Monday, August 31, 2015

A Proposal to Change Penalty Kicks

To a sports fans raised on traditional American sports like football and basketball, many things about soccer seem strange. The game doesn't fit nicely into the expectations of many American fans. As I have grown into being a soccer fan I have come to terms with most of these oddities. It doesn't bother me that the time limit is arbitrary and up to the official. I don’t stare in confusion when a player standing out of bounds touches a ball that is in bounds and play continues. However, one thing about the beautiful game still frustrates me, the disproportionately game changing power of a penalty kick.

Goals in soccer are hard to come by. When a team does score the strategy of the game changes immensely. The leading team often stops attacking and drops back into defense making it even harder for the opponent to put one in the net. Their counter attacks and offensive positions become about time wasting. If a team manages to get up 2-0 the lead becomes almost insurmountable. At 3-0 forget about it. The training team isn't coming back. In their current form, penalty kicks are essentially free goals. Which is to say massively powerful game changing events.

If an offensive player is fouled inside the other teams penalty area the offensive team is awarded a penalty kick in front of the goal. The placement of the ball is only 12 yards away and the offensive team is allowed to have any of their eleven players on the field when the foul was committed take the shot. This means they can pick their best shooter, regardless of their involvement in the play to attempt the shot. This would be like the Clippers getting to let Chris Paul shoot free throws every time DeAndre Jordan is fouled. Additionally the goal keeper must remain on their goal line until the ball is touched. All of the players not involved in the penalty kick have to remain outside the penalty box and behind the shooter. (FIFA rules)

All these rules add up to making it exceedingly hard for a goal keeper to stop a penalty kick. As of 8/27/15, in MLS the penalty kick save percentage of keepers that have played in at least 10 games is a measly 25% (55/73). Keepers are forced to just guess a side and dive. When a penalty kick is stopped it is essentially luck. This results in some funny looking attempt to stop the penalty kick as keeper dive hard to the opposite side the ball is shot to. As mentioned before a penalty kick is essentially a free goal.

The goals scored on penalty kicks are game changers. They can propel a team that is being thoroughly out played into a lead. The value of goals and the difficultly of stopping penalty kicks has led to an epidemic of players flopping in the box. Attacking players in the penalty box will go down at the slightly touch hoping to trick a referee into award a penalty kick. They know the potential reward of a goal far outweighs the risk of a yellow card for embellishment. This incessant flopping is another annoy part of the game. Nobody wants to watch professional athletes rolling around on the ground faking injury.

There is a simple change that soccer could make to the way penalty kicks are taken that would reduce the effectiveness of the shooter and make the punishment more fairly meet the crime. The player who is fouled in the box should be required to take the penalty kick. If the Earthquake foul Lamar Neagle and the Sounders are award a penalty kick Neagle should have to take the kick. The Sounders shouldn't be allowed to let Brad Evans or Clint Dempsey shoot.

Some might complain that a truly hurt player may be required to take a shot. Well there are very seldom actual hurt players in soccer. However, if someone actually did get hurt they should be allow a few minutes to try and walk it off. If they can't than they should have to sub off. If your team doesn't have any subs left, or doesn't want to use one, then the player should have to sit for a minimum of 3 minutes.

The idea of making the fouled player take the shot is a very American solution, so FIFA and the European leagues will never go for it. Additionally changing anything about the way soccer is played is essentially a cardinal sin in many fans eyes. They will scream about Americans not understanding and the beauty of tradition. MLS is probably also not going to adopt a rule change that brings them away from the international norm. The American league wants so dearly to earn the respect of its older and richer cousins in Europe. The potential mocking from the Old World is too great of a risk. Sadly this means the change will probably never happen, but a fan can still dream.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I Don't Care About NFL Preseason

There is an interesting phenomenon going on in Seattle this summer. The NFL preseason has started and people are selling tickets to the games at and above face value. In past NFL seasons tickets to Seahawks preseason games have been basically free. Season ticket holders are forced to buy preseason tickets along with the regular season games. Rather than go to these games the ticket holders would sell them at reduced values. If you knew a season ticket holder they would often just give them to you. On StubHub you could grab a few for around $20 each.  This year they are holding onto the tickets or trying to sell them for a profit. This strange behavior is endemic of the greater attitude surrounding the Seahawks 2015 season. People were pumped for the first preseason game against the Broncos. They were having blue Friday and smack talking Broncos fans. They were full of pride and ready to root their team on, in a preseason game. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the preseason I still cant get into the games.

I have never been able to get into preseason football. Much like spring training in baseball it isn't worth my time. The games are still at least three hours long. I can easily find something else to do with my three hours than watch third stringers battle it out for a position on special teams. I don’t need to see some third string rookie play with my own eyes.  I don’t care who wins and who loses because they provide no predictor of regular season success. Instead I will just read about the results and analysis the next day.  I will still get to know who played well and is looking to make an impact on the regular season and who has under-performed.

Every year there are some previously unknown players that shine in preseason. Sports media starts hyping them all over as a breakout candidate. People talk about them all over town, beaming about their potential in the upcoming season. Very few of these preseason stars ever pan out. Instead they fail to make the team or do nothing in the regular season. Their names are forgotten by week four of the regular season. By not having watched them play I miss out on being a contributor during a couple of weeks' worth of preseason games, but that is it.

The results of the games don’t matter. After each team has played four preseason games the records are wiped clean and regular season starts. Going 4-0 in the preseason doesn't give your team a head start or even a tie breaker in the regular season. The NFL doesn't hand out trophies for winning in August. The results of the preseason games are not indicative at all of what they are going to do in the regular season. You would rather a team go 4-0 than 0-4, but it doesn't really matter. Try looking up a database of historical preseason results. It is hard to find one. Pro Football Reference doesn't keep records of the games.

The recent Broncos vs Seahawks preseason highlights all the reasons I don’t watch the preseason games. The Broncos, who are expected to have one of the best offenses in the whole NFL, didn't start their best QB, WR, or RB. The Seahawks star QB, Russell Wilson, threw one pass. Instead Wilson's backup Tarvaris Jackson played for a while before getting hurt and then some guy names RJ Archer came in and playing the rest of the game. There is basically zero chance that RJ Archer plays in the regular season. Watching him play against some Broncos third stringers tells us nothing about the Seahawks upcoming season. Additionally the results of the game, a Broncos victory count, for nothing. The Seahawks have still won the last two contests that count against the Broncos. No amount of preseason wins will outweigh a Super Bowl victory and a regular season win.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't watch the preseason. If you find enjoyment in the events, than by all means spend your time rooting for your team to beat the opponents in the preseason. To each his own. For me, I just can't get excited for the preseason. The price of not seeing the game is not great enough to outweigh the cost of not doing almost anything else.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fernando Rodney has Been Bad

The Fernando Rodney Experience has always been a thrill ride. Throughout his career he has had a way of building up the drama and the tension during all of his appearances. For the last several season he has managed to get himself out of the jams he creates and post some of the best results based stats in MLB. However this year the Experience has turned into a straight up horror show.

Looking at the normal stats Rodney's year has been terrible. He has an ERA of 5.50, 4 blown saves, and has managed to lose his job as the closer to a rookie. These stats show us how bad he has been but don’t give us a clue as to why. Let's dig deeper into the advanced stats to find a source for the abysmal performance.

Looking at Rodney's advanced stats we can see that his pitch selection this year of 64.3% fastballs and 35.2% changeups is right in line with his career averages. As far as pitch selection goes he doesn't seem to have changed anything. So it doesn't seem to be an issue with the pitch type he is throwing but instead what is happening to those pitches after he throws them.

During Rodney's career his ability to throw faster than most other pitchers has been one of his biggest assets. Rodney throws fast, with lots of movement, and with medium amounts of control. This has made it hard for opposing batters to catch up with his pitches and actually make good contact. They were left guessing, which has let him rack up strikeouts.

This year Rodney's strikeout percentage (K/9) is down. He has only been able to ring up 7.00 batter per 9 innings. This is his lowest rate since he was a rookie. However, his walk rate (BB/9) is holding steady. We see him giving up 4.25 free passes per 9 this year, which is actually slightly below his career average of 4.40  So he still isn't able to control his pitches, but that randomness isn't resulting in confusion for the batter anymore.

Let's take a deeper look at his pitches. His average fastball speed is 95.1 mph compared to his career average of 95.7 mph. He doesn't appear to have lost the speed that brought him success. However, his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) is down to 8.2% from a career average of 11.3%. Despite still throwing hard Rodney isn't able to make people miss and when a batter doesn't miss a 95 mph fastball bad things can happen.

In 2015 Rodney is giving up home runs on 16.2% of the flyballs that batters hit (HR/FB). This is a really high percentage. Of qualified relievers, Rodney's HR/FB is 13th worst in all of MLB. Additionally, this high rate isn't something to be expected. His 2015 number is the highest of his whole career. The previous worst was 12.8% with 2005 with the Tigers. Over the last five seasons the worst rate Rodney has posted is 7.1%. In recent history he has actually been pretty good at preventing homeruns.

So what does this all mean? If you want to remain optimistic it means Rodney has room to improve. He can work on regaining the movement of his pitches. Also he is probably going to stop giving up so many dingers. He has a good sample size and a recent run of success saying giving up homers just isn't one of his weaknesses. Basically Rodney has just had a string of self really bad luck that has been exacerbated by a changing in his pitch movement.

On the flip side, if you want to be a pessimist, this probably means Rodney has lost something and he probably isn't getting it back. The ex-closer is 38 years old now and the league has figured him out. He is showing that he can't make a baseball dance like he used to. Now instead of making batter look foolish he is giving those that can catch up to 95 mph something they can drive. When you can line up a 95 mph fastball you can make it soar, often into the stands.

Decreased swinging strikes and increased HR/FB are a receipt for bad results, which is exactly what Rodney has had so far.  Regardless of what you think the future holds for the Fernando Rodney Experience one thing is for certain, he was terrible in the first half. Let's hope something puts an end to the horror show.

Sources: Fangraphs

Monday, July 13, 2015

Expand the All-Star Skill Competitions

Tomorrow, July 14th, is the MLB All-Star game, which is being played in Cincinnati this year. The approach of this game got me thinking about All-star games in general. The concept of getting all of the best players in a professional league together and having them play an exhibition game seems like a good one. However, all three of the major sports leagues, NBA, NFL, and MLB, have generally boring All-star games. None have held my interest in years. However, all of the leagues do feature various skills exhibitions (e.g. Home Run Derby and Dunk Contest) prior to the actual game. These events are fun to watch. I try to make sure I see them every year. I think it is time we just cancel the NBA and NFL All-Star games and just focus on skill events.

The various All-Star games have turned into drawn out and boring affairs filled with lackadaisical performances and too many commercials. The play is sloppy and subpar. Only MLB manages to put on a watchable show. In the NFL and NBA games the defense is basically non existences which takes away a major part of the sport. The primary factor for this is the fear of injury. None of the stars or their teams want to risk injury in a game that doesn't matter.

Sports like basketball and football are very team centered games. Throwing together All-Star caliber players and asking them to play together with little or no practice is bound to result in a sloppy game. That is exactly what the NBA Al-Star game and NFL Pro-Bowl are. In the NBA there are turnovers and missed shots galore. Basically players start playing hero ball and isolation. You miss out on the beauty that is the fluid game of team Basketball. The NFL's game is full of blown routes and missed throws. You can't ask a group of players to gel at the level required to create great football.

It would be terrible for the fans the teams and most importantly the platers to suffer a major injury  during a basically meaningless game. Imagine the outcry if a star quarterback suffered a major injury during the Pro Bowl because some DE wanted to prove he was the best pass rusher in the league, but instead got caught on a block and awkwardly rolled into the knees of the passer. In an instance the team next season is wiped out and potentially the players next payday and future financial security. It doesn't make sense to play hard defense during and All-Star game and risk season or career altering injuries. That means it also doesn't make sense to play the game at all.

The skills competitions that the leagues put on have little or no risk of injury. The NBA's skills competitions are probably the most dangerous. The Dunk Contest, Three Point Contest, and Skills Challenge all require running and physical effort near game level to compete. However, they are all performed by world class athletes in a non-defended and non-contact environment. Guys shouldn't get hurt throwing down a 360 tomahawk jam.

Speaking of 360 tomahawk jams, watching Dunk Contest is fun. Although the event still has way to many commercials and takes longer than it should, it is generally a good time. Similarly the MLB Home Run Derby is a fun spectacle for a summer evening. I witnessed the events live at Safeco Field in 2001, it was a blast (pun intended). In both leagues they are able to bring out stars to compete in most of the events (the NBA does fail to do this in the Dunk Contest from time to time). This allows fans to see their favorites, while putting them in different non game situations that are fun to watch. It is way more fun than the All-Star games.

One of the things the that hurts the NFL's All-Star experience, the Pro Bowl, is a lack of a skills challenge. They eliminated the events after the 2007 events. Reading online it appears that the NFL never gave a great explanation for why the competitions were ended. Now all they have left is a boring no touch version of a football game that nobody watches. Clearly they cancelled the wrong events.

MLB is the only one of the big three with an All-Star game that shouldn't be eliminated. The baseball game is interesting for the first couple of innings when all the starters are still playing. However, by about the 5th or 6th all the best players are out and the game starts to drag.

Even with the only All-Star game worthy of surviving, MLB should considering expanding their skill competitions. Currently the only one is the Home Run Derby. They could easily add a fly ball or ground ball shagging contest. Imagine Andrelton Simmons and Elvis Andrus seeing who could scoop up the most grounders and make an accurate throw to first. Maybe points for range and accuracy of throwing. The league could easily add a stolen base race. They could have Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton see who can go first to second fastest. I would tune in to see that.

Two of the three majors leagues, the NBA and the NFL, should seriously consider cancelling their All-Star games. All three should instead focus on skills challenges. This would give players more time to rest and heal, while providing fans with a fun break from the regular season. It would eliminate the yearly complaints about none of the players giving any effort during the games. It would still give fans a chance to see the stars and enjoy the fun the comes with these slightly silly events.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Sounders Success is Bound to Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins

Three weeks ago the Seattle Sounders were the best team in Major League Soccer. They sat upon the points leader board with 29 points. Their attacking duo of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey created such consistent pressure on the opposition that the teams occasional defensive lapses were hidden. Martins and Dempsey were just so good that they raised all the other players around them to a higher level. They were clearly one of the best duos in the league and the pair was the key to the Sounders success. Then on June 16th in a US Open Cup match against the Portland Timbers the wheels came off the cart.

Games against the Sounders chief rivals, the Portland Timbers, are always tense. The players take the rivalry as seriously as the fans and on the field the matches can be foul filled affair where tempers flair. This Open Cup match up was no different. The Sounders had three players ejected including an incident where Dempsey ripped up the referee's book. His action caused MLS to suspend him for three games. The game also saw a hard foul on Obafemi Martins result in an injury and him being carted off the field. At the end the Sounders only had seven men on the field.

The loss to the Timbers was a disappointment to be sure. The Sounders have owned the US Open Cup during their MLS life. The players and coaches take the competition seriously. However, the US Open cup result was disastrous more so because of the loss of Dempsey and Martins than the actual scoring outcome. Both players will miss a minimum of three games, all of which have been Sounders losses. Most likely the pair will miss six games each, which could set the Sounders really far back in the standings.

The absence of Martins and Dempsey has made it painfully clear how irreplaceable they are to the team. They are the keys to the entire Sounders team. In the three games without Dempsey and Martins the Sounders have managed just one goal and conceded seven. The offense is flat and the defense is struggling to keep opponents from scoring chances.

As the single goal highlights, the forwards just cant cut it. None of them have the skills required to create scoring opportunities for themselves. The two main fill-ins, Lamar Neagle and Chad Barrett, are finishers not creators. They lack the vision and instincts to find scoring opportunities. Their is no one left to feed them the ball. The Sounders offense has looked confused and directionless, with their possessions often ending in an errant pass.

On the flip side, without the attacking pressure created by Martins and Dempsey the defense has cratered. The side was already short-handed because of the injury to Ozzie Alonso, which has resulted in a huge downgrade in the center of the field. However, without Martins and Dempsey, the defense is giving up a huge amount of quality shots and forcing Stefan Frei to make way to many saves. Frei just isn't good enough to stop the on-slot. The key to the defense was a strong counter attack that kept the opponent from sending more than a few attackers forward. With the offense floundering the defense is seeing a lot more of the opponents players in the offensive zone.

The magic that led to the first places standing three weeks ago is gone right along with Martins and Dempsey. When they are missing it is like watching a completely different team. If it was ever in doubt, the scoring duo's absence has solidified into fact that they are the keys to the Sounders success. Seattle's soccer hopes and dreams rise and fall with Obafemi and Clint.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lebron James is the Best Basketball Player in the World

During a press conference following the Cleveland Cavaliers game 5 loss Lebron James stated what everybody else was already thinking. His exact quote was "I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world." Personally I think he might be silly to feel confident, especially when you consider the other scrubs currently donning Cav's jerseys, but he is definitely right about the  best player part. His effort in the NBA Finals should put to rest any debate about Kobe or Durant being better than James.

Through five games he is averaging 36.6 ppg, 12.4 rpg, and 8.8 apg. He is probably performing at the highest level of any player ever in the NBA Finals. As the USA Today points out, he should win the series MVP regardless of the eventual Champion. He has clearly been the Most Valuable Player on the floor. Lebron James has turned what could have been one of the most boring and most lopsided Finals since last year (try to remember the Heat vs Spurs series, you might have blacked it out).

Although I am rooting for Golden State to win (their style of play is just way more fun to watch), I won't be upset if the Cav's force a game seven in California.  This series is so much fun I dont want it to end. I want to keep seeing how long James can keep this up. Although I suppose it is good it maxes out at seven games. I don't want to energy being exerted by James to do am permanent damage. I want him to come back and put on a show again next year because Lebron James clearly is the best player in the world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Few Tidbits from Around the Web

Time for some links to sports related articles and a video clip that I find interesting. I think you should click them and digest the content. Then, if you happen to see, we can talk about your favorite bits.
  • Floyd Mayweather recently won his 48th professional boxing match against Manny Pacquiao. Despite his win in the biggest fight in recent history, Mayweather is still a terrible person. We should all remember that he is a serial women beater and never pay money to watch his fights.
  • This New England Patriots fan makes a case for why the Tom Brady suspension is ridiculous. Although I shutter while I type this, I have to say he does make a few good points. 
  • In case you think I have gone soft on Patriots fans, here is another piece pointing out how delusional many of them are.
  • In game seven against the Memphis Grizzlies the Warriors punched their ticket to the Western Conference championship. The game was a good one and highlighted exactly why the Warriors are so great. It also had an amazing bit of ridiculousness when Steph Curry drained a 3/4 court shot with time expiring in the half.