Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Soccer: America's sport since 1970, but transformed in 2026

Soccer has always been the sport of the future in the United States, because eventually, the hunkered down sports hatches that kept America's big sports at home would eventually break down, and not only would this country be a great exporter of sport, but it would import them too.

Or, if you're a believer in "demography is destiny", eventually, the changing demographics of the country would eventually take hold in the sports that America holds closest to its heart. That has already begun to take shape with the challenges that football is facing existentially and the consumption changes of new generations of Americans, larger than any previous to them, but with the 2026 World Cup coming to the United States (and Mexico and Canada), perhaps America's sport of the future for over 50 years at that point may well become the sport it cherishes the most.

The 1994 World Cup is a distant memory now, but still a vivid one for anyone in this country who was touched by the tournament. Watching a rag-tag US group beat mightily favored Colombia, play to two crowds of over 94,000 at the Rose Bowl (and indoors at the old Silverdome), transformed a group of youngsters into soccer fans and players who formed the backbone of soccer in this country as it is now. Soccer in this country wouldn't be what is without the 1994 World Cup, Paul Caligiuri's goal against Trinidad in November of 1989, and Landon Donovan's heroics in two World Cups in the following decade, but the 1994 World Cup sprouted the seeds that were heavily watered in future years, creating the garden that is soccer in this country now.

Said garden was starving for water after the US failed to qualify for the World Cup that is to start tomorrow, but the garden did get a fresh injection with this announcement. As much as it seemed to be a shoe-in that a combined North American World Cup bid would be accepted without much handwringing, FIFA has proven time and again, even in this "new era" that the accepted standard and the obvious answers aren't always so obvious.

Mexico and Canada presence helped the bid get away from more of the delicate geopolitical issues that even if they didn't weigh the bid down all that much were still certainly present no matter who will occupy the White House in the summer of 2026. Their 10 games each will feel secondary to the overarching narrative of the tournament (though maybe not in Canada as much), but some of the decisions made by first Sunil Gulati and then Carlos Cordeiro helped rebuild some pride and prestige in US Soccer that certainly has been lost from the Couva catastrophe in October, to the contentious US Soccer Presidential race in February and then the politicking to get this bid to be successful at all.

And even if FIFA turned over a new leaf after the FBI and CIA came knocking, the reality is that money still talks. This tournament has the potential to be a financial bonanza for FIFA, whose coffers are draining and for a President in Gianni Infantino who needs to fulfill some of his promises to the forces that ultimately determine his fate. But this announcement shouldn't be so much about FIFA and the politics that went behind the vote, it should be about soccer in North America, particularly in this country.

Soccer is a force culturally in this country more than it has ever been because of the rapid globalization of sports and demographic changes that are coming slowly, but surely. This is a country of 320 million people now, and millions more will be around eight years hence. And even if very little brings that entire melting pot together, one thing that can is patriotism. A World Cup in this country with soccer's 32 years of growth since 1994 can mean this sport hits the football exclusive stratosphere, especially if the team does well. For Canada, 10 games in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton could mean the sport has its moment like the 1994 tournament did in this country. For Mexico, the team may finally have the chance to take advantage of circumstances not present in the last 40 years since they hosted the tournament in 1986.

On the pitch, US Soccer is at its lowest ebb since Mexico last hosted the tournament. But considering some of the young talent that has already blossomed, see Christian Pulisic, they will be in their primes in 2026, playing in front of packed stadiums rooting for them, with the potential to take this sport into a new era of popularity. It may never attain the cultural significance that football or baseball has, but it can sure take a step in that direction. And the presence of the tournament will cause further introspection into development at home and how US Soccer and its players will look potentially even more different come then too.

Nothing about Wednesday morning's decision was inevitable, which is something far too oft assumed in US Soccer since 1994 that everything would be. The men's game in this country is reeling a little after what happened in 2017, but the train is back on the tracks now in a big way.

A new generation will be have their 1994 moment and transform the sport in this country in the same way that those kids who were in the stands at the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium et al had 24 years ago. They took the sport from the wilderness to where it is now. Those kids could take the sport to a new cultural place that most only dreamed of when wondering what soccer could become in the cultural and political powerhouse of the globe.

Soccer has been the US' sport of the future for decades, and still is in some ways in 2018. But with this World Cup in 2026, it will certainly be the sport of the present, and the future.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Cup Predictions

Even though the US is not at the 2018 World Cup, the show/circus will go on with plenty of amazing stories to cover on and off the pitch. While the group stage might not be as enthralling as recent tournaments because of who didn't qualify, the possibility for surprises always exists, and when the tournament is hosted by off the beaten path nations, the tournament can often throw a surprise or two.
Here's my semi-uneducated view on the 2018 World Cup, and who will be World Champion in a month's time:

(EDIT: now re-jiggered to consider Spain amazingly firing their manager the day before the tournament starts)

Group A:
1. Uruguay
2. Russia
3. Egypt
4. Saudi Arabia

If it wasn't for Mo Salah's injury concerns, Egypt might have been the favorite to finish second here. But with the injury questions left unanswered, Russia would be the pick now to just sneak through into the knockout stage. Russia has more of their first line talent than they did at the Confederations Cup, but it probably won't change their fortunes too much. If Salah can be healthy by the time the two nations play, perhaps Egypt could pull off a bit of an upset. But with Salah potentially at only 75% at best, it doesn't seem likely that the Pharoahs will advance.

Group B:
1. Spain
2. Portugal
3. Morocco
4. Iran

Even though Spain fired Julen Lopetegui for not telling any of his co-workers that he was considering the Real Madrid job the day before the tournament, it's hard to imagine Spain being that negatively affected by this, at least initially. Fernando Hierro is no outsider to the national team and has said that he won't change many plans for the tournament, and his major task may now be guiding a fractured squad through the inevitable ups and downs that will come. Thankfully for la Roja, their group is not very challenging and their most difficult game is first up. But for a team that looked so good under Lopetegui, it's hard to imagine the sailing being anything but choppy for Spain after everything that the squad and federation has gone through.

Perhaps Portugal are the biggest beneficiary of the entire mess their neighbors in Iberia are dealing with. No strangers to World Cup circuses themselves (see 2002 and 2014), their unity and defensive solidity might help them snatch something from the first game, perhaps taking them to the top of the group, instantly changing the dynamic of not only the group, but the tournament. Their squad outside of Ronaldo is not as talented as Spain's is, but that didn't matter much when they won the Euros two years ago. They may have more challenges from a pure footballing perspective with Iran and Morocco than Spain may, but even after what happened with Spain, Portugal's destiny might not be all that different from when Lopetegui was manager.

Group C:
1. France
2. Peru
3. Denmark
4. Australia

France have not been inspiring in their pre-World Cup friendlies, and Didier Deschamps is not what anyone would call a tactical mastermind. They play too often like a team of individuals, which for a team of this talent level is a disappointment. However, that problem will only become evident perhaps during the quarterfinals, not during the group stage, though a couple of teams here could give them a tricky run. Peru with Paolo Guerrero is a different team than they are without him, and his presence enough may be enough to send Peru through. Denmark have Christian Eriksen, which may be enough to see them through, but he has 22 goals himself and the rest of his team has 44. If another star emerges, they could go through themselves. Australia has a better chance of getting points in this group than they did in 2014, at least.

Group D:
1. Argentina
2. Croatia
3. Nigeria
4. Iceland

Argentina have not looked nearly as good as they should under Jorge Sampaoli, especially considering the time Sampaoli has had with the squad now. Their 6-1 loss to Spain in March is glued to the memory, and that's not a good final impression to have. Of course they have as much talent as anyone else in the tournament, and there's still this Messi guy that may be good at soccer, but these factors haven't come together to help Argentina win anything before, and it's the doubt that recent performances have cast over la Albiceleste that is a major concern here.

Croatia may not have another major tournament with the Modric-Rakitic-Mandzukic troika that has propelled them to becoming one of the better sides in Europe recently, and there isn't much behind them. Time hasn't yet been called on their international prowess just yet, so their brilliance should be enough to get them through. Nigeria have always been one of the better African nations at World Cup's past, and if they can summon what they summoned in 2014 against Argentina again, they could easily make it through again. Iceland's fairy tale story was amazing at Euro 2016 when they shocked the world, but no one will be surprised by them this time around, and the sum of their parts is exceeded by everyone else in their group, sadly.

Group E:
1. Brazil
2. Switzerland
3. Serbia
4. Costa Rica

Roberto Carlos says that this Brazil team has sacrificed a little of its attacking verve for defensive solidity, which may play as sacrilege at home, but to neutral observers is a fresh take for a Brazil team that desperately needs that spine, which they have from back to front now. Casemiro could be one of the most important players if Brazil are to win a sixth star this World Cup. Having Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus also helps too. They're a favorite for a reason.

The race for second is going to be one of the more fascinating battles during the group stage. Switzerland is always solid and has a pedigree of making the knockout stage at big tournaments, especially recently, and they do have some good gamebreakers that Serbia and Costa Rica don't. Serbia's best player, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is going to be a breakout star of this tournament, but the Serbs don't have much beyond him that would concern many teams. And while Costa Rica are always going to be difficult to play against, there's the sense that they won't be surprising anyone this time around, and that they might be getting a little long in the tooth too.

Group F:
1. Germany
2. Mexico
3. Sweden
4. South Korea

Germany will look a fair bit different to the 2014 team that won the World Cup, even though many of the parts will be the same. They'll be playing with true forwards instead of the false nines they used throughout the last couple of major tournaments, which changes how they're going to play in a big way. It also makes them better, and more tactically flexible, in spite of how they looked in some pre World Cup friendlies. Their oldest player is also 32, which tells you a lot as to how Germany continues to be so good.

Mexico always find a way to make it out of their group during these tournaments, and they will again because this is their easiest World Cup group in some time. Germany will probably beat them, but they can easily beat Sweden and South Korea. Sweden don't have enough goals in their team if they get broken down defensively, and South Korea have only player that would scare you in Heung Min-Son, and he doesn't have the Spurs attack with him for his nation.

Group G:
1. Belgium
2. England
3. Tunisia
4. Panama

Belgium have won the "best team with the worst manager" award in their last two tournaments since with Marc Wilmots, they always looked three steps behind their opponents tactically. Roberto Martinez has his faults as a manager, but they aren't going to be as exposed during a short tournament as they are during a long club season. Because of that, we can now focus on how talented they are, and have been, for years now. If Vincent Kompany isn't fit, that could be a major problem, but this is their best chance yet to win a trophy for their golden generation.

England don't have nearly the pressure they often carry with them coming into major tournaments, and perhaps its the skeptcism of Gareth Southgate and his tactics, or that the team is so young and a great generation of youth is coming behind this group, but there is a youthful optimism about the Three Lions in this tournament. That's exciting and refreshing for once. And no Tony Adams, the Spurs players will not be England's downfall here.

Tunisia could be a tricky out for the two big boys here, and Panama will be happy to be here, but in the end will be cannon fodder. Imagine how much trickier this group would have been if Panama was replaced by the US.

Group H:
1. Colombia
2. Poland
3. Senegal
4. Japan

Colombia aren't quite as youthful and exuberant as they were in Brazil, but they are still very, very good. They've looked solid throughout qualifying, and have the potential with their stars to break games open that other teams in this group do not have. Jose Pekerman's tactics will probably hold Colombia back as the tournament goes on, but they should have enough to win the group.

Poland will be very much Robert Lewandowski focused and for good reason, but keep an eye on Arkadiusz Milik, the Napoli forward who also has a fair few goals in him. They could win this group, but they don't have quite enough to overcome Colombia here, and they also have a threat behind them in Senegal, who in their only World Cup made it shockingly to extra time in the quarterfinals in 2002 before finally being felled. They have a good spine of players familiar to Premier League fans and a couple of intriguing forward options in M'Baye Niang and Keita Balde, so it would not be a surprise at all if they advanced, or maybe even won their group. Japan always put in a decent account of themselves at major tournaments, but always end up looking like they have a talent deficit too.

Knockout Stage (in bracket order):

Round of 16:
Uruguay over Portugal (A1 over B2)
France over Croatia (C1 over D2)
Brazil over Mexico (E1 over F2)
Belgium over Poland (G1 over H2)
Spain over Russia (B1 over A2)
Argentina over Peru (D1 over C2)
Germany over Switzerland (F1 over E2)
England over Colombia (G2 over H1)

Quarterfinals:
France over Uruguay (C1 over A1)
Brazil over Belgium (E1 over G1)
Argentina over Spain (D1 over B1)
Germany over England (F1 over G2)

Semifinals:
Brazil over France (E1 over C1)
Germany over Argentina (F1 over D1)

Final:
Brazil over Germany (E1 over F1)

Awards:
Golden Ball: Neymar
Golden Boot: Timo Werner
Best Young Player: Kylian Mbappe
Golden Glove: Brazil's keeper (Alisson or Ederson)

After Spain's decision to sack Lopetegui, no changes to this bracket or the Group B standings were made.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The NHL, NBA and the inevitability of expectations

As both the NHL and NBA seasons ended within a day of each other, it gives us a good inflection point to look at both leagues and where they stand after another completed season, and the comparsions are much starker than they used to be.

The NHL's season, and playoffs, were dominated by unexpected and the cinderella runs. Watching the most snakebit postseason team in the last decade perhaps in all sports go up against an expansion team in its first season is quite the marked difference from Cavs/Warriors part four. These Stanley Cup Playoffs were certainly missing something in spite of both the Capitals and Golden Knights doing what they did; the playoffs were filled with more uncompetitive games than usual and the fewest OT games since 2000 (10 to 9) and none after the second round, but no one could see this Final coming, not even in Vegas or Washington. Meanwhile, the usually dramaless NBA playoffs had plenty of it before the seemingly inevitable Cavs/Warriors round four, which for more than awhile wasn't so inevitable at all. One league prides itself on the unexpected, even when a team repeats as champion, and the other prides itself on the inevitable, even with an unexpected path to the inevitable.

The Stanley Cup Finals ended with primal joy from the Capitals who finally exercised all their spring demons and ignited a celebration in Washington that made the Warriors almost muted celebration after dispatching the overmatched Cavs seem like they just got out of watching Infinity War for a third time (complete with mindless popcorn munching). Both Finals series ended prematurely but while in the NHL we were all wanting more, in the NBA we were wanting for something. As soon as JR Smith forgot to look up at the clock, the inevitability of the result was there for all to see. It wasn't quite like that when Braden Holtby made his miracle save late in Game 2 (because the entire world has lingering Caps skepticism that will never go away), but even drawing the comparison puts into the mind's eye how different these supposedly similar leagues are, and how much farther they're drifting apart.

Every move the NBA has made under Adam Silver has been calculated greatness. Major sports leagues are often run poorly and the comissioners are under the ire of the fans and media for ordering the wrong cut of steak at dinner, but the NBA contradicts that at every turn, and for the better. It seems as the league becomes more dominated by three to four teams, the product is more compelling than ever in spite of the certain inevitability of the season's outcome.

Meanwhile in the NHL, Gary Bettman even gets booed when he's awarding the Cup in Las Vegas. As the product on the ice gets better as the game gets faster and scoring has gone up, the league seems less interesting than ever. This magical Stanley Cup final between the two unlikeliest teams to make the final since maybe the Oilers and Hurricanes happened by complete accident. The NHL's staunch insistence on psychotic parity means that the worst Caps teams in years and an expansion team making the Final makes perfect sense in the twisted logic of the NHL's parity. Compared to the NBA, where the Finals series seems inevitable in July, it's a stark contrast. And the contrast isn't just evident in the games themselves.

The NHL's major "social media moments" during the Finals were a football player joking about how easy hockey is to play, and then Twitter promptly freaking and Ryan Miller telling Chrissy Teigen that being a goalie is in fact hard to do, while in the NBA the wife of a GM had burner accounts revealing confidential injury information about Sixers players. See the contrast? The NHL is hankering for casual relevance with just about anyone outside of the hockey bubble, while the NBA seemingly walks into it without trying. It's as if with everything each league does, the NHL's try-hard sweaty insecurity is dwarfed by the NBA's calm coolness at every possible turn.

Both offseasons are going to be dominated by superstar free agents going to market. In the NHL this almost never happens, but the drama of LeBron or any other superstar's free agency in the NBA now seems normal and dominates all the oxygen in sports because that move will dictate the future of a league. If John Tavares had a brain cramp and signed with Montreal, he could easily miss the playoffs next season (or even if he stayed with the Islanders). Watching the sagas will be eminently different too. There will be LeBron speculation and gossip every day from every corner of every alley, while John Tavares speculation is seemingly relegated to the same sort of gossip, but entirely less interesting. People will read into every social media post from LeBron looking for coded clues to see if that means he's going to be Laker or Sixer, while the radio silence from the Tavares camp is almost astounding to watch in today's social media age. 

Even on draft night, there's a stunning contrast in fortunes for the leagues. While Marvin Bagley thinks the assumption that DeAndre Ayton is going to be the number one pick is "disrespectful", the NHL Draft is dominated by one Swedish defenseman who everyone knows is going first overall but can't actually say it because in hockey, you can't actually say "I" in interviews about even yourself.  

Both leagues are swimming in money, and even hockey's miniscule popularity is on the upswing. Ratings from the Stanley Cup Final indicate that perhaps, the leagues fans are shaking their parochial nature, even if it is to just to see if a team that yours tortured finally could overcome their demons (thanks Pittsburgh) or to just watch good hockey at all (hello Buffalo). The NBA Finals ratings clearly showed Cavs/Dubs fatigue after great ratings throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. And while the team that LeBron goes to next year will probably be the favorite to play the Warriors in the Final (or Western Conference Final), even the league's most awful teams are somewhat compelling in a way that the NHL could never get with Arizona, Buffalo, Florida or even Edmonton. But that can't change what has always been constant about both leagues; one tries desperately to be relevant and can't get there, while the other smoothly goes from one success to another without even trying.

Teams not in the LeBron sweepstakes and those not named the Sixers, Celtics and Warriors might as well take the season off while they trust the process, while in the NHL it actually seems to take more effort to be consistently bad than fluke one season into a great playoff run. The teams that tank in the NHL almost never get rewarded for being that bad, while in the NBA, the only way to have any chance if you're not one of the best three teams is to tank and hope luck falls your way once or twice to have a three or four year window with a star before he departs for greener, more lucrative pastures.

None of these observations about the NHL and NBA juxtaposed against each other are new, and none are meant to be a #PleaseLikeMySport take from someone who is firmly in team hockey. But after watching the two seasons end the way they did and the way that they were shaped is the perfect contrast, especially when considering one league is expontentially growing in popularity and the other only knows how to spin its wheels. So much goes into why one league is popular and the other isn't, from the marketability of stars to the presentation and coverage of the games to the accessibility of each sport, but in a time where the NFL's goliath is falling from grace, there should be an opportunity for the one lacking in almost every department to finally take advantage of one that may be open, but they are never able to do it. 

With the NBA, everything looks so effortless, calculated and designed and every almost every decision pays off in spades. The NHL's best moments of the last decade are almost all happy accidents, and when they do make a smart decision, they're burnt into the ground before anyone can appreciate the smart decision itself. That's why the least compelling NBA Finals in a decade plus, even after an unexpected path to get there, felt like a subsuming tidal wave of intrigue whereas the most unexpected of Stanley Cup Finals perhaps ever felt like accidentally tripping over a vein of gold in the Nevada desert, which is something they'll never do again. 

The sports ecosystem would be better if the NHL was anywhere near half of what the NBA is, or is becoming, but a league with so many stars, storylines and a great product to show can't ever seem to get out of its own way, whereas for a league whose results feel inevitable and sometimes academic, it is more compelling than ever.

Gary Bettman may be a basketball guy, but he only wishes his league could do what his former league seems to do with ease, and after the seasons for each league have concluded, there is no easier line to draw between the two than this year. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Now that you've hopefully review how hopeless my preseason NHL predictions were, it's time to see how hopeless my playoff predictions are going to be. I never do well with these even though I try to use logic to make these picks, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs have no logic in them whatsoever.

I encourage you to listen to this podcast where I made my picks in audio form (you have to get through 50 or so minutes of other nonsense to get to them, but its worth it, trust me), but if you prefer the written word, and I can understand why you would, here they are:

Eastern Conference:

TB (A1) over NJ (WC2) in 4
BOS (A2) over TOR (A3) in 7
WSH (M1) over CBJ (WC1) in 6
PIT (M2) over PHI (M3) in 6

BOS (A2) over TB (A1) in 7
PIT (M2) over WSH (M1) in 6

BOS (A2) over PIT (M2) in 6

Western Conference:

NSH (C1) over COL (WC2) in 5
WPG (C2) over MIN (C3) in 6
LA (WC1) over VGK (P1) in 6
SJ (P3) over ANA (P2) in 6

NSH (C1) over WPG (C2) in 7
SJ (P3) over LA (WC1) in 6

NSH (C1) over SJ (P3) in 6

2018 Stanley Cup Final:

Nashville (C1) over Boston (A2) in 6

Conn Smythe Winner: Filip Forsberg (NSH)

Sorry to the Preds in advance, but this is a team that seems motivated and stung by what happened last year to the point where they are so loaded that it's hard to see any team stopping them over a seven game series. Winnipeg will get close, but it's the biggest challenge I believe they'll face over these two months.

People are underestimating the Bruins I think, even though they were hockey's best team for four months in spite of everyone being hurt. They have potentially the best line in the sport, a goalie who can get hot and young players who are in the prime position to get hot. It would be nice if Rick Nash played decently in the playoffs once in his career, but he's not the focal point for the Bruins. Some of these young players already tasted a playoff sting last year, which should help them in their big challenges ahead in the East.

But Nashville has just enough to overcome Boston in the Final and hoist the Cup, and since they are the deepest team, they deserve to win. Rarely does that mean they actually do, especially since winning the President's Trophy is often a guaranteed jinx, but something tells me this Preds team is different.

Watch me be 100% wrong again though.

How Did I Do: 2017-18 NHL Season Predictions Reviewed

In an effort to post #content to this website without exerting much effort, it's time to review what turned out to be terrible preseason NHL predictions. Making predictions is an inherently worthless but somehow still necessary enterprise in the world of sports, making reviewing them even more worthless, but sometimes I like to see how wrong I was. Speaking of... (predictions first, actual standings in parentheses).

Metro Division:

1. Pittsburgh (WSH)
2. Washington (PIT)
3. Columbus (PHI)
4. New York Islanders (CBJ)
5. New York Rangers (NJ)
6. Carolina (CAR)
7. Philadelphia (NYI)
8. New Jersey (NYR)

Atlantic Division:

1. Tampa Bay (TB)
2. Toronto (BOS)
3. Montreal (TOR)
4. Boston (FLA)
5. Florida (DET)
6. Ottawa (MTL)
7. Buffalo (OTT)
8. Detroit (BUF)

Central Division:

1. Nashville (NSH)
2. Dallas (WPG)
3. Chicago (MIN)
4. Minnesota (COL)
5. St. Louis (STL)
6. Winnipeg (DAL)
7. Colorado (CHI)

Pacific Division:

1. Anaheim (VGK)
2. Edmonton (ANA)
3. Calgary (SJ)
4. San Jose (LA)
5. Los Angeles (CGY)
6. Arizona (EDM)
7. Vegas (VAN)
8. Vancouver (ARZ)

Five correct playoff teams in the East for me and four in the West. Even by my standards, that's a fairly poor hit rate. But the NHL is always upside down and topsy turvy and this year was no different. There are seven new playoff teams this year, as it seems there are every year, though some are more surprising than others, of course (hi Colorado and New Jersey). My Conference Finals were Tampa over Pittsburgh and Edmonton over Dallas and then Tampa over Edmonton, so let's just throw those picks in the garbage and start over.

How did I do with awards?

Hart: Connor McDavid (he has a candidacy in the eyes of some but he's not winning it over a whole host of other more deserving players on actual good hockey teams)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (Bingo!)
Calder: Alex DeBrincat (he was good, but nowhere near as good as Barzal, McAvoy, Luc-Dubois, etc.)
Norris: Victor Hedman (he has a great chance if he can get by someone from Nashville first)
Vezina: Matt Murray (no way. Injuries and absences hurt his form. Rinne, Vasilevsky or maybe John Gibson)
Jack Adams: Mike Babcock (Gerard Gallant won this award in November)
First Coach Fired: Paul Maurice (October Matt thought coaches would get fired. That's funny).

So most of my October hockey predictions were in fact garbage. Par for the course. Are my playoff predictions going to be better? I hope so.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

2018 MLB Season Predictions

It might not feel like spring yet, because in too many parts of the country there is still snow on the ground, but a new baseball season is finally here. After an offseason where there was more talk of upcoming labor doom than free agents, farm systems and a host of new managers for big clubs, finally, the world can focus on baseball itself. As it seems there as many teams trying to contend as there are trying to tank, it may seem like predictions now are somewhat redundant, but in even in this sport of clear haves and have nots, there are always some surprises. Whether this writer gets anywhere close to figuring out that riddle, who knows. His track record is not particularly stellar.

NL East:
1. Washington
2. Philadelphia
3. Atlanta
4. New York Mets
5. Miami

Washington's 2018 season is not defined by winning the NL East, which shouldn't be hard for a team as they are constructed. 2018 will be defined by whether they can, at long last, break their postseason jinx. It's common knowledge that this team as constructed has this year and no longer to do so before Bryce Harper can test free agency and other parts of the team face the sands of time, but this year, that in theory shouldn't be a problem. Philadelphia is no longer rebuilding as evidenced by the free agents they signed, but its their young players across the batting order that bring reason for optimism. They could be a sneaky wild card contender if all goes right. Atlanta might be World Series favorites in 2020, but that means 2018 is still focused on whether Ronald Acuna's hat is on straight. Flushing was a factory of sadness in 2017 with all of the Mets injuries, and it doesn't seem like Mickey Callaway can do much to change the inevitable. The Mets could be a playoff team if it all goes right, but so little has to go wrong for the house of cards to fall down.

And as for the Marlins... the less said, the better.

AL East:
1. New York Yankees
2. Boston
3. Toronto
4. Baltimore
5. Tampa Bay

Doesn't it feel like the Yankees are truly the Evil Empire again? Not just because they acquired Giancarlo Stanton for peanuts, but because their young players are also really dang good. If their starting pitching holds up, last year's overachievers, relatively speaking, are on course for banner 28. Their biggest threats come naturally from Boston, who had everything last year except power in their lineup and now have JD Martinez to fix that. The jockeying between these two teams will be fun to watch all year. Everyone else in the division feels as if they're in AAA. Toronto is the best of the rest, but they're caught in a horrible middle between rebuilding and quasi-contending, and they don't have an answer to that question yet. If you have a live arm and can throw a decent fastball, the Orioles may want your services for their "rotation" this season, and speaking of rotations, will Tampa's four man rotation create a new trend in data obsessed baseball, or is Kevin Cash, for lack of a better term, trying to make fetch happen?

NL Central:
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Cincinnati Reds

Wrigley will see a new re-made Cubs rotation this year which could end up being the best in baseball. They laser focused on their problems from 2017 and directly fixed them. That's not good for everyone else, including the Cardinals, who finally did something the world expected them to for a few years and made a big move for a middle of the bat star in Marcell Ozuna to add to a super deep lineup. It's also been a few years since the Cardinals did their usual overachieving in a smart, super St. Louis baseball type way, so watch out Cubs, it could be this year. Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich should add well to a potent Brewers lineup, but that pitching staff is... well, it's not what they're trotting out in Baltimore and San Francisco. They're a wild card contender if they get something out of that staff.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are both rebuilding, though both aren't entirely awful and could spring a few surprises if more than a few things go right. More than a few things is probably too many things for these teams at this time, though.

AL Central:
1. Cleveland
2. Minnesota
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City
5. Detroit

Whenever penciling in a division lineup makes you go "I didn't have to think to do that", something inevitably stupid happens that makes us all look like idiots. I'm fairly confident that won't happen with this year's AL Central (watch me eat my words in October). For the Indians, like the Nats, winning the division won't be the hard part, it's what will happen in October. They were surprisingly restrained this offseason in trying to get better, largely because this group has already proven itself twice. Whether that faith is rewarded in the playoffs remains to be seen. Minnesota's offseason has been varying shades of "welp", with Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco being under the microscope for the wrong reasons, but the AL Wild Card race isn't exactly much of a race, so overcoming that plus some iffy pitching should be enough.

Watching the White Sox in April and May will be a chore. Watching the White Sox in August and September when the farm system starts putting its great products on the Southside will be worth the wait. Remember when the Royals were the most annoying team in baseball just a few years ago? Those days are long gone, even though they re-signed Mike Moustakas for a contract that is emblematic of baseball in 2018. Detroit's baseball team is going to look much like its hockey team in that its beginning a long, painful rebuild, emphasis on long and painful.

NL West:
1. Los Angeles
2. Colorado
3. San Francisco
4. Arizona
5. San Diego

Like last year, the NL West will be the division in the sport to watch. From one to four, everyone in the division can be competitive, a contender and really good. One team is greater among equals though, because the Dodgers are going to be their typical level of insane again. Justin Turner broke his hand, and no one's breaking a sweat. They've overcome injuries by replacing those lost with players like Chris Turner who become good seemingly out of nowhere. Their question is not winning the NL West, which is a fait accompli, but again, what happens in October. Last year, the Rockies played some truly anti-Rockies baseball to make the postseason for the first time since 2007 and this year should be a step forward, but that lineup is still a concern. San Francisco is trying one last kick at the can with the 2013 All-Star team, which is noble, but their top two pitchers are already injured and even though they did underachieve last season, there's only so much aging stars can do. It truly does feel like there's something missing in Arizona, even though they have Zack Greinke and Paul Goldschmidt, something JD Martinez sized. Eric Hosmer will make the Padres at least a team you can name a player on, but beyond that... San Diego is really beautiful in July and August.

AL West:
1. Houston
2. Anaheim
3. Oakland
4. Texas
5. Seattle

Man, those Astros are something, aren't they? And that was before they acquired Gerrit Cole to go along with a full season of a certain Verlander guy. That should help them overcome the bullpen problems that nearly cost them a championship last season. Fangraphs has them projected to be the best team in baseball by a sizeable margin, and that sorta seems inevitable. Repeating as World Champs is something no one has done since the Yankees from 1998 to 2000, but it sure seems that these Stros can do just that. Shohei Otani's spring was... ungood, but its safe to say he'll probably figure things out eventually, he's just too good not to. And there's this Mike Trout guy, he's good too. As much as there's something nagging at me to pick the Angels to be lower, they just won't be. They're actually good.

Oakland signed Jonathan Lucroy, which allows this writer who needs to pay more attention to teams not named the Mets to name someone on this team. But the A's often find a way to surprise in spite of everything working against them, but their lineup seems balanced and they have a farm system worth mentioning. Someone is going to be like Milwaukee or Minnesota of last year and contend out of nowhere, and if it's not the Phillies, it'll be their AL equivalent. In Texas,  Cole Hamels and Joey Gallo are good, and so is Rougned Odor, but boy... Tim Lincecum? Matt Moore? Yikes. And I'm not falling for it again, Mariners. I'm just not. I've gone down that road too many times. Prove me wrong.

NL Playoff Teams:
1. Washington
2. Los Angeles
3. Chicago
4. St. Louis
5. Milwaukee

AL Playoff Teams:
1. Houston
2. New York Yankees
3. Cleveland
4. Boston
5. Anaheim

NLDS:
Washington over St. Louis in 5 (hex broken!)
Los Angeles over Chicago in 4

ALDS:
Houston over Boston in 4
New York Yankees over in Cleveland in 5

NLCS:
Los Angeles over Washington in 7 (I had to)

ALCS:
New York Yankees over Houston in 7

2018 World Series:
New York Yankees over Los Angeles in 6

AWARDS:
NL MVP: Bryce Harper
AL MVP: Carlos Correa
NL Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard (I need something, please)
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
NL Rookie: Ronald Acuna
AL Rookie: Shohei Otani
NL Manager: Craig Counsell
AL Manager: Aaron Boone

Chalk, chalk and more chalk. I can't wait to be wrong in October as I usually am.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What does "Most Valuable Player" mean, anyway?

The definition of "Most Valuable Player" in sports might seem made up and not matter, depending on who you talk to, but considering this award in its many forms is the highest individual honor that can be bestowed upon a player short of going to the Hall of Fame, the definition of this term certainly is paramount. "Most valuable" seems a simple enough two word phrase to parse out. But in those three words, almost anyone can find what they want in them to twist the definition of the phrase to suit an argument about who is either the best player or, by definition, most valuable.

As the debate for the NHL's Hart Trophy this season goes on, and cleaves a divide in the hockey world not seen since the analytics debate, the definiton of the Hart Trophy, the NHL's "most valuable player", wages on with no end in sight. Because the race is so wide open this season, and there are so many candidates based on whatever definition of the "player judged to be most valuable to his team" is to any individual, the debate of what that phrase means has almost superceded the debate over who should actually win the award. Everyone has an opinion, and if you've read the tagline of this blog, that means I actually do too (what a shocker).

Most of this civil war centers around Connor McDavid, the Oilers superstar who has been his usual fantastic self this season, with 90 points in 73 games while his Oilers sputter and stumble to another inevitable draft lottery win. He's behind Kucherov, MacKinnon and Malkin in the Art Ross race, and it's safe to say without McDavid's points, or the way he dominates puck possession with his line on the ice, the Oilers may well be challenging for the moniker of "worst team since the 04-05 lockout", which MacKinnon's Avs had last season locked up. Considering the Oilers historically bad special teams (though McDavid plays a major role in that), McDavid's season looks all that more impressive, particularly when you watch him continue to dominate when he's on the ice without looking at all incredulous or burnt out by playing on a glorified AHL team for the second time in three NHL seasons.

No player has won the Hart when missing the playoffs since 1987-88 when Mario Lemieux lapped the league in winning the scoring race but his Pens missed the postseason by a point. McDavid is going to get nowhere close to that, but with a literal definition of the "most valuable" phrase, McDavid must be considered, right? Certainly. But with so many other potential contenders in this wide open field, with many of them potentially having that Lemieux type season, it seems that McDavid's candidacy has thrown chaos into what normally is a sane debate.

Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall essentially have the same argument for their Hart candidacy: take an incredibly awful team, dominate when on the ice, lead the team in scoring and take moribund teams to playoff contention. MacKinnon's numbers are gaudier with his 91 points as of this writing, and his incredible form recently to take the Avs to almost playoff locks. But Hall is playing on a team with demonstrably less talent, and he's had to do more of the heavy lifting. Both Colorado and New Jersey are not very good puck possession teams at even strength, but with those superstars on the ice, they are at least better. Knowing who votes on the Hart, the PWHA, the player whose team makes the postseason probably ends up taking the lead in the horse race, though what happens if both, or neither, make the playoffs, which is still possible on March 22nd?

Then you have the superstars on loaded teams, like Kucherov and Malkin, who have been absolutely dynamite, but have the benefit of playing on really good teams already, which normally wouldn't matter, however in this weird Hart race, it might matter more than ever this year. Malkin has been uber good, but the Pens seemingly don't miss much when he's off the ice because of that Crosby fellow, and their struggles might be down more to their d-zone and goaltending than anything Malkin et al can't outscore. Tampa is much the same way, so Kucherov's hot start has faded from mind a little.

There are players like Patrice Bergeron who were crazy dominant but injuries derailed part of their season, likely taking them out of the race (which is silly to me because Bergeron would easily be in the conversation without the injury, though his candidacy is much like Malkin and Kucherov's). There are players like Anze Kopitar, who are clearly better than the rest of his team, but the disparity isn't quite the same as it is with MacKinnon and Hall, which also contributes to the idea that he may win the Selke as a "consolation prize". That could hold too for Aleksander Barkov, who is a huge reason why the Panthers have the second best record in hockey since the All-Star break, but he falls into a muddled mesh of the Kopitar and MacKinnon/Hall situations where his team isn't great, but not nearly as bad without him as Hall/MacKinnon, and with Kopitar's ability to easily walk away with the Selke.

Before we forget, and the goaltender's union comes after me while we collectively spill bottles and bottles of internet ink, aren't goalies technically the most valuable players to their team every year? The adage, "show me a good goalie and I'll show you a good coach" certainly applies here, but has there been any goalie in this season that fits this description and the idea behind it enough to win the Hart, a la Jose Theodore in 2002? Probably not this year, though the Predators are championing Pekka Rinne's candidacy as they should, and Andrei Vasilevsky's Vezina waltz has found a few hiccups as of late. John Gibson in Anaheim probably deserves a nod for keeping his Ducks team that had more injuries than almost anyone together with his personal spit, gum and scotch tape performances that may well get them into the playoffs, but that's a hard argument to win even at this stage where we know more about how good goalies are and their importance to their teams seems heightened. Connor Hellebuyck deserves at least a nod here, because he's helped backstop a Jets team that obviously needed a save into being one of the best in the league, but with his team, that's another hard argument to parse out.

With all of that said, this "race" is a dumpster fire, even as the entire world of hockey swallows itself debating the definition of the Hart Trophy instead of actually debating who should win the award. A convincing argument could be made for up to maybe 10 players if you wanted to, and most of the hockey world has basically tried to do that already. In other sports, the MVP often goes to the most outstanding player, and in some sports, this award is simply termed "player of the year", which cleans up some of this nonsensical debate to begin with.

Putting all of that and more into a blender, if I had a vote for the Hart trophy this year, this is where I'd probably end up:

Nathan MacKinnon would probably be my number one. His season is every bit as amazing as Connor McDavid's, and while he's doing much the same thing that Taylor Hall is doing in New Jersey, he is taking a worse team in terms of play and elevating them to dominant when he's on the ice. He's also clearly elevating other players too, such as Mikko Rantanen, which is something Taylor Hall and even McDavid have not been able to, even in their spectacular seasons. Hall would be second because of this, and McDavid would be third. Connor McDavid is the best player in hockey, and should not be punished for Peter Chiarelli's sins, but what Hall and MacKinnon are doing is what McDavid in an ideal world should be doing, but because luck and other factors, he's just not able to.

This decision more comes down to rewarding a season that deserves to stand out in hockey history as much as acknowledging the obvious with McDavid. He won the Hart last year with a crazy good season, and will win the award many, many more times in the future. MacKinnon and Hall may not have that luxury. For the record, spots four and five would go to Evgeni Malkin and Anze Kopitar on my imaginary ballot.

The 2017-18 Hart race is the most crowded, confusing and crazy race for this award in years, and this is the way that one big hockey fan and journalist attempts to parse it out. That's what we're all trying to do in the end, using our own prisms and viewfinders to twist this season to our notions of hockey and impressive performances.

Maybe when the NHL had six teams and everyone made the playoffs awarding the Hart trophy was easier, but in a league filled with parity and with new ways of viewing the sport, figuring out who should win hockey's most prodigious award has become a debate that goes beyond hockey itself and more comes about how the sport is viewed from individual pairs of eyeballs.

But no one ever said judging someone's "value" was ever going to be easy.