Saturday, June 27, 2009

Toronto FC - Real Salt Lake live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Toronto FC - Real Salt Lake match tonight at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. It should be a good one; TFC are in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-5-4 record and 22 points, one behind D.C. United. Toronto also has a game in hand, and D.C. doesn't have another MLS game until July 4, so a TFC win tonight would vault them into first in the East for a while. Real Salt Lake have cooled down a bit from their strong start to the season. They sit fifth in the West with a 4-6-4 record and 16 points, so they'll be eager to get full points from this one as well. Come join the live blog at 9:30 tonight!

Friday, June 26, 2009

On sports in the Twitter era, and the role of bloggers and tweeters

If anyone wasn’t already convinced that Twitter has altered the way we cover sports, they would do well to consider the events of the past week. First, we had Kevin Love breaking the news [Andy Hutchins, The Rookies] of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Kevin McHale’s dismissal on his own Twitter feed, followed in close succession by a supposed Twitter feud [Andrew Stoeten, Blog] between Chad Ochocinco and Shawne Merriman, Shaquille O’Neal learning of his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Twitter [King James Gospel] and several notable reactions across the sports world to the death of Michael Jackson (including some that were over-the-top [Jonathan Sacks, Sports Rubbish). Even before this week, many prominent news organizations have been running stories based on information from the Twitter feeds of athletes, agents and coaches, and that doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.

The big question is what these developments mean for sports coverage. Quoting athletes from Twitter, Twitter feuds and stories based on Twitter information have their own sets of unique issues that I’ll look at later, but for just breaking news, it’s hard to imagine a better platform, especially in the sports world. When any sort of big story (a trade, an injury, a free-agent signing) happens, the sports segment of the Twitter universe tends to explode. Sometimes, that results in stories like the Love incident, where an insider such as an athlete or coach breaks news directly to their followers before the media gets to it.

More frequently, as with the Shaq trade, one reporter or blogger will pick up on the story, write a piece and then promote it on their Twitter feed. Another growing segment of news comes from media live-tweeting from certain events, such as the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings or Steve Nash’s charity soccer event. If the news is important enough, it will fly around the sports world thanks to the ease of retweeting and linking.

Twitter isn't not just for breaking news, either; if a mainstream columnist or a blogger has a unique or valuable take on a situation, either in a longer piece or in just a witty tweet, that will be rebroadcast as well, helping to publicize their work. Moreover, as Will Leitch wrote in a great column this week, Twitter is a fantastic way to collect sports information even if you’re not putting much of your own information out there. It allows you to see what the hot stories are in the national media and on small team blogs all at once, and pick out those that you find interesting for further reading.

Personally, I haven’t found that the advent of Twitter necessarily means I read less long-form pieces. What I have found is that the location of where I read those places has changed. The advantage of big sports sites like ESPN and Yahoo! is their depth of information and their ability to put breaking stories up quickly. I used to check those sites regularly just to see if anything big was going on, and would often find myself reading other pieces they added to pass the time. With smaller blogs, I often found myself not checking in as frequently, as they usually put up a new piece every couple days or so and it wasn’t worth continually looking at the site to see if there was something new. Now, with Twitter, I don’t have to spend time just surfing the general sports sites, as anything interesting that they break will be flying across Twitter instantly (and sometimes even before one of the big sites has it, like ESPN with the Shaq trade).

Moreover, I see plenty of interesting blog pieces cleverly promoted in 140 characters or less, so I check those out instead of reading the general sports stories. When the bloggers I follow regularly put a new post up, they generally alert the world on Twitter, and I generally know just from their 140-character summary if it’s something I’m interested in reading or promoting. In many ways, it’s a lot like a RSS feed but more useful thanks to the Twitter-exclusive original analysis and witty remarks many writers offer in addition to promoting their own stuff. The recommendation aspect of Twitter is also useful; I’m much more likely to check out a piece at a site I don’t regularly read or a Twitter feed I don’t normally follow if it’s mentioned by a writer I follow and respect.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Twitter and Twitter users break stories in the majority of circumstances. However, that doesn’t make their function of promoting and redistributing the news any less important, and it doesn’t make it different from many major news outlets (something which I had an interesting Twitter conversation about with Dave Leeder of the Globe and Mail yesterday in the wake of the Jackson coverage, where the accurate details were spread across Twitter long before mainstream organizations such as CNN and NBC clued in). Much of what you see in a newspaper or on a sports website is not original content produced specifically for that organization; a lot of it is wire-service material picked up from agencies such as The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg. Moreover, a great deal of that wire-service material is not news broken by the wire service, especially when looking at trades or free-agent signings; those are more frequently broken by local beat reporters or well-connected national writers such as Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski or Fox’s Jay Glazer and then re-reported or rewritten by wire-service staff for transmission to their client papers.

Thus, many Twitter users and bloggers are fulfilling a similar function to wire services by taking information that one group of people sees and transmitting it to different groups of people. In fact, I’d argue that the Twitter users and bloggers are providing a more valuable function, as they generally add their own commentary to the straight news and they generally link to the original piece, two things which wire services rarely, if ever, bother with. Occasionally, a wire-service piece will include a vague line like “the trade was first reported by”, but they’ll rarely mention the name of the reporter or provide a link, making it difficult for interested readers to find the original piece. More frequently, they’ll forego attribution altogether if their reporters are able to re-report the story by getting a coach, general manager or agent to confirm to them what’s already taken place.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as these services still have their role to play. Newspapers and websites need a great deal of content, and it isn’t possible to have their own staff generate certain kinds of content efficiently. For example, consider the Shaq trade. This is the kind of big news that transcends the individual franchises involved (the Suns and Cavaliers); any paper that covers the NBA at all will likely want to have a story on it. However, it isn’t at all cost-efficient for a paper like the Sacramento Bee (to pick one at random) to have a reporter based in either Cleveland or Phoenix on the off-chance that some news big enough to make the papers in Sacramento will arise in either city. It’s far more effective for one AP writer to pull a story together and send it out to all the interested papers across the country that don’t have their own personnel covering the trade.

It is ironic that these wire services are some of the biggest critics of the blogging and tweeting segments of the sports world, though. When AP chairman Dean Singleton rails at Google and bloggers [Joseph Jaffe, Jaffe Juice] and apparently agrees with Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson’s characterization of them as “parasites”, perhaps he should look in the mirror. If the definition of a news parasite is one who disseminates without adding original content, the wire services are perhaps more guilty of said offence than bloggers. At least bloggers who comment on these stories on their own sites or on Twitter are providing credit to whoever broke the story, a link to the original piece and their own take on the news, all of which are rather valuable. With the wire services, the credit often goes missing or is unnecessarily vague, the link to the original is generally non-existent, and extra analysis generallyis not included (which is fine, as that’s the way that straight news tends to be done).

Perhaps the problem is with the connotation of the word “parasites”. Of course, it evokes rather unfortunate mental images of bugs or worms living off of larger hosts. “Symbiotes” might be a better term; many organisms provide useful functions for their hosts, such as the gut flora that live in the human digestive tract and help to process food. In that manner, wire services, bloggers and tweeters all provide useful benefits to the original reporters to some degree, as all help get the information to the masses. Bloggers and tweeters help even more by providing credit and links to their sources. There’s enough room out there on the sports segment of the interwebs for each group to carve out its niche. In the end, we all have the same goal of getting the information out there; we would be better served working as parts of a symbiotic whole than feuding with each other.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Toronto FC - New York Red Bulls live blog, and US-Spain analysis

Toronto FC takes on the New York Red Bulls tonight at 7:30 at BMO Field. It should be a good game, as TFC look to translate their recent Voyageurs Cup success into MLS play. I'll be live-blogging the match here and at The 24th Minute; come stop by then!

Also,if you're looking for a soccer fix in the meantime, I have some thoughts on the U.S. - Spain Confederations Cup match from earlier today over at The Phoenix Pub, Adam has a good piece for tonight's Last Call at Avoiding The Drop, Jason Davis of Match Fit USA has reversed his stance on Bob Bradley and Andy Hutchins, my colleague at The Rookies, has a nice take over at The Big Lead. Hope to see you for the live blog!

The Most Annoying Fan Traditions, Part I

Note: this piece originally ran at The Rookies yesterday. However, a massive failure on the part of our hosting server means that it isn't accessible at the moment, so I figured it would be appropriate to repost it here today so everyone watching the Confederations Cup matches could share my vuvuzela hatred. It also originally had more pictures and looked prettier. I'll hopefully be running Part II on specific fanbases over at The Rookies tomorrow if our server's back up. - Andrew

The ongoing Confederations Cup in South Africa has seen some great moments on the pitch, including the bizarre collection of circumstances Wayne and Rockabye described here and here. However, they have been overshadowed by one appalling one; the unleashing of the hated "vuvuzelas" (basically, cheap plastic trumpets) on an unsuspecting worldwide audience. A movement to ban them is already underway, and bloggers around the globe have weighed in. Even those who
respect the vuvuzelas' origins tend to concede that they're bloody annoying. Still, it doesn't look like the vuvuzelas will be going anywhere in the near future, as they're endorsed by His Royal Majesty King Sepp I. In their honour, I present my selections of the five most annoying fan traditions from general fanbases after the jump.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Cleveland City Stars live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's USL-1 contest between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Cleveland City Stars. It should be an interesting one, as the Whitecaps seek to rebound from both watching the Voyageurs Cup slip away in front of their eyes and then throwing away their chance at revenge on a revitalized Montreal Impact side.

The Whitecaps enter tonight's with a 4-5-2 record through 11 games, putting them eighth out of the 11 teams in the USL-1 table. They do have a couple games in hand on many of the clubs above them, but they'll need to start making a run soon if they hope to defend their USL-1 title this season. Of course, it's not going to be easy. Key striker Charles Gbeke and central defender Wesley Charles will sit out this one thanks to the suspensions [Simon Fudge,] they received following their punch-up a while back. Defenders Jeff Parke and Geordie Lyall and wingers Ansu Toure and Justin Moose will also miss this one thanks to injury.

Cleveland also needs to turn their season around. They're a new USL-1 side, and won the USL-2 title last year in only their second season of existence. Head coach Martin Rennie left after last season for the Carolina Railhawks, though, and that's proved to be a good move for him; Carolina's tied for second in the table with a 7-3-3 record, while Cleveland's second from the bottom with a 2-9-2 record. They do have some faces that will be recognizable to Canadian fans, including former Trinity Western University player and Whitecaps reserve Paul Ballard and former Montreal Impact midfielder Pato Aguilera, who leads the team with seven points from one goal and five assists. They also will have the home-field advantage of playing on FieldTurf at the oddly-named Middlefield Cheese Stadium, which may be a difficult adjustment for the Whitecaps. It should be an interesting one to watch. The game is on USL Live tonight, and the live blog will start at 7 p.m. Eastern. Come join in the fun then!

Where has all the writing gone?

Apologies for things being slow around here lately; I've been pretty swamped with other writing work. I'll try to get a full new post up tonight, but until then, I thought I'd share a few of the other pieces I've been working on. Hope you enjoy them! Feel free to leave comments on them at those sites or here, or send them to me via e-mail (andrew_bucholtz AT or Twitter. Thanks as always for reading!

- Over at my new blog, Canuck Puck, I have an analysis of how the Sedin twins stack up against other elite NHL players and why resigning them would be a great Moneypuck move.

- At The Phoenix Pub, I have a few thoughts on how the recent increase in statistical analysis has changed sports. It's a bit of a follow-up to the piece I wrote here the other day about the (partial) demise of Moneyball.

- At The Rookies, I have a piece looking at the most annoying fan traditions in sports.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The death of Moneyball, as a film and an idea?

Some interesting news came out this evening. Apparently, Columbia Pictures decided to cancel [Will Brinson, FanHouse] the upcoming movie of Michael Lewis' famed book Moneyball at the last minute, only a few days before shooting was set to start. It's rare to see that kind of cancellation so close to production on any film, but even more unusual when it's a big-ticket film involving the likes of Brad Pitt and director Steven Soderbergh. Apparently, the studio didn't like the direction Soderbergh was taking the project. There's a chance the film could still get picked up by someone else; we'll have to wait and see on that front.

This is a somewhat unfortunate move in my mind. Moneyball was a brilliant book, and one that truly revolutionized how many segments of people—from print journalists to television personalities to fans, bloggers, and even team executives—approached baseball. Its influence spread beyond baseball to other leagues, and it dramatically changed the sporting landscape. It encouraged unconventional thinking and analysis and played a key role in popularizing the sabermetrics movement. It's the main reason I labelled Lewis as the Elvis of the sports world a while back, and he fits the moniker much better than even Bill Simmons' candidate, Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey. I wasn't sure that Moneyball would translate to the big screen all that well, but it would have been interesting to see in any case. There certainly aren't many sports movies being made these days, either, so losing one of the few high-profile ones known to be in development isn't a good sign for the sports film scene.

It's also somewhat apt, though. The film's currently in limbo. Its future with Columbia appears dead, but there may be other studios interested in giving it new life. In my mind, that same process has happened with Moneyball as a whole. At its heart, Moneyball described how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his staff couldn't afford to compete with the clubs with bigger budgets for the top free agents, so they had to find another way to win. They did so by spotting players who were productive, but undervalued, most notably players with relatively low batting averages and relatively high on-base percentages, and then acquiring those players cheaply.It's simple economics; if there's a limited supply of traditionally valued players and a significant demand, they'll be expensive, but if you can find players with close to as much value and lower demand for their services, you can achieve similar results.

Beane and his staff did very well with this philosophy, winning 90 or more games every year from 2000 to 2004 and 80 or more games from 1999 (the year after Beane succeeded Sandy Alderson as the A's full general manager) to 2006, despite minuscule payrolls, a lack of high draft picks and not many players traditionally thought of as top-end talent. Some have used the A's lack of playoff success during that period (they lost in the first round four times and in the American League Championship Series once) as a knock on the Moneyball approach, but that criticism is flawed; just making the playoffs in baseball is tough enough, for one thing, and short playoff series have a small enough sample size that even far better teams will still lose quite a lot of the time (as David Berri explains wonderfully here). In short, the Moneyball approach worked very well for the A's from 1999 to 2006.

Since then, however, things have gone downhill for Oakland. They suffered through losing seasons in 2007 and 2008, and appear likely to have another one this year. That's not an indictment of Beane, as he's still doing quite well with limited resources and the team has suffered its fair share of injuries and free agency departures over that period as well (see Swisher, Nick, a first-round draft pick covered in Moneyball who had significant success
with the A's, but left for the White Sox in 2008 and is now with the Yankees). It is a reflection that the Moneyball strategy no longer works in the form it once did.

It goes back to simple economics again. As the most basic example, before Moneyball came out in 2003, there was a significant supply of the high on-base percentage, lower batting average players favoured by Beane's approach and relatively little demand for them. After Moneyball, almost everyone from fans to team executives realized that these guys were worth more than they thought. Several guys with a background on the statistics side got jobs as major-league general managers (including Beane assistant J.P. Ricciardi, now the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays), with many more being hired as assistant general managers and consultants; most of them quickly started adopting some of the strategies that had worked well for Beane. Even executives who don't seem to place a high value on OBP in practice give it at least lip service (see Moore, Dayton, who Joe Posnanski comments on here), resulting in significantly more demand for these kind of players. This increased demand means these players achieve a market value more suited to their skills, and thus can no longer be acquired cheaply. When everyone's doing it, it isn't an unconventional strategy any more. Thus, the idea of Moneyball along the specific terms expressed in the book is largely dead; the OBP approach in particular still has plenty of value and is a good idea for many teams, but it's no longer really a cheap way to win.

However, the larger idea behind Moneyball is very much alive and ticking despite the claims of some curmudgeons. The book's central thesis was that you can build an effective professional sports franchise cheaply by finding and exploiting market deficiencies, and that's still very true. In baseball, one way we've seen this lately is in teams' evaluations of players' defensive prowess, which used to be largely based on eyesight and spectacular, highlight-reel plays. Defensive statistics still have a way to go, but such statistics as Michael Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (fully explained here, explained more simply here) and John Dewan's +/- system (explained here) allowed for a more detailed evaluation of players' fielding performances and gave some teams that picked up on them early the chance to sweep up undervalued defenders. I'm sure Beane and his fellow unconventional thinkers have plenty of other ideas in the works as well.

In hockey, guys like Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis have tried to apply a similar "Moneypuck" strategy for finding underrated players and have discussed in detail [Iain McIntyre, Vancouver Sun] how Beane inspired them, plus there's been a surge in new statistical analysis as exemplified by such sites as Gabriel Desjardins' Behind The Net. Basketball's also witnessed a statistical revolution and an increased application of unconventional insight, led by the likes of John Hollinger and the aforementioned David Berri. Even Lewis got in on the act this year with a tremendous piece on the Rockets' Shane Battier.

Statistical analysis have taken on a large role in football as well, as shown by the work of writers like KC Joyner (who I interviewed here) and Aaron Schatz; I still argue that there's room for much more unconventional thinking in the sport, though. Lewis also discussed some of the historical changes in the game wrought by unconventional analysis in his book The Blind Side (a few of which I analyzed over at The Good Point), which has already been made into a film scheduled to be released later this year.

These, and the numerous other examples out there, demonstrate that large numbers of people have caught on to the basic idea of exploiting market deficiencies to build a successful franchise. They'll likely take it in many different ways, and only some of them will pan out. However, this is proof that the principles behind Lewis' book linger on despite the specific examples perhaps petering out. Like the film, reports of the death of the ideas behind the book may have been greatly exaggerated, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain. Moneyball is dead: long live Moneyball!

On The Ground: Jason Brewer on the Eagles' tackles

In the last part of my interview series for this piece on left tackles at The Good Point, I present my full interview with Jason Brewer, who covers the Philadelphia Eagles for the excellent SB Nation blog Bleeding Green Nation. My previous interviews with KC Joyner and Bruce Raffel can be found here and here. Hope you've enjoyed this series!

Andrew Bucholtz: What do you see the left tackle's role as in today's NFL: mostly pass protection, mostly run-blocking or a combination of the two? How would you evaluate a left tackle's importance as compared to the rest of the offensive linemen? Also, do you think this role's changed over the last decade, and if so, how so?

Jason Brewer: I think that's entirely dependent on the team he's on. We all know that some teams, like the Eagles, pass more than others. However, I would say that primarily the role of a LT is be a great pass protector. The biggest reason the guy playing on the left is more important than the guy on the right is that he's protecting the blind side of a right-handed QB. So the ability to pass block is that much more important for a LT than most other positions along the line, whereas the ability to run block is no more important for a LT specifically than any of the other OL positions.

A.B.: In your mind, how important is it for a team to have a good left tackle? Can you win without one?

J.B.: I think it's just about imperative to have a good LT on a winning team. Any time an opposing team can pressure the passer, the likelihood of turnovers goes up. When a team can pressure the passer from his blindside, turnovers are even more likely. We all know that moment that makes you cringe... When your QB is looking downfield, you can plainly see that DE coming unblocked at his blind side, and he doesn't know the guy is there. How many times that does end up in a strip sack or the QB getting hammered and fumbling? Often. So having a guy that prevent a game changing turnover like that with consistency is incredibly important.

A.B.: Are left tackles worth the amount of money they're paid?

J.B.: That's an interesting question. Actually, the gap between what elite LTs make and what other guys along the line make is getting a little smaller. We've seen guards get some big paydays in recent years, but the LTs are still making the mind-boggling bucks. I guess if you've spent $100 million on a franchise QB, it's worth it to spend around half that to make sure his back side is protected.

A.B.: What are the most important characteristics for a good left tackle in your mind?

J.B.: Probably footwork. These guys are facing the elite pass rusher on the opposing team week in and week out. They face bigger 4-3 DEs and speedy 3-4 OLBs. Only the ability to move your feet and adjust your center of gravity quickly is going to give you a chance to block those guys consistently.

A.B: If you were appointed as the GM of an NFL expansion franchise and had to create a roster from scratch via an expansion draft, a regular draft and free agency, where would acquiring a left tackle fit in your priorities? Would you try and grab him through one of the drafts or through free agency?

J.B.: I'd probably rank LT as my #3 priority. Franchise QB comes first, then an elite pass rusher, then the LT. I guess I'd probably rather draft one than spend the $60 or $70 mil needed to sign one on the free agent market.

A.B. Your posts I've seen on the Jason Peters trade seem fairly positive. What do you think he'll bring to the Eagles? Will he be worth all the picks the team gave up?

J.B.: Well, the amount of picks is really not all that great. There was a late first, a 4th, and then, I believe, a sixth-rounder in 2010. For a two-time Pro Bowl LT who's only 27, that's fairly cheap in my opinion. It's far less than the Eagles would probably have had to give up in order to move up in the draft for one of the two "elite" LT prospects.

I'm optimistic about Peters. He has the athleticism to do the kind of things the Eagles ask of their offensive linemen. I think now that he's properly motivated and got the money he was after, he should return to that devastating form of 2007 that made the league sit up and take notice of him.

Thanks to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions. Check out his blog here!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Montreal Impact live blog

If this wasn't enough of a USL grudge match before, it certainly is now after Thursday's events. Come join in the live blog below!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The launch of a new site

It's time to announce another exciting new venture. I'm now running a new blog, Canuck Puck. It's going to be mostly focused on the Canucks, but also will touch on deeper issues in the NHL from time to time. The idea's to bring subtle, detailed analysis to the Canucks. It's also part of the great Fanball Network, which is an excellent group of blogs across a wide variety of sports. You can check out my introductory post here.

P.S. If you liked my draft posts from earlier this week, I have more analysis of them over at The Phoenix Pub. Suggestions on how to improve the method or thoughts on the data are much appreciated!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Soccer: A tale of three cities

The seemingly-impossible 6-1 victory Toronto FC pulled off against the Montreal Impact tonight gives them the Voyageurs Cup, the one fact everyone can agree on. Apart from that, there's no clear lesson or moral to draw from this one, though. It means drastically different things to fans of all the teams involved, and there's no one right answer. Read on for my thoughts on what this result means to fans in each city.

Toronto: It's a great day to be a Toronto FC fan. Almost everyone wrote them off after the Vancouver game; sure, they've got a solid team, but a four-goal victory on the road is hard for any side. For a team that's suffered some significant setbacks recently, including a brutal home loss to the L.A. Galaxy, a series of fan protests and a recent roster makeover, this is a huge step forward. They finally have the CONCACAF Champions League berth they've coveted for so long, and they have some tangible silverware to show their fans. The load on Mo Johnston's shoulders just got significantly lighter; regardless of how TFC do in the remainder of the MLS season, this year will be seen as at least a partial step forward thanks to tonight's events.

Vancouver: For Vancouver fans, it's the opposite. The championship seemed in their grasp, and it would have been a perfect stepping stone on the road to MLS as well as a way to bring some well-deserved Eastern media attention to the Whitecaps. To have that ripped away by a stellar TFC performance would have been bad enough. However, the way this went down was much worse. Their old archrivals, the Montreal Impact, first decided to dress a B-squad, including former Whitecaps' backup goalkeeper Srdjan Djekjanovic. That B-squad then went on to roll over and play dead (after notching the game's first goal on a penalty) in a manner that made the Montreal Screwjob look positively fair, all but assuring TFC's triumph. The faces of head coach Teitur Thordarson and the Whitecaps in the stands told the story of the night; first joy, then cautious optimism, then worry and then disbelief.

In the end, though, Vancouver fans don't have anything to be ashamed of. Their side put in a great tournament and may have deserved the trophy. With a credible effort from Montreal, they might even have won it. There's no point in kicking themselves or their franchise over something that in the end was out of their hands. You can bet they'll be fired up for Saturday's USL game against the Impact, though.

Montreal: In many ways, Montreal fans come out of this in the worst situation. They just watched their side demonstrate that they don't care about the Voyageurs Cup when they don't have a chance to win it. The appalling effort shown by the Impact tonight gives Montreal fans nothing to be proud of, and that's made worse by their lacklustre performance handing the championship to their Toronto-based rivals. Montreal's going to take a lot of criticism over the next few days, and much of it will be deserved. That's not the fans' fault, but it's going to be awfully tough for them to defend their franchise at the moment. Tonight's showing brought back horrible memories of the Santos Laguna defeat, and perhaps was even worse. That was an Impact team that had overachieved; just making it to that point was an accomplishment, and getting any sort of result in Mexico is always difficult. Losing by six goals at home to an MLS team with a poor recent run of form? It's hard to find a way to rationalize that.

In the end, I don't think it necessarily means much for Canadian soccer as a whole. Toronto FC will make a great representative for the country in the CONCACAF Champions League, but as I argued a while ago, Vancouver would have as well. Each would bring a different audience to the table, and a run by either will be good for the game. For Toronto, their focus now shifts to the CCL; for Vancouver and Montreal, the mission's now to succeed in the USL and come back hungry for the Voyageurs Cup title next year. It's been a great, thrilling, dramatic tournament, and it's really shown that these sides at their best can compete with each other and give us some fantastic soccer to watch. In my mind, that's the most important thing to take away from this one.

[Cross-posted to Out of Left Field].

Toronto FC - Montreal Impact live blog

Note: Post-game piece is here.

It's the final game of the Voyageurs Cup tonight, with Toronto FC taking on the Montreal Impact. TFC have their backs against the wall and need to win by four to take the title; otherwise, the Vancouver Whitecaps will claim the championship. Montreal have nothing to play for but pride, but don't underestimate that motivation; they certainly won't roll over and play dead against their bitter archrivals from Ontario.

It should be an interesting one with plenty of offence; Toronto will be going for it, and that might provide Montreal with some counterattack opportunities. Kickoff is at 8 p.m., and the game will be televised on all regions of Rogers Sportsnet. I'll be live-blogging the game here and at The 24th Minute as well, so come join in the fun then!

Comparing the NBA and NHL drafts

Here's the second part of the 2002 draft comparison I started the other day, looking at the success rates of players in the NBA and NHL drafts. See that post for an explanation of what I'm trying to accomplish and a discussion of some of the limiting factors of this type of analysis. The format is almost the same, but the ratings are tweaked slightly to allow for the differences in each sport; full explanations are below. I've also included the ratings as a column in the actual spreadsheets to make it easier to see how players performed relative to their draft position. I have an analysis of the differences between leagues at the end of the post as well.


[Table from Wikipedia]

5 – All-star (at least one all-star game selection)
4 – Solid (played in 60 or more games last season)
3 – Marginal (played in the NBA last season)
2 – One-off (played at least 100 career NBA games)
1 – Bust (played less than 100 games)

5 – Ming, Butler, Stoudemire: three players, 10.7 per cent of all 28 picks.
4 - Nene, Wilcox, Prince, Salmons: four players, 14.3 per cent of all picks.
3 – Jeffries, Ely, Jones, Dixon, Dunleavy, Rush, Krstic, Gooden: eight players, 28.6 per cent of all picks.
2 – Tskitishvili, Wagner, Nachbar, Haislip, Welsch, Woods, Jacobsen, Dickau: eight players, 28.6 per cent of all picks.
1 – Jay Williams, Borchardt, Humphrey, Frank Williams, Jeffries: five players, 17.9 per cent of all picks.

Notes: The NBA draft is limited to two rounds, so every player taken in the first round got at least some time in the league; thus, the one-off standard is set higher than in any of the other leagues, where just making the big show bumps you from a 1 to a 2. Also, some players play considerable amounts of games but relatively few minutes, inflating their ranking by this method, while others play a lot of minutes but few games thanks to injury, reducing their ranking. The classic examples here are Stoudemire, Wilcox and Jeffries. Stoudemire only played 53 games last season before he was injured, but racked up 1948 minutes; if not for his previous All-Star nod, he would have been a three in this system. Jeffries played 1310 minutes in 56 games before an injury, so he's a three that easily could have been a four. By contrast, Wilcox played 62 games but only recorded 1049 minutes, so he's a four who probably deserves to be a three. The team situation of each player also comes into play; a good player on a terrific team may get less time than a bad player on a lousy team. As pointed out earlier, this isn't intended as an absolute evaluation of any one player, but rather an attempt to measure how these draft picks stack up against those found in other sports.

On specific players: Dunleavy was injured last year and only played in 18 games. Jay Williams, the #2 overall pick, only played in 2003. Tskitishvili hasn’t played since 2006 and Wagner's out of league since 2007. Haislip hasn’t played since 2005; he only played nine games in his last season and 79 in his career. Nachbar was in the league and playing 60+ games until 2008, but went to Europe; he may return this year. Humphrey and Frank Williams haven’t played since 2005, Woods hasn’t played since 2006 and Jacobsen played in 2008 but not last year. Rush played only 25 games last year, while Dickau went to Europe last year but played 67 games in 2008.


[Table from Wikipedia]

5 – All-star (at least one all-star game selection)
4 – Solid (played in 60 or more games last season)
3 – Marginal (played in the NHL last season)
2 – One-off (played in the NHL at some point)
1 – Bust (never played in the NHL)


5: Nash, Bouwmeester: two players, 6.7 per cent of all 30 picks
4: Pitkanen, Upshall, Lupul, Bouchard, Nystrom, Ballard, Eminger, Semin, Gordon, Grebeshkov, Paille, Babchuk, Eager, Steen, Ward, Slater: 17 players, 56.7 per cent of all picks
3: Lehtonen, Higgins, Bergenheim: three players, 10.0 per cent of all picks
2: Taticek, Klepis, Johansson, Toivonen: four players, 13.3 per cent of all picks
1: Niinimaki, Koreis, Vagner, Morris: four players, 13.3 per cent of all picks

Notes: As with the other leagues, some players could easily move between categories. Higgins played 57 games last season, but played 82 the year before, so he could be a four instead of a three. Johannson only played one career game (with the Washington Capitals in 2006), so he could easily be a one instead of a two. Slater notched exactly 60 games last year and has bounced up and down, so he could certainly drop from a four to a three.

Overall comparison:

There's some pretty revealing data here. From 2002, the NFL teams were by far the best at drafting future superstars. The NHL teams were the best at drafting all-star and solid players, though, with 63 per cent of their picks falling into categories five and four compared to 50 per cent in the NFL, 46.6 per cent in MLB and a horrible 25.0 per cent in the NBA. The strength of those NHL numbers may be thanks to the comprehensive junior hockey system; most of the players drafted in the first round have already been competing at a high level for several years, and there isn't as much difference between the junior game and the NHL one as there is between the college and professional games in football and basketball. Not every junior stud becomes an NHL star, but most of them are good enough to hang on to a spot somewhere in the league.

The NBA numbers are quite surprising, actually; there are only two rounds of the draft, so it's not like there's a massive amount of picks competing for spots the way there are in the other leagues. Despite that, an incredible amount of their players still turned out to be marginal at best and complete busts at worst. Part of that may be thanks to the considerable differences between the college and professional styles of play. Another part of that is the time frame we're looking at here; this draft saw a lot of European players without a great deal of high-level experience drafted early on, mostly because of their size and potential. In recent years, there appears to have been a bit of a shift away from that philosophy, perhaps thanks to the large amount of busts from drafts like the 2002 one.

Questions? Thoughts on what it all means, or different ways to evaluate the drafts? As mentioned, this is just a starting point, so leave your ideas on how to improve it here in the comments, or e-mail me at andrew_bucholtz [at]!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On The Ground: Bruce Raffel on the Ravens' tackles

Time to continue my series of supporting interviews for this piece I wrote for The Good Point on the importance of the left tackle. Today's interview subject is Bruce Raffel, editor of the excellent Ravens' blog Baltimore Beatdown. The Ravens' tackle situation is quite an interesting one; they used the first draft pick in their history in Baltimore on Jonathan Ogden, who turned out to be a great franchise LT. Recently, they brought in Jared Gaither to replace Ogden after his retirement. This year, they drafted possibly the most famous left tackle out there, Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame, 23rd overall. Raffel has some very interesting things to say about the Ravens' moves at tackle over the years, so read on!

Andrew Bucholtz: How important do you consider the left tackle position, especially compared to the other positions on the offensive line? How important is a good left tackle to a team's overall success?

Bruce Raffel: While the center position is sort of the "quarterback" of the o-line, the left tackle s the most important piece, as they protect (usually, unless QB is lefthanded) the QB's blind side. Most great pass rushers come from the left side and therefore the best offensive lineman usually plays there. In addition to pass protection, the LT must open gaping holes for the running game as well, which of course, makes the passing game even more successful.

A.B.: What are the most important attributes of a good left tackle?

B.R.: There aren't too many LT's I can think of that don't have that massive size to go along with their incredible athleticism for such big men. Due to the speed rushers of today, the LT must have quick feet to keep up with the defense, but also have the bulk to ward off the bull rush and long yet strong arms to fend off the slap, swim and spin moves of the elite DE's in the league.

A.B.: In your mind, is there a significant difference in the skills required to play left tackle and right tackle?

B.R.: It seems that most teams put their best pass protector on the QB's blind side, which as noted earlier is usually the left tackle position. Both tackles need the size and bulk, but still must have the quick feet to be successful. However, since the best ones play LT, the money for that position is much greater than the right side. Overal, the skill set is similar, but the QB can have a better chance of avoiding a pass rusher from the right side than he can from the left.

A.B.: Obviously, Jonathan Ogden had a tremendous career with the Ravens. When he was drafted fourth overall in 1996, what did you think of the pick? Did you think it was worthwhile picking a tackle so high at the time?

Ogden was the premier LT coming out of UCLA in that draft year, and when trying to build a team for the future, taking the guy who will be protecting your QB's blind side for the next 10-12 years or so is the best place to start (which is why the Detroit Lions should have done the same thing this year rather than take a QB with the first pick). Besides, when you look at the entire career of JO, as he is called here in Baltimore, it looks like we did the right thing, eh?

A.B.: What do you think was the key to Ogden's success in the NFL: physical attributes, game smarts or a combination of the two?

B.R.: JO was a very bright young man when drafted and then became an even smarter player as he matured, both emotionally as well as physically. He watched tape on his opponents and knew their signature moves and was rarely beaten by the same guy more than once. He was also a huge physical specimen who took care of his body which permitted him to enjoy a long healthy career, at least until towards the end of all the abuse he lasted through against the best pass rushers in the league.

A.B.: When Ogden retired in 2008, were you nervous about who the Ravens would replace him with?

B.R: Ravens fans always knew that time was coming, especially towards the end. However, when we grabbed former Maryland Terrapin LT Jared Gaither with the 5th pick in the Supplemental Draft, every Ravens fan knew we had a guy that would have gone in the top part of the first round if he stayed only one more year in college. Having a year to learn from JO was the best thing that could have happened to Gaither, as he had an on the field coach in Ogden.

A.B.: How do you think Jared Gaither has done so far? Do you see him as a long-term solution at left tackle?

B.R.: Absolutely, Gaither is fast on his way to becoming an All Pro at LT. He is a massive human being at 6'9" and 334 pounds, but moves around pretty good for such a behemoth. He already had a great season last year and will only get better. Joe Flacco has a lot of confidence that his back is covered with Gaither entrenched at LT.

A.B.: The Ravens took another tackle high in the draft this year with the first-round selection of Michael Oher. What did you think of the move? Was it made because he was the best player available at that slot, or because the team needed another strong tackle?

B.R.: Most Ravens fans, including me, were looking for a wide receiver with the first round pick. When I heard that we made the trade to move up in the round, I was sure it was to grab either a WR or one of the USC LBs, such as Rey Maualuga, who I thought would be a great transition to Ray Lewis at MLB. However, when they took Michael Oher and his life story came out, it was obvious that he fit the mold of a typical Raven player. Finally when RT Willie Anderson announced his retirement, opening the door for Oher to start at RT right away, it became apparent that this is why our GM, Ozzie Newsome is well known as the "Wizard of Oz."

A.B.: Oher's quite likely one of the most well-known linemen in the NFL already thanks to Michael Lewis' book on him, despite him not playing a down yet. Do you think he'll be able to handle that pressure?

B.R.: The pressure off the field living up to the personal hype is nothing compared to learning the pro game as a starter. The Ravens are keeping him at right tackle as they have a great one in the making already at left tackle. However, Oher was a LT in college and could easily move over if there was an injury, etc. Learning at RT will be a challenge, but I was at Ravens' training camp this past week and while Oher is 6'4" and 310 pounds, there is not an ounce of belly fat on the guy, which is rare for an OT.

A.B.: A lot of the talk so far seems to have Oher as the Ravens' starting right tackle for this coming season. Do you think he'll be able to handle the shift from playing left tackle in college? Do you see him as a LT or a RT long term?

B.R.: If Jared Gaither stays healthy and continues his rapid growth as a fixture at LT, then Michael Oher will become one of the best RT's in the game very quickly. If something happens with Gaither, then Oher would seamlessly slide over to his natural position. Although a LT in college, it will actually be easier to acclimate himself to the speed and challenges of the pro game by learning right off the bat from the RT position, which is far less pressure.

A.B.: How much emphasis do the Ravens as an organization place on the offensive line in general and the left tackle in particular? If you were running the team, how much emphasis would you place on the offensive line positions?

B.R.: Although so many Ravens fans want to see this team get an elite wide receiver and air the ball out, we are not that type of team. We are a defensive-minded team, that earns its offensive success on the ground. Therefore, the O-line's abilities to open holes for the running game will set up the simple passing attack that does not have to be really good, just good enough. And we all know the run game starts with the LT's ability to collapse the line to get the RBs space to run off tackle, or even between them.

Thanks to Bruce for taking the time to answer my questions! Check out his website here!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Comparing the MLB and NFL drafts

Inspired by a Twitter suggestion from Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, I figured it would be interesting to compare the washout rate of first-round prospects across the four major North American sports. Carroll suggested 2004 as a year, so I started there, but the baseball evaluation was difficult, as several of those prospects are just beginning to crack the league. Thus, I went back a couple years further to the 2002 draft. It's a nice distance, as prospects' status is usually pretty well set after seven years. This MLB draft also has the added appeal of being featured by Michael Lewis in Moneyball. Here's the first part of the comparison, looking at the MLB and NFL first-round drafts; I'll have the second half, looking at the NBA and NHL, up tomorrow.

First, a note on the evaluation system used. I was looking for a simple way to compare prospects across sports, so I went with a five-point scale. Under this system, players ranked as a five are presumed to be among the best in the league at their position, while players ranked as a four are labeled as regular starters, threes are marginal players who were still in the league last season, twos are busts and ones are the worst busts.

In order to figure out who slots in where, I tried to come up with a system that could be relatively comparable across positions and sports. Obviously, single stats like on-base percentage or rushing yards won't work for this. However, all of these leagues do have stats for how many games a player was involved in and if they were selected to play in the league's all-star game. Thus, I was able to create a system that can be applied across sports with only minimal tweaking. The specific criteria for each sport are listed before that sport's table. This clearly isn't going to be a perfect system, and there are other variables such as team quality that aren't taken into consideration here; a starter on a poor team might be worse than a prospect or backup at a better team The seven years of distance does help with this, though, as teams have usually traded players who could start somewhere else by this point. This also doesn't account for injuries, as it made the most sense to base this on last year's stats; however, I have included some notes on certain players who might have fit into a higher category if not for injury or other circumstances. This is intended just as an overall look at the differences between the drafts, though, not an absolute evaluation of any of these players. Moreover, limiting this to one year means it may not be applicable generally; it's more of an attempt to try and get a handle on the differences between the leagues. Ratings and notes are after the tables:

[Table from Wikipedia]

5 = All-star (appeared in at least one all-star game)
4 = Solid (in league, played in 2/3 of games or more last season for everyday players, pitched 40 or more innings for pitchers)
3 = Marginal (played in at least one game in the big leagues last season)
2 = One-off (made it to the big leagues at least once, not in league last year)
1 = Bust (never played in the big leagues as of last year)

5 = Fielder, Saunders, Kazmir, Hamels: four players, 13.3 per cent of all 30 draft picks
4 = Upton, Greinke, Francis, Hermida, Greene, Swisher, Loney, Span, Guthrie, Francoeur, Blanton, Cain: 12 players, 33.3 per cent
3 = Bullington, Loewen, Moore, Ring: four players, 13.3 per cent
2 = Meyer, Adams: two players, 6.67 per cent
1 = Gruler, Everts, Brownlie, McCurdy, Santos, Grigsby, Fritz, Mayberry: eight players, 26.7 per cent

Notes: Grienke and Swisher could potentially crack the all-star ranks; Upton might as well if he returns to previous form. Loewen (who I went to high school with) was decent, but struggled with control; he was badly hurt last year and had to give up pitching, but is now trying to come back as an everyday player in Toronto's system. Bullington, the number-one pick overall (largely thanks to his low contract demands), is now a Blue Jays' reliever. Francoeur started off well, but has been horrible lately and might fall down to marginal status if his slide continues. Mayberry made his MLB debut this season with the Phillies.


[Table from Wikipedia]

5 = All-star (at least one Pro Bowl selection)
4= Solid (started 2/3 or more of team's regular-season games last year)
3 = Marginal (started at one point in time, played in the league last year)
2 = One-off (started more than five games in their career, didn't play last year)
1 = Bust (started less than five games in their career)

5 = Peppers, Williams, Henderson, Freeney, Shockey, Haynesworth, Walker, Reed, Sheppard: nine players, 28.1 per cent of all 32 picks,
4 = Jammer, McKinnie, Jones, Buchanon, Graham, Thomas, Colombo: seven players, 21.9 per cent of all picks
3 = Carr, Sims, Stallworth, Duckett, Lelie, Harris, Grant, Stevens, Simmons, Thomas, Ramsey: 11 players, 34.4 per cent of all picks
2 = Harrington, Williams, Green: three players, 8.8 per cent of all picks
1 = Bryant, Rumph: two players, 6.3 per cent of all picks

Notes: Jones is not expected to start this year. Williams has been out of the league for a couple of seasons, but is trying to get back in, as is Bryant. Stallworth played in 11 games last year, but only started seven and is facing legal trouble. Grant started all of the Saints' first eight games last year and then was injured; he could easily move up to a four with a healthy season. Sheppard is a two-time Pro Bowler from 2004 and 2006, but only started three games last year. Colombo is also a metal guitarist. Simmons started the Steelers' first four games last season and then got hurt, but was released in the off-season. He has not yet found a new team.

How the leagues stack up:

As you can see from the above table, the NFL first-round draftees from 2002 were much more successful. Only 6.3 per cent of all the NFL first-round draftees examined ranked as ones, compared to 26.7 per cent of all MLB first-round draftees. That's even more impressive when you consider that even the NFL player considered the biggest bust by these metrics (Wendell Bryant) played in 29 career games and started nine; the 26.7 per cent of MLB players ranked as ones never played in the big leagues. Moreover, 28.7 per cent of NFL first-rounders from 2002 earned at least one Pro Bowl nod prior to this year, while only 13.3 per cent of MLB first-rounders from that year made the All-Star game.

That doesn't mean that NFL teams are necessarily inherently better at evaluating talent, though. NFL picks have several other factors working in their favour. For one thing, NFL players are selected out of college, not high school, so GMs already have a good idea of how they perform against tough competition; some MLB picks are taken out of the college ranks, but many are chosen straight from high school.

Moreover, the NFL draft is limited to seven rounds while the MLB draft goes 50 rounds; the sheer numbers of players selected means that first-round picks face much stiffer competition for roster spots. The extensive minor league system in baseball and the longer expected development time means that many top picks will never see the big leagues, while a first-round pick in the NFL is all but guaranteed to at least play in the league (which is why the evaluation of what's considered a class-two and class-one bust in each league is offset in my system). Still, the success/failure rates do make for an interesting read. What will perhaps be more illuminating to look at is how the NHL and NBA compare to the NFL, as the development systems and the numbers of players selected are more similar to those found in football. I'll have a post with the NHL and NBA numbers tomorrow.

On David Braley, the Argonauts, the CFL and the NHL

[Photo: B.C. Lions owner David Braley (left) with the Grey Cup, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, former CFL commissioner Tom Wright and 2005 Grey Cup Committee Chair Dennis Skulsky in 2004. From].

Quite the story in this morning's Globe and Mail from David Naylor and Matthew Sekeres. According to the Globe, B.C. Lions owner David Braley "secretly put up half of the $2-million franchise fee when David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski purchased the Toronto Argonauts out of bankruptcy in the fall of 2003, and continued to lend money to the CFL club". The story says the deal was made without informing then-CFL commissioner Tom Wright (who I spoke with not that long ago about the Coyotes-to-Hamilton situation) and has continued to the present day without the knowledge of current CFL commissioner Mark Cohon.

No sources are named and all sides appear to be denying the story, but in very carefully worded terms. For example, consider these comments from Sokolowski:

"When asked yesterday if Braley had an ownership interest in the Argos, Sokolowski vehemently denied it.

'Absolutely not, David Cynamon and myself are the owners,' he said. 'There are no formal financial records whatsoever in terms of him being an owner.'

When asked whether there were any financial arrangements between the Argos and Braley, Sokolowski replied: '[Braley] is not an owner. He has never been an owner. It’s a private company. That’s it.'

That's quite the non-denial denial; Braley doesn't have an "ownership interest", but there's
no denial of financial arrangements between the parties. Later in the story, Braley says he's loaned money to various CFL owners from time to time, including the Sherwood Schwarz group that sold the Argos to Cynamon and Sokolowski in 2003. That would support claims of his involvement in the franchise transfer. Like the one offered by Sokolowski, Braley's denial of ownership interests is also very limited:

'I don’t have any ownership interest at all with the Toronto Argonauts and I never have. … There is no paperwork and there’s nothing to be able to prove that.'

Those comments certainly doesn't prove the Globe story, but there is enough there to give it some credence. The full truth of the matter certainly is still up in the air for the time being, though. The bigger question is what it means if these allegations are true, and that's one Globe columnist Stephen Brunt tries to address with this piece. Brunt makes some good points about how Braley may have become involved and how his involvement may have preserved the Argonauts (and by extension, the league; without a Toronto franchise, say goodbye to national sponsorship and television deals). I'm not sure if I agree with the last part of his piece, though:

"In stepped Braley with a solution – one that he could certainly afford, but one that would be controversial in most leagues. He offered Cynamon and Sokolowski some financial assistance – and no one would have to know. ...

Almost all good – except that, on an absolutely fundamental level, you can’t do that in professional sports. Not even if it’s just a “loan” between businessmen. Not even if you’ve done it before for other owners in the past. Not even if there’s no paper trail, no formal partnership agreement."

It isn't entirely true that "you can't do that in professional sports". Almost exactly the same thing happened in Nashville when Craig Leipold sold the Predators to a "local" ownership group featuring noted huckster Boots Del Biaggio. As the Nashville Tennessean's Brad Schrade reported last year after Del Biaggio went bankrupt, Leipold loaned money to both the local group and Del Biaggio. The $10 million he loaned to the local group (in short-term financing) was disclosed to the league; the extra $10 million he gave Del Biaggio apparently was not. Moreover, if Del Biaggio's group hadn't become involved, Leipold would apparently have had to loan the local group $40 million.

Just over a month after completing the Predators' sale, Leipold bought the Minnesota Wild. The league obviously knew of the $10 million loan he still had out to the Predators, as it was listed in those sale documents. They didn't know about the extra $10 million he gave Del Biaggio, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Tennessean that it might not have made a difference.

"It isn't clear how having a continued stake in the Predators would have affected Leipold's ability to purchase the Wild or another NHL team. The league, like most major pro sports leagues, frowns upon owners having significant stakes in multiple teams.

Asked whether this would have affected Leipold's ability to buy another NHL team, Bettman said: 'Not necessarily. It's something that would have had to be evaluated at the time.'"

Rumours of a similar seller-financed deal in Tampa Bay when Oren Koules and Len Barrie took over the team have also arisen, and the league has loaned massive amounts of money to the Phoenix Coyotes to keep them running. Thus, it might not be all that uncommon to see this in the NHL. Moreover, ownership interests in multiple teams isn't exactly verboten everywhere; consider MLS, where Clark Hunt owns both the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas (and used to own the Kansas City Wizards) and the Anschutz Entertainment Group owns both the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, as well as arenas and sports teams all over the place. Loaning money to another owner is considerably below owning franchises in two separate cities, and it sounds like the Braley deal may be more of a loan than anything else.

Furthermore, consider the people involved. David Braley is not Jerry Jones or Al Davis, looking to make himself the team's de facto general manager. The portrait of him that emerges in Bob Ackles' excellent book The Waterboy is a limited one of a reclusive owner who hires good people on the business and football side and lets them run the show. That certainly happened in B.C. under Braley's tenure with Ackles and coach/general manager Wally Buono. If the story of massive loans to the Argonauts' owners is true, it isn't difficult to imagine Braley being even less assertive on the football side when he's only partly involved (and well-known as the owner of another team). It would be very hard to see him as some sort of tyrant that marched down and started telling the football guys how to run things.

Therefore, I don't think there's any substance to the competitive concerns. The deal's image is still problematic and it's certainly not a good idea in general to have an owner involved in multiple franchises if it can be avoided, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. For one thing, the CFL absolutely needs a strong, successful Toronto franchise. With the Argonauts doing well, it's a national league; without them, it's much more of a regional one. There's zero question of relocating the franchise, but it was certainly difficult to find a buyer for it in 2003 thanks to the disastrous Schwarz era. Thus, something had to be done to sweeten the deal. Moreover, if you have to have an owner involved in multiple franchises, a guy like Braley who's largely hands-off on the football side would be the perfect candidate.

What's concerning is the secrecy surrounding the deal and the (apparent) lack of information on it received by two separate commissioners. Presume for a moment that the allegations reported in the Globe are completely accurate as to Braley's involvement. If that information was known by everyone in the league and released at the time of the sale, would it really be a big problem? Imagine a press conference where Wright explains the situation and says that Braley has generously offered to step forward with the necessary cash as a loan to allow Cynamon and Sokolowski to purchase the team and keep it local. The CFL could say that it's not ideal, but given the importance of the Argonauts and Braley's reputation, it makes sense. Tweak the deal slightly so Braley's only putting up 49.998 per cent of the money (and thus Cynamon and Sokolowski have a majority interest), make it clear that he can't make any decisions for the franchise without their approval, and you don't have much of a problem. Sure, it reduces Cynamon and Sokolowski's status in the Toronto pecking order somewhat (which may have been why this was kept so secret), but you don't have competitive concerns, you have the league and the fans aware of exactly what's going on and you have a strong Argonauts franchise. That seems like a good solution from this corner.

Keeping the league and the fans in the dark is a substantial problem. There has been far too much infighting and jockeying for position in the CFL over the years, with individual owners often doing what's best for themselves and ignoring what's best for the league. Often, the commissioner and the league office have been undermined, an all-too-frequent situation that former league president Jeff Giles described very well in his book Bigger Balls: The CFL And Overcoming the Canadian Inferiority Complex. (By the way, Giles is now the athletic director at McMaster University, where Braley is one of the most influential alumni and has an athletic centre named after him). The owners need to step back and do more to support commissioner Mark Cohon, and that means keeping him in the loop on these sort of deals. The CFL needs a strong, united front more than ever at the moment, given the rising threat from the NFL and the Buffalo Bills' potential relocation. Secret deals between owners that undermine the commissioner's role do not help with that.

As a final note, it's interesting to consider this in light of Cynamon and Sokolowski's supposed bid for the Phoenix Coyotes (who are still in limbo after Judge Redfield T. Baum's most recent decision). Any interpretation of this story suggests that that bid was a sham, certainly in the way Bettman presented it. If this was a straight loan, there's no way in hell Cynamon and Sokolowski have the cash to afford an NHL franchise; if they can't raise $2 million to buy a CFL franchise on their own, how would they get into the NHL? If it was an ownership interest to minimize their potential exposure and losses from owning a CFL team in Toronto, it's highly unlikely they'd want an NHL team in Phoenix, as that's a much worse situation. Of course, the thoughts from this corner were always that their bid was either a stalking horse to help inflate the franchise value or a plan to buy the team, run it for a season or two and then either move it to Toronto or sell it to be moved somewhere else, picking up an expansion franchise in Toronto for their service. This certainly doesn't help anyone take Bettman's claims about their interest in operating a team in Phoenix seriously, though.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On The Ground: KC Joyner on the importance of the left tackle

For the last couple of weeks, I've been working on a piece for The Good Point about the importance of the left tackle in the NFL, particularly concerning the different views espoused by Michael Lewis and KC Joyner. I finished it up this morning, and editor extraordinaire Austin Kent already has it posted, so you can check it out here. It features interviews with Joyner, a famed author who also writes for ESPN and The New York Times, Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings, Jason Brewer of Bleeding Green Nation and Bruce Raffel of Baltimore Beatdown.

As with my previous piece for The Good Point, I got a lot of interesting information that I wasn't able to fit into the piece, so I've decided to again present extended interviews as part of my ongoing On The Ground interview series. I'll present my full interview with Joyner today, with Raffel's to come Wednesday and Brewer's on Friday. Almost of Galliford's quotes made it into the piece, so there isn't much point in posting a separate interview with him. Here's my conversation with Joyner about his 2008 book Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts and his thoughts in general on left tackles. Thanks to KC for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his website here and pre-order his new book, Scientific Football 2009, right here.

Andrew Bucholtz: In Blindsided, you wrote that “Today’s defenses don’t rely as much on getting the edge linebacker in a one-on-one matchup against a left tackle, but instead try to get a matchup anywhere they can on the line. That makes building a solid offensive line across the board much more important than just having one great left tackle.” Why do you think defenses have changed their approach to pass rushing? Have left tackles become better, are there less great blind side pass rushers, or is it just a more complicated approach to defensive game plans?

KC Joyner: It all comes down to the idea that there are two ways to approach attacking offenses - you can either attack the scheme or attack personnel weaknesses.

The gist of attacking a scheme is to find a set/formation weakness and that normally involves trying to get more rushers than blockers at a given area. In that case, it doesn't matter how good the LT is because you are going to occupy him with a rusher and get someone unblocked around him.

If a team is more personnel than scheme oriented, they are going to try to find the weakest link on the line and go after that player. Again, if the LT is strong and there is a weaker link on the line, this type of team will go after the weaker player and thus avoid the LT.

I also don't think teams have necessarily changed the way they approach things. Bill Walsh loved to talk about how he made the left tackle position so important but it is also worth pointing out that his first Super Bowl win came with a guard playing LT and his second came with a fat, underachieving LT (Bubba Paris). If the LT position was so important, how was it that Walsh put up two championship wins with a subpar player at that position? The answer, in my estimation, is that it isn't as important as he said it was but he wanted to make the case about Harris Barton's value to help promote himself as a football genius. I'm not saying he wasn't a genius but he had a lot of Carl Sagan in him - his brilliance was obvious but so was his penchant for self-promotion.

A.B.: One of the points Lewis seems to be making in The Blind Side is that good left tackles are highly valued because of the unusual mix of attributes required to excel at the position (tremendous size and great speed). What do you think of that idea? If he has a point there, would it be reasonable for left tackles to still be drafted higher and paid more than guards or centers due to their scarcity even if their role isn’t actually much more important? Also, is there a significant difference in the skills needed to play left tackle and right tackle?

K.J.: I believe one justifiable reason for a team to pursue the size/speed attributes for the left tackle position is because that is the position where those traits can have the greatest value in pass blocking. Guards and centers need size and a certain amount of speed, but they are not going to be tested at the corner the way that left tackles are. Another way to put it is that there is a limited amount of pass blocking upside potential for guards and centers because of the nature of their position. Right tackles are also in a similar boat because the tight end typically lines up on their side. Teams will always pay big dollars for upside physical potential and since the left tackle spot has more of that than the other line spots, it will tend to draw more financial interest.

A.B.: There were four tackles chosen in the first round of the draft this year: Jason Smith (2nd overall), Andre Smith (6th), Eugene Monroe (8th) and Michael Oher (23rd). By contrast, there were no guards picked in the first round and only two centers (Alex Mack and Eric Wood, 21st and 28th overall). Do you think this shows teams are placing too much importance on the left tackle, or is there something else involved?

K.J.: Again, I'd say it is a play for the upside potential but from the center position standpoint, it also had to do with free agency. The Dolphins, Rams, Ravens and Raiders all needed help at that position and addressed their needs via free agency. Had that not been the case, it is possible the center position may have seen more interest this year.

A.B.: Say you’re the GM of an expansion franchise and you have to build an NFL roster from scratch via an expansion draft, a regular draft and free agency. Where does acquiring a good left tackle fit into your priorities, and which route (expansion draft, regular draft or free agency) is the best way to get a good LT?

K.J.: You have to build a team around the type of coach you have. In a generic sense, however, I'd say you have to go QB first and then go for CBs and pass rushers. It is a passing league and if you don't have someone to throw the ball and/or defend the pass, you aren't going to get far in today's NFL.

A.B.: Your Blindsided comparison of Orlando Pace and L.J. Shelton’s similar numbers was quite interesting. Do you think this means that tackle play in the passing game shouldn’t be evaluated strictly on sacks allowed? If so, what is the best way to evaluate tackle pass protection?

K.J.: I think the best way to evaluate any pass protection is to a) measure all positive and negative plays the tackle makes and b) put it in context. A left tackle for a team like Buffalo that only threw around 150 vertical passes last year should allow fewer sacks than a left tackle for the Broncos who threw around 240 vertical passes.

A.B.: In a Fifth Down post in December, you wrote that you were surprised to see Jason Peters earn a Pro Bowl nod given his pass-blocking and run-blocking numbers. Who do you think got the better deal in his trade to the Eagles?

K.J.: At first I thought the Eagles might have made a mistake in the Peters deal because he gave up 11.5 sacks last year. After tabulating his run blocking totals (which included a terrific 90.1% Point of Attack block win percentage), I think the Eagles made a very good move, especially since I believe they are going to start leaning on the run game a bit more this year.

A.B.: Who would you pick as the best left tackle in the game at the moment?

K.J.: I'm still in the midst of the 2008 tape reviews but from where I'm at right now, I'd say Jake Long. He allowed only 2 sacks and had a POA win percentage of just under 90%.

A.B.: At the end of the Blindsided chapter on the left tackle, you wrote that you hoped your work would be just the first of many studies on the subject. Obviously, you’ve done a lot of studies since then for Scientific Football 2009 and other works, and others have also looked at the importance of the left tackle since then. Have your views on the position’s importance changed since you wrote Blindsided, or has further data backed your initial conclusions?

K.J.: As it stands at the moment, I'm of the same mindset. I'll be addressing this in SF 2009 with an article about the left tackle position and how the crop of highly touted young left tackles probably aren't as good as the hype says they are. They may get there eventually but for more than a couple of them the hype is entirely undeserved.

Thanks again to KC for taking the time to answer my questions. Some fascinating stuff from him there. I highly recommend his books and ESPN/New York Times writing to anyone looking for a deeper look at the NFL.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dissecting Prime Time Sports on Morris/Ibanez

To follow up to my initial piece on the Jerod Morris/Raul Ibanez controversy from this past week, I figured I'd discuss the reaction of the guys on Prime Time Sports on Friday. For those not familiar with it, Prime Time Sports is a radio/television program broadcast across Canada daily on the FAN 590 and its affiliates as well as Rogers Sportsnet. It's probably comparable in reach to ESPN's Around The Horn (a show I've complained about previously), but is generally much more insightful. The regular broadcasts tend to feature host Bob McCown and Globe and Mail writer par excellence Stephen Brunt interviewing top-tier guests from the media and sports worlds, and often have some great stuff. The Friday shows are more of an Around the Horn feel than an interview show, with a couple of other Toronto media personalities joining Brunt and McCown to discuss sports, but the emphasis still tends to be on thoughtful discussion over yelling and extreme opinions, which is nice to see. Unfortunately, that emphasis went out the window Friday.

First off, don't blame McCown and Brunt for this one; both were off this week. Instead, the Friday lineup was Sportsnet personality Rob Faulds, Sports Illustrated hockey writer and Fan 590 host Jim Kelley, National Post columnist Bruce Arthur and former Winnipeg sportscaster John Wells. Not a bad group of guys, though, and they have plenty of experience in the media, so you'd expect rationality from them. By and large, that failed to materialize, though. You can download the show here from the Fan 590 website. The Ibanez segment starts at 15:01 of the file and runs to about 26:30 (with a few minor tangents). Below, I look at some of the more outrageous quotes from the program.

Rob Faulds, introducing the story: "Raul Ibanez was not too happy with some accusations of a blogger saying that his great start was probably due to steroids. Now, this happens all the time with blogs. Where are they now fitting in, or do they even fit in?"

Analysis: First off, referring to Morris as just "a blogger" (I don't think they mentioned his name or his site anywhere, but I could be wrong on that) is one of the typical mainstream media failures of attribution I discussed here and isn't a good start. Guys like Morris who blog under their real name give up the benefits of anonymity and exchange them for the benefits of increased responsibility and accountability; the mainstream media should be willing to at least give them some credit for that.

Moreover, such a generic reference is a low-class move by Faulds and it doesn't bode well for the show. Without mentioning his name or the site, they force interested listeners to go to Google. They'd probably find Morris' material anyway, as one of his posts is the second result for "Ibanez steroids", but it might be tough to pick the original out from the massive amount of reaction pieces out there. That takes time, effort and persistence, and many people won't be willing to do that. Instead, they'll take the Prime Time Sports' guys' representation of Morris' words at face value, and that's a big mistake. In many ways, that's what started this whole thing off; what Morris wrote wasn't highly controversial or highly unusual on its own, but the way the Philadelphia Inquirer represented his story made it appear much worse than it was [Alana G,]. Unfortunately, Prime Time Sports follows in those less-than-stellar footsteps with mischaracterizations of their own.

Bruce Arthur: "With journalism, we have gatekeepers. We have editors, we have safeguards, we have standards."
Jim Kelley: "What scares me is we’ve lost that gatekeeper wall if you will."

Analysis: This is one of the common refrains in the old-media hymnal, and it has some truth to it. Editors do add value at times and can make sure that what's reported is fair and accurate. The problem is that they don't always do that, though; check out Craig Silverman's Regret The Error site for a cornucopia of examples of where those editors, safeguards and standards have failed (see Blair, Jayson for one of the worst). That's not to say that the editorial standards and safeguards don't have value; of course they do. The point is that they aren't infallible. Furthermore, those editors, safeguards and standards are not universal; look at the difference between the New York Times and the New York Post for an excellent example.

The other key point here is that Arthur and Kelley, like so many mainstream media personalities, unfairly portray the blogosphere as full of people without editors, safeguards or standards. Many of the bigger blogs do have rigid editing processes, and everyone has safeguards and standards of some sort. Yes, many bloggers have their safeguards and standards below what the mainstream media considers acceptable, but you have to consider the audience as well; people read sites like Kissing Suzy Kolber for entertainment and opinion, not hard news, so it isn't as important to have rigid standards there. Those of us who run more serious sites do have safeguards and standards, and sometimes we are more conservative than the mainstream media thanks to the absence of a massive conglomerate backing our reporting. It's unfair to portray the mainstream media/blogosphere divide as a black and white picture where one group has rigid standards and the other doesn't; the real, grey truth is that each site or organization has its own standards and should be evaluated on its own merits.

Rob Faulds: "I have no problem with blogs. I have a problem with the facts, when the facts aren’t right."

Analysis: I hate to break it to you, Mr. Faulds, but mainstream media outlets get the facts wrong just as frequently as the blogosphere, sometimes more frequently. Part of that is because much of what they're reporting is new and original, so of course errors tend to be made, while it's harder to make definitive errors if you're writing an analysis piece (unless you misrepresent what's already been reported). In fact, your own lofty radio station isn't exactly pure and unblemished; consider the Sean Avery/Jason Blake flap, where the FAN reported that Avery had made derogatory remarks about Blake's leukemia. They weren't able to prove that, and FAN reporter Howard Berger had to apologize on-air [Regret The Error]. So, if your problem isn't with blogs but with bad facts, perhaps complain about the stick in your own eye before targeting the mote in someone else's.

Jim Kelley: "The guys you pointed out, the good bloggers, they have that grounded background in journalism for the most part."

Analysis: I can't say that a journalism background isn't helpful for blogging, as that's the area I come from as well. However, it certainly isn't a prerequisite. Many great bloggers have no background in journalism at all. As I wrote in my piece on Geoff Baker's similar criticisms, "It's part of a disturbing trend in the sports media where some sportswriters feel the need to claim that the experience they have covering other subjects makes them superior." Journalism backgrounds can be useful, but they certainly
aren't mandated for bloggers, and many can do great things without them.

Bruce Arthur, on the differences between how mainstream media and bloggers approach covering teams: "We don’t have an interest in making [the teams] look good necessarily."

Analysis: I think it's pretty hard to claim that all bloggers are out there to make the teams look good and the mainstream media are out there to keep them accountable. In fact, the converse is generally true. The limitations of mainstream pieces mean that you have to carefully differentiate news and opinion, and the preponderance of mainstream game stories or trade stories (news pieces) just tell you what happened (which I don't have a problem with, but it does mean that there isn't a lot of room for criticism or analysis in those stories). Sometimes, you'll see opinion columns on games or trades as well, which can be more critical and analytical, but aren't always. Meanwhile, most pieces on team blogs include plenty of opinion and analysis, and much of it is not favourable to the team's players, coaches or management. For example, consider the coverage of the Leafs in the Toronto Star and at the excellent Pension Plan Puppets. After reading pieces from the two sites, would you really say that PPP and his crew of writers have "an interest in making the team look good?" I don't think you would. I think you'd find that they're more critical than the mainstream media (even their site name is a shot at the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan's ownership stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment), and often for good reasons. They're certainly not sucking up to ownership or management, and I don't think most bloggers or mainstream outlets are.

Jim Kelley: "We’re in trouble, all of us, differentiating between truth and simply what’s out there. ... That’s where you need those gatekeepers."

Analysis: No, Mr. Kelley, we're not headed for some pending blogpocalypse where no one knows what truth is any more. Like mainstream newspapers and radio stations, blogs have to work to earn their credibility. The good outlets in either category will get the facts right more often then not, be accountable for what they write and report and admit it when they screw up. The bad ones won't. Sports fans aren't stupid; they're not going to take blogger Eklund's latest trade rumours as gospel (in fact, funnily enough, the most prominent mainstream outlet to give Eklund any attention at all was Kelley's own Rogers Sportsnet, which featured him on one of their trade deadline shows) or believe everything mainstream media writer Bruce "Malkin to the Kings" Garrioch writes [full credit to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy for that name]. Both sides have their share of reputable and disreputable sources, and smart fans take each source's record into consideration. They're perfectly capable of separating truth from fiction on their own without your vaunted gatekeepers.

Bruce Arthur: "It's not just in sports either. This happens in politics an awful lot. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the stuff about Obama being a Muslim, was nothing. It was never anything and yet it got slipped into the undernews. ... It’s harder and harder to figure out what’s real and what isn’t."

Analysis: Yes, Mr. Arthur, misinformation comes out in politics too. However, plenty of Internet sites such as the Huffington Post played key roles in debunking that particular rumour, and mainstream sources like Fox News did more to spread it than anyone (which Arthur acknowledged, to his credit). Moreover, as I mentioned in the Baker post, in the lead-up to the 2004 election, it was CBS that was fabricating stories and bloggers that were proving them false [ZDNet]. You can't just say the blogosphere is responsible for propagating lies and the mainstream media always tells the truth; it doesn't quite work like that. Each source and story needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Anyway, it sounds like some sense is beginning to prevail on this particular issue. Much of the reaction in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere has taken a more reasonable tone as of late, and the discussion of it at the Blogs With Balls panel yesterday sounded very positive from the Twitter updates I saw. It's just unfortunate that the Prime Time Sports guys, with one of the largest media platforms in Canada, couldn't use it more responsibly to thoroughly discuss the issue. Instead, they did offer some insight, but mixed it in with the kind of uninformed and vitriolic comments presented above. In my mind, that's a shame, and it reflects poorly on the state of sports media discussion in Canada.

Thoughts? Opinions? Questions? Leave them in the comments below, or e-mail me at andrew_bucholtz AT