Archive for April 2010

Bad Year for the New Guys

04/28/2010

In this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, six teams made it this year who fell short the season before.  Those six, the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, and Colorado Avalanche, went a combined 0-6 in their first round series.  (As we all know, they did this just to spite my picks of the Sabres, Senators, and Kings.)  In fact 3 of the 4 Western Conference winners won at least one series in 2009, everyone but the San Jose Sharks.  If the Washington Capitals close out the Montreal Canadiens tonight, the same 3 of 4 proportion will be true in the East.  Is this a trend?  Is playoff experience that important in hockey?  In a word, no.

In 2009, only one new team made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. That team, the Carolina Hurricanes, proceeded to defeat the returning New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, before falling to the eventual Cup-winning Penguins in the conference finals. In the West, four new teams made the playoffs, with the Vancouver Canucks winning a single series and the Chicago Blackhawks winning two. The St. Louis Blues fell in the first round to fellow new team Vancouver, while the Columbus Blue Jackets bowed out to Detroit. Overall 60% of the new teams in the playoffs won at least one series in 2009. Only one team in each conference advanced after having won a series the year before, the Red Wings and the Penguins; a mere 25% of teams winning a series had done so the year before.

In 2008, only one new team made the playoffs in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche. They proceeded to knock out the returning Minnesota Wild in the first round, before succumbing to the Red Wings in Round 2. In the East, four new teams made the playoffs, with the Canadiens and Flyers each advancing, and with the Flyers knocking out the Canadiens to make it to the Conference Finals. Only the Rangers in the East and the Sharks and Red Wings in the West had won a series the year before. Overall, 60% of new teams won a series and only 32.5% of the teams that won a series had won one the year before.

This is by no means a comprehensive study, but it does point out basic flaws in the idea that experience is the end-all and be-all of playoff success. This year, new teams lost, but that is really no more than a statistical fluke. Next year, new teams are likely to do just as well as returning teams, just as they have done in the past.

Advertisements

The Forgotten Alexander Mogilny

04/20/2010

This article is primarily of local interest, but I find it interesting in a larger sense how great players are sometimes forgotten. What distinguishes those who are remembered from those who are lost? I can’t say. Nonetheless, I want to highlight one example from the world of hockey, Alexander Mogilny. Given that all of my readers have just gone, who?, consider my point made.

Alexander Mogilny is first of all important historically. He was one of the earliest young Russian players to come to the NHL, defecting in 1989 and joining the Buffalo Sabres. Before that, he had been a critical part of dominant Russian Juniors teams and the 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, with linemates Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. From there, he would become the first European to lead the NHL is scoring. The game as we know it today follows in Mogilny’s footsteps.

Second, Mogilny is the greatest pure scorer ever to play for the Buffalo Sabres. In the 1992-93 season, Mogilny put up 76 goals in 77 games, primarily because he cooled off after scoring 50 in his first 46 games. This is the fifth highest single season total in NHL history. The next highest total in Sabres history? 56. Yet when the local sports radio station unveiled their “Buffalo Brackets” to honor, among other things, the greatest players in Sabres history, Mogilny couldn’t crack the top 16. Why? What happened to the memory of Alexander Mogilny?

Third, Mogilny was painfully inconsistent. This, I think, became his great legacy. Mogilny put up 76 goals in a season but never again scored more than 55. He had only one great playoff run, when he put up 7 goals in 7 games after the 1992-93 season. He won a single Stanley Cup, with the 2000 New Jersey Devils, yet he finished tied for 10th on the team in playoff scoring on a Cup won on the back of Martin Brodeur. Despite that inconsistency, he still has the 49th most goals in NHL history, surrounded by players like Federov, his former Sabres teammate Pat Lafontaine, and Doug Gilmour. He is the one already forgotten. He ranks 36th all-time in goals per game and 65th in career points, yet he is lost to the sands of times a mere four seasons after his last game.

What happened? Mogilny was always a bit of a disappointment. His ridiculous 76-goal season set the bar for his future impossibly high. The baseball comparison I think of is Eddie Mathews. In his first four seasons, Matthews hit 153 home runs with an OPS+ of 157. He never again approached such lofty heights, which proves that he was not Babe Ruth. He remained an outstanding player, and he should be in the argument for best to ever play third base. Yet Mathews is largely forgotten. Similarly, Mogilny was not Wayne Gretzky. Oh well. He was a remarkable scorer anyway. Why has he disappeared from the collective imagination? I don’t know.

Who are other great players that are surprisingly forgotten? I don’t mean old players. It is no surprise that few people remember Eddie Collins, since he retired 80 years ago. It is surprising how quickly Eddie Murray (just to give a series of Eddie’s) has been forgotten in less than 20. Who has struck you as tragically forgotten?

These Men Changed Baseball: Willard Brown

04/18/2010

Though I realize for series continuity I should be writing about Chuck Harmon right now, I want to step back just a little bit.  Willard Brown deserved to be more than a footnote in the posts on Hank Thompson and the role of Canada.  Brown was a future Hall of Famer who bombed in his brief tenure with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, a team he missed integrating by a matter of days.  What is the story of Willard Brown?

Brown was born in Shreveport, LA on June 26, 1915. Some push that birthdate up to 1911. From there, he moved to nearby Monroe to play for the Monroe Monarchs in 1934. In 1935, he moved up to the big club, joining the Kansas City Monarchs. He would play for them off and on through 1948. His statistics are incomplete, as are all Negro League stats, but sources credit him with 7 home run titles in the Negro American League and per 162-game averages of .348 batting average, .565 slugging percentage, 23 home runs, and 16 triples. Brown, nicknamed “Home Run” by Josh Gibson, was a noted combination of power and speed, a point I’ll return to in a minute. Because of these skills, Brown’s contract was purchased from the Monarchs, along with teammate Hank Thompson, by the St. Louis Browns.

Brown debuted on July 19, 1947, playing for the Southern-most team in the major leagues at the time, two days after Thompson. The results were not pretty. Brown played in 21 games, hitting .179 without a walk, posting .269 slugging percentage. In his third to last game, though, Brown pinch hit against future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, ripping Newhouser for an inside-the-park home run so reminiscent of his Negro League combination of power and speed. This was the first home run hit by an African-American in the American League. For the moment, let’s leave the story there. It is a nice cap to the career of a player who do to racism could debut until he was already 32-years-old, well past his baseball prime. The Browns would cut him in late August, and he would return to the Monarchs for his last hurrah in 1948.

Now we need to flesh out this story. For starters, note the players the Browns used to integrate. Thompson was a hot-head, a trait that would eventually lead to his death. Brown a player that teammates regularly accused of not hustling. If you wanted to pick players to embody negative stereotypes about African-Americans, you could not find a better matched pair. Was this the Browns’ intent? I have no proof, but I do know that these players stick out in a list of early integrators like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Sam Jethroe. At the least, the Browns were poor talent evaluators, a point which dovetails well with their history of lousy teams full of white players. I am inclined to blame incompetence rather than malice, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

Second, the story of Brown’s home run has a little more detail that I have left out. Brown, sitting on the bench as he was, was not prepared to hit that day. He had to borrow a bat from a white player in order to hit, and he proceeded to use this borrowed bat to hit the home run. Hollywood story, right? Well, when he got back to the dugout, the story goes, the white player, the immortal Jeff Heath, an outfielder in direct competition with both Thompson and Brown for playing time, took the bat back and broke it because it had been used by a black man.

In the end, Brown faded away. He died of Alzheimer’s while living in extreme poverty in Houston, TX on August 8, 1996. Heath died at age 60 and was commemorated (scroll down for the obituary) for his early accomplishments and long-time role in baseball in the Seattle area. Fortunately, the story has a posthumous bright spot. A committee led by his former manager Buck O’Neil secured Brown’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Late though it was, he finally received a modicum of recognition for his accomplishments.

NHL Playoff Predictions

04/14/2010

Though baseball is distinctly my favorite sport, second place is a toss-up.  I like basketball, generally preferring the pros over college, yet outside of the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs I rarely sit down and watch a bunch of games in a short period of time.  Instead, basketball trails football and hockey by a wide margin.  Which of those two goes second?  Coin flip.  Let me give two particular things I love about hockey:

1. Pulling the goalie. Hockey coaches recognize that some nights goalies just don’t have their best stuff. The goalie gives up a couple of early goals, and then the backup comes in. Imagine this happening to a QB in football. When Donovan McNabb was benched for part of one game two seasons ago, it was a topic of conversations for the rest of the year. If Martin Brodeur, possibly the greatest goalie ever, gets benched after a poor first period, the benching is forgotten the next day. This recognition that your best player at a position can have off nights strikes me as much more realistic than the NFL approach to player management.

2. Pulling the goalie. I am a Buffalo Sabres fan, going back to the days when Dominik Hasek was dueling the Dallas Stars for the Stanley Cup basically by himself. Going into the last game of the season, the Sabres needed to beat the New Jersey Devils in regulation in order to secure the 2-seed in the playoffs. If they lost or the game went into overtime, the Sabres would get the 3-seed. The game is tied at one with 10 seconds left in regulation. What would an NFL coach do? Play it safe, do what you always do, and know that you will not be criticized the next day for doing the normal thing. What does a baseball manager do when the game hangs in the balance in the seventh inning? Bring in his closer? Of course not (look at the piece on the Tigers-Royals game). What do the Sabres do, given that the only thing that matters is a regulation win. They pull the goalie to go all out to score a goal in the last 10 seconds. Instead, the Devils score an empty net goal to win. I love watching a team go all out, even if it goes against the normal flow of things.

Given all of that, I figured it was appropriate to throw up some first round predictions for the playoffs of one of my favorite sports.

Eastern Conference:
Washington Capitals over Montreal Canadiens
New Jersey Devils over Philadelphia Flyers
Buffalo Sabres over Boston Bruins
Ottawa Senators over Pittsburgh Penguins

Western Conference:
San Jose Sharks over Colorado Avalanche
Chicago Blackhawks over Nashville Predators
Los Angeles Kings over Vancouver Canucks
Detroit Red Wings over Phoenix Coyotes

The Draft’s Mistakes

04/07/2010

The NFL Draft will soon be upon us, and for many franchises, the draft is viewed as make or break. After looking over many a mock draft, I always wonder how well the players taken below Round One will do. So below, I have constructed the best starting lineup I can from players that were basically overlooked. In doing so, I am relying heavily on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, with a mixture of other Hall of Famers, Hall of Fame nominees, and Pro Bowlers thrown in to fill out the team.  The listings are position – name (round, year), with U=Undrafted.

QB – Johnny Unitas (9, 1955) [Warren Moon (U, 1978)]
RB – Terrell Davis (6, 1995)
RB – Curtis Martin (3, 1995)
WR – Raymond Berry (20, 1954)
WR – Cris Carter (4, 1987)
TE – Shannon Sharpe (7, 1990)
T – Max Montoya (7, 1979)
T – Roosevelt Brown (27, 1953)
G – Conrad Dobler (5. 1972)
G – Russ Grimm (3, 1981)
C – Mike Webster (5, 1974)
DE – Deacon Jones (14, 1961)
DE – Richard Dent (8, 1983)
DT – John Randle (U, 1990)
DT – Pat Williams (U, 1997)
MLB – Gary Reasons (4, 1984)
OLB – Kevin Greene (5, 1985)
OLB – Harry Carson (4, 1976)
CB – Night Train Lane (U, 1952)
CB – Mel Blount (3, 1970)
SS – Larry Wilson (7, 1960)
FS – Ken Houston (9, 1967)
PK – Adam Vinatieri (U, 1996)
P – Jeff Feagles (U, 1988)

The draft does matter, clearly, because it took a lot of work to pull this team together. Nonetheless, bargains exist, and they always have. One final note: Don’t draft a kicker/punter. Too many of the best ever have gone undrafted. The value just is not there.

Predictions

04/03/2010

In honor of the start of the baseball season, Christians around the world are celebrating.  (I know some claim a different reason for the holiday, but all baseball fans know that Jesus was just making sure he would be back to life before the first real game started.)  Following in the footsteps of Bill Miller and others, it is time for predictions.  Please bookmark this page in order to avoid an outbreak of depression in October.  I am sure it will be good for a laugh.

Without further ado:

AL West – Texas Rangers
AL Central – Minnesota Twins
AL East – New York Yankees
AL Wild Card – Tampa Bay Rays
Divisional Round – Yankees over Rangers, Rays over Twins
ALCS – Rays over Yankees

NL West – Colorado Rockies
NL Central – St. Louis Cardinals
NL East – Philadelphia Phillies
NL Wild Card – Atlanta Braves
Divisional Round – Cardinals over Braves, Phillies over Rockies
NLCS – Cardinals over Phillies

World Series – Cardinals over Rays

AL MVP – Evan Longoria
NL MVP – Albert Pujols
AL Cy Young – Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young – Chris Carpenter
AL ROY – Brian Matusz
NL ROY – Jason Heyward

The Canadian Role in Integrating Major League Baseball

04/02/2010

As I write more and more about the players who integrated major league baseball from 1947 to 1959, I am constantly reminded how important Canada was in this story. For starters, I would encourage you to go through the stories of the players that I have already told. Canada pops up time and time again. More than anything else, I would like to catalog some of those stories. These players deserve to be remembered, as I’ve said repeatedly, but so do the people who enabled their success. Given a sport in which every major league team was in another country, I find it remarkable just important Canada was to enabling their success.

Jackie Robinson signed his first contract with the white major leagues when he signed with the Montreal Royals. Integration of a white team, for the first time since 1884, happened in Canada first. Branch Rickey wanted Robinson to go to Canada first to smooth the transition from the Negro Leagues to the white major leagues.

Sam Jethroe, after getting overlooked by the Red Sox, broke in with Montreal. After his career in the majors ended in 1952, Jethroe spent his
last five seasons playing for Toronto of the International League.

After poor initial numbers in the minors (with Farnham and St. Hyacinthe, both Canadian teams), Bob Trice got his big break in Ottawa. In Ottawa, he followed in the footsteps of future Hall of Famer Willard Brown, the second African-American to play for the St. Louis Browns and teamed up with former Negro League star and Indians first baseman Luke Easter. From there he was brought up by the Athletics.

Tom Alston broke into organized ball with Jacksonville, then he moved onto the Saskatchewan Rockets. From there he was spotted by the San Diego Padres, his home before joining the St. Louis Cardinals.

This accounts for 4 of the initial 10 players to integrate major league baseball teams. In addition to this group, other whose followed their lead spent significant time in Canada. Dan Bankhead, the first African-American pitcher in the major leagues, spent minor league time in Montreal, as did future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella and first Cy Young winner Don Newcombe. Sam Bankhead, Dan’s brother, was too old to play in the majors and instead became the first black manager of a white team when he managed the Farnham Pirates of the Provincial League. Even Pirates integrator Curt Roberts wandered through Montreal after his major league career ended.

Canada was critical to major league integration. A disproportionate number of early black baseball players cycled through one of only a handful of minor league teams in Canada. Given that Canada did not have the racial history of the United States, the country was invaluable in the process of adjusting black players to the reality of playing for mostly white teams in the heavily racist major leagues. We should certainly remember the players who gave so much in order to play in the major leagues, but the country that enabled their great successes is also deserving of our gratitude.