Life of a Sportsaholic

This blog is intended to be insight into my life as an irrational, stats-driven, obsessive sports fan in Boston. I am a fan of all types of sports with an emphasis on Boston teams and am a proud UConn alum.

Category: Professional Baseball

Is the World Baseball Classic Good for Baseball?

On Monday, in the wee hours of the morning here in the U.S., the World Baseball Classic (WBC) began in Seoul, South Korea. The first game pitted the lowest ranked international team in the competition, Israel, vs host South Korea. The game was tied at 1 until the top of the 10th inning when Israel drove in the winning run, upsetting the host nation. That game began a 2-week international competition aimed at engaging other countries in the sport of baseball awhile providing an opportunity for players to represent their home nations. The tournament will culminate with a title game in Los Angeles on March 23rd, but does anyone even care? Should you even care?

The WBC is an attempt to expand the reach of baseball internationally and for that alone I give it the tip of my cap. Any increased interest in baseball internationally is a great, but how does this impact those in the U.S. and Canada who already have easy access to the sport? Ultimately, it may hurt. Let me explain…

The timing of the WBC is squarely in the middle of spring training. Top stars from around the world have now left their MLB teams to practice and play in high-leverage games around the world with just 2 weeks of training behind them. Normally, these players ease into competition for a month before even thinking about really pushing themselves hard in games that matter. Throwing off the rhythm of a big league ball player could spell disaster as the very long baseball season wears on. It could result in injuries during the tournament or injuries caused by playing several more meaningful games very early in the year, especially for those on teams who reach the finals. The last WBC was in 2013 and the MLB saw a spike in DL stints during the season (521) compared to the season prior (485) and the season following (476)*.

Injuries are bad for baseball, especially if the injured players are stars or well-known commodities. The majority of ticket buyers pay to see their favorites players on their field, not to watch their minor league back-up get some MLB action (even if that young kid is the future). An unknown player won’t sell jerseys and apparel that make the MLB a boatload of money; ultimately reducing revenues, hurting baseball. Realistically the impact is likely small in the scheme of things, but if for example Andrew McCutchen gets injured in the tournament and can’t play for the Pittsburgh Pirates for awhile, that hurts the game of baseball.

I’m sure the WBC really does increase the interest in baseball globally and allows fans in places like South Korea, Mexico, and Japan to see MLB players play live, but for me, a fan of the MLB in the U.S., it feels unnecessary and potentially harmful to the overall product.

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If you are a crazy baseball person like me and want an underdog story to follow, look no further than team Israel. Ranked 41st in the world, they made the 16 team tournament as tremendous underdogs. The next lowest ranked team is 19th ranked Columbia. As of writing this post, they are 2-0 in group play, beating host South Korea and Chinese Taipei. They have 1 game left in pool play vs. powerhouse Netherlands and are almost assured a spot in the final 8 with their first 2 wins. Their roster is filled with mostly minor-league prospects and just a few somewhat familiar names (Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld). Just making the tournament was an accomplishment, forget finishing in the top-half. I’m a sucker for a good underdog story!

*DL stint information provided by www.baseballheatmaps.com.

What to Watch For During Spring Training

Barry Chin/Boston Globe

Let me begin by saying I love spring training. Baseball is my first love, so any sign that the season is around the corner gets me giddy. There is just one problem… It’s too damn long. Pitchers and catchers reported mid-February and won’t play any meaningful baseball until April 2nd on opening day. That’s 6+ weeks of drills and meaningless baseball games, which can be hard for the casual fan to follow. An added challenge for most is that many games are not on TV  or are afternoon games during the week.

Over the years I have developed a system for knowing what to look for (and not look for) during spring training games. Hopefully it helps you decipher what’s really important this time of year.

What to Watch For (and Ignore)

Watch for Pitcher Ramp-Up, Ignore Pitcher Stat Lines

The most reasonable explanation for a long spring training is the need for a slow build-up of stamina for starting pitchers (and even some relievers). In order to reduce injury risk, most pitchers slowly add workload throughout the month of games in order to be ready for opening day. Watch for starters to begin with an inning or two, around 20-30 pitches initially, then slowly add pitches and innings leading to a more normal-looking start in late March.

During that span, ignore pitcher stat lines. There is nothing more frustrating for me than to read an alarmist article about a starter giving up 4 runs in an inning in March. Every pitcher is unique and their throwing schedules vary greatly. Some pitchers will spend an outing just working on their fastball with very few (or no) secondary pitches. Some will work on their curveball almost exclusively at times to try and improve that particular pitch. ERA and record mean very little in the spring, unless you have a pitcher with a fragile level of confidence (a whole other conversation).

Watch for Quality At-Bats, Ignore Batting Averages

Another mistake made in the spring is looking at player batting averages and projecting regular season success based on them. There are sometimes the case of a young player getting hot in the spring and carrying it over into the season, and that shouldn’t be fully ignored, but the majority of the time it just doesn’t matter. If you are watching a spring game, take a look at how the player approaches an at-bat, how many pitches they see, how fluid and comfortable they look in the batters box. Those things can be much subtle, but also more telling than average.

Let’s take the 2016 Red Sox spring training as an example. David Ortiz played in 18 games, had 45 at-bats, and hit .178 with 2 doubles, 1 HR, and 10 Ks. In the first month of the regular season, Ortiz hit .321 with 5 HRs, 11 doubles, and 14 Ks (22 games, 78 at-bats). Ortiz came right out of the gate with a HR and double on opening day and played well in April, even though his spring was bad. Zero correlation in his case. It’s an extreme example, but proves the point.

Watch for Young Prospects, Ignore Records

After spending time telling you to ignore batting averages, I’m going to slightly modify my stance here in reference to young prospects. Spring is the best time to see young players get reps and try to impress their organization honchos. This may be the only time most fans are able to watch the young guns perform, so take advantage. Sometimes a strong spring for a young player will result in a longer look for a minor league promotion or even a future big-league roster spot. Just ask Jackie Bradley Jr. or Travis Shaw if spring can be the difference in making the MLB roster or not (hint: it did for both of them).

The absolute #1 thing to ignore in the spring is a win/loss record. It is by far the most meaningless stat, because players are slotted in prior to each game to give everyone appropriate playing time. It doesn’t matter if the team is up 10 or down 10, the manager has a plan for player usage and usually follows it closely. On top of that, it is rare that a full regular season lineup is all starting on the same day with an MLB caliber starter on the mound. It will be even less likely this year with the World Baseball Classic happening in conjunction with spring training games. For example, Xander Bogaerts left to play for team Netherlands on 2/28 and won’t play in another game for the Red Sox until at least mid-to-late March, and perhaps not again until the regular season. If you are hoping to see the Red Sox opening day lineup anytime soon, you will be disappointed.

A World Series for the Ages

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Leading up to game 1, this year’s World Series matchup had the potential to be great. Two long-suffering franchises with a combined 176 years without a championship vying for the trophy. The Cleveland Indians without a win since 1948 and the well documented 108-year heartbreak of the Chicago Cubs. Both teams loaded with young talent, balanced with veteran leadership, and led by top-tier managers in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon. Thankfully, for baseball fans everywhere (except maybe Cleveland), the series was even better great and both teams stretched it to the limit.

The Cubs were on the brink of heartbreak after 4 games, down 3-1, and it looked as though 109-years would be the new mantra. Terry Francona was pulling all the right strings and had his team poised to end their streak of mediocrity. Then, in impressive fashion, the Cubbies stormed back to force a game 7 in Cleveland for all the marbles. Ticket sales were through the roof insane, but if you were there to witness game 7 in person, it was the memory of a lifetime. The game had everything but great defense and proved to be the most watched baseball game since 1991 and according to Nate Silver at 538, had 49.9 million viewers at it’s peak going into the 9th inning.

The Cubs jumped out to an early lead and it looked as though Cleveland would wither away, but not this team. With 1 man on and 2 outs in the 5th inning, Joe Maddon inexplicably brought in Jon Lester. After a swinging bunt and throwing error by David Ross, the Cubs 5-1 lead was in jeopardy. With runners on 2nd and 3rd a bad wild pitch and a Ross stumble led to both runners scoring to shrink the Cubs lead to just 2 runs, 5-3. Ross redeemed himself in the top of the 6th with a HR to center field to extend the lead back to 3 runs, 6-3.

As most Cubs fans (and older Red Sox fans) would know, it felt like there was still too much time for the lead to evaporate and heartbreak to ensue. Sure enough, in the 8th inning, exhausted Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman stumbled in a big way. With 2 outs in the 8th, Lester allowed a single that deflected off of Cubs SS Addison Russell‘s glove and opened the door to bring in Chapman, who had already be heavily over-worked in the series. The first batter he faced, Brandon Guyer, ripped a line drive double into the outfield allowing Jose Ramirez to score. All of a sudden, it was a 2-run game with the tying run in the batter’s box.

With a 2-2 count on Rajai Davis, the UConn product*, Chapman tried to throw a 97 MPH fastball by him and failed. Davis crushed the pitch for a massive, game-tying 2-run HR. Even a 1,000 miles away in Boston you could feel the life being sucked out of Cubs fans and the phrase “not again” being muttered. The 9th was filled with some drama for the Cubs, including a challenge for slide interference and an inexplicable foul bunt K, but the game would move into extras. To add another layer of drama to the already crazy game, the tarp was unfolded after the 9th inning to prepare for an impending downpour that never really came. As it turns out, that 17 min rain delay was a blessing for the Cubs. They had a team meeting and regrouped, leading to 2 runs in the top of the 10th inning thanks to a Ben Zobrist double and a Miguel Montero single.

The bottom of the 10th began with a K to Napoli and a ground out for Jose Ramirez leaving the Cubs 1-out away…but Cubs fans gut-wrenching pain was not over yet. Brandon Guyer walked and Rajai Davis singled to drive him in, making it an 8-7 game with the winning run in the batter’s box and the tying run on base. Michael Martinez had the chance to destroy Cubs fans with an even more epic loss than anything previous, but a slow grounder to 3rd baseman Kris Bryant and an off-balance throw to 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo stranded the runner and gave the Cubbies the victory. One championship drought over, the other on-going.


This series, and in particular game 7, was incredible to watch for any fan of baseball. The big hits, dramatic catches, and unusual use of pitching staffs made for excellent entertainment. For those in Boston, there were countless storylines around former Red Sox managers, executives, and players. It was a battle of Cleveland manager Terry Francona against his former boss Theo Epstein for the Cubs. On the field there were 4 former Red Sox players or prospects on the Cubs roster (Jon Lester, John Lackey, David Ross, and Anthony Rizzo) and 4 on the Cleveland roster (Mike Napoli, Coco Crisp, Andrew Miller, and Michael Martinez), which only added to the interest from across New England.

Overall, this was the best world series of my lifetime outside of the Red Sox title runs. It’s the first world series, not involving the Red Sox, that brought me a similar level of rollercoaster emotions and an insane level of intensity. If baseball can figure out how to bring a similar level of intrigue on a more regular basis, then new fans would flock to the the sport and the MLB would grow to new heights. As is, more casual fans watched game 7 then practically ever before, so now is the time to grow the sport.

Finally, I just want to say thank you to the Indians and Cubs for putting on a show for the ages and delaying my offseason sadness. This is a series I will not soon forget.

*UConn Avery Point Campus

The Fall Sports Overlap and Overload

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It’s about this time every year that my head begins to fill will a jumble of sports craziness. Ok, maybe that’s unfair, my head is filled with sports craziness all year long, but this time of year it kicks into overdrive. With professional football beginning to pick up in week 4, professional baseball in the stretch run, and college football in full swing, life is crazy. Then you add the beginning of professional hockey now and professional/college basketball in the next few weeks and my eyes don’t know where to focus. It’s hard enough to keep up with 2 sports running simultaneously, forget 4 or 5. Here’s how I prioritize my limited sports viewing time in order to get the most bang for my buck during a nutty fall of sports.

Baseball

Since the Red Sox are very much in contention, they become the priority viewing experience, weekdays or weekends. Baseball is my true love and with just days left in the regular season and a potential championship contender in town, it has to be the focus. Once the Sox clinch the AL East (magic number is 1) and hopefully lock up the best record in baseball, I’ll have a small breather until the playoffs. Obviously, playoff baseball takes precedent over all else in October.

Also, since this week is the Fantasy Baseball championship for me, that will shift more of my focus away from other sports.

Pro Football/College Football

I limit my football focus to the weekends (unless UConn or the Patriots are playing another day) for now. Saturdays are for college football and Sundays are for pro football. It seems pretty logical, but can be surprisingly difficult to limit myself when both pro and college football are full-time viewing and following experiences. Between injury reports and match-up information, it’s an easy rabbit-hole to get sucked down on weekdays, but I must be strong!

Once the Red Sox season is over (hopefully not for another month+), I will shift the major focus of my attention to football. Since my Fantasy Football teams are terrible (combined 1-5), I may not have to worry too much about the fantasy aspect once baseball is over.

Pro Basketball/Pro Hockey

I know it’s blasphemy to say in Boston, but I’m just not a big NBA fan. I consider myself a periphery Celtics fan and enjoy watching an occasional game and following an interesting storyline, but can’t bring myself to watch on a consistent basis during the regular season. My wife would say that’s a good thing, because I love college basketball and pro hockey, which significantly overlap in seasons (not to mention the serious overlap with football), so I don’t know if I would have the time to avidly follow the Cs even if I wanted to.

The Boston Bruins are a newer passion for me. I grew up outside of Hartford, CT and was a big Whalers fan growing up. When they left Hartford in 1997, I denounced hockey for about a decade in protest. In 2007 when I moved to Boston, I began watching the Bruins and got the hockey itch back. Ever since then, for about 9 years now, I have been an avid hockey fan and a strong Bruins follower. On days when football is not being played and there isn’t a big UConn game (basketball or football), hockey is my major focus.

College Basketball

Being an obsessive UConn sports fan, college basketball season is often a joyous time. I follow the early season games as much as I can, but really start to watch obsessively after the turn of the year. January-April is prime college basketball watching season, with a special focus in early March and into April. Thankfully there are only a handful of earlier season games that are must-watch TV, allowing me to focus on other fall/winter sports until things really pick up. Regardless of what UConn does, the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sports viewing experience of any sport at any time hands down.

There are a smattering of other sports I follow casually during the fall/winter timeline, but everything else is secondary (or thirdary, or fourthdary, or fifthdary).  For right now, discipline and focus are the keys to successfully managing the sports nuttiness that is the fall. Happy watching everybody!

Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.

Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame Major League manager with the Baltimore Orioles