Monday, April 24, 2006

The Return of the King?

On Sunday, Greg Maddux continued his early season wizardry by holding the St. Louis Cardinals scoreless through 7 innings to run his record to 4-0. His ERA through 4 starts is a microscopic 0.99. Is Maddux's success simply a product of small sample size or has he been able to compensate for his dimished skills by making changes in his pitching? Let's look at the numbers. First, let's examine the three key components that pitchers themselves are able to exert great control over: walks, homeruns, and strikeouts. Here are Maddux's walks (this includes walks plus hit batters), homeruns, and strikeouts allowed per 9 innings since 2001. In addition, his runs allowed (earned plus unearned runs) are also included.

2001 1.31 BB/9 0.77 HR/9 6.68 SO/9 3.32 RA/9
2002 2.21 BB/9 0.63 HR/9 5.33 SO/9 3.03 RA/9
2003 1.69 BB/9 0.99 HR/9 5.11 SO/9 4.62 RA/9
2004 1.78 BB/9 1.48 HR/9 6.39 SO/9 4.36 RA/9
2005 1.72 BB/9 1.16 HR/9 5.44 SO/9 4.48 RA/9
2006 1.65 BB/9 0.33 HR/9 5.93 SO/9 0.99 RA/9

The pattern is pretty evident. Maddux's walk totals have remained relatively stable. His strikeouts have decreased since 2001, but have jumped around a bit. The one statistic that clearly jumps out is his homerun rate. Since 2002, his homerun rate has increased every season, and not coincidentally, his runs allowed per nine innings has almost mimicked this increase. Maddux seems to have reversed that trend in 2006. His strikeout and walk rates are pretty similar to his 2004 and 2005 numbers. The big difference is that he has cut his homer rate by over 75% from its high of 1.48 per nine innings in 2004. From 2003-2005, Greg Maddux was no longer Greg Maddux because he was wild within the strikeout zone. It would appear he has been able to rectify that problem.

Has schedule strength benefited Maddux? Let's take a look. He has started 2 games against St. Louis, and one game each against Los Angeles and Cincinnati. St. Louis ranks 10th in the 16 team NL in runs scored, LA is 6th, and Cincinnati is 1st. In regards to homeruns, LA is 14th, St. Louis is 9th, and Cincinnati is 1st. It appears schedule strength has been a little tougher than average for Maddux in regards to runs scored, and about average for homeruns hit. So Maddux has not parlayed an easy schedule into his 4-0 start.

All seems well, but one statistic appears to be a red flag. Here is Maddux's ground ball to fly ball ratio for 2001-2006.

2001 1.84
2002 2.23
2003 1.84
2004 1.78
2005 1.96
2006 1.39

Maddux has allowed homeruns at a lower rate, but his groundball to flyball ratio is actually at an all-time low. This means he is allowing a higher percentage of flyballs. And of course, flyballs are the ones that tend to go over the fence. While it is obvious Maddux's ERA will not remain 0.99 on the season, I think he is in for some serious regression unless he drastically improves his groundball ratio. Those flyballs are eventually going to turn into homeruns. Be very wary about starting Maddux on your fantasy team.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Come On Up for the Rising

It seems as if every year so far this decade some college football program rises from (relative) obscurity and becomes a fixture in the national championship race. What did all of these teams have in common, and what teams care candidates to rise this season?

The dawning of the millenium saw two prestigious programs that had fallen on hard times return to glory.

Breakout Year: The Sooners went 13-0 under second year coach Bob Stoops and won the national championship.
Epilogue: Following their breakout season, Oklahoma has won 2 Big 12 titles, played for 2 national titles, played in 3 BCS bowls, won more than 10 games 4 times, gone a cummulative 55-11 (.833) and never lost more than 4 games.
Prologue: In Stoops' first season, 1999, Oklahoma went 7-5 (5-3 in the Big 12). However, they were 0-2 in close games (games decided by 8 points or less). Their expected record based on points scored and points allowed was 9.8-2.2. They had the same starting quarterback, Josh Heupel, in 1999 and the following season when they won the national championship.

Breakout Year: The Canes went 11-1, and defeated Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
Epilogue: Since 2000, the Canes have won 1 national title, played for another, won 3 Big East titles, played in 3 BCS games, have a cummulative record of 53-9 (.855), and have never lost more than 3 games.
Prologue: In 1999, the Canes were coming off vicious sanctions and they finished 9-4 (just 2 seasons removed from a losing record). They were 2-2 in close games and their expected record was 10.8-2.2. The Canes integrated a new starting quarterback in 2000 as Ken Dorsey took over for Kenny Kelly.

Two seasons later, 2 additional prestigious programs rose from the depths.

Southern Cal
Breakout Year: The Trojans finished 11-2 and knocked off Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
Epilogue: Depending on your persuasion, USC has won either 1 or 2 national titles since 2002 and played for a 2nd or 3rd. They have 3 Pac 10 titles, a cummulative record of 37-2 (.949), and have not lost more than 1 game.
Prologue: In 2001, USC finished 6-6 under first year coach Pete Carroll. However, they were an astoundingly unlucky 1-5 in close games. Their expected record was 8.4-3.6. They returned the same quarterback in 2002, Carson Palmer.

Ohio State
Breakout Year: The Buckeyes went 14-0 and upset Miami for the national championship.
Epilogue: Ohio State has played in 2 BCS bowls with a cummulative record of 29-8 (.784) and has not lost more than 4 games since winning the national title.
Prologue: In Jim Tressel's first season, Ohio State went 7-5. They were 2-4 in close games and had an expected record of 7.7-4.3. Ohio State had a new starting quarterback in 2002. Craig Krenzel took over for the departing Steve Bellisari. However, Krenzel had started 2 games (Illinois and Michigan) in 2001 when Bellisari was suspended for a DUI violation.

2003 saw a resurgence in Death Valley.

Breakout Year: The Bayou Bengals went 13-1 and won the national title.
Epilogue: In the 2 seasons since their national championship campaign, LSU has gone 20-5 (.800) and played for an SEC title.
Prologue: In 2002, LSU went 8-5. They were 2-1 in close games and had an expected record of 8.8-4.2. Though not in his first season, Nick Saban was relatively new at LSU. It was his 3rd season there. LSU had different quarterbacks in their breakout season (Matt Mauck) and in the year before their breakout season (Marcus Randall).

Another group of tigers made the leap in 2004.

Breakout Year: Auburn went 13-0, but were left out of the national title game.
Epilogue: Auburn went 9-3 last season.
Prologue: Auburn was expected to be a title contender in 2003, but began the season 0-2 and finished 8-5. They were 3-1 in close games and had an expected record of 9.8-3.2. Auburn not only returned their same quarterback the following season (Jason Campbell), but also their two starting tailbacks (Cadillac Willams and Ronnie Brown).

In 2005, Penn State, Alabama and Notre Dame have to be considered breakout candidates, but we'll have to wait and see if they can continue their resurgence.

So what do these 6 teams have in common? In the year before their breakout season, half had losing records in close games (indicating they were a bit unlucky). All 6 underperfomed their expected won/loss record. Half had new coaches in the year before their breakout season. Miami was under sanctions so Butch Davis has to be considered relatively new. Nick Saban was only in his 3rd year at LSU. Only Tommy Tuberville at Auburn had an extended tenure at his school (5 years). In addition, each program also had winning traditions. So which teams share some of the same characteristics? Let's take a look.

South Carolina
Pros: 2nd year coach, returning quarterback
Cons: winning record in close games (4-3), actually went 7-5 which is better than their expected record (6.1-5.9), not much of a winning tradition

Pros: 2nd year coach, allegedly a great recruiting class (16th by
Cons: 2-2 in close games, went 3-8 but actually only had 2.6 expected wins, don't return starting quarterback (maybe a good thing since they only scored 13.5 points per game), play in the SEC West (Bama, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas)

Pros: 2nd year coach, 0-3 in close games, went 5-6 but had 6.1 expected wins, return starting quarterback Tyler Palko
Cons: 2nd year coach is Dave Wandstedt

Michigan State
Pros: 4th year head coach, 1-2 in close games, went 5-6 but had 6.6 expected wins, return starting quarterback Drew Stanton
Cons: Very helter-skelter team historically

Pros: 2nd year coach, good tradition, returning quarterback (Chris Leak)
Cons: 3-2 in close game, went 9-3 but had 8.7 expected wins, tough schedule

Notre Dame
Pros: 2nd year coach, returning quarterback (Brady Quinn), 2-2 in close games
Cons: went 9-3 but only 8.7 estimated wins, tough schedule

So that's my take. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

An Open Letter to Herb Sendek

Methinks the NC St. faithful will soon find out what Cinderella sang about in in 1988. You don't know what you got till it's gone. Over the weekend, Herb Sendek took the reigns of the Arizona St. Sun Devils and left Raleigh on his own accord. Hard to blame the guy considering all the heat he has been under despite his recent success. Seems making 5 straight NCAA tournaments is not enough in the capital city. The NC St. faithful also want him to hold his own against Duke, UNC, and Wake. While Sendek has struggled as of late against the other North Carolina schools, it is important to look at the overall body of work. When Sendek arrived on the NC St. campus in 1996, the Wolfpack had struggled through 5 straight losing seasons under Les Robinson. Sendek immediately turned the program around. He posted winning records and NIT appearances during his first 4 seasons. His fifth year was a disappointment as NC St. slumped to a losing record. However, in year 6 the Pack returned to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1991. They even won a game over defending national semifinalist Michigan St. before succumbing to #2 seed Connecticut in the 2nd round. NC St. returned to the tourney the following season, falling to Cal in a nailbiter in round 1. The next season was arguably the best for NC St. in 16 years. The Pack got their highest tourney seed (#3) since 1988. The fact that they were upset in the second round by Vanderbilt should not lessen the accomplishment. Although the regular season would be a struggle the following year, the postseason would more than make up for it. NC St. sputtered to a 7-9 finish in the ACC, but still managed to snag an at-large big to the NCAA tournament. They defeated the Charlotte 49ers in the first round and then upset Connecticut in the 2nd round to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1989. This past season, the Pack again made the field of 65 and won a game for the 4th time in 5 seasons. And Sendek has done all this depsite producing exactly one NBA draft pick in his tenure at NC St. Compare this to the plethora of players Duke and UNC have sent to the pros in the 10 years Sendek has been at NC St. Heck even Wake has seen a handful of players drafted. Some may interpret this as an indictment of Sendek's coaching ability, when in reality he has gotten the most out of the players he has. You can't make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t, but Sendek has at least concocted an edible goulash.

The problem with the NC St. faithful is that they believe they are UNC and Duke. As a Wake alum, sorry to disappoint you, but we fall a notch below those two powers in the college basketball food chain. Let's be realistic, NC St. was last a national power under Norm Sloan in the mid to late 1970's. They were a solid program under the cheater Jim Valvano in the 1980's, but winning that title in 1983 was probably the worst thing to happen to Wolfpack fan's perception of themselves. Newsflash, NC St. was not the best team in 1983. I say this not to demean their accomplishment, but to put the program into perspective. They rode a fluky hot streak to national prominence, and somehow feel entitled to make another tournament run as a low seed. Pack fans also seem to think that NC St. is a high profile job that will attract numerous established coaches (Rick Barnes, Rick Pittino, etc.). While it's possible the Pack may luck out and get a very good mid-major coach assistant to be their new coach, no established coach is going to pick up and move to Raleigh. They have not been an elite program since the Ford administration. To steal a line from the aforementioned Pittino, "Everett Case, Norm Sloan, David Thompson, and Tommy Burleson ain't walking through that door." As a Wake fan, I'm more than happy to see Herb Sendek leave the ACC. In all likelihood, that's one less game where Skip Prosser gets outcoached. I wish him well in Tempe.