

Edwin Jackson

Recent Statistics

(08-12)

59-52, 4.06 ERA, 160 starts, 6.9 K/9, 1.36 WHIP, 4 CG, 2 SHO

.306 career BABIP

Age Turned 29 in September
Notes 30+ starts every year since 2007… 996 innings in the past five seasons… Has been traded five times in his career… no major injury issues to report.
Salary Earned $11 million in 2012 on a one-year deal from Washington… last year he asked for $60 million over 5 years, (obviously) didn’t get it.

 

Joe Saunders

Recent Statistics

(08-12)

63-57, 4.04 ERA, 156 starts, 5.1 K/9, 1.35 WHIP, 7 CG, 3 SHO

.292 career BABIP

Age Turns 32 in June
Notes 4 seasons each of 194+ innings pitched and 31+ starts… Has thrown at least 174 innings every year since 2008… Missed all of 2003 season with shoulder issues.
Salary demands Earned $6 million in 2012 on a one-year deal.

 

If you were a GM, which one of the four would you choose to pay? One of the three guys with spotless health records, or the guy with injury issues who’s a tiny bit better than the rest?

I’m not sure there’s a correct answer to that question. Those four pitchers are all around the same age, with similar pedigrees. The case of Edwin Jackson last offseason (when he had to settle for a contract four years and $49 million short of what he was seeking) shows that wishes aren’t always granted. But the obsession with pitching, and the willingness to take big risks on pitchers, leaves fans shaking their heads. It hardly seems equitable, it hardly seems sensible – yet there’s no indignation from baseball writers over Anibal Sanchez’s lofty asking price. Only resignation.

It’s obvious that all of these guys – Joe Saunders, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez – will command salaries north of eight figures. In other words, more than what Aaron Rodgers ($8 million) and Tim Duncan ($9.6 million) currently earn in salary from their respective teams.

Read that again. Anibal Sanchez, the 50th (or so) best pitcher in baseball, will make more money than the best quarterback in the NFL.

If he didn’t have all that “discount double check” money coming in, I’d consider taking up a collection for the poor guy.

Look, I know the cross-sport comparisons probably aren’t fair, and that each sport’s marketplace exists in its own vacuum. Dwyane Wade’s salary shouldn’t affect what any team offers Anibal Sanchez – that’s absurd – but that’s not the point I’m making. The next time you hear anyone talking about overpaid basketball or football players, kindly inform them that the majority of unmerited millionaires play baseball, and more specifically, they pitch.

My fault isn’t with Sanchez. I don’t blame him for taking what he can get, maximizing his earning potential while he is able. I don’t blame the owner who will sign off on the deal, either. Baseball is a money machine; all the more power to them. But forgive me for being cynical, and a little sickened by the whole charade. Non-impact pitchers earn more than elite stars in other sports. The list of terrible, crippling contracts handed to injury prone pitchers (Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Jason Schmidt) who eek out the last few years of the deal, milking it for every penny before pocketing their small fortunes and retiring, sends me into existential shock.

By that I mean, every night I kick myself that I didn’t work harder at being a pitcher.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

2010 All Over Again?


Superficially, it feels a lot like two years ago for the Green and Gold – but is it?

@BreakTheHuddle

February 6, 2011, was the day the Green Bay Packers capped off their terrific 2010-11 NFL season by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Beset by injuries, the resilient squad went on a remarkable six week run, spanning the final two weeks of the regular season (at home) and four playoff games (all on the road) en route to the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy. It was a magical, unexpected and thrilling march to a championship, made all the more incredible in light of the maladies the Packers had to overcome to get there.

Injuries, inconsistency and a brutal schedule down the stretch couldn’t stop Mike McCarthy’s bunch. Sound familiar? For some Packer fans, the similarities between the current Packer incarnation and the World Champion 2010 version are uncanny, unmistakable and even cause for optimism. But so much has changed in 21 months – gas back then was $3.17 per gallon. Now? It’s all the way up to $3.22! Milk was $0.13 cheaper in those halcyon days – and technology misappropriated for sexual purposes was felling quarterbacks rather than four-star generals.

All kidding (and veiled references to Brett Favre’s sexting scandal) aside, the similarities between the fortunes, and play, of the 2010 Packers to the 2012 team are superficial and misleading. The schedule, the offensive line, and the injury issues all appear familiar, but a closer examination reveals the truth – what we are watching in 2012 is very different than two years ago. In some ways better, in some ways worse – but certainly not the same.

The Schedule

Superficial similarities:

YEAR

Record Win Streak Point differential OPP 1-9total win% OPP 10-16 total win%
2010

6-3

3

+78

.465

.589

2012

6-3

4

+52

.549

.552

By this chart, things seem pretty similar – this year looks even more impressive, considering the Packers played a much more difficult schedule in the early part of the season than the 2010 team did. The only teams the Packers have lost to this year – the Colts, 49ers and Seahawks – are possible playoff teams. In 2010, Green Bay dropped games to Washington (on the road) Miami (at home), two postseason nonfactors. So don’t the similar results against stiffer competition bode well for the green and gold?

The reality:

Wins over the Texans (on the road) and the Bears (at home) stand out, but the 2012 schedule is much tougher than 2010. Why? Chicago is only divisional foe the Packers have faced, and the rest of the division is much better than they were in 2010. That season, Green Bay went 4-2 in the NFC North – aided by a bad Vikings team and the scuffling Detroit Lions.

This season, Detroit (though still flawed) is much better than they were two seasons ago. Minnesota is a matchup issue for the Packers and possesses offensive weapons that keep them in any game. Chicago still gets to host Green Bay in the Windy City. It’s not a division of cupcakes in 2012 – rather, the NFC North might be the best division in football. It’ll be a slugfest to the end.

If ten wins is the benchmark to reach for a postseason berth, head-to-head victories mean everything, as several teams (the Seahawks, Buccaneers, Vikings, Packers, maybe even the Saints and Cowboys) have a shot at getting to double digit victories. While the Packers lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Seahawks (a nightmare scenario, should it play out that way), they control their own destiny with the Saints. The other teams (who don’t face Green Bay)- the Buccaneers (4),  and Cowboys (4) –  already have more intra-conference losses than the Pack do.

All that leaves us with is this reality: the ‘Border Battle’ games with the Vikings will be bigger than they have been the past couple of years. It’s always a rivalry game, sure – but this year, postseason berths will be on the line – and this Vikings team is proud, motivated, and talented. Ditto for the Lions – except their coaching is far inferior – and the Bears’ only losses in 2012 have come to the best team in the AFC (the Houston Texans) and, of course, on the road in Lambeau Field.

 

He hasn’t exactly been a Pro Bowler, but Bulaga’s consistency on the right side of the line will be missed.

The Offensive Line

Superficial similarities:

The core of the offensive line remains the same – the two guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and tackle Bryan Bulaga. Add veteran center Jeff Saturday, and progressing youngster Marshall Newhouse rather than the aging Chad Clifton, and this line should be about the same as the one two seasons ago… right?

The reality:

Jeff Saturday, brought in due in large part because of his deft ability to communicate in pass protection, has been abysmal in run blocking – at any rate, he’s been a downgrade from Scott Wells, who departed in free agency. Clifton held on as long as he could, and should go down as one of the most underappreciated Packers of the past decade. His replacement at left tackle, Marshall Newhouse, has been beaten on numerous occasions. Green Bay allows more than 3 sacks per game, a much higher rate than either of the past two seasons.

Sitton and Lang are their usual, reliable, selves – but an injury to Bryan Bulaga, quietly placed on IR this week due to a non-contact injury suffered in the Packers’ victory over the Cardinals, shifts Lang to right tackle and promotes Evan Dietrich-Smith from the bench to left guard. Such shuffling was commonplace on the 2009 offensive front – and results were disastrous, as Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league-leading 50 times that year. Keeping Rodgers healthy the rest of the season is a tall order for a left side of the line as inexperienced as Newhouse and Dietrich-Smith. Speaking of health…

 

All the Injuries

Superficial similarities:

Year # Players on I.R. Starters on I.R. # Players on PUP list
2010

14

7

3

2012

8

4

3

Suffering a rash of cataclysmic injuries, the 2010 Packers, thanks to their organizational depth and savvy moves by General Manager Ted Thompson, stayed afloat. In 2012, pretty much the same thing has happened, right?

The reality:

The six most important people on the 2010 team were, in no particular order, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, Nick Collins, and Charles Woodson. They missed a total of 2 games that season. Combined.

The six most important people on the 2012 team are, in no particular order, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. They have missed a total of 12 games already – only Rodgers and Matthews have been active for every game this season, and after Sunday, it’ll be just #12 (Matthews is likely to miss the game with a hamstring injury).

While nearly a third of the starters from the 2010 team were lost for the year, the core six were very durable, as was the offensive line. This season, there are injuries to the team’s blue-chippers, and the young players normally expected to fill their shoes (Derek Sherrod, Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy) are also dinged up.

The depth of the team, particularly at receiver, is notable, but eventually injuries to the stars and the guys in charge of keeping Rodgers clean will catch up to Green Bay. While there are plenty of injuries, yes, these are different – in 2012, game-changers have been missing time, rather than placeholders.

Superficially…

The Packers will rely on their depth and coaching savvy, not to mention the arm (and feet) of Aaron Rodgers, to a playoff berth, where anything can happen. This is the optimist’s outlook as Week 11 approaches.

In reality…

Important people are hurt. The offensive line is in disarray – one more injury, and the team will be forced to use guys who were undrafted free agents this year (Andrew Datko and Don Barclay). The division is tougher, and five divisional games remain. I’m not saying the Packers won’t make it to the postseason; what I am saying, is, they’ve got a tougher road than many people think. They can’t afford any more injuries, especially on the offensive front. Realists have a grip on the obstacles in front of this team.

One thing both sides can agree on – all that’s important is making it to the postseason, because once it starts, anything can happen. That’s where optimism and realism collides.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

Pinpoint Inaccuracies


Comparing four young signal-callers and dispelling the nonsense surrounding each

@BreakTheHuddle

Shaun King of the Buccaneers was the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game. Now go, impress your friends with what you’ve learned here today! But read the rest of the article first.

Despite the fact that the National Football League is extremely complex, certain buzzwords and sentiments become en vogue and are repeated, endlessly, whether they are true or not. Groupthink begins to take over, churning cycles full of clichés, stereotypes and misleading information into public opinion.

Nowhere is this clearer than the evaluation of young quarterbacks. As a product of the early success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Andrew Luck, much is immediately expected from the young men playing the most difficult position in sports. One is either a “bum” or a “budding superstar”, depending upon how their last drive ended. The backup quarterback is still a popular man in some NFL cities, despite the fact that few teams are actually making bad long-term decisions at that position.

Nearly one-thirds of the league was using a first-or-second year quarterback as its starter when the 2012 season opened; more than half (17) of the league’s starters have four seasons of experience or fewer. Teams no longer spend time on journeymen veterans, leaving their youngsters holding a clipboard on the sideline; everyone wants to know what they have, and right now.

Comparing quarterbacks can be a tricky endeavor. Even basic statistics can be a bit misleading, and the situation on every team is different. What skill position players does a QB have to work with? How about his offensive line? What schedule has he played, easy defenses, or a lot of tough ones? Yet pundits and casual fans alike love to debate who they like more, Eli or Peyton, Rodgers or Brady, Cutler or Stafford, rarely taking the whole picture into view. Quarterbacks never face one another, head to head, in a vacuum, a la Lebron James and Kobe Bryant on a basketball court. But we persist in cross-referencing one quarterback’s numbers and style with others.

Some comparisons are made because of race, and aren’t necessarily valid (Cam Newton – Robert Griffin III), some are made smartly, because of body size and arm strength (Josh Freeman – Ben Roethlisberger) and some are flat-out hilarious (Tim Tebow throwing left handed – Peyton Manning throwing left-handed). But often it’s the comparison you wouldn’t necessarily consider that can be the most informative.

What follows are two sets of comparisons – and a few conclusions, cautiously drawn from (attempting to) dissect each quarterback’s play from all angles.

COMPARISON ONE:

Quarterback A, 2011-2012: 19 starts, 340/575, 59.1%, 3,659 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions

Quarterback B, 2011-2012: 18 starts, 344/606, 56.8%, 3,961 yards, 14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions

The first guy is clearly better, right?

Quarterback A, 2011-12: 6.4 yards per attempt, 10.8 yards per completion, 76.0 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 33.73, 2012 QBR: 46.84.

Quarterback B, 2011-12: 6.5 yards per attempt, 11.5 yards per completion, 75.4 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 28.58, 2012 QBR: 46.15.

Well, maybe they’re more similar than we thought…

Quarterback A’s offensive line: 18th rated for the run, 32nd for the pass in 2011, 5th and 26th (respectively) in 2012. In 19 career starts, he’s had 8 different linemen blocking for him amid 5 different line configurations. This season, his line has been intact for all nine of his games.

Quarterback B’s offensive line: 30th rated for the run, 28th for the pass in 2011, 16th and 27th (respectively) in 2012. In 18 starts over the past two seasons, 17 different offensive linemen have started a game, amid 10 line configurations. This season, he averages about one new lineman per week.

Are you starting to wonder if QB-B even gets to learn his offensive lineman’s names before a new one comes along?

Quarterback A: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 19.0 on Football Outsiders’ defensive ratings.[i] 2012 opponents, to this point, are at 17.6 – meaning he faces below average defenses on a week-to-week basis.

Quarterback B: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 15.2… and so far this year, the figure is 11.0, meaning he faces above average defenses regularly.

Any guesses as to who they might be?

Quarterback A is Christian Ponder.

Quarterback B is Sam Bradford.

Ponder’s “traditional” statistics are much better than Bradford’s – he has more touchdowns, a higher completion percentage, a better record (7-12 career, whereas Bradford is 4-14 the past two seasons) and more rushing yards (346-87).

But when you factor in all of Ponder’s ancillary advantages – a better (though still mediocre) offensive line, one of the best running backs in football (Adrian Peterson), a dynamic receiver (Percy Harvin) and a toolsy, pass-catching tight end (Kyle Rudolph), he should have much better production than Bradford. The Rams quarterback has been going to battle with the aging Steven Jackson in the backfield, the enigmatic drop machine Lance Kendricks at tight end and a collection of nobodies (save the oft-injured Danny Amendola) at wideout. Bradford’s had three offensive coordinators in his three seasons; Ponder has had one in his two years as the Vikings signal-caller.

The party line coming out of Minnesota this week is that fans need to remain patient with Christian Ponder – that he doesn’t have much to work with. It’s too early to tell if either quarterback is a bust – but Ponder apologists are on shakier ground than they think. Sam Bradford would love to have the toys, and the healthy offensive line, that Ponder gets to play with. It’s fair to say Christian Ponder has been a major disappointment in his second season – and unless he’s playing through an underreported injury, it’s fair to say that he shoulders much of the blame for what’s holding the Vikings back.

Bradford, on the other hand, is beginning to hear it from critics, questioning why he’s being outplayed within his own division by a rookie (Russell Wilson) and a much-maligned quarterback who was once left for dead (Alex Smith). Patience is, perhaps, beginning to run out on Bradford – which is a shame. He’s been dealt a difficult hand – is he the current incarnation of Jason Campbell, a talented guy with terrible luck (coordinators, injuries, etc)? Time will tell if he goes the way of Campbell, who now toils on the Bears’ bench.

The ruling: Ponder deserves more blame, Bradford deserves more time.

Ponder is currently in a relationship with ESPN’s Samantha Steele. He might be a mediocre player on the field, but off of it, he’s on fire!

 

COMPARISON TWO:

Quarterback C, 2012: 8 starts, 182/285, 63.9%, 2,130 yards, 14 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

Quarterback D, 2012: 9 starts, 145/234, 62.0%, 1,639 yards, 13 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

They appear to be a lot alike…

Quarterback C, 2012: 7.5 yards per attempt, 11.7 yards per completion, 86.7 passer rating, QBR: 50.71

Quarterback D, 2012: 7.0 yards per attempt, 11.3 yards per completion, 87.0 passer rating, QBR: 56.85

It’s possible they’re the same person…

Quarterback C: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.

Quarterback D: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.

Well, that’s just anecdotal evidence, right?

Quarterback C, career (24 games): 60.2% completions, 34 TDs, 24 INTs, 12-12 record.

Quarterback D, career (projected through 24 games): 62.0% completions, 35 TDs, 21 INTs, 13-11 record.

Is it getting creepy, yet?

Any guesses?

Quarterback C is everybody’s favorite ginger, Andy Dalton.

Quarterback D is everybody’s favorite “guy who’s too short to play quarterback”, Russell Wilson.

Physical differences aside, these two have remarkably similar stories, though I have yet to read a comparison between the two from one of the national football writers. They must be too busy comparing Cam Newton to Vince Young[ii] or Phillip Rivers to Dan Marino[iii] or something. Abandon the racial element, gentlemen! Dalton slipped to the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, behind fellow QBs Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. If they could do it over, I’m sure the Panthers would stick with Newton, but the Titans, Jaguars and Vikings might make a different decision.

Dalton led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 9-7 record his rookie season, good enough to earn a playoff berth, the franchise’s 3rd in the past 21 years. This season, despite an offensive line that struggles mightily in pass protection (25th-rated unit by Football Outsiders) his completion percentage and yards per attempt both increased dramatically.

Wilson, listed at 5-11, 204 pounds, played minor league baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization and transferred schools when North Carolina State decided to part ways with him. He led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl berth in 2011, leading the nation in passing efficiency, completing 73% of his passes, and sporting a 33-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.

Despite his efforts, he slid all the way to the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Though he’s been a tad inconsistent at times, and has had rough stretches, he’s been occasionally transcendent – especially in a 293 yard, 3 TD game against New England and this past Sunday’s 173 yard, 3 TD game against Minnesota. He’s only faced one defense all season outside the top-17 of Football Outsiders’ defensive ranks – meaning his numbers are likely to improve as the schedule gets easier.

The book on both of them seems to be that they are “game managers” – ironic, as Dalton averages more yards per attempt than Drew Brees, and Wilson tops Matthew Stafford in that same category. The downfield accuracy of each will improve with time – and the development of each as franchise quarterbacks from overlooked beginnings is a story that should resonate with NFL fans across the league.

The ruling – give both of them a lot more credit, because they’re pretty good. Also, enough of the Andy Dalton “ginger” jokes… and stop selling Russell Wilson short… get it? Short? Ah, you get the point.

If I haven’t convinced you that these two are remarkably similar… well, you’re probably unable to see past skin color. It has nothing to do with my inability to clearly articulate an argument.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[i] Football Outsiders is an amazing website that utilizes innovative statistics to evaluate and dissect the NFL. In other words, if you’re a football nerd, it’s the perfect site for you: http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamdef2012

BTH Preview: Game 1, Sacramento Kings


I pay homage to Timberwolves blogger Tim Allen, who passed away in August, by emulating one of his timeless “game preview” pieces.[i]

@BreakTheHuddle

Pictured: Tim Allen, aka @TimAllenOnline, Timberwolves blogger. His writing style, entertaining, informative and full of wisecracks, is one I make every effort to emulate.

I didn’t know Tim Allen. At least, not in a personal sense.

I knew of him, knew the Twitter handle (@TimAllenOnline), knew he was snarky, knew the intelligence, knew he had correspondence with other amateur bloggers, overwhelmingly positive, encouraging and sincere. But I never wrote anything to him, never knew what he did for a living, and I never knew his anguish. On August 7th, 2012, hours after tweeting about a USA-Argentina Olympic basketball game, six days after his final post, Tim Allen took his own life.

I learned about him after the fact. I learned about him digitally – first through the anguish of people I follow on Twitter, people who knew him, people who couldn’t believe what had happened. Amateur sports blogging is an insular community – if you’re serious about getting what you write to the public, familiar names and faces will pop up. As a guy interested in writing about the Wolves, Tim Allen kept popping up – and now he was gone. People said he was funny, sharp and kind. A very talented writer. A brother, son and friend.

All those things are human connections, and I wouldn’t have any of that with Tim. My connection with the man is all through the internet, via screens and mobile devices. See, once he passed away, I started reading some of what he wrote – he was the co-manager of the popular Timberwolves blog Canis Hoopus – and that’s when the bond started to form.

He was a much better writer than I am – no question about that – but there was something familiar about the way he wrote. The way his brain worked, the non-sequitors, the faux-homer-ism, the painstaking attention to detail and statistics – all of it was something I try to employ in my own writing. I slowly felt as though I knew the guy, in a tiny way, knew his sense of humor, his way of seeing things. He loved hoops. He loved to play with the form and structure of writing posts. He loved being a smartass.

Forgive me if you knew him and my assumptions are way off the mark, but reading his exhaustive body of work left those impressions upon me. I admire the talent and devotion he had for writing, above all else. I am sorry to all those who lost someone they knew on a deeper level than my distant, electronic admiration.

So in honor of Tim, and because the Timberwolves begin their 2012-13 season tonight, full of promise, here is my Game 1 preview, shamelessly, earnestly imitating Tim Allen.

My first suggestion to the Wolves: fewer ‘Muskies’ throwback nights, and more ‘Early 90s’ throwback nights.

Game 1: Minnesota Timberwolves (0-0) versus Sacramento Kings (0-1) at Target Center

It’s true that some of the excitement for the Wolves’ season opener has been tempered by the fact that stars Ricky Rubio (torn ACL) and Kevin Love (broken hand) will not be in the lineup for the game. Rubio’s injury (it happened last March)has had plenty of time to sink in, and fans weren’t expecting him back until January anyway. But Love’s freak incident (which occurred while he did bare-knuckle pushups) threw a wet blanket on the anticipation for the 2012-13 campaign.

Despite the injuries to the team’s two most important players, there’s still plenty to be excited about. The roster has been upgraded, and for the first time, there is an expectation for the Wolves to contend, despite the fact they’ll have to weather the storm for awhile until Love and Rubio are healthy. If the veteran-laden team can weather the storm, there should be a playoff run to look forward to in March and April.

The Kings opened their season Wednesday night with a loss against the Derrick Rose-less Bulls at the United Center in Chicago. Tyreke Evans scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, a surprisingly efficient night for the enigmatic guard. As a team, the Kings tallied 14 assists on 34 offensive field goal – they broke down into one on ones far too often, eschewing ball movement for isolation plays. The Bulls won despite the fact that Nate Robinson gets meaningful minutes for them (20 in the opener). It’s going to be a long season in Sacramento.

Let’s break down the matchups for the Wolves’ season opener:

The dude with the best tattoo in the NBA could have one of 2012’s biggest breakout seasons.

C: Nikola Pekovic vs DeMarcus Cousins

Remember last year, when Darko Milicic opened the season as Minnesota’s starting center? Wasn’t that hilarious? Well this year, the starting big man is Nikola Pekovic, who surprised everybody by making a quantum leap his second season in the league. His per/36 minute averages: 18.5/9.9/0.9, shooting 56% from the field and 74% from the line. He showed up to camp trim, fit and ready to go. Translation: a breakout season awaits him.

DeMarcus Cousins is a crazy person. At the tender age of 22, he has already got a coach’s blood on his hands (figuratively, of course. He didn’t murder Paul Westphal. Yet.) He’s got immense talent, averaging a double-double (18.1/10.9/1.6) on 44.8% shooting a season ago. At 6’11, 270 pounds, he is about as gifted athletically as they come; problem is, he’s a lunatic. And don’t even suggest this “lunacy” talk is all just latent jealousy over the fact that the Wolves took the affable, though terrible, Wes Johnson ahead of him in the 2010 NBA Draft. Don’t. Even. Suggest it.

Winner: Pekovic

If he can be 75% of what he once was, and keep his hair a defensible length and style, Kirilenko’s signing will look like a steal.

PF: Andrei Kirilenko vs Jason Thompson

AK-47 makes his triumphant return to the NBA following a year playing for a pro team in Moscow. While he won’t be the guy who averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2 steals and 3.6 blocks as a 23-year-old way back in 2004-05, he will still be a nice role player, filling up the stat sheet at power forward in Kevin Love’s absence.

Jason Thompson sucks. I’ve never even heard of him. Ha, I am kidding, I’ll tell you something about him. I won’t just leave it at “he sucks”, I’ll give you a reason for it. His per/36 minute averages have been stagnant or declining every year he’s been in the league. This is the start of his fifth season, and the Kings drafted a guy at his position (Thomas Robinson) fifth overall. Writing’s on the wall, Jason. Update your resume.

Winner: Kirilenko

SF: Chase Budinger vs James Johnson

Remember a paragraph ago when I said Jason Thompson’s numbers were “stagnant”? It would be a mistake to look at Budinger’s per/36 history and call those statistics “stagnant.” I prefer “consistent.” As a guy familiar with Rick Adelman’s system (he played for Adelman for two years in Houston) he’ll know what to expect, and play well within the offense. His 3-point percentage soared from 32.5% to 40.2%, more than 5 points ahead of league average.

James Johnson sucks. He’s sort of like Jason Thompson – I mean, who needs ‘em, right? Just another dude with a nondescript name on a stupidly constructed team from the most boring city in the NBA. The Googles tell me he’s a small forward who doesn’t shoot threes well (30% career) and was below average in Win Shares per 48 minutes in 2011-12. What does that mean? He’s not as good as Chase Budinger, that’s what it means.

Winner: Budinger

SG: Brandon Roy vs Tyreke Evans

Roy will get the start, and despite the fact that he “retired” before last season because he had zero cartilage left in his knees, Rick Adelman plans on playing him 30-32 minutes per night. His health will be a key component to the Wolves’ season.

Tyreke Evans is a freakish athlete without a position. Is he a point guard? His rookie season suggests, “no.” Is he a shooting guard? That’s probably right, although he doesn’t play well enough without the ball in his hands to be effective. Is he a small forward? His size (6’6) and shooting ability (20.2% from deep in 2011-12) don’t translate to that position. So what is he? An enigma, much like DeMarcus Cousins. If you’re keeping track, the Kings are starting two super-athletic head cases and two nondescript nobodies.

Winner: Roy

Hopefully, Rubio took some tips from Adrian Peterson, who returned to prime physical form less than ten months after tearing his ACL. The physical similarities between the two guys begin and end right there.

PG: Luke Ridnour vs Isaiah Thomas

Ridnour performed well last year as the team’s starting point guard after the Rubio injury, averaging nearly 14 points and 7 assists in 11 games before going down with a season-ending ankle injury. He’s the perfect guy to perform as a stop-gap at the point – a consummate professional who understands his role, and will cede the starting spot once the Spanish Messiah’s knee allows him to play.

The only difference between THIS Isaiah Thomas and THAT Isiah Thomas is an extra letter ‘a’, as well as nine playoff appearances, two NBA championships, twelve All-Star appearances, two assist titles, two head coaching gigs, one accidental overdose of Lunesta, one submarined basketball franchise (the Knicks), one torpedoed basketball league (the CBA) and one hilariously frightening sexual harassment lawsuit. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.

All kidding aside, THIS Isaiah Thomas went from being the final pick of the 2011 draft to a starter, posting averages of 11 points and 4 assists to go along with 37.9% shooting from 3-point range. It seems like he was an overlooked steal of the draft; it’s too bad he’s been punished by playing for a team with so many ‘me-first’ scorers (Evans, Marcus Thornton, Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette, Francisco Garcia). We might not find out how good Thomas can actually be as a distributor for a long, long time.

Winner: Ridnour

Oh, lest I forget, there’s also a ruined college hoops program in THAT Isiah’s path of destruction.

MY PREDICTION:

Minnesota Timberwolves 111, Sacramento Kings 87

Timberwolves record: 1-0

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BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!