Falcons Have Framework for Success in Super Bowl LI and Beyond

The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, who match up very evenly on paper, have had drastically different fortunes throughout history. New England will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl and seventh in the last sixteen years. They’ve been perennial AFC favorites for so long that it’s almost a surprise when they don’t make it to the big game. Atlanta, on the other hand, has only made it to the Super Bowl one other time (they lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII). Incredibly, the only time in franchise history the Falcons have even made the playoffs in consecutive seasons was from 2010-2012.

However, this is not the same Falcons team of old. Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to finish in the top five in both passing and rushing yards per game, and finished first in points per game (33.8) by a margin of more than four points over the next best team, the New Orleans Saints. That certainly doesn’t mean anything will come easy, as New England finished third in that category and also possess the top scoring defense in the NFL.

But the while the Falcons don’t have the championship pedigree of the Patriots or even the same national recognition as some of the teams they beat to get here, this is not a team that is built for just one year. Newly minted MVP Matt Ryan had a career year, but maybe it was more of a career breakout. Ryan has always had the talent and this year, everything came together for him in a big way. Julio Jones is still relatively young and is quite possibly the most talented wide receiver in the NFL. And Atlanta’s running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is as formidable as any other duo in the league.

Everyone loves to talk about Atlanta’s high-powered offense, and rightly so, but their defensive turnaround may be their most impressive feat this year. That starts with head coach Dan Quinn, whom the Falcons hired prior to the 2015 season after a pair of lackluster years. Quinn was already well-regarded as a brilliant defensive mind, serving as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks for their two Super Bowl appearances before getting hired by Atlanta. But after a scintillating 5-0 start in his first year, things went south and the team finished the year at .500. In addition to a middle-of-the-pack offense, one of the main problems was the lack of any kind of pass rush. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2015. Fast forward to 2016, and Atlanta improved that total to 34 (16th in the NFL), while Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks all by himself.

Beasley’s rise to stardom is just one of many reasons Falcons’ fans have to be excited for what the future holds, win or lose. Quinn has built this defense from the ground up, and there’s reason to believe it’s going to get a lot better. Along with the second-year pro Beasley, the Falcons have three rookies starting on defense, and two of them (Deion Jones and Keanu Neal) were first and second on the team in tackles.

In fact, the way the Atlanta’s roster is constructed mirrors their Super Rival, the Patriots. While Tom Brady deserves all the credit he gets for his consistency and continued success, Bill Belichick also prides himself on building standout defensive teams. Like Quinn, Belichick has a defensive background and has routinely been able to develop stars on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, Belichick has always maintained a good balance with his offense, just like this year’s Falcons. Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, New England almost always has a good rushing attack, even if they tend to use quite a few different running backs every year.

The Falcons and Patriots both have teams that are built for success over the long haul, but it’s fair to say that most of their fans aren’t worried about that today. It’s all about one game in Houston tonight. For the Patriots, another championship would enhance the legacy of their dynasty even further, and for the Falcons, the franchise’s first championship would be a moment to cherish forever.

With any luck, Super Bowl LI will be a much better matchup than we’ve seen throughout this postseason. Aside from the divisional matchup between the Cowboys and Packers, we haven’t really seen any competitive games. A thrilling finish tonight would be great for the sport, and with the offensive talent both of these teams have, it could be a high scoring, back and forth affair.

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Active Players Most Likely to Make the Hall of Fame – 2017

For the second straight year, I’ve chosen to compile a list of active MLB players who have the best odds of winding up in the Hall of Fame after the conclusion of their careers. A lot has changed in a year. Some of the players from last year’s list have retired, and other players have performed at a level that greatly enhanced their odds. In addition, I have added ten more spots on this year’s list so that I could evaluate more players and avoid redundancy.

Keep in mind that I wouldn’t vote for every player on here, nor am I suggesting that every one of them is better than certain players who were left off the list. It’s whom I believe has the best chance at reaching the Hall of Fame based on career accomplishments, projected output going forward, and voter tendencies. Service time also needs to be taken into consideration, because it’s way too early to predict how the careers of players who are early in their careers will shape up. Players like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Carlos Correa won’t appear on here. Instead, I’ll be writing a separate piece similar to this one which will cover the best young stars in the game.

1) Albert Pujols

Nothing has changed since last year; Pujols will end up as one of the greatest hitters in history. Even in decline, he is still a very productive bat and has a legitimate chance to break Hank Aaron’s career record for runs batted in. When it’s all said and done, it will be his incredible run with the Cardinals – which included an OPS+ of 170 and three MVP – that cements his legacy.

2) Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera is behind Pujols only based on service time. He is already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and continues to be one of the most feared hitters in the game. The only question is whether he or Pujols will ultimately finish up on top. Cabrera is three years younger and still going strong, while Pujols isn’t quite the hitter he once was. If Cabrera can continue to hit the way he has heading into his late 30’s, he could overtake Pujols as the greatest hitter of our generation.

3) Ichiro Suzuki

When Ichiro notched his 3,000th career MLB hit last season, he further solidified his eventual Hall of Fame induction. Reaching the rare milestone despite not playing in the majors until age 27 speaks for itself, but Ichiro also carries the added factor of acting as a pioneer for future Japanese players coming over to the U.S. and forever changing the game.

4)Adrian Beltre

Over his outstanding 19-year career, Beltre has very quietly put together a resume that places him among the best third baseman in the game’s history. He will be 38 this upcoming season and is under contract with the Rangers for two more years, so there’s every reason to believe Beltre can put together a couple more productive seasons. He has been at his best during his six-year tenure in Texas, and is a virtual lock to reach 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, with a shot at 500 home runs. Five Gold Glove Awards don’t hurt him either.

5) Carlos Beltran

Like Beltre, Beltran has somewhat quietly put together a career worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration. He too has boosted his credentials by remaining productive into the latter part of his career. Beltran is less of a first ballot lock, but he should still get in rather quickly. Beltran has brought a unique blend of offense, defense, and speed to the game, and has also made nine All Star teams. What will put him over the top is his historic postseason performance. Beltran is a .323/.432/.646 hitter with 16 home runs in 55 playoff games. The only thing he’s missing is a World Series ring.

6) Clayton Kershaw

At the rate he is going, Kershaw could wind up being one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. Pitchers nowadays are much more prone to injury than hitters are, making it fairly difficult to project out the rest of their careers. Kershaw, though still only 28, may have already solidified his case. There aren’t too many players in recent memory who you could count as Hall of Fame locks before they turn 30, but Kershaw is currently enjoying a run of brilliance that hasn’t been seen since another legendary Dodger lefthander, Sandy Koufax. In fact, Kershaw may have already surpassed Koufax in career accomplishments. Koufax amassed an ERA+ of 167 over his final five seasons in what is considered by some to be the greatest peak of any pitcher ever. Over the last eight seasons, Kershaw’s ERA+ is 166. He’s also won three Cy Young Awards; the other eight players to accomplish this feat were all first ballot Hall of Famers, with the exception of Roger Clemens.

7) Robinson Cano

His first two years in Seattle were slightly down from what he did as a Yankee, but last year was among Cano’s best, during which he set a career high with 39 home runs. Showing no signs of slowing down, the 34-year old has missed only a handful of games over the last ten years and is already in select company in terms of offensive achievements among second basemen. He currently has 479 doubles and seems a good bet to surpass 3,000 hits. Cano has a chance to finish as the greatest offensive second baseman since World War II.

8) Felix Hernandez

King Felix was less dominant than usual last year, but he’s still only 30 and has already logged well over 2,000 innings in his career, so the total numbers are there. In an era when starting pitchers are given shorter leashes and injuries derail far too many great careers, Hernandez has been a model of consistency and excellence since he debuted as a 19-year old in 2005. Unfortunately, he’s played for a lot of bad Mariners teams over the years, so his win total isn’t as high as it should be. Luckily, baseball writers and analysts put far less weight in wins than they used to and look more at the whole picture (Hernandez himself won the AL Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record). Felix is on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame, but it would be a shame if he didn’t get to pitch in the postseason at least once while he’s still in his prime.

9) Mike Trout

Trout would have appeared on last year’s list if I hadn’t set a requirement of at least seven major league seasons. I realize now that it shouldn’t matter because the odds of Trout making the Hall of Fame even with just five full seasons under his belt are better than most active players. He has finished either first or second in MVP voting every year since 2012, has led the league in runs scored four times, and has already accumulated 48.5 WAR by the age of 24, for those who use advanced metrics. Rarely has a player taken the league by storm so early in his career the way Trout has.

10) Jon Lester

Lester has steadily been building a strong Hall of Fame case for years, and may have had his best season in 2016. The left-hander has made at least 31 starts each of the last nine years and holds a solid 3.44 career ERA, despite pitching a good chunk of his games in the AL East. Although not the best barometer for a pitcher’s effectiveness, Lester averages about 15 wins a year and has a .635 lifetime winning percentage, which will surely sway some voters in an era where wins are much harder to come by for starters. And of course, we can’t discount the three World Series rings he’s won. The Red Sox and Cubs both owe a lot to Lester, because without his exemplary World Series accomplishments (4-1, 1.77 ERA in 35.2 innings), who knows how those series would have turned out.

11) Justin Verlander

Following the 2014 season, Verlander looked to be in decline, but he’s bounced back the last two years, nearly winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2016. Verlander has been very durable over his 12-year career, leading the league in innings pitched three times and strikeouts four times. He’s received Cy Young votes in seven different seasons, and when he appears on the ballot, voters will remember him being the best pitcher in his league for a period of time.

12) Dustin Pedroia

He doesn’t have the same power as Cano does, but Pedroia is nonetheless a lifetime .301 hitter at a premium defensive position, who’s also won an MVP and four Gold Glove Awards. There is a certain intangible factor that needs to be counted for too. As the obvious choice to take over as vocal leader and unofficial captain of the Boston Red Sox following the retirement of David Ortiz, Pedroia should get a long look once he’s eligible for the Hall.

13) Cole Hamels

Hamels compares very favorably to another pitcher on this list, Jon Lester. The similarities between the two are actually pretty striking. Both lefties debuted in 2006 and will be 33 years old in 2016. They’ve both made 30 or more starts in each of the past nine years and have nearly identical career records and ERAs. While Lester has slightly more postseason experience to his credit and has three rings, Hamels has a lot of postseason success as well, and he won World Series MVP honors in 2008. The bottom line is that if Lester is building a solid Hall of Fame case, Hamels is right there with him.

14) Madison Bumgarner

He hasn’t been around as long as some of the other hurlers on this list, but Bumgarner has already accomplished a heck of a lot in his eight-year career. The Giants’ ace currently carries a career ERA of 2.99 and a WHIP of 1.10, and he keeps getting better. The last four seasons have been the best of his career and at age 27, Bumgarner figures to have plenty of great years left in him. Like teammate Buster Posey, his role on three San Francisco World Championship teams will play a big factor in cementing his legacy. With a pristine 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings, Bumgarner may just end up being the greatest postseason pitcher the game has ever seen. His World Series heroics are already the stuff of legends – four wins and a save in five appearances and just one run given up in 36 innings.

15) Buster Posey

Catcher is somewhat of an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame, and among the 19 backstops enshrined, only five have played in the last 50 years. Following the recent elections of Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, there isn’t a viable candidate entering the ballot any time soon, so the next catcher inducted will be a player who is currently active unless the veterans committee puts someone in. Posey is currently the league’s best catcher and already has a pretty stacked resume – Rookie of the Year, an MVP, three World Series rings, a Gold Glove, and three Silver Slugger Awards.

16) Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez is has an interesting case. He doesn’t have the gaudy power numbers often required of Hall of Fame first basemen, but he has been incredibly steady and consistent over the course of his career. A big reason is because A-Gon has managed to play at least 156 games in each of the past 11 seasons. Four Gold Gloves help his case too, as do ten consecutive seasons with 90 or more RBI. A good comparison would be Tony Perez, who may not have ever been the best at his position, but got into the Hall due to his consistency year in and year out.

17) Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen had a down year in 2016, but he’s only 30, so it’s reasonable to think he could bounce back. If that happens and he can maintain it into his mid-to-late 30’s, the player who finished in the top five in MVP voting each year from 2012-2015 and has made five All-Star teams should have a solid Hall of Fame case.

18) Chase Utley

Last year, I compared Utley’s Hall of Fame case to Nomar Garciaparra’s. Both were incredible players in their primes, but numerous injuries hampered a good chunk of the latter half of their careers. Sure, Utley is a far better player than a lot of the guys in the Hall, but how much weight can be placed on a player’s peak versus his overall output? From 2005-2009, Utley’s performance was legendary, but he has missed so much time since then that his total numbers probably fall a bit short. Although he intends to play in 2017, he didn’t look like he had much in the tank towards the end of last year.

19)  Yadier Molina

Molina’s case is a complicated one because it will test just how much value the voters put into outstanding defense. There’s no denying Molina is one of the greatest defensive catchers of all-time, but his offense doesn’t stack up to most players in the Hall of Fame. He had a few seasons where he hit well enough to garner serious MVP consideration, but for the most part, he’s been average or mediocre even for his position, and he looks to be in decline. One thing he has going for him is that there’s really no qualified catcher coming on the ballot anytime soon. Omar Vizquel, another player whose case rests mostly on defense, enters the ballot in 2018, so how well he does could give a good indication of Molina’s future prospects.

20) Ian Kinsler

Kinsler’s name might be one of the most surprising on here, but upon closer examination of his numbers, you might find that he’s a lot better than you thought. Although Kinsler has never gotten a great deal of national attention, he is everything a team could ask for in a second baseman. He plays great defense, hits for power, steals bases, and produces runs hitting at the top of the order. It might be tough for him to ever get much Hall of Fame support since he flies so under the radar, but if he continues to play at his current level for another five years, picture where he’d wind up statistically among second basemen. A strong finish could put Kinsler over 2,500 hits and 1,500 runs. Even if he doesn’t reach those numbers, he’s already one of five second basemen with 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases. The other four are all Hall of Famers – Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, and Biggio.

21) Joey Votto

Votto is the type of player who may have been underappreciated had he played in an earlier era. His .313 career batting average would have garnered plenty of attention, but his ability to walk and get on base at a ridiculous rate (.425) is more recognized in today’s game than ever before. Detractors can point to his somewhat low RBI totals from 2012-2015, and as crazy as it sounds, you could definitely make the argument that Votto walks too much considering his role in the Reds’ lineup. However, I would argue that the problem isn’t so much Votto’s approach as it is the team’s lineup strategy. If Votto is going to be a guy who is more willing to work the count in any situation than swing away with runners in scoring position, he should probably be batting first or second instead of third, so that’s not exactly his fault. Anyway, Votto’s contract runs thought at least 2024, so if he’s able to continue reaching base at a prodigious rate for a while, it should be enough to take him to Cooperstown.

22) Joe Mauer

In order to evaluate Mauer’s career, we can focus on his first ten years, during which he hit .323 with a .405 on base percentage, and compare it to other Hall of Fame catchers. Among all players who caught 500 games, Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey are the only ones with a career average higher than .310. Cochrane and Johnny Bassler, a catcher for the Tigers during the 1920s, are the only two with an on base percentage over .400. However, Mauer’s time behind the plate ended at age 30. He hasn’t caught a game since 2013, and while he was moved to first base in part to prolong his career, his production has fallen off pretty significantly. A first baseman who hits around .265 with limited power is a pretty mediocre player, so Mauer will have to hope the voters place a high value on his remarkable peak as a catcher.

23)  Jimmy Rollins

Although he’s in the twilight of his career, Rollins was a mainstay for the Phillies at one of the game’s toughest positions for a decade and a half. I’m guessing his career OPS+ of 95 will keep him out, but Rollins’ offensive totals are still better than a lot of shortstops in the Hall of Fame. He did win an MVP, and is close to 2,500 hits, 500 stolen bases, and 1,500 runs scored. Deadball Era Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and George Davis are the only shortstops to accomplish that feat.

24) Max Scherzer

Over the past four years, Scherzer has emerged as one of the more dominant starting pitchers of our time. During that span, he’s led his league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio twice, strikeouts once, and has an ERA+ of 137. Scherzer has also had his share of memorable moments, which is something that acts as a big bonus for Hall of Fame candidates. The superb right-hander has thrown two no-hitters, won two Cy Youngs, and tied a major league record for strikeouts in a game with 20. He hasn’t yet accumulated the major career milestones that many of the other players on this list have, but there’s no reason to think a pitcher with Scherzer’s talent can’t get there.

25) Francisco Rodriguez

He’s probably not the first guy that comes to mind when you start thinking of future Hall of Famers, but with teams starting to place a greater value on relief pitchers, you never know. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera will both get inducted in the next two years, which could open the door for more relievers in the future. Rodriguez already has 430 career saves, good for fourth all-time, is the type of dominant closer voters like to see. K-Rod is probably the most logical choice for an active relief pitcher to make this list.

Obviously, this list is mostly speculative. There will always be players that look like Hall of Famers who begin a steep decline and other players who aren’t even in the conversation that emerge later in their careers. I’m sure nobody thought Adrian Beltre would be a Hall of Famer after 2009.

There’s a whole group of active players who’ve had wonderful careers that could easily have made this list as well. Ace pitchers like Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, and David Price came close, along with veterans C.C. Sabathia and David Wright, who could re-enter the Hall of Fame conversation if they have major career rejuvenations. Lights out closer Craig Kimbrel was tough to leave off. In addition, late bloomers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, or Josh Donaldson could rack up some huge career numbers if they remain productive until they’re almost 40. Maybe Bartolo Colon can pitch until he’s 50 and get to 300 wins. Anything can happen.

Bagwell, Raines, and Pudge Reach Baseball Immortality

Congratulations to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017. The results of the always anticipated election were announced yesterday, revealing that Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted in Cooperstown this summer, joining former general manager John Schuerholz and former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who were elected in early December via the Today’s Game Committee.

Bagwell finally received the great honor in his seventh year on the ballot, and it’s about time. The Houston Astros’ franchise icon ranks among the greatest first basemen in the game’s history by just about any measure. With a voter pool that is becoming much better at looking at a player’s career from multiple angles rather than relying solely on raw numbers, Bagwell was this year’s top vote getter (86.2%).

Raines was inducted on his last try, joining Red Ruffing, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner, and Jim Rice as the only others to be make it in their final year on the ballot. Like Bagwell, he is another player whose case has been greatly aided by the changing voter pool and by strong internet campaigns. For a stretch in the 1980s, Raines was among the best players in the game, and one of the most effective leadoff hitters ever, stealing 70 or more bases for six straight years from 1981-1986 and only getting caught 69 times during that entire period. At 86.0% of the vote, he will become the third and possibly last player to enter the Hall of Fame as a member of the Montreal Expos (depending on which cap Vladimir Guerrero chooses have on his plaque). On a side note, Raines was the first former player I met in person. I got the chance to speak with him prior to a game back when he was managing the Newark Bears of the Can-Am League and he couldn’t be any friendlier.

Finally, “Pudge” Rodriguez becomes just the second catcher ever to enter Cooperstown on his first ballot, following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Johnny Bench. The longtime Texas Ranger won a record 13 Gold Glove Awards as a catcher throughout his career and made 14 All-Star teams. He received 76.0% of the vote from the writers.

Coming painstakingly close to induction was Trevor Hoffman, who missed by a total of five votes out of 442 ballots cast (74.0%). First-time candidate Vladimir Guerrero missed narrowly by 15 votes (71.7%), while Edgar Martinez experienced a significant increase in percentage from last year, moving from 43.4% to 58.6%. Luckily, Hoffman and Guerrero shouldn’t have to wait too long as they both appear to be near locks for induction in 2018. Martinez has two years left on the ballot, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can gain some more momentum next year and make a push for a 2019 induction.

While a class of three certainly clears up some space on next year’s ballot, there will still be plenty of backlog, judging by who is coming onto the ballot. Chipper Jones will coast in easily and could be the first unanimous inductee, although I highly doubt it. Jim Thome has a strong chance to get in as well, so that pair will essentially replace two of Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez on many ballots. Also appearing for the first time will be Omar Vizquel, who undoubtedly will receive strong support, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, who could appeal to more sabermetrically-minded voters but have far fewer credentials based on traditional measures, and Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer, for whom the opposite is true. Finally, there’s the possibly-still-active Johan Santana, who was great for a time but was unfortunately too limited by injuries to have much of a chance.

Although many voters will still have to make some tough cuts next year, it looks almost certain that at least three more players will get voted in, with a strong possibility of four. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for players who have been lingering in the 10%-25% range due to the backlog of great candidates and the restraints of a ten-player ballot limit. After 2018, there aren’t a ton of overwhelming candidates entering the ballot. Based on my observations, there won’t be any ballots after next year’s that include more than one first-ballot inductee for the foreseeable future. That creates a window for players like Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker, and Billy Wagner to make up some serious ground.

Last but not least, no matter how much we can argue about who gets in and who doesn’t, it’s awesome how much interest is garnered by the months leading up to the election results. It’s true when they say there’s no other Hall of Fame that is so captivating and drums up as much good conversation as this one does. Part of that is due to the excellent writing of people like Jay Jaffe and Graham Womack, who have done a ton of research on the Hall of Fame and provide so much valuable insight. In addition, the work Ryan Thibodaux puts into his Hall of Fame Tracker is second to none. Being able to track the votes “live” makes the whole process all the more enjoyable.

Reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame is not easy. There are 317 people in the Hall of Fame which, considering there’s 146 years of history, is pretty exclusive. Only slightly more than 1.5 MLB players reach baseball’s greatest honor for each season that the sport is played. The exclusivity of the Hall is celebrated, which is why we care so much about who goes in and why it can’t be denied that any player voted in by the BBWAA is truly among the elite. Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez deserve every bit of this incredible honor.

How Big Papi Became a Boston Icon

The 2016 season marked the final one in the illustrious career of David Ortiz, who leaves his mark as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. If you were following him in the earlier part of his career when he was mostly a platoon player for the Minnesota Twins, you probably couldn’t imagine him earning that title or becoming the iconic figure he did. Former Twins’ GM Terry Ryan certainly didn’t. But Ortiz would ultimately finish with 541 home runs and 1,768 RBI, all the more impressive when you consider he didn’t break out until his later 20’s. It’s truly a testament to how consistent Ortiz was during his 14-year tenure with the Boston Red Sox and how he was able to stay in shape into his age-40 season, when he had a year for the ages that we may never see again from a 40-year old. Furthermore, Ortiz leaves behind a legacy that extends far past his accomplishments as a player. As great a hitter as he was, Ortiz’s engaging personality and outstanding track record of community service will forever solidify his standing as a living legend in Boston.

Although “Big Papi” didn’t become a household name until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, the talent was always there. Ortiz began his career in the Seattle Mariners system and hit an impressive .322 with 54 extra base hits in just 129 games with the Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 1996. However, Seattle dealt him away to the Minnesota as the player-to-be-named-later in a largely forgotten move to acquire third baseman Dave Hollins. In the Twins’ organization, Ortiz continued to show promise, belting 30 home runs in two different minor league seasons. And for all stories we’ve heard about Ortiz becoming a superstar overnight in Boston, he was actually quite a bit better as a Twin than most people remember. In his last season with the team, Ortiz hit 20 homers while driving in 75 runs and contributing a very respectable .272/.339/.500 slash line. He wasn’t the Hall of Fame hitter he would become, but was certainly no slouch. You’d think most teams would love to have a player who slugged .500 in the middle of their lineup at a wildly affordable cost; Ortiz made just $950,000 in 2002. In fact, he was even better after the all-star break. 15 of his 20 homers came after the break, while he hit .297, compared to .240 before.

That is why the Twins’ decision to release him at the end of the 2002 season is one of the most puzzling and infamous baseball moves in recent memory. Concerned that he wouldn’t play in the big leagues next season, the Red Sox eventually signed Ortiz upon the advice of Pedro Martinez and the rest is history. The legend of Big Papi began, as Ortiz went from a player who nobody wanted to a beloved hero in Boston.

Over the course of his illustrious career with the Red Sox, Ortiz hit 30 home runs ten times and at least 23 in all fourteen seasons. He slugged .570 overall and was named to ten all-star teams, while winning six Silver Slugger awards as a designated hitter. Of course, the pinnacle of his playing career in Boston will always be his postseason performance. Ortiz was instrumental in turning the franchise around, cementing his legacy as one of the great postseason hitters of all-time. He treated the Red Sox faithful to more than their fair share of memorable moments, including his walk-off home runs in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 4 of the ALCS in 2004. In the 2013 ALCS, his game-tying grand slam in Game 2 of the series saved Boston from falling behind two games to none heading into Detroit. In the Fall Classic that same year, Ortiz was given MVP honors by hitting an otherworldly .688, one of the finest performances in a single World Series ever.

Of course, playing an integral part in ending an 86-year title drought is enough to make someone a legend in a baseball city. But Ortiz’s popularity in Boston and the respect he garners throughout Major League Baseball are a result of his character and generosity on and off the field. The charity work he has done throughout his career is proof of a man who is so much more than just a baseball player. Whether it’s donating thousands of dollars to a hospital in Santo Domingo or setting up the David Ortiz Children’s fund, Ortiz has always been a model of how athletes and celebrities should use their status and wealth in the best possible way.

If there was any doubt how much he is loved in Boston, Ortiz finished third in the 2013 mayoral race. Earlier that year, he delivered his emotional speech to the crowd at Fenway Park in the aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. His passionate words helped encourage a city to stay strong in the wake of a horrible tragedy. Despite a last place finish the year prior, the Red Sox went on to win the AL East and the World Series that year.

For a franchise that has enjoyed so many iconic players, Ortiz is at the top of the list of most beloved. He was the driving force behind three Red Sox World Series victories, something that Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, nor Roger Clemens were able to do once. In an era of constant change and roster turnover, Ortiz was the constant in the Red Sox lineup for so long, the only player to have been a part of the 2004, 2007, and 2013 championship teams. In fact, for the past two seasons, he had been the longest tenured major league player with his current team.

Both the city of Boston and the game of baseball owe a great deal to David Ortiz. His character and exuberance for the sport will be missed on the field, but judging by his always active role in the community, we certainly haven’t seen the last of him. Big Papi’s rise to stardom will go down as one of the greatest success stories in baseball history. His uniform number 34 will be the next to be placed on the right field facade at Fenway, overlooking the area where he hit so many of his 541 career home runs. Ortiz will eventually take his spot in Cooperstown as well – not bad for a guy who in his late 20’s was released and thought he might never play in the big leagues again.

Chargers Bolt to Los Angeles

This morning, the Chargers announced that they would be leaving San Diego to join the Rams in Los Angeles. That puts an end to a 56-year run in San Diego, dating back to the franchise’s days in the AFL. Although the Chargers actually began in Los Angeles, it was for one lone year before relocating to Balboa Stadium in San Diego in 1961. Eventually they moved into Qualcomm Stadium in 1967, which turned out to be the driving force for the team’s relocation. Qualcomm is the fifth oldest stadium in the NFL, and only Green Bay’s Lambeau Field has been continually in use by an NFL team for longer. It’s generally considered outdated and obsolete by NFL standards, so when the Chargers couldn’t get a new stadium built, they decided to bolt. The team will begin playing in the StubHub Center, home to the MLS’s LA Galaxy, before moving in with the Rams at the new City of Champions Stadium in 2019.

It has to be upsetting when a team with so much history in one city is gone all of a sudden. When the Rams moved to L.A. last year, the circumstances were a little different in that they had only been in St. Louis for 21 years. Despite their lone Super Bowl win happening in St. Louis, the bulk of the team’s history was in L.A., so it was more of a homecoming. That’s not to say that there weren’t fans in St. Louis who were hurt by the move. It’s bad for any sports league when teams have to relocate. But the Rams already had plenty of history and a potential fan base in L.A. to market itself to.

I’m not a Chargers fan nor am I from San Diego, so I can’t know what it’s like to lose your team, but this has to be a huge slap in the face for lifelong fans of the franchise. I am a fan of the history of the game and to move a team that’s been in one place for so long is unfortunate. What’s worse, according to Mike Florio of NBC Sports, the team is considering rebranding completely, which means ditching the Chargers name and their classic color combination. They’ve already unveiled a new (very bland) logo, an “LA” inscription that appears to be a Los Angeles Dodgers logo with a Tampa Bay Lightning logo running across it, although apparently this is only for marketing purposes just to make the announcement. The current logo and colors will remain for the time being. That’s a little hard to believe, because it doesn’t make sense to unveil a new logo if you weren’t planning on using it or attempting to eventually transition to a full rebrand. To rebrand the franchise would essentially be tossing aside a half century of history and telling San Diego the same thing Ron Burgundy told the city that resulted in his firing. If this does indeed happen, hopefully the original name, colors, and records can be transferred to a new franchise should the NFL decide to place an expansion in San Diego in the future. After all, nearly every city that has lost an NFL team has gained a new one within ten years.

Although they never won a Super Bowl, many great players have passed through Qualcomm Stadium over the years. From John Hadl in the AFL days, to Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers, the Chargers have had a tradition of great passers. When Don Coryell coached the team in the late 1970s into the 80s, he used Fouts’ strengths to his advantage and transformed the game to include deep passing as an integral part of it. Many notable people consider Coryell to be the father of the West Coast Offense. In Coryell’s offense, Kellen Winslow also helped to transform the tight end position into a legitimate receiving threat.

In 1994, the Chargers reached their first and only Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXIX to the 49ers by a score of 49-26. That team and the ones that followed were led by defensive star Junior Seau, one of four Chargers to have played 200 games with the team. The year 2000 represented a low point for the franchise, as they finished a league worst 1-15.

In the following year’s draft, San Diego selected two players who would become NFL icons – LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees. As you know, Brees ended up having more success in New Orleans after being replaced by Rivers, but Tomlinson built his case in San Diego as one of the greatest running backs of all-time. An alum of TCU, L.T. ranks fifth all-time in rushing yards and third in scoring touchdowns. The majority of his work came in San Diego, highlighted by his historic 2006 season in which he took home an MVP award and set an NFL record with 31 total touchdowns scored. That year, the Chargers went 14-2, the best record in franchise history, but lost in the divisional round to the Patriots. When Tomlinson likely gets voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month, it will be a little awkward when the San Diego Chargers won’t be able to congratulate arguably their greatest player ever.

In addition to the greats listed above, the Chargers have also been blessed with players like Ron Mix, Lance Alworth, Charlie Joiner, and Antonio Gates over the years. While San Diego ultimately fell short of winning a Super Bowl (they did win an AFL Championship in 1963), there were nonetheless some incredible highs and countless players who entertained fans throughout the last 56 years.

What’s puzzling about the move to Los Angeles is why the Chargers would expect to draw better in a city that just welcomed another team a year ago. Back in the early 90s, L.A. had two teams (the Rams and the Raiders), and both had to move out in 1995. Why is it going to be more successful this time? In 2016, the Rams did not draw particularly well for a team in a new city, nor did they perform well in TV ratings. Part of it has to do with the fact that they were a bad team lacking exciting players, but there is usually more buzz for a team in its first year. The Chargers were actually among the worst NFL teams in terms of filling their stadium, but if that’s the case, why is it going to be any better in L.A.? At least there are football fans in L.A. left over from the old Rams days before the 90s, so it’s easier to see where they can draw their fan base. Unless the Chargers have gained a large Los Angeles following as the only Southern California team in the NFL for two decades, they could very well end up being second banana in a city that a year ago had zero teams. To complicate matters, the StubHub Center has a seating capacity of 27,000, less than half of what nearly every other NFL stadium holds.

Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S., certainly deserves one NFL team, but it should have to prove it can support that team before it gets another. San Diego, on the other hand, is now left with only one major professional sports team, the San Diego Padres. In fact, even the Padres have stated their disappointment in the city’s football team leaving. For passionate San Diego Chargers fans, unfortunately, the greed of team ownership won this time, and for that I really feel bad for those people. Hopefully the NFL can return to San Diego one day, but Charger fans deserve better than this.

 

NFL Playoff Predictions (2016)

The NFL postseason kicks off this Saturday with an action packed four-game weekend, beginning with the Texans hosting the Raiders at 4:30 p.m. ET. There’s plenty to talk about with the four Wild Card games, so let’s get right to it.

WILD CARD ROUND

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (Sat. 1/7, 4:30 ET, ESPN/ABC)

Both of these teams enter the postseason with very questionable quarterback situations. Oakland plans to start rookie Connor Cook, who has thrown just 21 NFL passes, all last week in Denver. In fact, he would become the first quarterback ever to make his first NFL start in a playoff game. Houston, on the other hand, will likely turn back to Brock Osweiler, who had previously been replaced by Tom Savage until Savage suffered a concussion last week. For lack of better words, Osweiler has been atrocious this year after being handed a lucrative $72 million contract. During the regular season, the Raiders were a far better team than the Texans. While Oakland finished sixth in the NFL in points scored, Houston scored the second fewest touchdowns in the league (24). That is historically inept for a playoff team; no playoff team since the merger has ever scored fewer touchdowns in the regular season. However, the Texans do have one point in their favor. Oakland’s success this season has been largely tied to MVP candidate Derek Carr’s performance, whereas Houston has won with terrible quarterback play all year. Without Carr, it’s anyone’s guess how the team will respond. Both teams can be expected to run the ball heavily. In addition, both teams possess an elite pass rusher, Khalil Mack for the Raiders and Jadeveon Clowney for the Texans. This game could very well come down to which team runs the ball more effectively and how often Mack and Clowney can pressure the opposing quarterback. Despite all the uncertainly surrounding the Raiders, I’m picking them to win this game in a tight, low-scoring affair. With Houston’s unsightly (-49) point differential for the season, they don’t belong in the postseason at all, and I just can’t trust them to even beat a team who is missing their most important player.

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (Sat. 1/7, 8:15 ET, NBC)

This is another matchup that looks slightly less appealing than it would have earlier in the year. Detroit began the season 9-4, with Matthew Stafford playing some of the best football of his career. However, they stumbled into the playoffs by losing their last three games, albeit all against playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have problems of their own. They still finished third in the NFL in fewest points allowed, but the defense has regressed since Earl Thomas’ season-ending injury in Week 13. In addition, the rushing attack which has been such an integral part of Seattle’s success for the last half-decade has taken a big step back this year. While Thomas Rawls did an outstanding job filling in for the injured Marshawn Lynch last year, a fractured fibula earlier in the year limited him to just nine games and he has averaged a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry, down nearly 2.5 yards from last year. With that being said, the Lions don’t have the greatest running game either, and their offense has scuffled of late. Like the Raiders-Texans game, I expect this one to be close, but I think Seattle pulls it out. CenturyLink Field is possibly the toughest place for visiting teams to win, and despite the issues they’re facing, Seattle was still 7-1 at home. One more caveat to this matchup – the Lions have not beaten a playoff team all year.

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sun. 1/8, 1:05 ET, CBS)

The Dolphins are yet another playoff team who will in all likelihood be playing without their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. With veteran backup Matt Moore slated to play in his stead, Miami will rely heavily on breakout star running back Jay Ajayi, who became the fourth player to rush for 200 yards three times in one season. Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons to match up with Ajayi, led by the outstanding offensive trio of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Dolphins enter the postseason as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning nine of their last eleven contests, they were a decidedly middle-of-the-pack team in terms of points for and against and had a negative point differential for the season. This is the only Wild Card Round game that I don’t think will be very close. As good as Miami has played in the latter half of the season, Pittsburgh has been even better, currently riding a ten-game winning streak following a rocky start. Their defense has been much better in the second half and the Dolphins’ offense is no match for the firepower provided by Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger. If there’s a silver lining for the Dolphins, it’s that they did beat Pittsburgh in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. But for that to happen, it will probably take another 200-yard outing from Ajayi, and the Steelers will be sure to make stopping him their main focus.

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Sun. 1/8, 4:40 ET, FOX)

The Packers have won their last six games, and Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Green Bay is always tough to beat at home, but the Giants have a recent history of winning at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. New York has a legitimate championship defense that really turned it on in the second half of the season. But while their defense has been incredible, their offense has disappeared. The Giants have gone five games without scoring 20 points, which is not an encouraging way to enter the postseason. While the Packers’ defense has been wildly inconsistent throughout the year, they’ve been much better at home. The Giants have a terrible running game and Eli Manning is a turnover-prone quarterback, so unless Odell Beckham Jr. can break off a couple of big plays, the burden once again falls on the defense. Pro Bowlers Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins will be especially counted upon in the secondary, as well as New York’s excellent pass rush. The success of Green Bay’s offense is tied completely to Rodgers, since they too have one of the league’s least intimidating rushing attacks. Because the Giants defense is so stellar, they have a chance to win any game against any team, but I like the Packers’ chances here, because Rodgers has been too good lately and I don’t think New York’s offense will be able to keep up. The Giants have only won three games this year by more than one score and only one by more than 11 points, which came against the woeful Cleveland Browns.

DIVISIONAL ROUND

TBD at Atlanta Falcons (Sat. 1/14, 4:35 ET, FOX)

The Falcons finished the regular season with the NFL’s best offense by a wide margin (33.8 points per game) and they sure are fun to watch. Matt Ryan may win the MVP award, averaging a league-best 9.3 yards per pass attempt, a number only a handful of players have reached in the last 40 years. Atlanta also possesses one of the game’s best wide receivers in Julio Jones and a two-headed monster backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Although they often win or lose on the heels of their offense, Atlanta’s defense and pass rush in particular have improved throughout the season. The Falcons will be a tough opponent for anyone in the NFC to beat, since they have far fewer flaws than any of their potential Divisional Round opponents.

TBD at New England Patriots (Sat. 1/14. 8:15 ET, CBS)

Since New England will face off against the lowest remaining AFC seed, they won’t play the Steelers in the Divisional Round, and that means they will almost definitely play a team led by a backup quarterback. It’s hard to believe any of those passers will match up well against Tom Brady, who was nearly perfect in twelve games this year, throwing 28 touchdown passes versus just two interceptions and compiling a 112.2 quarterback rating. But the Pats aren’t just a one-dimensional team. LeGarrette Blount rushed for a league leading 18 touchdowns and is one of the game’s best short yardage and goal line backs. In addition to having the NFL’s third best offense in terms of points per game, New England’s defense gave up the fewest total points for the season. Whoever they face, the Patriots could very well cruise to the AFC Championship Game with a victory of at least three touchdowns.

TBD at Kansas City Chiefs (Sun. 1/15. 1:05, NBC)

The Chiefs are an old school type of a team, built around a strong defense, an explosive running game, and a conservative but effective passing attack. Kansas City’s defense generated the most takeaways for the season and tied with Oakland for the best turnover ratio. If their opponent makes any mistakes and gives the Chiefs an opening, it will spell disaster. Even more daunting is that when opposing teams have been able to score against them, Kansas City has shown an ability to open up their offense more and keep up. The Steelers would likely give the Chiefs the toughest matchup, but I envision K.C. to be one of the few teams that could limit Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense, even though they fell to the Steelers 43-14 in embarrassing fashion in Week 4.

TBD at Dallas Cowboys (Sun. 1/15, 4:40 ET, FOX)

The NFC’s top seed is among the most complete teams in the NFL, but a number of close games in past couple of months have shown that Dallas is not invincible. If my Wild Card predictions turn out correct, the Cowboys would be matched up against the Packers, who lost to Dallas earlier in the year, but have a good enough passing game to compete. Otherwise, it’s possible that Dallas hosts the Giants, whom they have already lost to twice. A lot will depend on whether their opponent can contain Ezekiel Elliott and how well Dak Prescott will handle the pressure of his first playoff start for a franchise that is starved for a deep playoff run. If he struggles in the first half and the Cowboys fall behind by multiple scores, it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned to Tony Romo to change things up. However, I like Dallas’ chances of advancing past their first playoff game.

This year’s postseason should be intriguing because there is no team that stands out as the clear-cut favorite. With that being said, we could very well see all four teams who have a first-round bye advance to their respective conference championship games. Most of the other teams in the field are flawed in some way, while the top seeds are much more complete in all aspects of the game.

Should that happen, my early prediction is a Falcons/Chiefs Super Bowl. I think Atlanta would beat Dallas, or any other NFC team for that matter, since their offense has been so superior to the rest of the league. Going with the Chiefs is a tough call, but I do think they could come up with the right formula to upset New England should those two meet. Teams that have beaten the Patriots in the past have done so with good ball control and by pressuring Tom Brady, two of the hallmarks of Kansas City’s success. Between Atlanta and Kansas City, it’s the Falcons who I see coming out on top of that matchup, which makes them my early pick for Super Bowl champions.

In any event, expect the majority of the matchups, including those this upcoming weekend, to be thrilling, tightly-contested games. Many of the NFL’s top teams this year have not been to a Super Bowl in a long time, so it should be an exciting road to Super Bowl LI on February 5th.

Breaking Down the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

In just two weeks, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its new inductees for the Class of 2017. The announcement will take place on January 18, and as someone who is fascinated with the history of the game, it’s always fun for me to make my hypothetical ballot. This year I’ve taken it a step further by digging deeper into each candidate’s credentials and highlighting points in favor of all legitimate candidates on the ballot. Players who played in ten MLB seasons and have been retired for five years are eligible to appear on the ballot, as well as all players who received at least 5% of the vote the previous year. This year, 34 former players were selected to have their cases examined. Of those 34, there are 19 who you could make an argument for and who have a realistic chance at reaching the 5% threshold. Tim Raines and Lee Smith are each in their final year of eligibility.

Barry Bonds

If you just focus on him as a player, there’s no doubt about it. Bonds is one of the greatest players of all-time. What people tend to forget is that before he started hitting home runs every eight at bats in the early 2000s, Bonds should have already been a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. After the 1998 season, he had already hit 441 home runs and stole 445 bases to go along with a Cooperstown worthy .290/.411/.556 slash line. He had also collected three NL MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Sluggers. The biggest hurdle in Bonds’ path to induction is getting enough voters to change their minds regarding steroid era candidates. Since it’s impossible to know exactly who used and who didn’t, when Hall of Famer voters have tried to determine who should be punished, it’s led to inconsistencies. Players who have never been connected to PEDs at all, like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, have been unfairly penalized on past ballots. Plus, odds are that there is someone, if not multiple players, already in the Hall of Fame who used steroid that we’ll never know about. From the 1990s into the new millennium, baseball largely turned a blind eye to the issue. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it was a characteristic of the era. If the league didn’t care to do anything about it, the Hall of Fame should honor the best players of the era. That is my stance on the steroid era, although many voters and fans will understandably disagree.

Jeff Bagwell

Bagwell is one of the more underrated players in history. It’s widely accepted that he was a great player, but he never gets mentioned as one of the all-time great first baseman. He should. Even in an offensive era, Bagwell was still a significantly better than average hitter, amassing a career 149 OPS, good for 38th all-time. Most players with 1,500 runs and RBIs are in the Hall of Fame, but Bagwell was able to achieve the feat despite playing just 15 seasons. Of the players to reach those significant career milestones, only nine others also have over 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases. Bagwell is the only first baseman. In addition, there are only 11 players in history to match his career slash line (.297/.408/.540). I’m not sure why it’s taken Bagwell so long to reach the Hall of Fame, but hopefully this will be the year he finally gets the honor he is long overdue.

Roger Clemens

The same rationale used to explain Barry Bonds’ case also applies to Clemens. The Rocket was an exceptionally great pitcher who would be an easy Hall of Fame selection if he retired after 1996. He went on to blow away hitters for over another decade, ending up with 4,672 strikeouts (3rd all-time) and a record seven Cy Young Awards. His 3.12 ERA is remarkable considering the era and division in which he pitched, and his 354 wins are a total that will probably never be surpassed again. Like with Bonds, I am choosing to ignore the PED connection that Clemens carries and focus on him as one of the best players of his era. Players who were caught after drug testing began following the 2005 season, like Manny Ramirez, are a different story. I’ll get to that later.

Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero will go down as one of the best players of the 2000s. Immense power, speed, and a cannon arm made him fascinating to watch, so I’m hoping he will get in sooner rather than later. His case is unfairly hurt by his relatively short career (by Hall of Fame standards), very much like Jeff Bagwell’s. Guerrero’s career totals are very good, but they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at his best ten-year stretch from 1998-2007, there was not one year in which Guerrero failed to have an OPS+ under 138, hit under .307, or slug under .547. That’s not just one of the stretches of hitting in the last 20 years; it’s one of the greatest ten-year runs in the history of baseball. Guerrero’s career WAR of 59.3 isn’t as impressive as some of the other players on this year’s ballot, but it’s again more of a product of his shorter career than anything else. My best memories of Guerrero were when he played in Montreal earlier in his career, and at that time he was probably the most talented player I’ve ever seen.

Trevor Hoffman

His chances depend upon how different voters value his role. For what his job demanded, Hoffman was easily one of the most effective closers in the baseball history. Then again, he was only a one-inning pitcher, unlike the other relievers in the Hall of Fame who would typically close out games by pitching the last two or three innings. There isn’t really a precedent for the modern closer getting into the Hall of Fame, but after Mariano Rivera (who will be elected easily in 2019) ranks Hoffman and another pitcher who happens to be on this ballot. From 1994-2009, Hoffman never had a WHIP over 1.18 and only had three seasons with an ERA over 3.00. Known for having one of the best changeups ever, he managed to strike out 9.4 batters per nine innings even though he was never considered to be as dominant as other closers. Relief pitchers are very much a critical part of baseball, so we must recognize those who filled that role the best. Like DH’s however, the limited capacity of their role means that they should be judged by a higher standard for Hall of Fame consideration. Luckily for Hoffman, he fits into the highest standard of relief pitchers.

Jeff Kent

Kent’s biggest claim to fame is that he hit more home runs than anybody else who played second base. He passed Ryne Sandberg in that category on October 2, 2004, although Sandberg was a better player as an elite defender who also stole 344 bases. That’s not to say Kent’s career was all offense. He wasn’t a bad second baseman, and turned a double play about as good as anyone. A bit of a late bloomer, his career really took off near age 30, when he became a potent run producer for the Giants, often acting as Barry Bonds’ protection in the lineup. From that point forward, Kent remained remarkably consistent, batting .295 and averaging an even 25 home runs, 100 RBI, and 85 runs scored per season for the rest of his career. 560 career doubles boost his resume as well. He’s a Hall of Famer in my mind, but unfortunately with the 10 player limit, he’ll be left off of many ballots for more qualified candidates. It’s going to be a long uphill climb for Kent to get inducted, but at least he got to compete on Survivor.

Edgar Martinez

Martinez is another guy whose role is one with virtually no Hall of Fame precedent. There are players currently enshrined who spent significant time at DH, but none to the extent that Martinez did. To put a player who barely spent any time in the field over the last ten years of his career, his hitting stats should have to be significantly better than the average Hall of Fame hitter. If Martinez doesn’t fit that bill, he at least comes close. He wasn’t really a power hitter until age 32, yet he still ended up with over 300 home runs and 500 doubles. His .312/.418/.515 slash line is quite impressive considering he played into his 40’s, when most other guys experience a big drop off in production that hurts their rate stats. Believe it or not, there are only 23 .300/.400/.500 players in history (with at least 3,000 plate appearances), and all but one of them who is eligible for the Hall is either already in or still on the ballot. If you raise the criteria to .310/.410/.510, Edgar becomes one of just 16. I’ve long considered him a borderline candidate, but I’m finally convinced that he belongs in the Hall.

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A Season with the Rockland Boulders

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I’ve been following sports for as long as I can remember but until this year, that connection was limited to watching games on TV, playing video game simulations, and tracking statistics. The closest connection I had was playing sports myself and to professional sports, watching from the stands. Though I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the history and current state of the sports world, I never before had the inside access to professional sports that interning for the Rockland Boulders would give me.

Before the 2016 season, I’d attended plenty of Boulders’ games since they’re the only pro sports team that plays in my home county of Rockland. It’s a lot more convenient than spending the time and price required to go see a game at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium, as much as I love visiting those stadiums. The Boulders belong to the Canadian-American Association (Can-Am League), an independent minor league consisting of three teams each from Canada and the northeastern United States. Their home field, Palisades Credit Union Park, is as beautiful a stadium as you’ll find in minor league baseball, distinguishable by its unique short porch in right field and Rockland’s own version of the Green Monster in center.

The best part of interning for the Boulders was having the feeling as though I was a part of the team. Following a team for an entire season, and spending a great deal of time during games right next to the dugout, is a different sort of dynamic than watching from afar. I, along with the other interns who were able to stay until or near the end of the season, were able to appreciate being a part of a championship run and what it meant to get to that point.

The intensity level was incredible towards the end of the season, when the Boulders were chasing that Can-Am League title, which would have been their second. Unfortunately, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but Rockland did reach the final and deciding game of the season, which is a big accomplishment. This was despite some injuries to key players and two of the team’s top starting pitchers having their contracts purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks. On top of that, the Boulders found themselves on the brink of elimination multiple times. In the first playoff round, Rockland fell behind two games to none against the Quebec Capitales in a best-of-five series, but battled back to sweep the next three at home in dramatic fashion. In two of those three games, the Boulders lost leads late, only to win on walk-offs. The first of those was an epic 16-15 slugfest in which the Boulders led going into the ninth, gave it up, and then won it on a walk-off home run. Two days later in a do or die Game 5, third baseman Mike Fransoso drilled a 9th inning one-out hit into the right center field gap to win the series and advance into the championship round, upon which the whole ballpark went nuts. I’ve witnessed countless walk-off hits, game winning drives, and buzzer beating shots over the years, but those amazing postseason comebacks will forever be engrained as some of my favorite sports memories.

Being at Palisades Credit Union Park every day had a lot of added perks to it. One of the cool things about minor league baseball is that the really good organizations go the extra mile to enhance the fan experience and add extra entertainment value to the game. In the middle of the season, world-renowned aerialist Nik Wallenda high-wire walked across the stadium, and I had the honor of helping support the wire. We also had guest appearances by famous sports figures like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Bruce Harper, and Sgt. Slaughter. In small minor league ballparks, the fans often get a chance to meet and greet these stars.

Of course, one of the staples of the Rockland Boulders’ fan experience is the Bread Race, run at the end of the fifth inning every game. It’s similar to the mascot races done by teams like the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers, but the crazy, random things that often happen to the mascots in the middle of a race keep it interesting each game. These include, but are not limited to, getting attacked by Godzilla, stuck with a lightsaber, or clotheslined at the finish line.

From a baseball sense, I got to witness my fair share of special games, like when teams from Japan and Cuba came to Rockland. The Japanese players comprised an all-star team from the independent Shikoku Island League Plus, and as someone who is fascinated with different cultures from around the world, it was a wonderful experience to witness my first international baseball game.

When the Cuban National Team came to Rockland it was special not only on a Cam-Am level, but also for baseball on a national level. As the United States and Cuba only recently improved relations with each other, this series marked the first time the Cuban National Team came to the United States since they played exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. The stadium was packed for all three games, which provided a great opportunity to draw attention to the Boulders both locally and nationally.

Above all, working at the ballpark helped me view sports in a whole different light. It’s easy to root for certain players from a distance, but being around a team makes you realize how much work is put in for athletes to get where they want. What I like about independent baseball is that the vast majority of players have a true passion for the game of baseball. Many are vying for a shot in a big league organization, like Stephen Cardullo, a former Boulder who played for the Colorado Rockies last year. Another notable player who played indy ball in 2015 has become a big league star – Rich Hill. Success stories like those are proof of the talent level present on many independent league ballclubs.

While I didn’t get a ton of chances to speak with the players, there were a few Boulders players and coaches in particular who I’ll always have great respect for, as they would always stop to talk to us interns and showed us a tremendous amount of respect. It might not sound like much, but it’s something I greatly appreciated.

Last season was a truly valuable experience that hopefully can lead to more opportunities like it. Not only did it present a new career option for me, it also gave me so much more insight to the professional sports world, something I’ve been intrigued by since I was born.

The Skyrocketing Cost of Relief Pitching

What has become apparent during the MLB offseason is that the price of relief pitching is through the roof. Mark Melancon (Giants), Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) all signed free agent pacts that easily surpassed Jonathan Papelbon’s old record for largest contract by a reliever, with Chapman and Jansen both surpassing $80 million over the duration of their contracts. In addition, the Cubs were forced to part with a talented young player in Jorge Soler in order to swing a deal for the now former Royals’ bullpen ace Wade Davis. While the Davis deal should have less of a long term impact on the Cubs, I’d be surprised those huge free agent signings didn’t turn out to be a total disaster for the clubs involved.

Before breaking down the implications and logic (or lack thereof) of these moves, let’s first try to understand why the price of relief pitching has become so sky high. Recent teams that have reached the World Series have not relied on their starting pitchers going deep into games. The 2015 Royals and 2016 Indians (at least in the postseason) lacked quality starting pitching depth and therefore counted on their starters simply keeping their teams in the game long enough to hand it over to a horde of dominant relievers. These teams possessed such a great bullpen that if the starters could get through five or six innings with a lead, you probably weren’t going to beat them.

There is a lot of merit to the idea that to win in the playoffs you need to have a good bullpen. Even last year’s Cubs, who were so talented in every facet of the game, including a major league best starting pitching staff, still won a lot of their playoff games on the strength of their bullpen. Joe Maddon went to his relievers early and often. But it takes at least three or four good pitchers to piece together a solid bullpen and that’s if you have good starting pitching. The Royals, Indians, and Cubs bullpens may have been highlighted by one incredibly good pitcher, but all of those teams had extremely deep bullpens as a whole, which is what really allowed them to rely on bullpen arms so heavily.

Despite teams in recent years advancing deep into the playoffs off of the strength of their bullpens, it’s crazy to pay relievers the same type of money that’s given to players like Ian Desmond or Dexter Fowler. As good as Melancon, Chapman, and Jansen have been, using up so much payroll space to sign a player who might pitch 70 innings is absolutely outrageous. None of them will pitch enough for their value to equal that of an all-star level position player or starting pitcher. It seems as though teams are expecting to replicate what the Royals, Indians, and Cubs have done in the playoffs, but it’s unrealistic to manage the same way that Joe Maddon or Joe Terry Francona managed in last year’s Fall Classic. You just can’t afford to pitch your best reliever for two innings every other day in mid-July in the way that Chapman or Andrew Miller did in the playoffs. As good as the two of them were, even they began to run out of gas by Game 7. Imagine if they were used that heavily over the course of the entire season. They might give their teams a significant edge in the playoffs, but their impact on that team qualifying for the playoffs is far less.

It’s obvious why the Giants made signing a pitcher like Melancon their biggest offseason priority. Their bullpen blew 30 saves in 2016, most in MLB. Melancon has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past four years, with a minuscule 1.80 ERA over that span. San Francisco may also lose both Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, two very good pitchers in their own right, to free agency, so they had some spots to fill. But how much better does Melancon alone make the Giants, and is it really worth $62 million?

The case of Chapman is especially curious. The Yankees have the potential to be extremely good in a couple of years, but they probably aren’t ready to contend just yet. The AL East loaded and the Yankees don’t appear to be much better than they were last year. A year ago, they were a pretty average team even when they had Miller, Chapman, and Dellin Betances in the bullpen. They haven’t upgraded their mediocre offense or starting pitching much either, and chances are they won’t make too many more major moves in the offseason. Chapman could opt out of his new contract after two years, so if he indeed leaves, the Yankees could have potentially paid him a ton of money without a single postseason appearance. And if he stays for five years, that contract has all the markings of becoming one that is greatly regretted. The history of relievers on long-term deals is not promising, and while there is very little precedent for a pitcher of Chapman’s caliber, there is even less precedent for a pitcher who throws as hard as he does with his kind of delivery. It’s hard to picture Chapman throwing 102 miles per hour for the next five years. It’s possible that he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments when his velocity inevitably diminishes, but it’s perhaps more likely that his performance comes crashing down with it. A similar type of pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, while still very good, already appears to be trending downward at age 28.

On top of all of the baseball risks the Yankees are taking on, Chapman’s off-field character is what truly puts the decision under the most scrutiny. To hand out a contract of such significant length and dollars to Chapman, who served a suspension for domestic violence last year, sets a bad precedent and a bad example. Furthermore, Chapman never seemed to show any remorse over the incident and has skated around questions that have been asked to him regarding it. From the outside, it is pretty difficult to see anything that justifies the Yankees giving Chapman the contract that they did.

Kenley Jansen got a deal of similar value and length from the Dodgers, who have now solidified the back end of their bullpen with a player who has been very valuable for them in recent years. The Dodgers are not a team that typically cares about taking risks on huge contracts, but paying a relief pitcher $16 million a year could have an impact down the road for Los Angeles, who would probably want to stay under MLB’s new luxury tax threshold. However, he is younger than Melancon, and it just feels like he’ll hold up better than Chapman over the long term, since he is less reliant on pure velocity than he is on the great movement and deceptiveness of his cutter. Also, the Dodgers are in position to contend for a World Series title this year, so it makes a lot more sense to give big money to an elite closer than it does for the Yankees or the Marlins, who were said to have interest in both Chapman and Jansen.

The other elite closer who moved during the winter meetings was Wade Davis, whom the Cubs acquired for Jorge Soler. It’s a significant price to pay for a reliever who only has one year left on his contract, but this makes sense for both teams. Soler didn’t have a defined role on a stacked Cubs team, and as reigning World Series champs, Davis solidifies the back end of the bullpen for a team that is the odds-on favorite to be the best team in baseball again. From the Royals perspective, they get a young player with a lot of potential for a pitcher who they probably wouldn’t have been able to re-sign anyway.

While this trade makes sense, it also continues a trend dating back to the last couple of years, in which teams are willing to give up high-level talent for bullpen arms. The Yankees got huge returns in exchange for Miller and Chapman at the 2016 trade deadline. It was easy to be critical of the Indians and Cubs at the time for giving up so much, but both teams knew that they had championship contending teams, and both moves worked out pretty well for them. One trade that hasn’t worked out so well is the Astros decision to trade five prospects for Ken Giles, who disappointed in his first season in Houston. That was a head-scratcher when it happened just over a year ago and it doesn’t make any more sense now.

Even if relief pitchers have become greatly overvalued, what are teams to do if they feel that their biggest need is improving their bullpen? After all, obtaining quality free agents requires meeting the market value. One strategy that could pay off is what the Marlins have done just this week. Miami reached agreements with Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, and could conceivably add a third quality reliever and end up paying about the same average annual value for three guys as they would have for Chapman. Several good pitchers are still on the market, including Boone Logan, Luke Hochevar, and Greg Holland, so the teams who have waited on adding relief pitching could be rewarded by paying much less than the teams who spent big on the top-of-the-market guys.

There’s no easy answer as to how front offices should navigate through the inflating cost of bullpen help, because a good bullpen is a very important aspect of wining in the playoffs. But if teams start to allocate large chunks of their payrolls towards single relief pitchers at the expense of more pressing roster needs, they may find themselves falling short of the postseason altogether.

 

The Impact of Bud Selig on Hall of Fame Voting

On Monday, the Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed two new members. Longtime Royals and Braves GM John Schuerholz and former Brewers owner and Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig were elected from a pool of ten players who appeared on the newly minted Today’s Game Era ballot. This was the outcome I predicted two months ago when the ballot was first released, and the two newest Hall of Famers do not come as much of a surprise. Still, the results are interesting nonetheless, and could have some major residual effects on Hall of Fame balloting in general.

On one hand, not many pure general managers are enshrined in Cooperstown, so the inclusion of Schuerholz is a nice addition. The only GM to win a World Series in both leagues, Schuerholz stands as one of the most successful front office executives in history.

Selig, however, is the candidate who will generate the majority of the discussion. While it can’t be overstated how large of a role he played in shaping the game that we know today, Selig also presided over the steroid era, and many of that era’s top stars have been denied induction by the writers. Selig was checked off on 15 out of the 16 ballots by the Today’s Game Committee, but no player who is strongly connected to PEDs has yet to receive 50% of the writers’ vote.

Many of the baseball writers simply don’t factor steroid use into their criteria, chalking it up to an unfortunate characteristic of the era. I’ll save my stance on that issue for another time, since it is far too complex to get into here. Yet, it seems sort of odd that while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have waited and waited to get into Cooperstown, the man who oversaw all of it for so many years would get in so quickly and so easily. Even certain players with no connection whatsoever to PEDs have been slighted by voters in the past, for no reason other than hitting a lot of home runs in the 1990s. Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who both should have been elected on the first ballot, had support withheld from them by account of some people’s unwarranted suspicions.

Since the regular ballot is not voted on by the same people who vote on the era committees, it’s possible that these committees will tend to have a softer stance on the issue of steroids. Judging by the overall reaction, I don’t believe that Selig would have been voted in this year if his case was voted on by the hundreds of writers who vote for the regular ballot. It’s too early to reach any conclusions on the era committees’ voting tendencies regarding the issue, since Monday’s election marked the first time there was a player connected to PEDs on one of these ballots. Mark McGwire, whose time on the BBWAA ballot expired last year, received fewer than 5 votes on Monday. But unlike Bonds or Clemens, he isn’t a shoo-in candidate even if you just focus on his stats.

In terms of the BBWAA ballot, the fact that Bud Selig is now in the Hall of Fame could result in a shift in momentum for some other candidates who have been in limbo. A number of Hall of Fame voters have already said that they will now support Bonds and Clemens after not doing so in the past, in light of Selig’s election. Among these voters are Susan Slusser and Steve Buckley. Slusser brings up a great argument in pointing out the hypocrisy of keeping the greatest players of the era out of the Hall of Fame while the people who enabled the problem to happen are in. Buckley echoes that sentiment, even though he acknowledges how unfortunate it is for the players who resisted the urge to turn to PEDs in the mid-90’s and were often overshadowed. Bonds (44.3%) and Clemens (45.2%) have both inched closer to the halfway mark in vote percentage in 2016, but neither has experienced a major jump since debuting on the ballot in 2013. This trend suggested that both candidates’ support would remain mostly stagnant until they fall off of the ballot after 2022. However, if more and more voters are willing to ignore Bonds’ and Clemens’ connection to PEDs, there is at least a chance that they could be inducted by the writers eventually. Furthermore, other steroids-related players like Manny Ramirez, who is eligible for the first time this year, and Alex Rodriguez, suddenly have a clearer path to induction.

I’ve long believed that it would just take one proven steroid user getting into the Hall of Fame to turn the tide for candidates like Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa. Whether that happened via someone like Bonds getting voted in by the writers or somebody who is already in admitting to have used steroids, it would function all the same. As it turns out, Selig getting in may be enough to change the mindset.

For the record, the goal of this writing is not to slam Selig or to say that he shouldn’t be in. His legacy involves many other aspects aside from the steroid era. It’s simply to point out the connection between his election and some of the more controversial players currently on the ballot. It will absolutely have an effect on how voters view the era in regards to the Hall of Fame. The only question is how much of an effect it will have. Plenty of people will disagree on how to handle steroid candidates. There are a number of different stances you can take on the issue, but it’s part of what makes the Baseball Hall of Fame great. It’s so exclusive and leads to so much more discussion that we don’t see in other halls of fame.