Saturday, June 30, 2012


Youk departs with a final curtain call to the Fenway Faithful
Kevin Youkilis, one of my favorite Red Sox players and the only remaining member from the 2004 championship team besides David Ortiz, was traded last Sunday to the Chicago White Sox.  In a fitting farewell, he smacked a pair of hits (including a triple) in front of a cheering home crowd as part of a 9-4 Red Sox win over the Atlanta Braves.  A few months back I identified him as one of the five most important Red Sox at the beginning of the year, but it's clear the organization does not feel the same way about their fiery veteran with the most unorthodox batting stance I've ever seen.

Like Carlton Fisk three decades before him, another gritty, tenured team leader has traded in his Sox.
In return, Boston receives Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart.  I'll freely admit that I had never heard of either one, and after doing some research on baseball-reference I doubt many other Red Sox fans knew much about this pair of scrubs either.  Lillibridge is a 28 year-old super-utility guy who's played all the infield positions (minus pitcher and catcher) as well as the outfield, so he's a versatile reserve to have on the bench.  Given the myriad injuries that have plagued the Red Sox this year, Bobby Valentine can use him to plug numerous leaks while the team gets healthier.  His career batting line is an unimpressive .214/.282/.357 in 524 career at-bats, not surprising given that he strikes out more than four times per every walk, though in 97 games last year he hit a solid .258/.340/.505, good for a 123 OPS+, with 13 home runs and ten steals.

Stewart, a 25 year-old sophomore, was a starter last year but pitched terribly, as his 5.88 ERA and 1.60 WHIP indicate. This marks the third time he's been dealt in the past three calendar years; he was drafted by the Reds in '08 but they traded him, along with Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Roenicke, to the Blue Jays for Scott Rolen at the '09 trade deadline. Two summers later, after making just three starts for Toronto, he and Jason Frasor were sent packing to the Windy City for Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen.  Following eight more abysmal starts with the White Sox, who really had nothing to lose as they played out the string of a losing season, he was converted to a relief pitcher.  Coming out of the bullpen this season hasn't boosted his performance, though; his ERA and WHIP are an even 6.00 and 1.50, respectively.  He hardly walks anybody--just two batters per nine innings for his career and 1.2 this season--but the lack of free passes doesn't mean he has good control.  Stewart makes way too many mistakes and is extremely susceptible to the long ball, has already given up ten in thirty innings this year. He doesn't miss bats (5.6 career K/9 rate) and his pitches are very hittable (12.1 H/9 rate).  In my mind he's not worthy of a major league roster spot, especially not in the AL East where you need to squeeze contributions out of all 25 players.

But that's what you get when you sell low on an injured, struggling 33 year-old to a first place team that doesn't want to part with any important pieces.  White Sox GM Kenny Williams couldn't even throw in a player to be named later or a bag of balls.  Still, I find it hard to believe that was the most a three-time All-Star, two-time World Series champion who was playing at an MVP level as recently as 2010 could fetch in a trade.  What Boston really needs, even if Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz were healthy, is starting pitching, something the White Sox could have supplied (although Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that they are still looking to add a starter).  I would have much rather seen Cherington get a John Danks, Gavin Floyd, or Philip Humber, who have all been pretty bad this season but have proven themselves to be solid options at times in the past.  And while it's neither here nor there, I'm still fuming over the fact that he didn't aggressively pursue the very affordable Edwin Jackson last winter or sign Roy Oswalt when he had the chance.  Instead he went out and got us Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey.  Thanks a lot.

There was no doubt Youkilis had to go.  23 year-old Middlebrooks (.307/.341/.558) is clearly the future.  Even if his 41/8 K/BB rate hints that regression is going to strike sooner rather than later, I think he'll be a fixture at third in Beantown for years to come (keeping my fingers scrossed that he's not a flash in the pan like Kevin Maas, Chris Shelton, and about a million other big leaguers).  If only the team had committed to their young star sooner, they could have parted ways with Youkilis when they cleaned house last winter, when he had more value.  This spring he was victimized of a perfect storm engendered by his slump/back injury/DL stint, Will Middlebrooks' tearing the cover off the ball, Valentine questioning his commitment (totally uncalled for), a struggling Red Sox team and a trigger happy GM desperate to make a move, factors that all conspired to push him out the door.  His own attitude played a role as well, since he's much too competitive to accept a bench role this early in his career.  He was clearly unhappy splitting time with Middlebrooks at third, and the last thing this Red Sox team needs is another malcontent stewing in the dugout.  The timeshare wasn't working out, anyways, as it forced Adrian Gonzalez to play rightfield at times, which may have contributed to his prolonged slump.

I believe this is a great deal for the White Sox, who have nothing to lose in this trade, especially not with incumbent third basemen Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson combining to produce just one home run and 16 RBI .  They don't have to worry about Lillibridge and Stewart blossoming into stars, and best case scenario the trade lights a fire under Youk, regular playing time helps him get back in a groove, and he's a productive hitter for them.   Even if his struggles persist, he's a great clubhouse guy to have during the dog days of August, someone to keep the troops motivated.  It's easy to get complacent over the course of a 162 game season, so it's nice to have somebody like Youkilis who treats every at-bat like it's life-or-death.  Buyer beware; Youkilis has always been much better in the first half and tends to fade down the stretch.  His .905 OPS before the All-Star break is 86 points higher than it is after the break.  I'm confident Youk will turn his season around, though.  From this point forward I'd expect ten home runs, 40 RBI and a .270-ish batting average.  Not the Kevin Youkilis of old, but still plenty valuable.  He will contribute, even if it's only by taking pitches, working counts, and drawing walks.

Youkilis certainly can't complain about the deal. He gets his starting gig back, and won't have to worry about losing playing time next time he endures another rough spell.  Manager Robin Ventura has been batting him second, a cushy spot in front of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, so he'll have plenty of opportunities to score runs.   The White Sox are on top of the AL Central while the Red Sox are tied with Tampa Bay for third in the AL Beast. So it's possible he's jumping off a sinking ship and landing in a lifeboat headed for the postseason.  He's even moving from one hitter's haven to another, though in 20 career games at the Cell (small sample size) he owns a paltry .234/.341/.390 batting line.  Oh, and he won't have to deal with the rabid Red Sox fan base and ever-present media.

So now I'll take a look back at his career in Boston, a nice run that came full circle-he was called up back in May of '04 to replace an injured Bill Mueller.  Eight years later he found himself replaced by Middlebrooks, who'd filled in for him when he spent three weeks on the all-too-familiar Disabled List.

-Batting eighth, he went yard in his first major league game on May 15th, 2004 off 1996 Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen of the Toronto Blue Jays.  It was a fourth inning solo shot that gave the first-place Red Sox a 3-0 lead.  Mark Bellhorn and Big Papi also provided solo blasts.
-Was named AL Rookie of the Month for May, 2004 despite playing just thirteen games.  He batted .318/.446/.477 with 15 runs scored
-On August 8th, 2005, Youkilis teamed up with Adam Stern and Gabe Kapler to set the AL record for most Jewish players on the field at one time
-It may surprise you that Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, had just one season (2006) with more than 80 free passes.  He never led the league in on-base percentage, but did finish second behind MVP Joe Mauer in 2009.
-In 2006 he led the major leagues in sacrifice flies with eleven
-His 2007 Gold Glove was well-deserved; he didn't commit a single error at first base.  In fact, he set the record for most consecutive errorless games by a first baseman, a run that spanned 238 games from 2006 through '08.
-Started the 2008 All-Star Game at first, becoming just the sixth Red Sock and the first since Mo Vaughn to do so.  Was also named to the team as a reserve in 2009 and 2011.  2008 was his career year- he set personal bests with 168 hits, 43 doubles, 29 home runs, 115 RBI, .312 average, .569 slugging percentage, and 306 total bases.  He fwon the AL Hank Aaron Award (Aramis Ramirez was the NL recipient) finished third in the MVP race behind Dustin Pedroia and Justin Morneau, but he and Morneau were the only ones named on every ballot.
-Has a career .306/.376/.568 line in the postseason
-Was a .303/.399/.509 hitter at Fenway, .271/.376/.464 everywhere else.
-Another strange home/road split; at Fenway he was successful in just seven of 18 stolen base attempts (38.9 percent success rate) but on the road was a sterling 19 of 22 (86.4 percent success rate).
-Youk was never very durable.  From 2006 through 2011, his six full seasons as an everyday player for Boston, he missed an average of 30 games per year.  He has never played more than 147 games in any given season, and probably never will.
-Has a knack for coming through with men on base, and the statistics back it up. Always rises to the occassion with men on base. Is batting .325/.434/.552 for his career with runners in scoring position, and then ompare that to .255/.349/.420 when the bases are empty.
-Most similar player according to baseball-reference is former teammate Trot Nixon, who spent ten years in a Red Sox uniform.  Other similar players include Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis, Ryan Zimmerman

So long, Youk, and farewell.  We'll miss you.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

My NL All-Star Ballot

Carlos Ruiz (.361/.427/.579)
Yadier Molina may have a few more home runs, RBI and steals, but Ruiz's triple slash stats look like a prime year from Mike Piazza.  His 35 runs scored lead all NL receivers and his ten home runs, already a career high, tie him with Buster Posey for second place behind Molina.  Jonathan Lucroy was giving Ruiz a run for his money before a fractured hand derailed his season.  Brian McCann, a fixture behind the plate for the NL All-Stars since 2006, probably won't make the squad because he's barely batting his weight this year.

1B Joey Votto (,353/.478/.643)
Amongst NL first basemen there's Votto, and then there's everybody else. Vottomatic is the best pure hitter in baseball right now, and his rate stats are reminiscent of a 1940s Ted Williams season.  For good measure, he's pacing the bigs in doubles (31), walks (59), OPS (1.121), OPS+ (198) and intentional walks (a dozen).  The only one who can compete with the 2010 MVP's home run and RBI numbers? Adam LaRoche.

2B Dan Uggla (.240/.367/.422)
Long gone are the days when you could simply vote for Chase Utley and move on to the next position.  There's no clear-cut frontrunner this year, with Brandon Phillips, Aaron Hill, Jose Altuve (the only player smaller than Dustin Pedroia?), and Omar Infante all worthy of consideration.  Nobody stands out, so I'll go with Uggla, who has the most runs scored (50) and home runs (eleven) at the position in the Senior Circuit.  I've always felt that he gets overlooked because of his low batting averages and high strikeout totals, kind of like a less extreme version of Mark Reynolds.  His power is down a bit this year, but don't forget he started slow last year too before going off in the second half.

3B David Wright (.354/.448/.554)
Far and away the best third baseman in the NL this season with Ryan Zimmerman and Pablo Sandoval hurting, Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen fading, and the Ramirezes (Aramis Ramirez and Hanley Ramirez) still recovering from slow starts.  He seems to have recaptured the form that had him on the track to Cooperstown five years ago.  After striking out two times for every walk he drew from 2009-'11, when his career went south, he boasts a 45/40 BB/K ratio this season.  The home runs haven't been what you expected, if you want to nitpick.

SS Jed Lowrie (.270/.359/.506)
Normally this spot would belong to Troy Tulowitzki, but a groin injury has sidelined him until August.  Jose Reyes has been disappointing, to say the least, so this spot is up for grabs.  I'd have no issue with Starlin Castro,  Rafael Furcal or even Jimmy Rollins, who's been a beast over the past month. I'll settle for the 28 year-old Astro, who's quietly putting together a great campaign in his first season as an everyday player.  His fourteen dingers lead all NL shortstops (Ian Desmond is the only other one with more than eight) reminds me of Jhonny Peralta last year, when he had the numbers but the fans left him off the ballot (fortunately he made the team as a last minute reserve).  If he'd done this for Boston instead of Houston, I'd bet he'd be receiving a little more attention.  The Sox can't complain, though, as they are getting great production from Mike Aviles.

OF Carlos Gonzalez (.333/.389/.605)
The good new is that the National League leader in runs scored and total bases is hitting like it's 2010 again.  The bad news is that his Rockies have the third worst record in baseball.  And yes, his home/road splits are still outrageous.

Carlos Beltran (.312/.400/.582)
Albert Pujols who? I examined his hot start back in the middle of May, and he hasn't stopped raking.  Beltran's resurgence comes on the heels of Lance Berkman's improbable 2011 Comeback Player of the Year, and I mention this a) St. Louis is known for its reclamation projects and b) because I noticed some interesting parallels:
-Compare Beltran's rate stats to Berkman's (.301/.412/.547).  Almost interchangeable
-Both players were 35 at the start of the season
-Both players had just signed short term free agent deals
-Both players played right field
-Both players are switch-hitters
Talk about deja vu. Beltran's 20 home runs and 59 RBI are tops in the NL, and if he can maintain those triple slash figures they will represent career highs over the course of a full season. Health is always a concern for Beltran--he's missed 199 games combined from 2009 through 2011--so a DL stint is likely at some point this summer.

OF Ryan Braun (.311/.392/.596)
The reigning MVP is proving that he doesn't need Prince Fielder's lineup protection to be an elite hitter.  He's tied with Beltran for the league lead in home runs, and his triple slash stats look remarkably similar to last season's .332/.397/.597.  He's still as steady as they come, and I'm glad to see his tumultuous offseason hasn't affected his play on the field.

It kills me to leave out Melky Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier, but their omission from the starting lineup is a reflection of how stacked the NL outfield is this season.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My AL All-Star Ballot

Voting ends tomorrow!  All stats through Tuesday, June 26th.  I don't care about reputation or past performance; I just pick the player having the best season at each position.

C A.J. Pierzynski (.284/.335/.493)
His 41 RBI are tops among AL backstops, and he's tied with Mike Napoli for second most home runs at the position behind Boston's emerging Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  I thought long and hard about Joe Mauer, who's quietly enjoying a nice bounceback year with his fantastic .322/.417/.436 line, but decided to go with Pierzynski's more impressive power totals (Mauer has just three home runs, and may never reach double digits again as long as he plays half his games in Target Field).  Salty and Matt Wieters are having nice seasons, too.

1B Paul Konerko (.333/.412/.549)
The American League first baseman with the most home runs was not Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira or Carlos Pena.  It's the perenially underrated Konerko, who's also leading all first sackers in batting average, with thirteen big flies.  The five time All-Star's late career renaissance continues.

2B Robinson Cano (.301/.367/.567)
Cano continues to be the most productive hitter in New York's loaded lineup.  His 17 dingers are six more than the next closest keystone defender (Cleveland's Jason Kipnis, the one AL second baseman with more RBI) and only Ian Kinsler has scored more runs.  Cano has been especially hot of late, with half a dozen long balls in his past nine contests, and looks headed for his first 30 homer campaign.

3B Mark Trumbo (.320/.373/.622)
Tough call between him and Miguel Cabrera (.304/.363/.528), who's already piled up 59 RBI but is having a "down year" by his lofty standards.  Trumbo, the American League leader in OPS+, has gone deep more than any other AL third baseman with 18 four-baggers.  His power numbers are elite, and only Adrian Beltre (.328) sports a higher batting average, though we all know he can't possibly keep that charade up for much longer based on his 59/19 K/BB rate.  With Pujols, Howie Kendrick, Alberto Callaspo, Erick Aybar, Kendrys Morales and Vernon Wells all slumping, Trumbo and Mike Trout have been first half MVPs for the Angels.  Brett Lawrie's also having a heck of a year, and Evan Longoria  raked in April before landing on the DL with a partially torn hamstring.  Alex Rodriguez has been coming around lately, too.

SS Asdrubal Cabrera ( .291/.376//.474)
I know the fans are going to pick Derek Jeter (.305/.354/.412), who's so popular that he's a lock to get voted in every year no matter what his statistics look like.  The Yankees Captain celebrated his 38th birthday yesterday with a pair of hits in a Yankees win, but he's been ice cold over the past month and a half.  His batting line is still inflated by a scorching hot four week stretch to open the season, but Cabrera is clearly more deserving, mainly because his OPS is 84 points higher and he plays excellent defense (Jeter, well, doesn't).  Personally I'd rather have Elvis Andrus (better defender batting .301 with more runs, RBI, and twice as many steals) instead of Captain Clutch as the reserve. 

OF Josh Hamilton (.317/.378/.656)
The major league leader in home runs, RBI, and total bases is a no-brainer.  The first half AL MVP has cooled considerably since his historic nine-homer week in May, but he remains on pace to eclipse 50 moon shots and could still make a legitimate run at winning the Triple Crown, something nobody's done since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.  Like Mickey Mantle half a century before him, he just needs to stay healthy.

OF Adam Jones (.298/.344/.555)
Not quite the Matt Kemp-esque breakout some were hoping for, but close enough.  I considered Curtis Granderson, who's in line for another 40 home run season, but Jones is right with him in the power department and holds the OPS high ground by 56 points. 

OF Jose Bautista (.233/.353/.530)
A .195 BABiP has murdered his batting average, but all his other stats are right where they should be. Joey Bats is tied with Hamilton for the major league lead in home runs, but that's nothing new for the man who has belted more baseballs out of the park than anybody since Opening Day, 2010.  After a sluggish start he's been on a roll since the calendar flipped to May with 21 home runs, 47 ribbies and a .626 slugging percentage in that time.

Feel bad leaving out Josh Reddick...
DH David Ortiz (.307/.393/.618)
Billy Butler is having a fine year, and Edwin Encarnacion is finally putting it all together at the age of 29 (sounds like another Toronto late bloomer--see above), but to me this looks like a two horse race between a pair of big-time sluggers; Ortiz and Adam Dunn.  Dunn, who's not done clearing the fences after all, is leading the Junior Circuit in games played, so it makes sense that he holds small advantages over Ortiz in home runs (three) and RBI (just one), but Big Papi's OPS is nearly 150 points higher.  Plus Dunn has already whiffed 121 times, and if he keeps fanning at that rate he's going to absolutely obliterate Mark Reynolds single season strikeout record of 223, set in 2009.  So when he's not taking pitchers deep or working a walk, at least he gives the fans in the front row a nice breeze.  What a guy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lebron vs. MJ

LeBron James finally has his NBA championship ring.  It took him nine seasons, seven playoff runs and three Finals appearances, but he finally did it.

And, as much as I hate to say it, good for him.  Deep down, I know he deserved it.  He's put the time, work, and effort in.  He paid his dues in the form of blood, sweat and tears.  He (gulp) earned it.

Now, I've never been what you would call a LeBron James fan, and never will be.  I began following basketball seriously during the 2006-2007 season, and by then he'd already established himself as one of the top players in the game, so I can't say I followed his meteoric rise to fame. At the start of that season he was just 22 years old, the age of your typical college graduate, and he was already a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, an All-NBA 1st Team selection, and an All-Star Game MVP.  He'd managed to transform a flawed NBA roster of Larry Hughes, Eric SnowSasha Pavlovic, and Drew Gooden into a playoff team that won 50 games and nearly upset the reigning Eastern Conference champs.  While most kids his age were sitting in job interviews or backpacking through Europe, he signed a three-year contract extension (with a player option for the fourth year) worth $60 million that would keep him in Cleveland's gold trim into 2010.  Then he would be an unrestricted free agent along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, fellow members of the 2003 draft class in which James was selected first overall.  It was all part of the plan.

But nobody, not even Magic Johnson and his magic eight ball, could have possibly forecast "The Decision" in the spring of 2007.  If you recall, that was when he led Cleveland past the Detroit Pistons, the same Pistons who'd knocked them out of the conference semifinals in seven games the year before.  Granted, these Pistons weren't the same team; they were another year older, had lost Ben Wallace to the Bulls via free agency and won eleven fewer games than the year before.  Flip Saunders' squad was clearly weaker but remained quite formidable with their veteran core of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace still intact.  They look poised to make a third Finals appearance in four years after grabbing a quick 2-0 series lead after back-to-back 79-76 wins at home, but the Cavs responded by taking the next two in Ohio to even the series as it headed back to the Palace for Game 5.  James willed his team to victory in this pivotal swing-game by scoring 29 of their last 30 points, including a game-winning lay-up with two seconds left in double-overtime.  He poured in 48 points to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists, a stat-stuffing performance that commentator Marv Albert called "one of the greatest moments in postseason history."  Color analyst Steve Kerr concurred, adding that it was "Jordanesque."  It wasn't the first time he had been compared to "His Airness," nor would it be the last.

This one-man show for the ages had broken Detroit's back, and with Game 6 looming in Cleveland many left them for dead. But the Pistons rallied, refusing to wave the white flag.  They battled even though "Big Shot" Billups failed to record an assist and Prince connected on only one of his ten field goal attemtps.  Trailing by a single point after three, it wasn't hard to imagine the more experienced Pistons clamping down and forcing a Game 7, especially with James struggling from the floor; he missed eight of eleven shots. But like most older teams (the Celtics come to mind here) they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, allowing Cleveland to build up a double-digit lead and put the game away.  Detroit's usually strong defense bailed James out by sending him to the free throw line 19 times (he hit fourteen), and allowed little-known rookie Daniel Gibson to torch them for 31 points on five three-pointers off the bench.  "Boobie" Gibson was the hero of Game 6, but there was little doubt that it was James who had pushed the Cavaliers into their first Finals appearance in franchise history.  The clock struck midnight on their Cinderella season when they squared off with Greg Poppovich's battle-tested San Antonio Spurs of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.  The Cavs had as much of a chance as an ant has against the bottom of your shoe.  They couldn't even steal a win against the crew that put the finishing touch on their dynasty by sweeping them aside to win their fourth NBA title in nine seasons.

It was a watershed moment in James' young career.  He'd reached new heights, raising the bar for both himself and his team. Personally, he'd vaulted himself into rarefied air with one of the greatest postseason performances of all time.   With such a dazzling display, he'd convinced even the most skeptical critics that an NBA championship in Cleveland was no longer just a product of wishful thinking; it was well within the realm of possibility.  As long as he was in the game, you couldn't count the Cavaliers out.  The city worshipped their local kid from Akron.  He was annointed the savior, the chosen one, like he was basketball's Jesus Christ.  The irony is that all that pressure, the tremendous burden and impossible expectations that were placed on his broad shoulders, probably helped push him out of Cleveland.  It must have worn him down, carrying that weight around day after day, game after game, year after year.  And for that, I can't blame him.

Just as I can't blame him for trading Cleveland's frigid, snowy winters in for the warm sun and nightlife of South Beach.  I can't blame him for wanting a change of scenery after spending seven years with the same organization.  I can't blame him for getting fed up at the Cavs front office for not surrounding him with better players.  I can't blame him for always coming close, but never getting to puff on the proverbial cigar.  I can't blame him for wanting to play alongside his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh instead of Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams.  I can't blame him for wanting to have fun.  I can't blame him for wanting a fresh start.  I certainly can't blame him for wanting to win the championship he so desperately needed to validate his career. 

And neither should you.  We have to remember that athletes are mercenaries, with no obligation to remain loyal to any one team or fan base.  That's what makes the Derek Jeters, Chipper Joneses, Paul Pierces, and Tom Bradys of the world so special.  Free agents pack up and leave all the time (Albert Pujols is still fresh in my mind).  Normally money is the common denominator, but it wasn't in Lebron's case.  All he wanted was a championship.  Of course the manner in which he left Cleveland (tearing out a city's heart on prime-time television) was shallow, selfish, arrogant, immature, ignorant, bloated, and self-absorbed, pretty much every negative adjective you can think of.  It reflected his inflated ego as well as his alarming lack of awareness.  Cleveland's fans, who'd done nothing wrong except perhaps shower him with an excessive amount of love and adoration, deserved better.  Just as he deserves every taunt, jeer, boo, put-down and profanity thrown his way.  He horribly misjudged the situation and made a mistake that blew up in his face, but now it won't define his career.  It's a scar that will always be there no matter what he accomplishes, but one that will also fade with the passage of time.

I think James knows that.  He grew up this season, became a man almost overnight as he embarked on the long road to redemption.  Last summer the Mavericks served him a big slice of humble pie, forcing him to swallow (or choke on) every last bite.  After some time to reflect he realized his mistakes, and felt bad about them.  And because of that, he made it a lot harder to hate him this year.  He'd already suffered his commeuppance, lost some of that signature swagger.  You could tell he wasn't the same arrogant, immature punk who thought he could assemble his own superteam and rule the NBA.

So in the land of second chances, it once again became possible to appreciate the fact that he's unquestionably the most physically gifted basketball player we've ever seen.  Nobody can match his unique combination of size, strength, agility, and leaping ability.  He's the total package who's next triple double is just waiting to happen.  When he gets into the paint and barrels toward rim at full speed, he looks more like an NFL running back than anything else.  He possesses enough raw talent to challenge Michael Jordan as  the greatest basketball player of all time.  And it is Jordan. You could make a case that Wilt Chamberlain was more dominant, that Bill Russell was a better leader, or that nobody could match Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's longevity, but that won't get you very far. 

Granted, some of Jordan's greatness derives from the fact that his unparalleled marketing campaign helped him evolve into the planet's first truly global athlete.  Aside from creating his own brand, he expertly used Nike, McDonald's, Wheaties, and everything else to become an American icon, one who'd grown much bigger than the game he played for a living (Space Jam pretty much sums it up).  He received a level of exposure and attention that exceeded what any president, actor or rock star had ever enjoyed.  In a way, it was what he did off the court that made him unique.  Others scored more points and won more championships, but they didn't do it the way Jordan did.  With his tongue sticking out and Air Jordans strapped to his feet.

James had a similar aura about him in Cleveland, when he convinced us that we were watching something special.  Then he threw it all away by turning the whole nation against him and becoming one of the most hated athletes in recent memory.  His failure to win a championship remained the glaring hole on his otherwise stellar resume, and it provided plenty of ammunition for talking heads and casual fans alike.  There had been much speculation where James would rank in history if he could never get over the hump.  What would his legacy be?  Would he still compare favorably to Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem, and all the rest?  Or would we demote him to the tier of ringless stars that includes Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Karl Malone, as well as contemporaries Steve Nash and Allen Iverson?  Fantastic players, sure, but not winners.  And in sports, at the end of the day, that's all we really care about, right?  Who wins and who loses.  It's simple--there's no gray area, no room for debate--and we like it that way, because the rest of life is just too complicated.  All the arguments and player analysis and fantasy teams are fun, but they ultimately amount to little more than a sideshow, a distraction from what sports are all about.  Competition.  That's why you play the game. Not to score 25 points, throw a couple TD's or belt one out of the park (though that's all admittedly fun). We play to win.

Of course, winning a ring is more a reflection of circumstance than a true barometer of talent.  Everything has to break your way, and sometimes it's better to be lucky than it is to be good.  You have to stay healthy.  You have to get the bounces, the calls, the 50/50 plays.  All you can do is put yourself in the best position possible to win.  It's rare, but every now and then you'll get a team that's so good, so flawless that a title almost seems preordained.  That no matter who gets in their way, they're going to wind up on top.  Not even Denzel Washington and Chris Pine can stop them.  The 1927 Yankees.  The 1985-'86 Bears.  The 1995-'96 Bulls.  Teams of destiny.  But more often than not, you have teams that weren't expected to win the championship at the beginning of they season, but they got hot at the right time.  You can't tell me that the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals were the best baseball team in 2006.  Or that the 2011 Mavericks were better than the Chicago Bulls. Or that the New York Giants were the best football team last season.  The best teams don't win championships; it's the teams that play the best when a championship is at stake.

That's why the whole "he needs a ring to be considered great" idea has never held much water with me.  A player is just one man, a cog in a machine.  So many factors are outside of his control.  Teams win championships, not individual players.  Plenty of the greatest athletes of all time have failed to win a championship.  Ernie BanksTed WilliamsBarry BondsDan MarinoBarry Sanders.  The aforementioned crew of Barkley, Malone, and Ewing.  Before the advent of free agency, many great athletes toiled for losing teams their entire careers, helpless to change their fortunes.  Eli Manning has won twice as many Super Bowls as his older brother, but even the most passionate Giants fans would have to admit that Peyton Manning is far and away the superior quarterback.  The best athletes of all time are not the ones who won the most; they are the ones who best combined talent with winning.  Babe Ruth.  Wayne Gretzky.  And then, of course, there's Michael Jordan with his gaudy stats and half dozen championships.
Their careers, which would have overlapped had Lebron entered this world a year earlier and/or if Jordan had bothered to hang around for another season with the Wiz (imagine that match-up!), share several notable parallels.  They both possessed off-the-charts athletecism, wore the number 23 (though James changed his to six after moving to Miami), received multiple MVPs and won their first championships at the end of their age 27 seasons.  Last summer I compared James to Alex Rodriguez, another superstar who also struggled to win a ring. Now I will stack him up against the greatest basketball player of all time through his age 27 season/first championship. I value traditional counting stats like rebounds and assists. I value rate stats like field goal, free throw and three-point percentage. I value advanced stats like true-shooting percentage and PER, which is fast becoming the WAR of basketball.

The most significant difference is that James came to the NBA straight out of high school, one of the last great players to do so.  Jordan followed the more traditional path by attending college.  Like James, I'm sure he would have handled the leap just fine.  He spent three years honing his skills at UNC, where he won a national championship and established himself as the best college player in the nation.  As a result, through the same age James had played an additional two-plus seasons of NBA games, so many counting numbers are skewed in his favor.  That explains why I used per game averages instead of career totals.  Lastly, it's important to remember that James is a small forward.  Jordan played some small forward, especially during his brief stint with the Wizards, but spent the majority of his career as a shooting guard. 

I'll use ten categories to rate each out of ten, with 7.5 representing average.  Think of it like a report card; a 7.5 is a C, an 8.5 is a B, a 9.5 is an A, so on and so forth.

Some last food for thought; the player basketball-reference ranks as most similar to James is Barkley.  Jordan's closest comp is OsC.R. Robertson.

James 39.9 minutes per game, misses roughly four games per season
Jordan 38.7 minutes per game, missed roughly nine games per season

LeBron James is indestructible, probably because he's built like an M-1 Abrams Tank.  He's already led the league in total minutes played two times and minutes per game once.  That he's averaged 40 per game for nearly a decade in the modern age of pampered athletes is simply mind-blowing.  He's never missed more than seven games in any season. It's interesting, then, that he's failed to play all 82 games in a season before, topping 80 only twice.  That means Kevin Martin, who's made of glass, has as many seasons with 80 games played as Lebron does (go figure).  I would have bet almost anything that he had a couple seasons where he didn't sit out.  But he tends to miss a handful of games because his aggressive style of play leads to plenty of hard collisions and awkward falls.  Over the course of a draining basketball season they add up to a sore, battered body. And, just like the rest of us, he actually gets sick from time to time.  So I'll cut him some slack.

Jordan was every bit the Iron Man that James is with a single exception; his sophomore season was marred by a broken foot that caused him to miss 64 games and limited him to just seven starts.  Outside of that one year, though, he missed one game in his other six seasonsOne.  Four times he played more games than anybody else.  Three times he led the league in minutes played, twice leading in minutes per game.  Throw that one season out the window and he was like the Cal Ripken Jr. of basketball; nothing could keep him out of the starting lineup.  Given his unmatched competitive streak, I'm not surprised one bit that Jordan showed up to play everyday.  Keep in mind this was "before" the Flu Game.

James: 9.5
Jordan: 9.5

James: 6.9 assists per game against 3.3 turnovers, 34.1 AST% against 12.1 TOV%
Jordan: 5.9 assists per game against 3.1 turnovers, 27.1 AST% against 10.3 TOV%

What makes James' assist totals so astonishing is that he compiled them despite playing on horribly constructed teams.  He could have (and probably should have) pulled a Kobe Bryant circa 2006, taken one look at the guys around him and said "Screw this.  Just give me the ball and let me do my thing.  I'm not passing unless I absolutely HAVE to."  But that's just not in his nature.  He's too selfless, and he's at his best when he's getting his teammates involved.  Just watch him run a fast-break.  Last season he averaged 6.2 dimes, on the low side for him, and that figure was still more than full-time point guards Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson and Russell Westbrook.  His proficiency in this aspect was on full display in the Game 5 clincher against OKC, when he kept slashing into the lane, drew the defense in and then delivered pinpoint passes to Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier on the wing for open treys.  He piled up 13 assists despite scoring 26 points himself.  Like Kevin Garnett, James has been accused of being selfless to a fault, giving the ball away to lesser players and passing up shots in situations when he should be more aggressive, when the score demands that the best player on the court has the ball in his hands. 

Jordan never had that problem.  He earned a reputation as a selfish player early in his career because of his prodigious scoring totals.  But as with Kobe Bryant, those figures undermined the fact that he could be a great facilitator when he wanted to be.  In 1988-1989, for instance, he averaged eight assists per game.  He was a scorer first, but once sidekick Scottie Pippen matured and the organization surrounded him with better role players such as Kerr he gained a better understanding of passing.

James: 9.5
Jordan: 8.5

James: 7.2 rebounds per game (5.9 defensive, 1.2 offensive), 10.5 TRB%
Jordan: 6.3 rebounds per game (4.5 defensive, 1.8 offensive), 9.4 TRB%

Given Lebron's reputation as an excellent rebounder, I would have guessed the difference between the two would be greater than one measly rebound per game.  But Jordan was a good rebounder in his own right, too.  I don't put quite as much stock in defensive rebounding because it seems more opportunistic.  Obviously it's still a skill--just ask Kevin Love--that requires strength, footwork, positioning, and an innate sense of where the ball is going.  Ultimately, you still have to be in the right place at the right time. You can get great positioning, box out and get low, but ultimately you're at the mercy of the ball's bounce.  Still, just by being involved in the game and having a pulse, you're probably going to grab a couple rebounds unless refuse to go inside the three point arc, or your name is Nick Young.  Anybody can get them.  Rebounds are also a product of playing time--the more you play, the more you tend to get.

I've always been much more impressed by players who excel at offensive rebounding.  These kind of rebounds are worth their weight in gold, because they extend possessions and create second chance opportunities.  Nothing's more demoralizing than playing great defense for twenty seconds, forcing the other team to take an off-balance jumper...and see them get the ball back with a fresh 24.  It's like hitting the reset button on your XBox and wiping out all the progress you just made on that Call of Duty mission.  In order to get them, you have to aggressively crash the boards.  You have to work for them.  You make your own luck.  Offensive rebounds don't just fall into your hands the way defensive rebounds do. 

So you could make the argument that Jordan, despite grabbing fewer boards, is the superior rebounder. I'll call it a wash.
James: 9.5
Jordan: 9.5

James: 27.6 points per game, .483 FG%, 115 ORating
Jordan: 32.6 points per game, .529 FG%, 121 ORating

This one's a no-brainer.  LBJ had one season, 2007-2008, when he won a scoring title, and has never led the league in total points scored despite pouring in at least 2,000 seven times.  Had he remained in Cleveland, he probably could have won the scoring title in each of the past two seasons, when he finished within one point per game of Durant (who already has three consecutive scoring titles).  Now that he's part of a Big Three, he's taking fewer shots so the chances of him winning another scoring title have been reduced drastically unless either a) Durant gets hurt or b) Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade miss extensive time, thereby allowing 'Bron to handle the ball more and average more than 20 shots per game as he was with Cleveland.  The odds seem to be against him and I think it's very unlikely that he wins another one, but you never know.

For what it's worth, Jordan wasted no time establishing himself as the game's premier scorer.  By this point in his career he had reeled off five straight scoring titles, pacing the league in total points every year except his second.  In his third season, he scored racked up over 3,000 points while averaging 37.1 per contest.  Had he not taken two years off to pursue a career in baseball and had he not retired prematurely following his sixth championship, I sincerely believe he would have amassed more than 40,000 career points.

James: 9
Jordan: 10

Three Point Shooting
James: 33.1 percent on 4 attempts per game
Jordan: 28.6 percent on 1.2 attempts per game

Not exactly a fair comparison because at the same point in their careers, James has jacked up nearly 2,800 three point attempts wheras Jordan had taken just 625, roughly one-fifth of James' total.  But even with the much smaller sample size, it's clear that Jordan was no Ray Allen or Reggie Miller.  In fact, for the first four seasons of his career, he was about as much as a threat to score from behind the arc as Rajon Rondo, averaging fewer than one attempt per game while shooting a pitiful 16.4 percent when he did fire away which.  Simply put, he hadn't developed that part of his game yet.  But great players always find ways to make themselves better, and it was only a matter of time before MJ added the long-range bomb to his arsenal.  The following year, 1988-198), he launched nearly twice as many threes as he did the previous season, but his success rate more than doubled.  From that point forward he remained a capable three point shooter, only getting better with age like Jason Kidd

Throughout this timeframe, about five percent of MJ's shots were threes.  By comparison, approximately one out of every five field goal attempts from James is a triple, and in this regard he has been fairly steady.  Since shooting a Jordanesque 29 percent his rookie year, he's consistently remained in the low-to-mid thirties, cementing his status as a league average three point shooter. After coming to Miami his three point attempts have dropped precipitously because his focus has shifted on improving his post up game and taking more efficient shots closer to the basket.  This is a move in the right direction for James, who's a streaky outside shooter to begin with, and the strategy is working.  This season his 2.4 attempts from downtown represented a career low, but his 36.2 percent success rate and .531 field goal percentage were personal bests.

Check out the trend
2009-2010  5.1 3PA  .503 FG%
2010-2011  3.5 3PA  .510 FG%
2011-2012  2.4 3PA  .531 FG%

James: 7.5
Jordan: 6.5

Free Throw Shooting
James: .746 percent on 8.8 attempts per game
Jordan: .849 percent on 9.6 attempts per game

No surprise here, given that James has been nothing more than an average free throw shooter throughout much of his career.  In his defense, he has improved this area of his game throughout his past four seasons, knocking down 76.9 percent of his shots from the charity stripe compared to his 72.8 percent clip throughout his first five seasons. Still, he had one season, 2006-2007, when he dipped below 70 percent, and there's an 8.1 percent gap between his career highs and lows.  He mitigates this inconsistency with his sheer volume of attempts; three times he averaged more than ten shots from the free throw line.  Jordan, on the other hand, was as steady as they come, never falling beneath 84 percent and topping out at 85.7 percent.  Even more impressively, he maintained that high level of success while averaging nearly ten freebies per game, a combination of efficiency and volume matched only by Kevin Durant amongst today's players.  Two times he led the league in free throws made and in his third season he averaged a whopping 11.9 attempts per contest.

James: 8
Jordan: 9.5

James  1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 102 DefRating, 4 NBA All-Defensive 1st Teams
Jordan  2.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 104 DefRating, 4 NBA All-Defensive 1st Teams, 1987-1988 Defensive Player of the Year

If this was baseball, both these guys would have a mantle topped with well-deserved Gold Gloves.  James has a reputation as one of the best defenders of the new milennium, along with Andre Iguodala, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard.  His size, strength, and overall athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing small forwards.  Just ask Paul Pierce, who struggled mightily in the Eastern Conference Finals.  But I would never, not in a million years, have guessed that Jordan swatted more shots than James, who gives opponents nightmares about his electrifying chasedown blocks.  But Jordan produced back-to-back seasons in the late '80s with more than 125 blocks and 1.5 per game, a rate that surpasses what notorious stonewalls Marcus Camby, Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler averaged this year.  That, combined with his quick hands and sharp reflexes, helped him win the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year.  He also led the league in steals twice, and didn't have to gamble too much to get them.

Both are defensive stalwarts who could still contribute something even when they weren't feeling it on offense.  Getting back to baseball it's like comparing Roberto Clemente to Al Kaline,  Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, Carlos Beltran to Andruw Jones.  It comes down to personal preference and more than a few split hairs.  You can take James and I'll take Jordan.

James: 9.5
Jordan: 10

Individual Honors/Awards
James: 3 MVPs (4.39 shares), eight All-Star games, six All-NBA First Teams, two All-NBA Second Teams
Jordan: 2 MVPs (3.85 shares), seven All-Star games, five All-NBA First Teams, one All-NBA Second Team

Both players were highly decorated; it's safe to say their talents did not go unnoticed (though it is worth noting that James somehow failed to make the All-Star team his freshman year)..  Jordan had a tough time winning the Most Valuable Player award early on because Bird and Johnson dominated the voting just as much as they dominated the NBA Finals, combining for five MVPs during his first seven seasons.  All he could do was bide his time and settle for a pair of runner-ups and a third place finish.  Twenty years later the league has more talent and competition than ever before, so as a result the award has been more up for grabs recently. KG, Steve Nash (twice), Dirk, Kobe, and Derrick Rose have all been named winners during Lebron's career, and Durant is knocking on the door.  MJ would win five trophies in all, but considering that Lebron's already 60 percent of the way there at age 27, with quite a few prime years in front of him, I like his chances of matching and exceeding that number some day.

James: 9.5
Jordan: 9.5

James: .483 FG%, 27.2 PER, .569 TrueShooting%, .516 eFG%,
Jordan: .520 FG%, 30.2 PER, .594 TrueShooting%, .527 eFG%

Basketball sabermetrics has lauded James for his efficiency, and according to PER he's been the best player in basketball each of the past five seasons.  But had such statistics been popular twenty years ago, those same number-crunchers would have gone bananas over Jordan.  His numbers blow away Lebron's, which are already stellar in their own right.  Neither player needs sabermetrics to prove their greatness; the numbers merely reinforce what we already know.

James: 9.5
Jordan: 10

James: 7 appearances, 28.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, NBA Finals MVP
Jordan: 7 appearances, 34.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists, NBA Finals MVP

Fittingly, both were named Finals MVP after winning their first rings.  James finally seemed to turn the corner this postseason, starting about halfway through the Indiana series and not letting his foot off the gas pedal until a championship was secure.  With Wade banged up and Bosh out with an abdominal strain, James stepped up and took control of the playoffs. Until then, he had been too up-and-down for a player of his caliber.  He put the Cavs on his back in 2007, single-handedly carrying them to a Finals showdown with the San Antonio spurs, but quit on them against the Celtics three years later.  In 2011 he methodically disposed of the Celtics and Bulls, only to disappear as Dirk Nowitzki and an inferior Mavericks squad upset his Miami Heat.  Much of the criticism surrounding his crunch time play was overblown, but he did appear timid at times and seemed to shy away from the moment.  His ability to execute in the clutch was called into question, and he was slapped with the reputation as a choker.  That monkey is off his back now.

Jordan's postseason heroics are legendary, even when you omit the Flu Game and The Shot.  His stats and reputation speak for themselves.  He enjoyed what has to be considered the greatest individual postseason performance of all time when he stepped onto the parquet floor and et a playoff record with 63 points in a double-overtime loss against Boston's juggernaut in 1986, a performance that inspired Larry Bird to comment that they had all seen "God disguised as Michael Jordan" (I like how Lebron is likened to Jesus, but MJ is compared to God).  It just took a while for the rest of his team to catch up with him.

James: 8.5
Jordan: 10


James: 89.5
Jordan: 93

It's close, with James coming out ahead in several areas (three point shooting, passing, rebounding), but overall the traditional stats and advanced metrics make it clear that Jordan is still the superior player.  No surprise there.  But 'Bron is definitely on the right track; the fact that we've been making these comparisons for years, long before Lebron ever won his ring, is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.  He's not there yet, but if he can maintain this level of play for at least another half decade, he's going to give Jordan a serious run for his money.  Could he surpass the greatest athlete of all time?  I think he could.

But then again, he'd probably have to win five more championships to convince Jason Segel.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Game 5

Tonight, the Miami Heat will have the opportunity to close out Oklahoma City on their home court and deliver the first of eight championships that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh promised two summers ago when they joined forces down in South Beach.  They're so close they can practically taste that trophy.  But now that the Thunder have their backs to the wall, I think they'll show America what their really made of.  They're still the better team, and much too good to lose four in a row like this.
-Bold Prediction-If the Thunder win tonight, they will recover and go on to win the series.  I know the odds of coming back from 3-1 deficits are microscopic, but if they can just get the series back to OKC then I think they'll win both of those home games.  At the very least, I want another Game 7.

-But if they lose, James Harden will be the scapegoat.  He's been hesitant to shoot, made crippling mistakes at inopportune times and has failed to execute during the fourth quarter.  He's the X-Factor and he has to play better tonight.  Otherwise Scott Brooks will have to hope Thabo Sefolosha can catch lightning in a bottle on offense.

-Miami seems to have learned a lot from last June's battle with Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks, whereas OKC's youth has hindered them in their first finals appearance.  They've looked overwhelmed by the moment.  Miami seems much more comfortable.

-Give credit to Miami's role players.  Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Norris Cole have all been phenomenal, and the Heat wouldn't be in this position without them.

-Speaking of excellent role players, Nick Collison has played out of his mind.  So much energy and hustle.  37 year-old Derek Fisher is a great veteran presence to have and can still make plays.  His extensive playoff experience is especially valuable to a young team.

-Loved seeing Russell Westbrook silence the critics with a dominant stat line during Game 4--43 points on 20 of 32 shooting with seven boards and five assists.  He was a man on a mission, and nobody was stopping him once he got into the lane.  Yes, he can be reckless.  He makes mistakes, takes dumb shots. and seems to forget that Kevin Durant plays on the same team as him.  But everybody has their flaws, and a lot of the criticism he has to endure is undeserved.  Because when he's on top of his game he's one of the best, most explosive players in the NBA. Reminded me of Rajon Rondo's performance in Game 2 of the conference finals against the Heat.  The Thunder, like the Celtics, wasted one of the best single-game postseason performances by a point guard since the days of Magic Johnson.

-The officiating has been downright terrible/maddeningly inconsistent throughout the playoffs to the point where I can barely watch the games.  I don't believe the series are rigged, as some sketpical fans claim, but sometimes it sure seems that way.

-Bold Prediction-The two-man SWAT team that is Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka will combine for ten blocks tonight.

-Lebron has found another gear in these playoffs, a run of sustained excellence that allowed him to fight through leg cramps and hit a dagger three in Game 4.  It took him some time, but at the age of 27, he's finally figured it all out just like Michael Jordan did at the same age during the '91 playoff.  Good for him.

-I say OKC will win, 97 to 92.