By Mikee Salud
With a LeBron-less Eastern Conference for the first time since 2003, a new team had to rise to the occasion. Preseason predictions had the Boston Celtics winning the East, with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward supplementing sturdy veteran Al Horford and rising young talents in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. A pair of shocking midseason trades had Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris uniting with Philadelphia’s young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, effectively throwing their hat into the ring to challenge for East supremacy. During the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by MVP-favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo, dominated throughout, winning an NBA-best 60 wins. But despite all of these worthy challengers, it was the Toronto Raptors, whose consistently excellent regular seasons were often plagued by their inconsistency in the postseason, who came out on top as the Kings of the East, this time led by their new (and potentially temporary) superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
While their risky swap of DeMar DeRozan for Leonard seems to have worked out for now, they now face an impossible task, as the Golden State Warriors are back in the Finals for the fifth year in a row, this time with a chance at becoming the first team since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to three-peat. Or is it impossible?
Yes, the Warriors are coming off an impressive sweep against the Portland Trail Blazers, but the fact still remains that they are weaker than they’ve ever been during this era of dominance, with DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant all hurting. While they all have a chance of coming back during the series, their current championship hopes rest on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the core that started this winning run all those years ago. Add this to the uncertainty of Kevin Durant returning the Warriors after this season, this really might be the last championship run the Warriors have in them. With the right team, their lack of depth can be exposed. Are the Raptors going to be that right team?
The Raptors this postseason have been almost wholly dependent on Kawhi Leonard, and he has responded with a legendary showing, averaging 31.2 points on 50 percent shooting, 39 percent three-point shooting, and 87 percent free-throw shooting. From 15 to 24 feet away from the basket, Leonard has shot an outrageous 58 percent, displaying a midrange mastery that can be described as Jordan-esque. He’s been at his most effective as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, scoring 1.08 points per possession with a 56 percent effective field goal percentage in these situations. Leonard will most certainly be guarded by Andre Iguodala for the majority of the series, and with how transcendent Leonard has been this postseason, Iggy definitely has his work cut out for him, especially at this point in his career.
This does not even factor in Leonard’s main calling card: his all-wordly defense. He has currently held opponents 5.2 percent below their field goal percentage when he’s guarding them, most notably disrupting Giannis Antetokounmpo in the last series. And despite missing almost the entirety of last season and missing 22 games this season, Leonard has appeared in every game during these playoffs, averaging a playoff-high 39 minutes per game, and has a 32.1 percent usage rate, third-highest among all playoff players. The question now is how much Leonard has left in the tank.
His supporting cast has been inconsistent at best, and with them playing a mostly eight-man rotation, the Raptors need all of their supporting cast at the top of their game. In fact, the Raptors are 22.7 points worse per 100 possessions when Leonard is off the court. It’s impossible for Leonard to play all 48 minutes without killing himself, so it is crucial for head coach Nick Nurse to rest Leonard at the most opportune times.
And when it comes to his supporting cast, look for Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam to try and help Leonard in the offense. Both Lowry and Siakam have been up-and-down throughout the playoffs. Lowry, who infamously started off the postseason scoring 0 points against the Orlando Magic, is needed to be the secondary playmaker and tertiary scoring option. He’s done a decent job setting up his teammates, averaging 6.4 assists per game, with his teammates scoring 46 percent from the field when Lowry passes to them. His three pointer needs to carry over from his past series against Milwaukee, where he shot 47 percent from distance, as opposed to the first two series, where he shot 26 percent from three. Siakam, whose postseason has been a coming-out party of sorts, needs to focus on shots close to the rim and the right corner 3 instead of pulling up in the midrange, where he has shot 32 percent.
Danny Green and Fred VanVleet are also crucial to the Raptors attack, and have been varying degrees of amazing and terrible these past couple of weeks. Green was amazing from outside during the regular season, shooting 46 percent from outside, the second-best mark in the NBA; however, he has only been able to shoot 31 percent from three during the postseason, a drastic drop off from where he had been and where he should be. VanVleet, on the other hand, was absolutely terrible during the first two series and the first half of the Milwaukee series, combining to shoot 20 percent from three during this span. However, once his son was born, VanVleet miraculously caught fire from downtown, shooting 82 percent from three on 17 attempts. Obviously, the real VanVleet is actually somewhere in the middle, but in any case, both Green and VanVleet’s three point shooting is the key to unlocking the Raptors middling offense.
But while the team has struggled to score, the Raptors have instead built their playoff success on their defense, having the second-best defensive rating in the postseason and limiting their opponents to shooting only 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line. Armed with two Defensive Player of the Year winners in Leonard and Marc Gasol, two point-of-attack bulldogs at the point guard position in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and long, switchy athletes such as Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam, they pose as the best defense the Warriors have ever faced in the playoffs.
Additionally, this Toronto Raptors team has been excellent this postseason in forcing turnovers (opponents are surrendering 14.9 turnovers per game), something that the Warriors have been prone to do a lot since Kerr inherited the team. Considering that the Raptors have been able to convert these turnovers into 18 points per game, their best chance to defeat the Warriors are through controlling the pace and forcing them to make mistakes.
Admittedly, most of my research has generally been through the lens of how the Raptors can defeat the Warriors, which is also my backhanded way of acknowledging the greatness of the Warriors -- even in their most vulnerable state. The Warriors have destroying opponents in their traditional pass-happy, frenetic style. If anything, this postseason has been a return to their roots, as they have been carried with their original championship core with Durant and Cousins hurt. When dissecting the Warriors for this series, you have to analyze two different teams -- the Warriors with Durant and the Warriors without Durant -- because they are, in fact, some discernible differences between the two.
The narrative that the Warriors are better without Durant is absurd, as shown in the chart above. Sure, they might be able to win without him (plus they seem to rebound better and turn the ball over less), but they are better with him on the court. When plays break down, Durant acts as the team's insurance policy, being able to score on pretty much anyone and anywhere on the court. Durant is for sure out for the first two games, and anything past that is anyone's guess. But even so, swapping out Durant with Iguodala still proves to be very effective. And besides this allows us to have a front-row seat to the Stephen Curry show.
Curry's performances these past couple of games have had shades of his 2016 season. Since Durant has been out, he's been averaging 35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists on 47 percent shooting from the field, 42 percent from the three-point line, and 95 percent from the free throw line. Additionally, Draymond Green has been brought back to life after a sluggish regular season.
Curry and Green have been spectacular; on the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to note the ineffectiveness of Klay Thompson this postseason. The team is a mind-blowing 18 points better without him on the court, which comes into question how much they can really depend on Thompson being the main scoring option for the times when Curry is on the bench.
While it’s obvious the crazy amount of All-Stars are what make the Warriors a historic team, they also have an offensive system that is about as versatile as it gets. Averaging 305 passes throughout the postseason, defenses are constantly on their toes as the ball zips around the court with a plethora of off-ball screens to get Golden State’s stars open for a three pointer. With the limitless range that both Curry and Thompson employ and the playmaking prowess of Green and Iguodala, it allows their other players to cut and get open shots near the rim, as they get around 11 field goal attempts per game off of cuts and convert them 72 percent of the time.
But even with all that, there's still no denying the lack of depth Golden State employs due to their top-heavy roster. As such, key minutes have been given to unlikely contributors Jordan Bell and Alfonzo McKinnie -- and they will keep getting these minutes until their injured stars come back healthy (if at all). While both players have had their moments, it’s mostly been uninspiring play at best (the Warriors are about 3 points worse when either are on the court). But the Warriors don’t need them to be heroes at all; as long as the team doesn’t get annihilated during the minutes Bell and McKinnie play, that’s all they will need.
UPDATE: Per Shams Charania, DeMarcus Cousins has been cleared to play in Game 1. While this doesn't necessarily ensure that he will be starting or playing big minutes, he at least adds a floor-spacing/post-up option for the Warriors, whilst allowing them to be less dependent on guys like Jordan Bell and Damian Jones. Luckily for the Raptors, Marc Gasol has been a menace guarding guys in the post, with opponents having a measly 24 percent effective field goal percentage when Gasol is posted up on them. The Raptors have also been really good at boxing out the opposing team during the playoffs, which will be beneficial when Cousins is out there trying to get rebounds. Ultimately, Cousins adds another dimension to the Warriors attack and will help them, but that does not mean the Raptors' defense is not prepared.
What is most conspicuous is the drop in defense that the Warriors have experienced, a trend that has largely gone unnoticed to the public due to the fact the Warriors still manage to win in spite of it. The Warriors are giving up about 2 points more per 100 possessions in the postseason than they did in the regular season.
Losing Durant hurts more than just their offense; his length and range allows the Warriors more defensive versatility, as well as providing a surprisingly adept weakside shot blocker at the rim. It also makes the 35-year old Iguodala expend more energy than he should have to at this stage in his career. While the Raptors have struggled to put up points, the Warriors still need to be more engaged in this part of game, and not allow the likes of Green, Ibaka, and Gasol to heat up.
An interesting matchup that the Warriors are more than likely going to explore is having Curry going up against the Gasol and Ibaka. Curry is already going to be a handful for the Raptors to guard (Lowry and VanVleet are good point guard defenders, but neither have the quickness and strength to fight through the number of off-ball screens to chase Curry on the perimeter), and while Gasol and Ibaka are capable post defenders, they would get eaten up if switched on Curry. Also look for the Warriors to keep using the Curry-Draymond pick-and-roll, which teams still haven’t found an answer for after all these years.
The Warriors have had a stranglehold on the league for pretty much the past 4 years, and despite how satisfying a Toronto victory would be for all of Canada, I still can’t imagine the Warriors losing here. A three-peat is in their fortune, solidifying what we already knew about this iteration of the Warriors: they are one of the best teams in the history of the league. Toronto -- or rather, Kawhi -- will keep things interesting and make this a series tough. Either way, both teams should cherish this series, as both might be superstar-less (or in the Warriors case, with one less superstar) on their teams next season.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
By Mikee Salud
It's been quite awhile since I have talked about baseball, and I figured what better way to get back into it than talking about the Hall of Fame. Tomorrow, the BBWAA is going to announce which retirees have reached the oh-so-precious 75% voting threshold to become the next inductees in Cooperstown. Within the past year or two, I've become quite interested with the ballot and the players now that I'm at the age where I have seen most of these players play for a good amount of years. Take for example last year, when Vladimir Guerrero got elected. Being a huge Angels fan since I started watching baseball around 2006, Guerrero was one of the first players that made me realize my love for the game, and seeing him get elected last year almost made me tear up. This year a new batch of players have been added to the ballot in addition to those who have not quite reached that 3/4 majority. In this article, I am going to identify who I would put in my theoretical Hall of Fame ballot.
The "Just Happy to be Here" Group
To get entered into the ballot, all you really need is ten years of MLB experience. So while there are a decent amount of first-year ballot members who will either make it into the Hall or will at least get an extended look, there are many other first-year members who will leave the ballot as quickly as they entered and will not get to the 5% voting threshold needed to be on the ballot next year. That being said, it would be unfortunate for them to go without a mention. Here are some lightning-quick opinions of them from yours truly.
Rick Ankiel: He probably has one of the most interesting baseball careers of the 21st century. It's a shame what happened to him as a pitcher, but it was truly inspiring to see him reinvent himself as a hitter.
Jason Bay: Back in 2009, he was truly terrifying. Unfortunately, he signed with the Mets.
Freddy Garcia: Solid innings eater.
Jon Garland: Solid innings eater. (Garland gets bonus points from me for being an ex-Angel)
Travis Hafner: I was actually shocked to find out he never made an All-Star team in his career. His run from '07-'09 was really good.
Ted Lilly: He perpetually looked like an old man every time I saw him pitch. He was alright.
Derek Lowe: His career is probably what the worst-case scenario would have been for John Smoltz.
Darren Oliver: The fact that he managed to stay in the league for 20 years by being an okay reliever is very impressive.
Juan Pierre: If there was a Hall of Fast, he would get automatic entry.
Placido Polanco: His 2007 season and defensive skills were great, but had a ho-hum career otherwise.
Vernon Wells: Why the Angels decided to trade Mike Napoli for you is beyond me.
Kevin Youkilis: If you haven't already, check out his batting stance. It's great. He also got walks for days.
Everyone has their own methodology when determining who belongs in the Hall. Here are some of mine:
My Unofficial Ballot
Mariano Rivera is going to be inducted this year. No doubt about that. The only thing that will be interesting to see about Rivera's case is whether he is going to be unanimously voted in — something that has never been done before.
His career resume is about as impressive as there ever has been for a relief pitcher. He is widely known as the greatest closer in the history of baseball, and there's good reason for that. Rivera is a 13-time All Star, 5-time World Series Champion, 1999 World Series MVP, 2013 AL Comeback Player of the Year, and is the All-time saves leader with an astounding 662 saves.
The average JAWS score for a relief pitcher is 32.3; Rivera has a JAWS score of 42.5, the second highest JAWS score among all relief pitchers. Rivera's Adjusted ERA+, which adjusts a pitcher's earned-run average to the ballpark and the era in which they are playing in, is 1st all-time at 205. Elsewhere, Rivera is 3rd all-time in WHIP at 1.00, and fifth all-time in Win Probability Added (WPA) at 56.59. During his peak years from '97 - '11, he averaged a 2.01 ERA and 40 saves, clearly being a cut above the rest. In fact, he also managed to be in the top five in Cy Young voting 5 times in his career, an amazing achievement considering that relief pitchers almost never win the Cy Young award. But even with all of these achievements, he actually proved his worth by rising to these already lofty occasions in the postseason. In the playoffs, Rivera was on another level:
I understand that since Rivera is a sure-fire induction, some voters might feel swayed to vote for others who aren't as safe. If that is the case, I will only slightly be annoyed at you. Other than that, Rivera deserves to be unanimously voted in for his dominance and longevity as the best closer ever.
Roy "Doc" Halladay had a rough start to his career and had an abrupt ending to his career. Sandwiched in between these tumultuous edges, however, was a ten-year stretch that was as dominant as any pitcher in this modern era. Roy Halladay was an 8-time All Star and 2-time Cy Young winner, and has pitched both a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter.
Halladay's JAWS score is 57.5, which is below the average JAWS score for the average pitcher at 61.8. However, this has more to do with his relatively short career. What is more telling is his seven-year peak, which is about as good as any starter in the Hall of Fame. In a time when offense reigned supreme, Halladay was a cut above the rest. From 2002 - 2011, Halladay averaged a 2.96 ERA and 219 innings, as well as pitching a total of 63 complete games, 18 of which were shutouts. He topped the league in walks per 9 innings pitched (BB/9) 3 times, as well as leading the league in strikeouts per walk (K/BB) a whopping 5 times. His ERA+ of 131 is the 29th best mark among all starting pitchers in baseball history. He also finished within the top ten in WPA in 9 seasons throughout his career.
Long story short, Roy Halladay was the most durable, dependable pitcher throughout the 2000s. He is a definite Hall of Famer, and it truly is a shame that he passed away too soon to give a speech. Rest in peace, Doc.
In his final year on the ballot, Edgar Martinez is trying to become the first player to primarily be a designated hitter in his career to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Martinez is a 7-time All-Star, 5-time Silver Slugger, and 2-time batting champion.
Edgar's case, especially for older voters, is very controversial. He is the legitimate Hall of Fame-caliber player that spent most of his defensive career off the field. After two consecutive injury-riddled season, Martinez primarily became a DH in 1995. Overall, he has an elite batting slash line of .312/.418/.515 and a JAWS score of 56.0. Among all players who played from 1987-2004, Martinez had the 4th highest on-base percentage (OBP), the 10th highest weighted runs created (wRC+), and the 9th highest WPA. Among third baseman, which was his original position, he is 4th all-time in on-base plus slugging plus (OPS+). Furthermore, his seven-year apex from 1995 - 2001 saw him average a .328 batting average, 28 home runs, and 110 RBIs.
His legacy as the first, great designated hitter should add to the allure of adding him to the Hall. Many detractors believe that he only played one side of the field for many years, and while true, his hitting skills were about as pure and elite as there was. Heck, the award that recognizes best DH in the league is named after him. He'll get in this year.
The first three players are rather easy choices to be inducted this year, in my opinion. Now we are heading into more borderline candidates whose inductions this year, or inductions at all, look a lot more murky. Todd Helton, dubbed "The Toddfather" for the Colorado Rockies, is a first-time candidate who I'm not sure will be inducted at all. Helton is a 5-time All Star, 3-time Gold Glover, 4-time Silver Slugger, and was the batting champion and RBI leader in 2000.
Helton had a slash line of .316/.414/.539, all elite numbers to say the least. In his seven-year peak, he averaged lines of a .337 batting average, 33 home runs, and 113 RBIs. His JAWS score is 53.9, a tad below the average JAWS score of a Hall of Fame first baseman at 54.7. Along with Edgar Martinez, Helton was one of the purest hitters in the game, with a BABIP (batting average with balls in play) of .330 and a wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .405, both of which are higher than that of Albert Pujols, who is a surefire Hall of Famer by the time his playing days are over. Among all first baseman, he ranks 17th in batting average, 8th in OBP, 13th in Slugging Percentage, and 17th in wOBA. When you factor in his above average glove, it would look like he should be inducted eventually. However, a lot of his detraction comes from the fact he played his entire career in the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field in Colorado.
As one can see, Helton was tremendously aided by the friendly confines he played in. However, I do believe that a person should not be penalized because of a stadium, and his stats away from Coors are good enough for me to believe that he should be a Hall of Famer. From a non-statistical standpoint, Helton is also the face of the Colorado Rockies and the franchise's best player, which should give him an added bonus. The Coors factor is daunting though, especially considering the next person I am "voting" for.
Similarly to Helton, fellow Rockie Larry Walker is facing HoF uncertainty due to the friendly hitting confines of Coors Field. Walker is in his penultimate year on the ballot, but his voting totals have been steadily rising. Larry Walker is a 5-time All Star, 7-time Gold Glover, 3-time Silver Slugger, 3-time batting champion, and 1997 NL MVP winner.
Walker's JAWS score is 58.7, which is above the average for a Hall of Fame right fielder at 57.8. Batting a career slash line of .313/.400/.565, he was one the best hitters in the game during the early '00s. Among all right fielders in history, Larry Walker ranks 10th in OBP, 3rd in Slugging Percentage, 7th in wOBA, and 12th in WAR. And while advanced defensive statistics were not created until the latter stages of his career, we have every inclination to believe he was a great defender out in right field, shown by the 10 defensive runs saved in his age-36 season in 2003. When comparing Walker to a guy like Vladimir Guerrero, who got inducted last year, Walker blows him out of the water in in a number of categories, such as WAR, wOBA, and wRC+. So the question now is, why is he in the 9th year of his eligibility and he still hasn't been inducted?
Answer: the voters ding a lot of his value to the fact that he played in Colorado.
His Away numbers may not look Hall of Fame worthy, but they at least are All-Star worthy. If you look at his career OPS, he has the second highest of all-time among right fielders, but if you use OPS+, which adjusts for a player's ballpark, he drops all the way to 17th all time -- which, while it is a decent drop, is still freaking impressive. Overall, Larry Walker's candidacy hinges on whether you believe Coors field turned him from a good player to an elite player. While I won't deny that playing in the lower altitudes of Colorado helped him, I do not think that it is fair to indict him for it. Walker belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Lost in the shuffle in the main debates surrounding the ballot this year is third baseman Scott Rolen, who is in his second year on the ballot. Rolen is a 7-time All Star, 2006 World Champion, 1997 NL Rookie of the Year, 8-time Gold Glover, and 1-time Silver Slugger in 2002.
Rolen's JAWS score is 56.9, higher than the average JAWS score for a Hall of Fame third baseman at 55.7. Rolen's offensive numbers won't wow you, but rather the consistency he displayed with the bat. His slash line was .281/.364/.490, and for a ten-year stretch from '97-'06 he averaged .287 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs. Among all third baseman who played during Rolen's career, Scott Rolen is 9th in Slugging Percentage, 8th in wOBA, 11th in wRC+, and 3rd in WAR. While his offensive varied from solid to great, it was Rolen's defense at the hot corner that was his calling card. Rolen's eight gold gloves at third base is the third most among all third baseman, right behind Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. From when advanced defensive metrics first were calculated in 2002, Rolen has 114 defensive runs saved and a 107.1 Ultimate Zone Rating from '02-'13, both of which are only behind future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre. Put everything together, and you get a third baseman who was a two-way force for close to two decades. He will not get inducted this year, but his case should be interesting to dissect in the years to come.
Garnering a continuous wave of support, Mike Mussina has increasing odds of joining Cooperstown — if not this year, but next. Mike Mussina is a 5-time All Star and 7-time Gold Glove winner.
Mussina's JAWS score is 63.8, a whole two wins above the average Hall of Fame starter, which is 61.8. Mussina's ERA, 3.68, would be the third highest ERA among Hall of Fame pitchers, which would seemingly hurt his case. However, it is important to note that he pitched right in the middle of the steroid era with inflated offensive numbers, as well as pitching a majority of his games in Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium, both notorious hitters park. With ERA+, which adjusts for a player's ballpark, Mussina is in the upper echelon of pitchers with an ERA+ of 123. Mussina is one of the most durable pitchers in the history of the game, averaging 226 innings pitched over his 18-year career. Mussina was also among the best defenders on the mound, having 16 runs saved above average from 2003 to the end of his career in 2008. Among all pitchers who pitched from 1991-2008, his BB/9 of 1.99 was just outside of the top 20, his ERA of 3.68 was the 35th lowest, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.57 was the 22nd lowest, and his WPA of 37.67 was the sixth highest. Sure, he may not have been the best pitcher in the game at any point in his career, but I would argue that it's a lot easier to be the best pitcher in the game for a season, and a lot harder to be the sixth best pitcher in the game for close to 18 seasons. So while his stats may not look terribly impressive, within the time he pitched, he was as good as they come.
Now we are going to approach more controversial choices, starting with someone whose off-the-field comments have provided enough controversy to taint his production on the field. That being said, though, Schilling's career, especially during the postseason, garner more than enough attention. Schilling is a 6-time All Star, 3-time World Champion, 2001 World Series MVP, and 1993 NLCS MVP.
Schilling's JAWS score was 64.1, which is also higher than the 61.8 JAWS score that the average Hall of Fame starter has. Schilling's career was relatively average up until his age-30 season in 1997. After '97, Schilling averaged a 3.45 ERA and 206 innings pitched, displaying a dominance that was rarely seen during the steroid era. Additionally, Schilling had a 1.66 BB/9 IP (9th lowest among all pitchers from '97-'07), a 3.17 FIP (4th lowest), and a 33.05 WPA (3rd highest).
All this being said, none of this pales in comparison to his postseason numbers, where he rose to the occasion every time. From his World Series MVP performance in 2001 to his infamous bloody sock game in 2004, Schilling owned October. In 133 1/3 innings, Curt Schilling had an 11-2 record, a 2.23 ERA.
Unfortunately, his outspoken political comments have soured his candidacy. However, what he says off the field should not affect the impact he made throughout his playing days.
Before we talk about Bonds (spoiler alert: we're also gonna discuss Clemens later on), we have to talk about the elephant in the room — steroid-users. The steroid era of the early 2000s have tainted the record books, negatively impacted the way we view baseball during that time, and, most importantly to this article, backlogged many would-be inductees into ballot-purgatory. However, we also cannot deny that the steroid era brought new excitement to the game. We choose to take away the merit of those players, but we cannot take away the memories that many felt watching players like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, and McGuire. If one asked me to describe baseball during the early 2000s, I would first think about performance-enhancing drugs, sure, but I would also talk about the feats that many of those players had. It would be impossible to not discuss Barry Bonds when talking about one of the best position players ever. If we also factor in the case that he would have made the Hall of Fame during his pre-drug days, I think he is worthy of an induction.
The accolades speak for themselves. Barry Bonds is a 14-time All Star, 7-time NL MVP, 8-time Gold Glover, 2-time batting champion, and 2-time home run leader. Oh, and he also is baseball's all-time home run leader with an eye-popping 762 total home runs. Several accounts believe that Bonds might have started to take steroids as early as the 1998 season; Bonds' career prior to '98 was Cooperstown-worthy by itself, with a slash line of .288/.408/.551. He also averaged 31 home runs, 91 RBIs, and 35 stolen bases during this time, and had a career WAR of 91.8. All-time, Bonds has the 5th highest wRC+ with 173, 6th highest OBP in .444, and the 2nd highest WAR in 164.4, right behind Babe Ruth. Defensively, his 8 Gold Gloves came before a time where defensive metrics weren't developed yet, but it is with good faith that Bonds was a great defensive player in his athletic prime. Regardless of everything, Bonds was the ultimate five-tool player and arguably the best player of the 1990s. His Frankenstein transformation during the 2000s tainted the overall view of his legacy, but with the reasons I highlighted above, Bonds should be a Hall of Fame inductee sooner or later.
Continuing with the worthy steroid users, Roger Clemens' resume, while tainted during the latter portion of his career, still stands as one of the most impressive in baseball history. Clemens is an 11-time All Star, 2-time World Series Champion, 7-time Cy Young Winner, 1986 AL MVP, 4-time Wins leader, 7-time ERA leader, and 5-time AL strikeout leader.
Like Bonds, we are mainly going to look at his career through the 1997 season, which still shows that he was an elite pitcher. From 1988-1997, Roger Clemens averaged a 2.97 ERA, 217 innings, and 206 strikeouts. During this time span, he had the 2nd lowest FIP at 2.88, the 5th highest K/9 IP at 8.54, the 8th lowest WHIP at 1.15, and the highest WPA at 50.13. All-time, Clemens owns the 3rd highest WAR among all pitchers at 139.6, and the 9th highest ERA+ at 143. All in all, Clemens was the greatest pitcher of the past 30 years -- with or without steroids -- and deserves induction just like Bonds.
One final note: I do believe at some point both Clemens and Bonds will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and with that, there will be a lot more leniency for other controversial candidates such as Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez, and future candidates like Alex Rodriguez. I thought about including guys like Sosa and Ramirez in favor of, say Scott Rolen and Todd Helton. However, Bonds and Clemens are undoubtedly the two best players who used PEDs, and until they get inducted, I will not vote other players who are in this drug limbo. Maybe it is an unfair and unjustified qualification, but if players on the magnitude of those two cannot get enough votes due to their complicated careers, then I believe no one like them ever will.
While these are the ten players that I would choose, this does not mean that no one else on the ballot is worthy of consideration. Players like Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, Andy Pettitte, and Billy Wagner all have decent cases for Cooperstown, as well as previously mentioned steroid users like Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa. Maybe in another year, they'll be in my ballot, but for now, they will remain in the purgatory that is the Hall of Fame ballot. We should also give our condolences to Fred McGriff, who is in his last year of eligibility and will not make it.
Looking at how things are actually shaping up, we will have at least 3 inductees this year: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, and Edgar Martinez. Mike Mussina is also above the 75% voting thresh hold, but with only about half of the ballots revealed, it is not a sure thing that he is safely in the Hall. After those 4, Clemens, Bonds, and Walker are knocking on the door, which should make things more interesting next year, especially with guys like Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu entering the ballot.
*Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs*
By Mikee Salud
If you have followed the NBA over the years, you might have noticed the increase in running. Players are running faster, fast break opportunities are increasing, and points are coming in bunches. In this new age of sport analytics, basketball has seen many changes in the way the game is being played today: "inefficient" mid-range shots are being eschewed for long-range three-point shots, teams are driving to the rim with greater frequency, and the overall pace of play has been dialed to eleven as teams are playing faster than they have in decades. I had a good amount of free time one day, so out of sheer boredom and curiosity, I decided to look specifically at pace statistics and see how the league has changed over the past couple of seasons and see whether or not an increase of pace really does lead to wins.
With the help of NBA.com/STATS, I looked at the past couple seasons and took note of the number of wins for all 30 NBA teams and their pace statistic. I decided to go as far back as the 2014-2015 NBA season because that was the start of the Golden State Warriors Championship era, which led many NBA executives, fans and media members to see the benefit of playing smaller and faster. Pace is a statistic that calculates the number of possessions a team has per game. Essentially, the higher a team's pace is increases a team's chances to score, but it adversely also increases the opponents' chances to score as well.
Then, for each season, I calculated the teams that played the fastest and slowest that season, the league average pace, the median pace, the average pace of the top 15 NBA teams and bottom 15 NBA teams and the correlation coefficient between wins and pace. I also took a look at the playoff teams for each season and found the average playoff pace and compared it to the championship team for that season. For reference, the closer the correlation coefficient is to 1, there is a strong, positive association between wins and pace (ie: a faster pace leads to more wins). The closer it is to -1, the is a negative association between wins and pace (ie: a faster pace leads to less wins). If the coefficient is close to 0, there is no association at all!
Now let's get started.
2014-2015 NBA Season
When Steve Kerr was hired to coach the Warriors, I doubt he had "change the way NBA offenses are being played" as one of his objectives. But, with his hire brought a new mindset for Golden State: play fast, but with control. Out went the heavy doses of Curry-isos with Mark Jackson, and in went playing with (almost) reckless abandon. Golden State had almost 5 more possessions than the league average team, and almost 2 more than the next fastest team. The correlation coefficient is not significant enough for there to be conclusive evidence that a faster pace leads to more wins, but in this copycat-league, NBA front offices started to take note of what Golden State was doing. I also found it interesting that the upper half of the league played a bit faster than the bottom 15 teams, an occurrence we will not see in the following seasons.
2015-2016 NBA Season
This season will forever be known for the Warriors historic dominance in the regular season, and their historic collapse in the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That being said, Golden State grabbed the league but its throat for the first 82 games, playing with the second fastest pace in the game. Around the league, other teams started to play faster, especially for those in the bottom half of the league; as such, the correlation coefficient tipped to the negative this season. The Sacramento Kings were awarded as the fastest team in the league this season, as George Karl, known for his fast-paced offenses, had his first and only full season as the head coach.
2016-2017 NBA Season
Before anything, I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Utah Jazz for being the slowest team in the league three years in a row...really impressive stuff. Starting with the 2014-2015 season, the Jazz hired Quinn Snyder as their head coach. He has lead a more calculated offensive attack, being one of the only teams in this modern era to focus on having a glacial pace to help amplify their defensive strength in the half-court.
There was a slight increase in the average pace, but the Warriors, now with Kevin Durant, still finished in the top-three in pace. Probably the most interesting thing that I noticed was the gap in pace between the upper half of the league and the lower half of the league, led by the Brooklyn Nets, who owned the league's worst record, but also the league's fastest team. At this point, while the correlation coefficient slowly increased from last season, it's pretty clear that the correlation coefficient between wins and pace will not appear to be significant.
2017-2018 NBA Season
The league's obsession with pace really explodes this year, with 5 teams averaging over 100 possessions per game. An interesting fact about the Warriors' pace statistic is that despite slightly increasing their pace each year, their standing as one of the fastest teams in the league has steadily dropped since their first season with Kerr at the helm. During Kerr's first season, they were the fastest team in the league; now, they were the fifth fastest. Furthermore, the gap between the upper half of the league and the bottom half of the league lessened, which implies that practically the entire league is homogeneously becoming a game with pace. Because everyone is becoming faster, the correlation between wins and pace have become close to zero. The New Orleans Pelicans, coached by Mike D'Antoni stalwart Alvin Gentry and their singular-browed superstar Anthony Davis, get the title of fastest team, while the Sacramento Kings, this time being coached by the Grit-and-Grind disciple Dave Joerger, own the title of the slowest team in the league. That being said, their pace this season would have actually placed them among the top ten fastest teams in the league during the 2014-2015 season.
In this new age of sport analytics, pushing the pace has been one of those interesting facets. To be completely honest, I was a little disappointed to see that there was close to no correlation between wins and pace in every season I researched. However, this lead me to thinking: why are teams playing with pace in the first place?
The logic of playing faster makes sense: the quicker you can get into transition, the easier shots you can get (ie: open layups and open threes). However, the logic of going faster can also be a tad bit counter intuitive. If a team has more possessions to score, so will the other team. A team having a bunch of opportunities to score means nothing if they cannot defend the extra opportunities the opposition has to score. What makes a team like Golden State special is the fact that they can play fast, but also have a stout defensive unit.
We can also see that most teams today with a generally quick pace tend to be at the lower half of the league. A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of talent those teams have, and to compensate this lack of talent, they will try to find as much easy baskets as possible. Teams like the Rockets can employ elite isolation players in James Harden and Chris Paul, so they don't need to worry about plays breaking down or the game slowing down, as those two can get a bucket anytime they want. On the flip side, a team like the Sacramento Kings needs as many easy points as possible since they do not have an elite isolation player when the game slows down. Finding easy baskets whenever possible is a must.
So far this season, about 2/3 of the league is playing with a pace of over 100 possessions per game, with all of those teams with varying degrees of success. What this exercise has proven is that pace is not what necessarily leads to wins, but rather how they perform due to their pace. Does a team playing faster sacrifice their defense? Does stopping the fastbreak cause struggles when a game slows down? And this exercise was only performed for the regular season. The playoffs are typically slowed down. Can teams keep this fast pace past the initial 82 games?
All in all, a faster pace does not lead to wins. This, however, does not seem to be stopping teams today from running. Whatever the case may be, it certainly does not hinder the excitement of the game today.
*Stats courtesy of stats.nba.com*
By Mikee Salud
LeBron James plays for the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard plays for the Raptors. Carmelo Anthony looks like he might be out of the league. DeMarcus Cousins has yet to play for the Warriors, and Kevin Durant looks like he is on his way out.
The NBA season is already about a month in, and after the flurry of moves that happened within the offseason, I figured now would be as good of a time as ever to give a little check-in to see how the the regular season is shaping up.
LeBron's Lakers: Consistently Inconsistent
When the LeBron chose to sign with the Lakers this summer, a collective sigh of relief and excitement was heard all over Los Angeles (ignore the moans — the Kobe die-hards don't count). What ensued next were questionable — and meme-able -- signings, constant media attention, and an incredibly inconsistent start.
Every flaw the media claimed the Lakers had have been true. They are 20th in three point percentage, and this is with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Lonzo Ball -- all historically bad three point shooters -- being among their best three point shooters thus far. Their defense has dropped off significantly since last year, as they now rank 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating, 11 spots lower than where they placed last season. While JaVale McGee has shined past his Shaqtin’ A Fool lowlights to become a vital piece to the Lakers’ success, their strategy of utilizing LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma as his backup in the center position failed miserably, which prompted them to sign 36 year-old Tyson Chandler. With all things considered, it's been both a surprising and frustrating start to LABron.
In my opinion, their lack of half-court offense is their most troubling struggle. It seems as if they are content to go out and run for the first 43 minutes of the game, but during those last five minutes, it appears like they cannot form any type of offense, instead relying on LeBron and Brandon Ingram iso’s that are clearly not working.
Even more concerning, however, is that Lebron does not seem like the same LeBron of old. His three-point percentage has dropped to almost 10 percent (36.7 to 26.5), as has his percentage below the rim (73.7 to 62.6). While the season is still young, this seems to be something that is mere nitpicking.
There are bright sides to the team however. Coming into the season, head coach Luke Walton has stressed that the team is going to run. They have followed his lead and then some, leading the league in transition points and fueling their offense to the 7th best offensive rating in the NBA. Bear in mind that the season is still new and fresh enough for the Lakers to pull themselves together, but it is not unreasonable to expect much more headlines, soundbites, and media-induced chaos as the season progresses for the league’s most prominent franchise.
Trae Young vs. Luka Doncic: Forever Intertwined
The biggest thing to come out of this year’s draft was the draft-night trade which had the Atlanta Hawks send Slovenian basketball prodigy Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for college sensation Trae Young and Dallas’ 2019 first round pick. The consensus opinion was that Dallas clearly won the trade, including myself. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how well Young’s game has transferred from Oklahoma to Atlanta.
When looking at basic counting stats, it appears that Young and Doncic are on even ground. Trae Young is averaging 16.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game, while Luka Doncic 19.2 points, 4.1 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, when looking at more advanced analytics, it is clear who is having the better: Doncic is shooting the ball much more efficiently, is less of a defensive-sieve (although neither is what you would consider good at defense) and is more of a net positive on the court for his team. That being said, Young has proven to be the more apt ball-handler and play maker, as his assist percentage is much higher than Doncic's while also turning the ball over less.
Despite Doncic outplaying Young thus far, adding context is every bit important here. Dallas has a better team with better players surrounding Luka, such as Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and the ultimate veteran presence in Dirk Nowitzki. Trae Young, on the otherhand, is expected to be the main offensive talent of an Atlanta team that is still trying to add more young talent through these next couple of drafts. After one month, I would say Dallas has the better rookie, but when you add in the fact that Atlanta has Dallas’ first round pick next year, maybe the Hawks did not get fleeced as some (such as yours truly) thought they did. If anything, both rookies are performing at a high level and both franchises should be happy with their trade thus far.
Early MVP Favorites
Las Vegas put the odds on LeBron James nabbing his 5th(!!!!) MVP award this season. However, after one month, it feels wide-open. LeBron is still heavily involved with the race, but we have already looked at his impact with the Lakers. Here are some other strong MVP candidates right now.
If I had to pinpoint the favorite, it'd have to be the Greek Freak in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been rapidly improving every single year, but this time, his rise as a top-five player in the league has coincided with the Milwaukee Bucks' emergence toward the front of the Eastern Conference. While much of this can be attributed to their new head coach Mike Budenholzer and his Popovich-ian offense, the offense does not work nearly as well without Giannis. Giannis is averaging 26.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game thus far. When someone is pretty much a team’s main ball handler, rim protector, scorer, rebounder, and leader all while being on a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, it pretty much spells MVP.
Out in the West, despite missing the last 5 games, Stephen Curry was having an explosive start to the season, with each game feeling reminiscent of his career-defining 2016 MVP season. Curry is averaging 29.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game, all while shooting an insane 49.5 % from the three-point line on 10.5 attempts. Without Curry, the team has been looking flat in all aspects. Curry's three-point prowess and gravity allows the team to play their signature free-flowing offense; his absence has makes the team more reliant on isolation attempts while ruining their spacing, especially with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant struggling from three. The team is a whole 14.4 points worse without him on the floor (13.5 net rating with Curry vs. -0.9 without Curry), and have been 1-4 since his injury. However, more important than his statistical on-court production is his off-court contributions as the leader of the team. The beef between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green has seriously ruined the Warriors' chemistry and it does not look anywhere close to being fixed. Steph's disappearance has left the Warriors without an important voice and peacemaker in the locker room (shoutout to DeMarcus Cousins for at least trying). Curry is still looking to recover from his injury, but if he comes back without missing a beat and happens to right the ship in the bay, Curry could be looking at his third MVP award.
Mentions should be given to guys like Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but these guys are carrying the torch in these irrationally early MVP talks.
Time to Hit the Panic Button?
There are teams like the Lakers, who are struggling to find their footing, and there are teams like the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns, who are purposefully bad, but then there are teams that expected to be much better in the early going and are clearly in disarray.
In what may be my favorite take during the offseason, Tristan Thompson claimed during media day that the East still runs through them. It took about one game to realize how much of mess that team is and how much of a mess Thompson’s head is at. Tyronn Lue is out as head coach, Kevin Love is injured (again), and Jordan Clarkson’s neck tattoos are starting to gross me out (google it), all leading to the worst record in the NBA thus far.
If there was anything positive going into their season, it was supposed to be that the Cavs would be able to play a more free-flowing, pass-happy offense now that LeBron and his Iso’s were gone. Instead, they are making three less passes per game without James and are still in the bottom of the pack. Furthermore, without James’ gravity, their three-point percentage has fallen from 37% to 35%. This all leads to having a team that does not move the ball, plays little defense, shoot with league average efficiency, or essentially, a team that thrived solely due to the heroics of LeBron, without LeBron. Colin Sexton has also struggled amidst locker room issues and inefficiency, but his growth is still vital for the franchise. All in all, if I were the Cavaliers front office and their fans, I would be tuning into every Duke game possible and imagining how RJ Barrett or Zion Williamson could fit in as a future centerpiece.
The Washington Wizards could be argued as an even bigger mess. Their team is much more talented in comparison to the Cavaliers, yet their are close to even in the Eastern Conference standings. While their issues most likely stem from arguments between the players, it still doesn’t hurt to see what are they statistically lacking.
The team starts and ends with their backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Offensively, most of Wall’s numbers have not taken a hit, but the most alarmingly, albeit fixable, issue is his drop in three-point attempts and percentage. Hovering around 35% the past three years, he’s shooting below 30% right now, and his lack of three-pointer has really hurt the Wizards’ spacing. Defensively, it seems like Wall and Beal have taken a big dip. Wall’s defensive rating is 112.7 and Beal’s is 111.6. Both numbers are really bad, especially for someone of Wall’s caliber and reputation. With their two star players playing little defense, opposing backcourts are eating them up. Leaving them with one of the worst defenses in the league. Many analysts and players say that a great NBA defense starts with communication, and it is no secret that Washington’s chemistry is a mess. They’ve been one the East’s best teams for a good portion of the decade, but it does feel like their team now has a shelf life that they are increasingly approaching. Keep a close eye on them during the trade deadline, they might let go of some major pieces.
Early Season Success Stories
Finally, let’s wrap this up with some feel good stories. The Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers have all performed tremendously during the early portion of the season, and all of their successes seem to sustainable enough to believe their hype.
The Milwaukee Bucks made only small changes with their actual roster, adding floor-spacing big men in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. Their most prominent move came in the form of their head coach, changing from Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty to Greg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer. The new system that Milwaukee runs is much more in line with new-age NBA offenses, and it has led to an invigorated Giannis Antetokounmpo, and better results. Their offense has completely flipped to becoming a three-point focused system. They are shooting the second most three-pointers in the NBA while still converting them in an efficient 38%. Furthermore, their defense has become incredibly staunch as well, holding opponents to the lowest defensive field goal percentage and having the lowest defensive rating in the NBA; for comparison, the Bucks were middle of the pack last year in defensive rating.
As of this writing, the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are the two top teams in the wild, wild Western Conference. After an injury-riddled 17-18 season, Memphis has come out better than ever, and they have even retained their signature Grit and Grind nature. Memphis has done a tremendous job of zigging while the rest of the league is zagging; as the league has increasingly become faster, Memphis is still playing at their glacial, last-place pace. This has allowed Memphis to get other teams out of their comfort zone and play slow, defensive, and in a halfcourt set, which is to their own benefit. They are third in the league in defensive rating (103.4), so teams are unable to score on them. Carrying Memphis' return are Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, two aging stars who look to be finally healthy again. Gasol is averaging 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game and looks to reinvigorated to be playing meaningful basketball again. Conley is perennially known as one of the most underrated, yet overpaid players in the game, but is roaring with a vengeance this season, averaging 20.2 points and 6.3 points per game. Even Jaren Jackson Jr. is proving his worth as the 4th overall pick in this year's draft, with 12.9 points and 1.9 blocks. With those three leading, maybe there's hope for Memphis to make a meaningful run this season.
LA's other team has been such a surprise considering their lack of star power. But what they lack in star power, they have in quality players. I would argue that the Clippers have one of the deepest teams in the league. All 15 players on their roster could be justifiable rotation players, and that gives a reinvigorated Doc Rivers multiple options for his attack. The interesting thing about their offense, which scores the third most points in the league, is that the bulk of their points come without a bunch of three-point attempts, with only 28.6% of their field goal attempts are three point shots. That being said, they make their three-point attempts matter, as they are shooting 38.3 % from three, good for fourth in the league. They also get to the free throw line a ton, shooting an NBA-high 29.3 free throws a game and converting them at a second-best clip at 82.5 %. While I previously mentioned their lack of star power, Tobias Harris is putting together potential All-Star campaigns. Harris is averaging 20.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game with a shooting slash line of .516/.434/.817. Add in other standout role players in Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers are looking to continue their early success.
By Mikee Salud
After many thrilling weeks, numerous standout rookie performances, and some three-point chucking game 7's, we have finally reached the apex of the NBA season. Unfortunately, we might not be in for a real treat. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will be playing for the championship for the fourth consecutive year, the first time this has ever happen in NBA history. While there is unquestionably some fatigue that is rising among the public about having the same two teams playing in the Finals again, it still features a team that boasts four All-Stars and an offensive system that will impress even the most passionate NBA fans, and another team that employs arguably the most marketable athlete in the world doing his best one-man-show routine. Despite the moaning of some media outlets, there is no doubt that the series will still draw in massive ratings.
Despite lackadaisical and uninspired play throughout the regular season, they have appeared dominant through these past few weeks, and analytically, it appears to be no contest heading into the final round. The Warriors led the league with a 112.3 offensive rating while also having the ninth best defense in the league with a 104.3 defensive rating in the regular season. In the playoffs, the Warriors have ramped up their defense with a 99.7 defensive rating while still maintaining their top notch offense. They have also rebounded at an elite rate in the playoffs, grabbing 52% of available rebounds. The third quarter has been their strong suit all season and where they create separation from their opponents, outscoring them by 33 points thus far. Just like their reputation demands, their offensive system is very pass happy, averaging 25 assists per game, as well as 301 passes per game. Of course, their whole team is centered around their four cornerstones -- Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Kevin Durant, who was last year's Finals MVP, has been sensational this time around as well, scoring 29.4 points per game these playoffs. Stephen Curry, who missed the first seven games of the playoff run, has been inconsistent at times, but really turned it on during the last two games against the Houston Rockets, scoring an average of 28 points to lead them to the Finals. Klay Thompson has been his usual self, shooting 42% from the three point line these playoffs while providing sensational defense. And one cannot forget about Draymond, who leads the team in rebounds (11.6), assists (8.1), steals (1.9) and blocks (1.5). The four of them, along with veteran wing Andre Iguodala, form their so-called "Death Lineup". With the Death Lineup, they are beating their opponents by 22 points. However, the one wrinkle that hurts the Warriors is the injury to Andre Iguodala, as he is still nursing a leg contusion and will be out for at least game 1. Due to this, the Warriors will have to rely upon the combination of Kevon Looney, Nick Young, and Shaun Livingston to provide the Warriors a fifth guy to replace the production that will be missed due to Iguodala's absence.
Speaking of the fifth guy, many already know what to expect from the Warriors' core four. With Iguodala out, the X-factor will have to be whichever one of Looney, Young, or Livingston the Warriors will look to as the replacement for him. Based upon what we saw against the Rockets, it looks like Kevon Looney will get the first crack to play center in this series. When Looney is inserted with the Warriors' All-Stars instead of Iguodala, they are five points worse, as while their defense improves, their offense noticeably dips. With Looney, the Warriors get a tough rebounder and added length down at the post, but lose the extra playmaking skills that Iguodala provides, which can lead the Warriors to pass less and become more isolation dependent. Furthermore, losing Iguodala for these first few games means that they will be without their best LeBron defender. The play of Looney can decide how fluid the Warriors will play. If not, someone like rookie Jordan Bell may takeover.
In many ways, it is surprising that the Cavaliers even got this far. From trading Kyrie Irving, to dismantling their team during the Trade Deadline, the Cavs have been through it all this year. In the regular season, the Cavaliers had a top-5 offense (110.6 offensive rating) but the second worse defense in the league (109.5 defensive rating), only behind the Phoenix Suns. While their defense has picked up a bit during the playoffs (105.9 defensive rating), they have been plagued by inconsistent performances by their role players. After a first round scare from the Indiana Pacers and a seven-game battle with the Boston Celtics, this is a true testament to LeBron's brilliance. Throughout these playoffs, LeBron leads the Cavaliers in minutes (41.3), points (34.0), assists (8.8), steals (1.4), and blocks (1.1), while also being second on the team in rebounds (9.2). He is truly carrying a team more so than any other player in NBA history. In fact, the Cavaliers' most used lineup that does not include LeBron is getting outscored by 23 points during these playoffs. Essentially, LeBron needs to play close to 48 minutes each game in order for the Cavaliers to have a chance against the Warriors, especially with Kevin Love not being 100%.
Speaking about the role players, the Cavaliers have a rotating cast of players that can only seem to turn it on when they are playing at home. When looking at home and road splits, the Cavs score 9 less points and give up 5 more points when playing on the road; this is a major problem, as they do not have homecourt advantage during this series. In order for Cleveland to win, they need more consistency out of guys like George Hill, JR Smith, Jeff Green, and Kyle Korver, all whom's effective field goal percentages drop considerably when on the road, if they want any chances of winning. On the other side, the Warriors will look to prevent any of the Cavaliers role players from getting hot, helping LeBron, and making this a series.
That being said, there are some positives that the Cavaliers can look to. The five man lineup of LeBron, George Hill, JR Smith, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson have outscored their opponents by 25 points when trotted out together -- the second best lineup among 23 lineups that have played over 50 minutes in the playoffs. Furthermore, they play at a a much slower pace than the Warriors, with the second slowest pace among all playoff teams, averaging about 93.85 possessions per game. In comparison, the Warriors have averaged 99.88 possessions per playoff game. Furthermore, the ball tends to stay within LeBron's hands, as the Cavaliers average 247 passes a game and 18.8 assists per game these playoffs, both numbers being the third lowest among all playoff teams. If the Cavaliers can manage to make the Warriors play at their pace, the Warriors suddenly become vulnerable, as four of their five playoff loses have been when the Warriors score 100 or less points.
Most Important Play: the LeBron Isolation
The play that will define the Finals is how the Warriors guard LeBron's isolation attempts. In today's switch-happy defensive schemes, LeBron will look to exploit the mismatches that the Warriors will give him. As shown in the video above of last year's Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, LeBron frequently punished the Celtics whenever they switched a slower or weaker defender on LeBron. During this year's playoffs, LeBron has been supremely efficient with isolation plays, averaging 1.04 points per isolation possession and having a 50% effective field goal percentage during these possessions. Even if the Warriors decide to double, it leave someone open for LeBron to pass to, whether it be a Tristan Thompson waiting near the rim or an open JR Smith or Kyle Korver out for an easy three. It is almost a guarantee that the Cavaliers will find a way for someone like Looney or Curry to get switched onto LeBron in order for him to get an easy layup, draw a foul, or find the open man. Whenever there is a switch, it is important for the Cavaliers and LeBron to take advantage of it as much as possible. For the Warriors, they will need to find a way to avoid these mismatches, which may mean that Curry could possibly get played out of certain stretches in favor of someone like Livingston or Young to avoid a huge mismatch against LeBron.
In the end, I do not see any chance of the Cavaliers winning unfortunately, despite how great LeBron James has been throughout these past few weeks, the Warriors have four stars who can carry them at any given moment, while also having a better defense and offense than the Cavaliers. In fact, there is not one thing that the Cavs do better than the Warriors in, as Golden State also has a higher rebounding percentage and both have nearly identical turnover percentages. However, I can see the Cavaliers stealing one at home due to LeBron's greatness and their role players stepping up in front of their home crowd.
VERDICT: The Golden State Warriors win the championship 4-1 over the Cleveland Cavaliers; Kevin Durant wins the Finals MVP.
By Kevin Hahn
“Baseball has a way of ripping your heart out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for spring training.” - Noah Syndergaard.
The 2017 MLB season defied nearly all logic, and crushed the hearts of many along the way. A record-breaking number home runs hit in the regular season stirred serious controversy about juiced baseballs. The Indians set the new single season win streak record at 22 consecutive games. The Dodgers became the first playoff team ever to have a double digit winning streak and a double digit losing streak in the same season. The World Series reached new levels of sheer madness and hysteria. More teams are now embracing tanking, and the MLB is losing its competitive balance as the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees unequivocally sit atop the perch of baseball. And for the first time ever, all 30 teams will play on the same Opening Day. What does this 2018 season have in store us?
In this article, we will examine some notable storylines to watch out for:
Astros Look to Avoid World Series Hangover
“We’re not the Cubs”, Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel declared. Aside from Keuchel’s diss, the 2018 Astros are projected to steamroll their way through the AL West and own best record in the Show with another 100 win season, according to Fangraphs. The ‘Stros bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of flamethrower Gerrit Cole and still boast one of the most lethal lineups in the AL. The majority of the players listed in the bubble chart below are expected to put up solid weighted on-base averages (league-average is .320). The size of the bubble is determined by the expected number of plate appearances and these estimates are provided by ZiPS projections:
Moreover, all of their primary hitters are projected to post an wRC+ above the league average mark of 100:
And not a single pitcher in their starting rotation is projected to post an ERA and FIP over 4.00:
These 2018 Astros are deeper and scarier than ever before.
Can the Dodgers replicate the Kansas City 2014-15 blueprint? Or will they suffer the fate of the 2010-11 Texas Rangers?
Despite losing the heart and soul of the team, Justin Turner, until May, the Dodgers are still expected to claim a 6th consecutive NL West Division crown with most of their pennant-winning roster intact. Projected to still win 93 games, the embarrassment of riches provided by their organizational depth and versatility will allow them to sustain considerable blows to their starting lineup.
When healthy, the lefty heavy rotation of Kershaw-Wood-Maeda-Hill-Ryu is easily top 5 in baseball, but all of these listed players have a concerning injury history. As we've seen in recent years, the Friedman-Zaidi brain trust can construct a reliable bullpen from essentially nothing. Dumpster diving for unheralded hurlers has become a breeding ground for pitching reclamation projects for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Year after year, the relief corp has been led by Kenley Jansen, who is the undisputedly best reliever in baseball and even regarded by some as the second coming of Mariano Rivera. Offensively, Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger form a powerful leadoff quartet. A matured Yasiel Puig solidifies the back of the lineup along with the Dodgers’ platoon options in Kike Hernandez, Chase Utley, Andrew Toles, and Austin Barnes. This 2018 team may not reach the stratospheric highs of the 2017 team, but they are determined more than ever to return to the Fall Classic and erase memories of last year’s Game 7.
However, the Giants season is in jeopardy after losing ace southpaw Madison Bumgarner to a fractured left hand until early June at least. The Padres aren’t going anywhere until more of their loaded farm system graduates to the big leagues. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, both of whom are projected to be approximately .500 ballclubs, probably will not win the division but are still serious contenders for the NL wildcard spots if their rosters can stay healthy.
Will the Nationals finally make it past the NLDS? Or will they continue to be baseball’s version of the Lob City Clippers?
For the Nationals, the NL East division championship is practically handed to them.
The Phillies are currently in their rebuild-by-tanking process although their young talent is slowly starting to surface. The Braves are also in a similar position with inchoate Ronald Acuna waiting in the wings. The Mets, when healthy, possess a formidable pitching staff but are held back by their anemic offense. The Marlins have been absolutely gutted from the inside this offseason and are practically fielding half a minor league team on Opening Day (Courtesy of Derek Jeter).
All the Nats have to do is stay the course until October. Ideally, with a fully recovered Daniel Murphy back in the postseason lineup, they are a force to be reckoned with, so long as they don’t find another way to self-implode. The Win Probability chart, which measures each a team’s probability of winning a game in a play-by-play, base-out state format, depicts the Nationals’ postseason meltdowns in their past three winner-take-all Division Series Game 5’s at home:
At certain junctures in these games, the Nationals had a probability of winning as high as 96% in 2012 NLDS Game 5, 77% in 2016 NLDS Game 5, 82% in 2017 NLDS Game 5. Although the 2012 Nationals blew a nearly insurmountable 6-0 lead in Game 5, they gave us a glimpse into just how potent this talented young team could be in the coming years. This team finished with the best record in the National League. Bryce Harper was not even 20 years old yet, and a formidable 27-and-under trio comprised of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg anchored the team’s starting pitching.
From 2016 onward with a roster now featuring a fearsome one-two punch in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, a stacked hitting corps in Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and speedster Trea Turner, it is difficult to fathom that a team this talented has not even made it past the NL division series in the last two years. The window is closing for the Nationals, who must act quickly before potentially losing Harper and Murphy in free agency after this season and Stephen Strasburg after 2019.
Will the Indians end their 69 year championship drought?
The Indians are expected to three-peat as AL Central champs with 94 wins, according to Fangraphs. The 2017 Indians team virtually broke the game last season during their 22 game win streak and finished the season with 102 wins. Yet, after blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Indians inexplicably blew a commanding 2-0 lead in the 2017 ALDS against the Yankees. Cleveland now owns the longest active World Series title drought and looks poised for October redemption. Sensational shortstop Francisco Lindor, versatile Jose Ramirez, and power hitter Edwin Encarnacion are the backbone of Cleveland’s offense. Like the Astros, the Indians possess a strong, but balanced starting rotation. Corey Kluber is Cleveland’s undisputed ace and leads this rotation alongside Carlos Carrasco. Meanwhile, the supporting cast in Bauer, Salazar, Tomlin, and Clevinger fortify the back of the rotation, as all of these pitchers are more than capable of posting respectable sub-4.00 ERAs and FIPs. Furthermore, their bullpen is comprised of lockdown reliever Andrew Miller and a lights-out closer in Cody Allen. This Indians team virtually checks off every box.
The Minnesota Twins could make things interesting should they beat the regular season projections for a second consecutive year, although losing Santana until May does complicate their start to the season. Minnesota has brought in a lot of new faces to their clubhouse at a relatively affordable cost during the offseason. Their starting rotation is now one spot deeper after acquiring Odorizzi to be their #3 starter behind Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. There is promising young talent in agile outfielder Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano. Face of the franchise Joe Maurer still provides premium hitting for a catcher-turned-first-baseman.
On the other hand, Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit are definitely out of contention after dealing away their franchise centerpieces as they look to rebuild their farm systems. Out of the three, the White Sox possess the most major-league ready young talent. Look no further than Yoan Moncada. Nevertheless, these teams still have a ways to go before they become serious contenders.
Two Horse Races in the AL East and NL Central
It will go right down to the wire in the AL East between the Yankees and Red Sox. Per Fangraphs, New York and Boston are projected to win 95 and 93 games, respectively. The runner-up will most likely claim one of the two AL wildcard spots. The Yankees arguably have the best bullpen in baseball, led by flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, and a robust setup corps of Betances, Kahnle, Robertson, Warren, and Green. Last season, they had the third-lowest ERA (3.34), the lowest average against (.204), the highest whiff rate (29.1 percent), and an absurd 9.2 WAR. Moreover, Luis Severino established himself as the ace of the rotation, at just 24 years of age. Oh, they also have Giancarlo Stanton now. Together, Judge and Stanton have- and will- hit more homers than entire teams. The Evil Empire is officially back.
On the other hand, the Red Sox have put together two solid seasons in 2016 and 2017, with only 2 disappointing ALDS exits to show for. Like New York, Boston has also stocked up on power by signing J.D. Martinez to go with the promising prospects Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. Mookie Betts has a George Springer type of effect on this Boston offense as the energizing leadoff hitter. With the starting rotation, strikeout machine Chris Sale leads the pack, followed by Price, Porcello, Velasquez and Johnson. Bounceback years from Price and Porcello are crucial to the Red Sox’s playoff push.
The Blue Jays, who are expected to win 87 games, are still an unpredictable dark horse that could contend for a wild card spot. Much of these playoff hopes are contingent upon another MVP-caliber season from Josh Donaldson, an even bigger breakout year from Marcus Stroman, and bounceback years from J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada. Winning the AL East, however, would be a Herculean task for this roster even with the help of sensational prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr.
The Baltimore Orioles, expected to win 78 games, is out of contention and has much bigger things to worry about: Manny Machado. Fearing that Machado may just walk away from them in free agency, the Orioles are contemplating a midsummer trade to at least get something in return for their Gold Glove infielder. Tampa Bay… well, they just became the Marlins of the AL. Gotta love tanking.
The NL Central faces a similar situation, although many predict the Cubs to win the division by a larger margin than that of the AL East. Projected to win 93 games according to Fangraphs, the Cubs look to bounce back from their supposed World Series hangover, even though making their third consecutive NLCS the following year is no small feat. The young core in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo speaks for itself, but the biggest area of concern for Joe Maddon’s ballclub is the starting rotation. With the loss of Jake Arrieta to the Phillies, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks must re-channel their 2016 ace forms. Yu Darvish must remain healthy and rediscover his pre-Tommy John surgery self that made him an AL Cy Young runner-up in 2013.
The Cardinals are still the lurking threat, projected to win 85 games this year. They have fortified their bullpen with Dominic Leone and Luke Gregerson, and boosted their offense with the addition of breakout star Marcell Ozuna. A 4.8 WAR player in 2017, the 27-year-old outfielder erupted for 37 HR’s, 124 RBI’s and a slash line of 0.312/0.376/.548. Even more so, he produced an outstanding .388 wOBA and 142 wRC+ by sabermetric standards. A .355 BABIP in 2017, considerably higher than his career mark of .327, could be a possible reason for Ozuna’s stellar year. The key to a strong 2018 is whether he can sustain this mark and replicate his 2017 form. If so, then the Cardinals could very well propel themselves from 83 wins last year to 87-89 win territory and put some pressure on the Cubs.
The 2018 Brewers, like the 2018 Jays, are a dark horse in their respective division. With the notable additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee is determined to contend and looks to exceed their projection of 78 wins this season. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates have adopted the increasingly popular rebuild-by-tanking approach after trading then-franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to the Giants. Lastly, the Reds are going nowhere, while each fruitless season means another precious season of Joey Votto gone to waste.
Preventing the Sophomore Slump
Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge spearheaded the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ youth movements last season. Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs with 39 dingers, while Aaron Judge not only took home the AL home run crown but also the Major League rookie record for home runs with 52 long balls. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can prove the doubters wrong by following up their rookie campaigns with strong sophomore seasons.
Bellinger is expected to produce similar numbers to those of his abbreviated 2017 season. After producing a league average .299 BABIP in 2017, it is understandable that we don’t see a substantial deviation in Bellinger’s 2018 projections from his rookie year.
However, this gets more complicated with Aaron Judge. A drop in WAR from 8.2 to 4.8 means Judge is due for some serious regression this season. A significant factor that comes into play is the 0.357 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that All Rise sustained in his first full season in the big leagues. Given that a league-average BABIP is usually .300, an extreme BABIP usually means one of two things:
Boom or Bust?
It has not been a great spring training for Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, on both ends of the game. Despite showing frontline talent as a starting pitcher, Ohtani has been getting shelled by opposing teams. Perhaps the differences in properties of American and Japanese baseballs could play a factor in Ohtani’s difficult pitching transition. Most projections have him as roughly a 3.50 ERA/FIP pitcher worth 3 WAR to an Angels team that will most likely contend for an AL wild card spot since the Astros are a juggernaut in the AL West. As a hitter, Ohtani’s long swing and underdeveloped hitting tools have put him at a disadvantage when facing major league pitching. After hitting .108 (3 for 28) this spring, several scouts have went as far as saying that Ohtani cannot has never seen a “good” curveball in his life and is better off starting the season in the minors if he wants to improve his hitting. Of course, we should take caution in our judgements because spring training performances are a small sample size and have very weak correlation with the regular season. Ohtani could very well prove everyone wrong and seamlessly adjust both his pitching and hitting on-the-go during the season. But for any highly-anticipated, electrifying player, a spring training like Ohtani’s does raise some concerns. It’s beyond our control. All we can do is wait and see.
Opening Day is just one day away. We’re ready for you, baseball.
Sources: Baseball Reference, Fangraphs
By Mikee Salud
We are currently in the middle of March, and all eyes are on the NCAA, basketball, and March Madness. The First Round has already provided a historic upset with the 16-seed UMBC defeating 1-seed Virginia, something that many, myself included, did not think would happen in our lifetime (let's take a moment of silence for everyone's bracket). As the Round of 64 has come to a close, let us look at who has the best chance of winning the tournament right now as we head into the Second Round.
To start off, it must be said that using stats will always be the best way to predict winning. However, in the case of March Madness, where every round is decided by one game, there is a high degree of unpredictability that not even stats can quantify. No one could have predicted that UMBC would upset Virginia, no matter how many stats were being used. In fact, there are over 9 trillion different ways to make a bracket, which make it literally impossible to create the perfect bracket. All in all, this article can be seen as completely foolish within an hour of this article being released. That being said, all we can do is make our best predictions, and this is where statistics can come through.
The First Round of March Madness had a general lack of upsets up until the historic UMBC win (Rest in Peace Arizona, DeAndre Ayton, and Sean Miller’s coaching career). While we cannot calculate certain variables such as momentum, what we can look at are stats that correlate the most to winning basketball games. Former Sacramento Kings and ESPN Director of Analytics Dean Oliver once stated that the four factors that most correlate to basketball wins are shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throw proficiency. Using these four factors, we will try determine which teams lead these categories and make an educated guess on who has the best chance to win.
The objective of basketball is quite simple: one team needs to score more points against the other team before the time runs out. When looking at which team is the most efficient at shooting, we look at certain stats, most specifically effective field goal percentage. The difference between field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage is that eFG% adjusts for the fact that a 3 pointer is worth one more point higher than a 2 point field goal. This helps to more clearly identify which team is scoring more efficiently. The top five teams in effective field goal percentage that are still in the tournament are:
Villanova was already one of the favorites to win the tournament altogether, and it is no surprise as they have with the most efficient offense in the nation. Their starting five alone boasts incredible shooting prowess, as all five shoot the three-ball 38% or higher, leading to a nice spread offense and wide open lanes for their players such as Jalen Brunson to penetrate through. Elsewhere, we have Kansas, who besides having Devonte' Graham, are also aided by the Nation-leader in Field Goal Percentage in Center Udoka Azubuike. Shockingly, eleventh-seeded Loyola Chicago had the fifth highest effective field goal percentage in the nation, which aided their attack as they upset Miami in their first round match up.
The next thing that we need to look at is turnover stats. The importance of limiting one's own turnovers and creating turnovers against opponents cannot be understated. Turnovers can allow easy fast breaks and buckets, and can easily ruin the momentum for any team. To see which team prevents the most turnovers, we look at turnover percentage, which shows how many possessions a team coughs up per 100 possessions.
Among the Second Round teams, Nevada and Florida take care of the ball the best, with the Wolf Pack having multiple ball handlers such as guard Cody Martin and forward Lindsey Drew, while Florida's offense is being mainly initiated by senior guard Chris Chiozza. There is also another appearance from Villanova, proving that they do not only shoot the ball well, but protect it also.
When looking at rebounding, we do not just need to look at rebounding percentage, but offensive rebounding percentage as well. Rebounds in general create possessions, and the more possessions one has means more opportunities to score. Having more offensive rebounds creates extra opportunities on the offense and can wear out a defense. Rebounding percentage tells us the percentage of rebounds a team grabbed.
While Gonzaga is within the top five in Total Rebounding %, they are nowhere near close to the top five in the country in Offensive Rebounding %. This tells us that their rebounding percentage is most likely deceiving and could possibly be more of a result of opponents missing shots as opposed to a more all around rebounding prowess. Going further into the tournament, they are not the safest bets to create extra possessions the same way that a team such as Duke or Michigan State are. Duke currently has freshmen stars Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., who pull down an impressive 11.3 and 9.3 rebounds a game respectively, while Michigan State has a plethora of long, lengthy guys such as Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. who can do the dirty work down low. The Spartans even have their point guard Cassius Winston pulling down 3.5 boards, an impressive number for a guy six-feet tall.
The last factor that needs to be looked at is free throw proficiency. Free throws should essentially be free points, so being able to get to the line will enable teams points that the defense cannot prevent. However, being able to have many free throw attempts is not enough, as teams need to make them. Take for example someone like Shaquille O'Neal, a career 52.7% free throw shooter, was fouled numerous times due to his inability to knock down free throws and ruined his teams flow and momentum. Being able to draw fouls and make free throws is crucial to winning basketball games. Free throw rate calculates the amount of free throw attempts per field goal attempt.
Xavier's one advantage by far is the ability to win the free throw game, as they consistently get to the free throw line often and convert them at a near 80% clip. They are led by Senior guard Trevon Bluiett, who attempts 5.5 free throws a game and makes them 86% of the time. Interesting to note that while Kentucky attempts the most free throws per field goal attempt among the teams that are left, they shoot free throws at a poor 70%, which can seriously hinder their team, especially at the end of games where hitting free throws are crucial to win. Some of their key players, such as PJ Washington, Hamidou Diallo, and Wenyen Gabriel will become almost unplayable in late game situations, as they all shoot below 63% from the free throw line.
With all of this in mind, Villanova should be the winner of the tournament. Led by Head Coach Jay Wright and star Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, this is not at all a bold prediction in the slightest, as they are a number one seed in the tournament and NCAA.com reported that the majority of all brackets made have Villanova coming out on top. That being said, they score at an incredibly efficient clip, keep the turnovers low, and convert free throws at a good rate, making the most of every opportunity and giving themselves the best chance to beat anyone. However, they do lack in the rebounding department, which could hurt them if they face a dominant big man, such as Duke's Marvin Bagley. If we are looking at a potential upset or cinderella story, take a look at Loyola Chicago, who score incredibly efficiently and, while this stat was not discussed, also carry a decent defense with an Opponents eFG% of .475. Or you could look at UMBC, who already have etched their name in the record books and could ride this momentum into a Sweet Sixteen bid. Nonetheless, like I said in the beginning of the article, any team can theoretically beat anyone in any given night, which could make this prediction foolish. Heck, UMBC could win it all and truly surprise the entire world even more than it already has. After all, this is what makes the "Madness" in March Madness: exhilarating, unpredictable, and completely fun.
Sources: Basketball Reference, NCAA.com, Sportingnews
Baseball has seldom witnessed a transcendental talent like Clayton Kershaw. Nor has it witnessed a regular season juggernaut that has delivered consistently inconsistent performances during baseball’s brightest stage. While a World Series ring continues to elude Kershaw, his overall regular season success throughout the first decade of his career necessitates an in-depth comparison to some of the game’s all-time greats.
Kershaw is often considered the greatest pitcher of his time, mainly due to the fact that he is the greatest of his time. Along with his 3 Cy Young Awards and his 2014 MVP award, Kershaw has the lowest Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) at 1.00, the highest ERA+ at 161, the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 2.59, and the highest Win Probability Added (WPA) at 38.86 among all active pitchers. These are all pristine numbers, especially when one takes to consideration that he is only ten years into his surefire Hall of Fame career.
Sabermetrically, Kershaw further bolsters his case for a spot in Cooperstown. He boasts an other-worldly career SIERA of 2.99. Similar to ERA and FIP, SIERA is the newest and most advanced metric in the long line of ERA approximators. Akin to its forefathers, SIERA can be read just like ERA and answers the question: What is the actual skill level of this pitcher and how well did they actually perform? By FanGraphs’ standards, Kershaw’s career sub-3.00 SIERA is an impressive feat:
Clearly, Kershaw belongs in Cooperstown when it is all said and done. However, this was never an argument to begin with. What needs to be looked at is where he belongs among the greatest of all time. Does Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his time, also warrant consideration as the greatest pitcher in baseball history?
To understand this question, we first need to understand what a pitcher needs to do. The obvious answer is that a pitcher needs to prevent the opposing team from scoring. However, what differentiates an ordinary pitcher to an all-time great pitcher is the ability to pitch regardless of what defense is behind them or what stadium they are pitching in. With this in mind, we need to look at certain statistics such as ERA+, FIP, and WHIP.
ERA+ is a great statistic to use for evaluating a pitcher because it adjusts a pitcher’s ERA according to a pitcher’s ballpark, which factors out such effects like Coors Field in Colorado, normally known as hitters’ haven, or Petco Park in San Diego, normally known as a pitcher’s paradise. And when looking at Kershaw’s ERA+, it is ranked second all time and first all time amongst starters at 159. Regardless of ballparks, Kershaw remains historically awesome at preventing runs.
Furthermore, Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, adjusts a pitcher’s ERA that factors out the defense behind them or random luck that could hurt or help him. As previously stated, Kershaw’s FIP is 2.59, the lowest FIP among all active pitchers, but the 36th lowest of all time. While not nearly as impressive, further research shows that the other 35 pitchers ahead of them all pitched in the Dead Ball Era (1900-1919) or earlier. In other words, Kershaw has the lowest career FIP since Babe Ruth first step foot on a professional baseball diamond.
Even when using a more traditional statistic like WHIP, which tracks how many base runners a pitcher leaves per inning, Kershaw still remains historic. With a 1.00 WHIP, Kershaw has the fourth lowest WHIP in baseball history. And the stats keep on coming...
While seeing that all ERA approximators reveal his greatness, all time great pitchers also need to prevent batters from hitting the ball hard, or even hit the ball at all. With 27.9% in K% and 21.2% in Soft%, Kershaw ranks seventh and eleventh all time, respectively. Basically, this means that Kershaw strikes out close to 28% of the batters he faces or induces 21.2% of them to soft contact, such as a slow ground ball or line drive, further cementing his place as an all-time difficult at-bat.
With the set of statistics that we have just used, it is clear that when Kershaw is on the mound, it is incredibly difficult to reach on base or to even score if runners do get on base. Now, we need to compare Kershaw with statistics that cover the all around game and where he stands with WAR.
Regarded as the sabermetrics’ mainstream, catch-all statistic in today’s baseball world, Wins Above Replacement, commonly known as WAR, tells us how many more wins a player is worth to his team than a replacement level player, or minor league free agent at his position. Throughout his first 10 full seasons, Kershaw is right on par with dominant 90’s pitchers Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, and dwarfed the WAR of pitching legends such as Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax, another lefty and Dodger legend whom Kershaw is often compared to.
Just through his ten year span, Kershaw stands very tall amongst some of the greatest of all time. Keeping up with his current pace for the next five to ten years would undoubtedly secure him a place among the Mount Rushmore of baseball pitchers. However, it is worth noting though that just merely betting on Kershaw to stay healthy enough to perform next year, let alone the next five to ten years, is not as automatic as it once seemed.
Injuries to his back have ravaged Kershaw’s past two seasons, and it is not entirely clear if he can stay healthy in the long haul now. Apart from his 2015 season, his innings have been going in a downward trend due to a herniated disk in 2016 and back stiffness in 2017. While all starting pitchers’ innings have generally gone down in recent seasons, one still has to question if his back will become a hindrance for him as he tries to become effective into his 30’s. The good news is that he has still been his usual self whenever he has toed the mound, but the Dodgers need to be cautious of over-exerting Kershaw these next few years.
A Closer Look at Postseason Narrative
The biggest area of concern is inevitably Kershaw’s dubious postseason track record. Over the course of 7 postseasons that Kershaw has participated in, we have seen the full spectrum. On one night, we witness flashes of brilliance, whether it be spinning a World Series Game 1 gem or stifling the Cubs en route to Los Angeles’ first World Series since 1988. On another night, we witness lowlights of the Claw at his very worst, whether it be imploding in the 7th inning or getting lit up by the opposing team in crucial elimination games.
Traditional baseball metrics are not so favorable for Kershaw. In his postseason career, Kershaw owns a 7-7 win-loss record, a lackluster 4.35 ERA and an even more underwhelming 3.70 FIP. Moreover, the long ball is a thorn in his side. His postseason HR/FB rate of 14.5%, a drastic increase from his exceptional regular season HR/FB of 7.5%. As we dive into Kershaw’s full body of postseason work, there is a recurring theme: Postseason Kershaw can pitch 5-6 quality innings. However, as hellbent as he is trying to pitch deeper into each game, the lights brighten, the pressure rises, the defense disappoints, and Kershaw shrinks in the worst possible way. The seventh inning becomes his worst nightmare.
Kershaw did have a few relief appearances in the 2008 postseason and a poor start in the 2009 NLCS that did result in the first loss recorded on his postseason resume. But these took place in his first two years in the big leagues, i.e., two years prior to his breakthrough 2011 season. While many dismiss Kershaw upon first glance at his W-L record and career postseason ERA, they fail to acknowledge the full story. First off, four of those seven losses and a good chunk of those earned runs allowed have come from inexplicable meltdowns against a team has Kershaw’s number and makes every Dodger fan shudder at the utterance of its very name: the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, those 4 losses against St. Louis were not entirely due to Kershaw’s lack of performance. After 2 stellar outings (Game 1: 7 IP, 1 ER; Game 4: 6 IP, 0 ER, 2R) against the Braves in the NLDS, Kershaw became the first pitcher in postseason history to lose a game allowing zero earned runs and less than 3 hits by shouldering a tough 1-0 loss in Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS due to a nonexistent Dodger offense. On the contrary, there was the Cardinals’ 2013 NLCS Game 6 rout of Kershaw, torching him for 7 earned runs en route to their second World Series in 3 years.
Time would not heal old wounds for the Dodger southpaw. The 2014 postseason marked the beginning of a perpetual uphill battle to rewrite a postseason “choke artist” narrative. Starting the opener of the Cardinals rematch in the 2014 NLDS, Kershaw cruised through 6 innings, having only given up 2 earned runs. But six innings is never good enough by Kershaw-level standards. The ability to pitch deeper into games (i.e. go 7+ innings) is what sets apart a bona fide ace from an above-average starter. Yet, one must be careful what they wish for. Time after time, Kershaw’s insistence on pitching the 7th has resulted in his own undoing. In the 7th inning alone of the 2014 NLDS opener, the Cardinals lit him up for 6 earned runs, reclaiming the lead for good and prompting a shocking exit for Kershaw after 6.2 IP. Four days later, in a valiant road effort to force a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 back at Chavez Ravine, Kershaw was nothing short of brilliant on 3 day’s rest, nursing a fragile 2-0 lead in midst of a hostile St. Louis crowd… up through the first six innings. The postseason demons soon returned; in the 7th inning, all it took was two unlucky defensive mishaps (questionably ruled as hits) and a subsequent hanging curveball for Matt Adams to mash into the right field bleachers to send the Cardinals to their 4th consecutive NLCS. A 6.0 IP, 3 ER performance is nothing to be ashamed of, but this was one of Kershaw’s most deflating quality starts given the way that this 7th inning transpired. In both starts, Kershaw had thrown a masterpiece through the first six frames, but none of that matters to the majority of the baseball world. All that is remembered is two ill-fated 7th innings that reduced the greatest pitcher on the planet to a postseason meme.
The postseason of 2015 gave the Dodgers some optimism about Kershaw. Again, in the opener of the NLDS, Kershaw pitched six quality innings with the score leveled at 1 run apiece. Then the 7th inning happened. After 6.2 IP, Kershaw left the game with the bases loaded and in came two inherited runs (courtesy of Pedro Baez), and the Dodgers lost 3-1. However, Game 4 of the NLDS gave fans short-lived hope about Kershaw turning the page on his postseason struggles. Down 2-1 in the series and starting on short-rest for the third year in a row, Kershaw forced a winner-take-all Game 5 to send the series back to Los Angeles, hurling seven strong innings of one-run ball despite some unlucky fielding errors and pressure with runners on base in the 7th inning.
For better and for worse, the 2016 postseason revealed a lot about Kershaw at the absolute brink of elimination. In the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, it took all 218 pitches thrown by Kershaw to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. Essentially, every game he pitched in this series, the Dodgers wound up winning. He pitched his way to a gutsy 4-3 victory in Game 1, allowing 3 earned runs in 5 IP. Then in Game 4, Kershaw found himself tasked with yet another effort on 3 days rest to force a decisive Game 5 back in Washington D.C. Through the first six innings, Kershaw was sensational, having only given up 2 earned runs as he battled his way back into the game after throwing over 30 pitches in the 1st inning alone. Entering the 7th inning with a 5-2 lead, a botched double play attempt and questionable ball-strike calling by the umpire resulted in a Bryce Harper walk that would load the bases anad prompt Kershaw’s exit after 6.2 quality innings. The combined efforts of Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan unsurprisingly blew the lead, with all 3 inherited runners scoring to tie the game at 5-5. At this point in Kershaw’s postseason career, the Dodger bullpen had now allowed 9 out of 14 inherited runners to score, further inflating his playoff ERA. Nevertheless, the Dodgers ultimately emerged victorious in Game 4 with a tight 6-5 win. Kershaw had done his job. And for someone who did not watch this game with their own set of eyes, the 6.2 IP and 5 ER final stat line for him does not nearly tell the full story. What could not be easily quantified in this game was the unprecedented level of heart and determination that we saw in Kershaw compared to his previous starts on 3 days rest. He had sacrificed his left arm for a fourth consecutive year to save his team’s season, only to witness his bullpen deface his brilliant work in the most maddening way possible. But this would not deter him from challenging that postseason narrative once more.
In a nail-biting Game 5 that went right down to the wire, Kershaw again seemed to have turned the page on his postseason struggles. Entering in the bottom of the 9th inning with the winning runs on base, Kershaw slammed the door shut on the Nationals for a 2-out save after Dave Roberts had exhausted the entire Dodger relief corps. This act of redemption was all but short-lived. Kershaw’s struggles ultimately resurfaced in the championship series against the Cubs. After throwing 7 shutout innings in a 1-0 Game 2 victory at Wrigley Field, Kershaw imploded in Game 6 as the Cubs thrashed him for 5 earned runs in 5 IP en route to their first World Series in 108 years.
The 2017 postseason nearly had the baseball world convinced yet again. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks, Kershaw cruised through 6 innings with a 7-2 lead. Subsequently, he gave up back-to-back solo shots in the 7th inning, and manager Dave Roberts took no hesitation in pulling out Kershaw in order to preserve a 7-4 lead. In the NLCS, Kershaw put up 2 strong starts (Game 1: 5 IP, 2 ER, and Game 5: 6 IP, 1 ER) against the Cubs with plenty of run support in each game as the Dodgers coasted to the World Series in just 5 games. In Game 1 of the Fall Classic, Kershaw was masterful through seven frames, and even managed to fight his way through a botched double play attempt with the tying run at the plate to squash any chances of another infamous 7th inning implosion. The postseason demons had finally been exorcised- or so we thought.
With the series tied at 2 games apiece, the Game 5 slugfest that defied all logic had erased all progress Kershaw had made this postseason in rewriting the narrative. Cruising through 3 scoreless IP, Kershaw blew a 4 run lead in the 4th inning and set the stage for blowing a 3 run cushion in the 5th, as Kenta Maeda served up a 3 run bomb to Jose Altuve with 2 inherited runners aboard. Overall, Kershaw failed to complete the 5th inning and gave up 6 ER in a pivotal Game 5 that could have given the Dodgers a chance to clinch the World Series back in Los Angeles. Although he pitched 4 scoreless innings of mopup work in the Dodgers’ 5-1 Game 7 loss, Kershaw’s lasting postseason imprint (until the next chance he gets in the postseason) will be his lack of performance in World Series Game 5.
However, one peculiarity amidst all these polarizing playoff performances is his astounding 2.93 postseason SIERA, which is right on par with his 2.99 regular season SIERA. SIERA accounts for the bad defensive luck Kershaw has had with the infield in some of his starts and the complexity of balls in play he has allowed. Additionally, he has an excellent 28% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate that stand in stark contrast to his troubling HR/FB rate of 14.5%. Holistically, Kershaw’s postseason performances and numbers lack the consistent uniformity that his regular season numbers produce. Based on Kershaw’s body of work in the postseason and the charts below that compare additional pitching metrics in the regular season and postseason, it is evident that Kershaw’s postseason career is a crapshoot:
Throughout all of this research, it is clear that if Kershaw were to retire now, he would still be considered a top ten pitcher of all time, arguably even a top five pitcher. However, two daunting hurdles stand in the way of his potential ascension to being hailed the greatest pitcher of all time. First, is for Kershaw to remain an elite pitcher for another five years at the very least, and second, is to win the World Series, the only accomplishment missing from an already decorated career. For the foreseeable future, the Dodgers appear built to have multiple lengthy postseason runs in them, which allows Kershaw the chance to pitch in multiple postseasons, change the narrative of his career, and pursue the elusive trophy that he has yet to grasp. However, as Kershaw turns 30 this March, Father Time is ticking, so he must make the most of what he has left.
Sources: Fangraphs; Baseball Reference