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Jim Harbaugh Will Turn It Around Immediately At Michigan

Jim Harbaugh’s interview with ESPN talk show host Colin Cowherd last week was, to put it mildly, on the uninspiring said, so much so that The Herd had to terminate the interview. Before Harbaugh’s boring answers, clearly done to tweak the host, Cowherd said that we need to be patient with Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, that he won’t turn it around in one year. Looking at the talent on hand and Harbaugh’s track record, I’m not so sure he won’t.

Remember, when Brady Hoke took over, his early recruiting classes were lauded. The 2012 & 2013 classes ranked 4th and 6th in the nation respectively, and those are the upperclassmen on this year’s roster. They haven’t played to their potential so far, but there’s every reason to think Harbaugh can turn it around quickly.

This is someone who turned around the moribund San Francisco 49ers franchise in his first year and rescued Alex Smith’s career. While you can turn over personnel in the NFL a lot easier than you can in college, the dramatic flip in the 49er fortunes in 2011 spoke volumes to Harbaugh’s ability to motivate.

The man also knows quarterbacks, as his work with Smith suggests. While I’m not in the “quarterback-is-the-end-all-be-all camp that’s so dominant in sports media, I don’t deny the position’s obvious importance. Michigan had turnover problems last year and if Harbaugh can get junior quarterback Shane Morris to simply take care of the football, the team can get better immediately. You may recall that better game management was precisely the formula Harbaugh used with Smith.

Michigan also has a veteran offensive line, with four seniors slated to start. Harbaugh likes to run the football. When he last coached in college, at Stanford, he ran the ball over 60 percent of the time. That was with Andrew Luck in his sophomore and junior seasons. How much more will Harbaugh want to pound the rock with an untested Morris behind center?

The defense is going to be the big determining factor for Michigan’s season. They lose their best two pass rushers and that was off a team that didn’t pressure the quarterback very well to begin with. The secondary was a competent unit, but didn’t make big plays. So when you consider the offense couldn’t take care of the ball, the defense couldn’t force turnovers nor get to the quarterback, it’s not a huge mystery why the Wolverines struggled to 5-7.

But strong safety is Jabril Peppers is a potential difference-maker. The sophomore was one of the country’s most touted recruits before injuries spoiled his freshman year. Another newcomer is defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, whose last job was at Florida with Wil Muschamp. Things didn’t work out for that regime in Gainesville, but it was no fault of the defense, which was as stingy as any.

I believe this year’s Michigan team is going to be one that plays like a firecracker has been lit underneath their posterior (appropriate analogy for the Fourth of July), runs the ball reasonably well, take care of the ball and show an improved defense. Harbaugh has excellent game management skills that will aid the Wolverines in close games. All of those are the reasons I’m bullish on their prospects, not just down the line, but immediately. Continue reading “Jim Harbaugh Will Turn It Around Immediately At Michigan” »

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A Tale Of Two Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez & Rick Porcello

The Boston Red Sox’ starting pitching has been almost entirely remade with trades since last summer and the team’s worst-in-the-AL ERA stands as an indictment of GM Ben Cherington’s regime. No pitcher captures that better than Rick Porcello.

Conversely, Cherington’s moves didn’t all blow up in his face—the acquisition of Eduardo Rodriguez has the potential to be a huge steal at the expense of a division rival.

Both pitchers were on display in less than 24 hours at the Rogers Centre in Toronto and their most recent starts were par for the course.

Rodriguez got the ball on Tuesday night. The 22-year-old lefty was acquired at last year’s trade deadline from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Andrew Miller. Rodriguez has made seven starts, including on Tuesday and is 4-2 with a 3.92 ERA.

The numbers don’t show how good Rodriguez really is though. His two bad starts, one of them against the Orioles, were truly awful, and subsequent video review showed that he was tipping his off-speed pitches with a dramatic difference in the positioning of his head. He corrected the problem on Tuesday night against the Blue Jays, the other team to have lit him up.

While there were some difficult moments, where you could tell Rodriguez was working on new habits and perhaps overthinking things, the results drastically improved—six innings of four-hit ball against the best lineup in the league.

Just watching Eduardo Rodriguez is a pleasure. His throwing motion is so smooth that it reminds one of The Natural, with Roy Hobbs’ effortless lefthanded pitching style. In a year when Red Sox legend Pedro Martinez will be inducted into Cooperstown, the franchise may have found its next must-see pitching attraction for a new generation.

Now let’s look at Porcello. To understand the complete failure of this acquisition from the Tigers, we have to put it in a larger context and it involves Jon Lester. In the winter of 2014, coming off their World Series title, the Red Sox declined to lock up Lester with a four-year/$70 million deal. By midsummer, they would trade Lester to Oakland for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. This past offseason, Boston tried to resign Lester at more than double the original price tag. He went to the Cubs instead.

Cherington then went to Plan B (or should I say Plan C, because Plan B was apparently to double the cost of Lester when you could have signed him prior to the 2014 season). Anyway, he shipped Cespedes and two minor-leaguers off to Detroit for Porcello.

Thus, if you look at the moves in context, it boils down to giving up Jon Lester and a couple prospects for Rick Porcello. The new pitcher’s results are a 6.08 ERA. He hit rock-bottom on Wednesday afternoon when he gave up seven runs in two innings, including home runs that would have gotten Toronto hitters bonus swings under the new Home Run Derby rules that reward distance. Continue reading “A Tale Of Two Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez & Rick Porcello” »

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The Wide-Open Race For The American League MVP

The race for the American League MVP seems to have more candidates than the race for the Republican presidential nomination. There are players having great years, but whose teams are, as of now, out of the playoffs. The players from the first-place teams don’t quite seem MVP-level.

There are good candidates at starting pitcher. Here’s a snapshot of how the American League MVP race looks, with 16 possible choices, all of whom would either be good picks right now, or wouldn’t need much of a push.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Miguel Cabrera (1B, Detroit)
Mike Trout (CF, LA Angeles)

Cabrera’s numbers are dazzling, a .454 on-base percentage/.589 slugging percentage. With a batting average of .350, 15 home runs and 53 RBI, Miggy is again in position to make a run at the Triple Crown. Trout is sitting on numbers of .390/583 and has hit 20 home runs.

These two players have combined to win the last three AL MVPs, but the Tigers But the Tigers are looking up at Kansas City and Minnesota in the AL Central and the Angels continue to lag behind Houston in the AL West. For a lot of voters, this alone will disqualify both.

THE SLUGGING DHs
Prince Fielder (Texas)
Nelson Cruz (Seattle)

Fielder’s stats are .415/.532 and he’s been instrumental in lifting the Rangers back into contention. Cruz is on .368/.552 and has a much less hitter-friendly environment than Fielder. But if you disqualify Trout because his Angels would be out of the playoffs, then two teams that are trailing Los Angeles in the AL West are even worse candidates.

Furthermore, there is a historic bias against voting for a DH—and I think a fair one—given their status as part-time players. If either one of these guys sizzles and carries their team to the postseason though, it could get interesting.

THE IMPROBABLE YANKEE SUCCESS STORIES
Alex Rodriguez (DH)
Mark Teixeira (1B)

I want to be ill in writing both of these names here, but if the Yankees end up winning the AL East, the revival of these two is probably going to be the biggest reason. A-Rod’s profile fits with the DHs noted above, as he’s .389/.520, while Teixeira is at .356/.524, with 18 home runs.

The problem I have with both—beyond their existence as baseball players—is the extreme hitter-friendly nature of Yankee Stadium. But anti-NYY bias didn’t stop me from believing last year that Masahiro Tanaka should have been a strong candidate prior to his getting hurt and the team fading from the race. That’s because I give pitchers more credit for succeeding in the Stadium than I do hitters.

MUSCLE UP THE MIDDLE
Jason Kipnis (2B, Cleveland)

Stephen Vogt (C, Oakland)

Offense up the middle is at a premium, and therefore those who produce big numbers at these spots are, by definition, more valuable. Kipnis is at .424/.510, while Vogt, in the pitcher-oriented Oakland park is on .394/.532 and tied with Cabrera with 53 RBI. And if you’re a sabermetric type who believes in the whole Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat, Kipnis is the best in the American League.

Of course the problem with both players comes when you look at their teams. Both are struggling badly and dragging their otherwise legitimate MVP candidates down with them.

A ROYAL FLUSH
Mike Moustakas (3B)
Alex Gordon (LF)

If you believe that to the victor goes the spoils, then it has to start in Kansas City. Moustakas is at .369/.463 and Gordon on .390/.443. They’re the best two candidates on what’s been the best team in the American League.   Continue reading “The Wide-Open Race For The American League MVP” »

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Manny Machado Is Back As The Game’s Best Young 3B

The Baltimore Orioles are gaining steam in the crowded AL East race and a big reason is the re-emergence of third baseman Manny Machado is one of the game’s brightest young stars and its best young third baseman.

Machado came to the major leagues in the latter part of the 2012 season. At the age of 19 he helped a surprise team make a run to a wild-card berth. The overall numbers weren’t great—only a .294 on-base percentage, with a more respectable .445 slugging percentage. But the potential was there and the electric defensive skills were undeniable, prompting comparisons to Oriole legend Brooks Robinson.

The numbers moved modestly in his first full season in 2013. Machado nudged the OBP up to .314, though the slugging percentage slipped a bit to .432. But considering that this was done with a full season worth of plate appearances at a point when the league had gotten a look at him, it was a sure sign that the 20-year-old was on his way.

Then came a horrific leg injury at the very end of that season that saw Machado strapped to a stretcher and taken off the field. His future was in doubt, and one wondered if he was going down to the path another Beltway-area young star who had his career cut out from under him thanks to a terrible knee injury. I refer of course to Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Machado missed the start of what was a troubled 2014 season for him personally, even as the Orioles won their first AL East title since 1997 and advanced to the American League Championship Series. When he got back to the lineup, it took some time for him to find his groove and when he did appear to be coming around, another injury ended his season.

The final stat line was .324/.431, which wasn’t bad given the circumstances, but more troubling was issues that seemed to be jumping up surrounding his temperament. He was suspended for five games for throwing a bat towards then-Oakland A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson and trying to make it appear as a swing, after a little dustup with Donaldson earlier in the game was followed by a pitch thrown at Machado’s feet.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter publicly rebuked the young third baseman and Machado subsequently apologized.

All of this combined to take the bloom of Machado’s rose when the 2015 season began, but he’s come out and made a good case for himself to be the American League’s All-Star third baseman. He’s shown improved patience at the plate, befitting where he’s at in this stage of his development and his OBP has jumped to a solid .360. He’s hitting for more power and is slugging .511. That’s to say nothing of the nightly defensive display he puts on for the good people of Camden Yards.  Continue reading “Manny Machado Is Back As The Game’s Best Young 3B” »

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Kaminsky Or Dekker? Which Badger Basketball Standout Do You Take?

The NBA draft is tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (7 PM ET, ESPN) and for those of us who follow Wisconsin basketball, there’s never been a draft with more intrigue. Badger stalwarts Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are expected to be first-round picks and you can reasonably debate which one should go higher. Even though the mock drafts are predicting Dekker goes higher, I would take Kaminsky.

Here’s a general breakdown of how I would see each player…

Kaminsky: He’s much more of a finished product, being that rarity today in a four-year college player. His court vision from both the post and the perimeter is superb, and as a result he’s a terrific passer.

Combine that with his lights-out shooting ability and he would be a dream power forward in a system like San Antonio or Atlanta that place a premium on moving the basketball and need their big men to knock down the three-point shot.

Kaminsky also has fantastic footwork in the low post and though he’s not an intimidating presence down low, his defensive skills dramatically improved in his final two years. He was an excellent rim protector. He’ll probably never be muscular enough to be a true enforcer down low, but he can certainly play in the post on both sides of the floor.

The area he’ll have to work on the most is how much he puts the ball on the floor in the low post. It wasn’t unusual to watch him repeatedly dribble with his back to the basket before making a move to the hoop or kicking it back out. That move will have to be done much quicker in the NBA, although the need to adjust to the speed of the game at the next level is hardly unique to Kaminsky.

Dekker: He’s a potentially explosive scorer, as Arizona can attest after watching him have an insanely good game in the West Regional final. He has tremendous ability to score off the dribble and can use that to drive defenders back and hit the step-back three.

He sealed the Arizona game with just such a move and he hit the biggest shot in the history of Wisconsin basketball with a step-back three against Kentucky in the Final Four that broke a 60-60 tie late in the game.

Dekker is not a particularly good defender though and he does need to fill out physically. An early entry to the draft, Dekker is a year younger than Kaminsky and is correctly perceived as having a higher upside. If Dekker fulfills his potential, he can become a top NBA scorer, and if he becomes even an adequate defender, you could be looking at an All-Star.

If I had to choose, I would pick Kaminsky. I don’t view the difference in upside as being dramatic, and in either case, I think teams get too carried away with upside and consequently waste too many picks.

Given that the mock drafts have both going in the top half of the first round (the most common projections have Dekker at #8 to the Pistons and Kaminsky at #13 to the Suns), we’re talking about teams that aren’t very good and should be first making sure they can get a reliable prospect. Kaminsky is the more reliable of the two.

Regardless of which direction you prefer with these two players, Kaminsky and Dekker—along with Nigel Hayes, who will be at Wisconsin for his junior year next fall and is a future first-round pick himself—are evidence that maybe that Wisconsin “upset” of Kentucky wasn’t as a big a shocker as everyone thought.

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