Friday, April 18, 2008

#95: The Rise of Nate McClouth

---Taking the Lead?---

Remember the days when visiting announcers would say: "(Their team) taking on Jason Bay and the Pittsburgh Pirates" or some other prominent player?

If you need proof that Pirates' centerfielder Nate McClouth is getting noticed around the league, just listen to this brief snipped that started off today's Pirates/Cubs broadcast on Chicago's WGN:


Nate McClouth is either going to be the breakout player in the Major Leagues this year, or he is going to struggle for the rest of the season once his impressive surge is over.

Shortly after opening day, I posted this brief article about how McClouth called his shot in Atlanta, which, had it not been for the bullpen that night, would have been the decisive blow (the Bucs won in 12, anyway, so maybe I should let it alone).

But through Friday's 3-2 loss at Wrigley to the Cubs, he has hit safely in all 16 games this season, sporting a .380 batting average and an on-base percentage near .440

And with a little early-season pop to his bat, and he's on pace for 30 home runs! Not only that, but all three of his homers this year have come in the 8th or 9th innings...ON THE ROAD.

The Pirates might actually have something resembling a clutch player on their squad this season. Or at least until general manager Neal Huntington is able to land a major-league ready prospect, and several other mid-level prospects for him.

Sell high.

And now some more screenshots:

Score of Monday's Dodger game as Takashi Saito hangs one...

after Saito hangs one.

Seriously. That's stuff that seems to happen to the Bucs when they have a tender lead.

Now, to another note.

My absolute dislike for the Chicago Cubs is pretty well documented. Most of that dislike stems from their fan base. They gave me another reason today.

In this series of screen shots, look at the stream of liquid that is coming from the top left.

Ha! The beverage missed him!

In this next shot, you can see the fan in the next shot getting ready to dump the drink.

WGN was savvy enough to cut away from their
replay before the spill was re-shown.

That's okay.

Nate gets a little bit of payback.

Unfortunately, he ended up missed the offending fan's head by about three sections to the left and four rows back. And there was no one else on base, but that's not his fault.

We might be seeing something special here.

Let's hope former pitching coach Jim Colborn doesn't emerge from somewhere to tinker with anything.

Friday, April 11, 2008

#94: Roberts Provides Jump Start

---Energy to Spare---

Did anyone miss Gary Roberts?

The Ottawa Senators sure didn't.

A man who has historically haunted the Senators in playoffs past wasted no time in continuing his dominance while making most Penguin fans forget that he was ever hurt.

The Penguins have been missing the "man-in-front" element of their offense for much of the season. Roberts cleaned up some trash less than 2 minutes into the game.

A little backhanded trick he learned in 1954.

Not only were the Senators not prepared for Roberts, they were no match for an Evgeni Malkin/Petr Sykora 2-on-1.

You're supposed to defend against the pass.

The game was pretty much over, but Malkin continues his push to become the best player on the team.

Almost Roberts-esque.

Ottawa had no defense for that "guy parked in front", seemingly all night. Roberts one-ups the upstart Malkin.

He was just in his neighborhood.

Why Gerber contested the goal so vehemently was a bit confusing to me. There was no chance of a comeback that late in the game. Perhaps it was just to improve his line?

Anyway, the Sens started taking some cheap shots at Roberts at the end of a fracas-filled game. Most of my regular readers know that I'm not a fan of hockey fighting, and that I know I'm in the minority when it comes to that, but if there's a forward in the league you don't want to mess with, it's Gary Roberts.

A playoff virgin by the name of Cody Bass tried to get the last word.

If he's serious, he should change his name to "Brass". Or "Balls."
If he's just posing, he should change his name to "Mudd".

The Penguins dominated by the score of 4-0, which, at this pace, looks like it might also be the final series tally.

I hope that fan isn't pondering an answer that question.
It was definitively answered.


Frequent reader/commenter karri asked about other statistics other than Shots-on-Goal Differential (SOGD) making a difference. Specifically (and you can tell she's been reviewing my previous posts), she mentioned Scoring Efficiency and Save Percentage.

The Penguins ended the season 3rd best in overall Scoring Efficiency (10.58 percent), and 4th best in team Save Percentage (91.6 percent). That was key in offsetting the 4th-worst SOGD (-3.1), and granting them 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference.

Their counterpart in the Western Conference (2nd-seeded San Jose), had the opposite issue:

Their SOGD was tied for 2nd best (with the New York Rangers) at +5.5.

However, their team Save Percentage was 15th overall (90.5 percent) and they were 22nd in Scoring Efficiency (8.89 percent).

Here's why I continue to stress SOGD over the other two statistics (although they are important in determining why a team with a negative SOGD is winning games):

Vancouver had a better Save Percentage (91.3 percent) and better Scoring Efficiency (9.16 percent) than the top two seeds in the West (Detroit and San Jose) Their SOGD for the season was -1.4, far worse than either of the top seeds, putting them in a 3-way tie for 9th, and three points back of Nashville for the final spot.

Goalies and Goal Scorers get hot and cold in stretches. In the midst of a best-of-7 series, a cold streak by either would be enough to eliminate any team. By continuing to get pucks to the net, a team can simultaneously keep pressure on the opposing goalie and keeping that pressure off their own netminder. And more shots gives more of a chance for a fluke goal.

Remember, in the last ten years (perhaps further back), no team with a negative SOGD has won the Stanley Cup. That doesn't mean there aren't some series victories in store for a team in that situation.

The Penguins could be a special case because they have been without key personnel all season, and they are getting healthy at the right time. Unfortunately for Ottawa, the reverse has happened.

And another possibility, should the Pens or another "negative" team win it all, is the new rules in hockey since the lockout. Two-line passes during odd man breaks have helped open this thing up, so if you get a couple of odd man breaks, it could be the difference between losing 2-1 and winning 3-2.

Given the Penguins performance Wednesday night, where they handily won the Shots-on-Goal battle, getting Gary Roberts back might be enough to turn the tide and help the Penguins buck this very strong statistical trend.

We will, of course, find out more as the postseason continues and the Penguins opponents get better.

Monday, April 07, 2008

#93: History is Against the Penguins

---Pens in a (Statistically) Bad Spot---

The Penguins are in trouble.

Those who have read any of my recent hockey-related posts or heard me broadcast a word on the subject of the NHL know that I am fixated on a particular hockey statistic.

The statistic is Shots on Goal Differential. For the hockey novice, it is simply the number of shots a team takes per game, minus the number of shots a team surrenders per game (the shots, of course, have to be on net). Over the course of a season, the average solidifies.

I continually run into doubters, saying that it's nothing substantial.

Make no mistake, there is a tendency.

In the past 10 years (and perhaps further), no team with a negative Shots on Goal Differential (henceforth referred to as "SOGD") has won the Stanley Cup.

In 2006, Carolina won the prize with a +0.7, the lowest in the decade. They faced an 8th-seeded Edmonton Oiler team with a +4.2 SOGD and were taken to seven games, even with the loss of Dwayne Roloson for the Western Conference representatives (who was commonly credited as being a key component in Edmonton's outstanding run).

Last season, six of the 16 playoff teams entered with a negative Shots on Goal Differential (henceforth referred to as SOGD). Of the six, five were eliminated in the first round. The only survivor (Buffalo), played a team with a slightly worse SOGD (New York Islanders) in Round One. Buffalo then scored a statistical upset, when they defeated the New York Rangers in 6 games (despite their -1.5 SOGD vs. New York's +3.1).

Last season in the Western Conference, Anaheim scored the series upset over Detroit, despite their season's SOGD average being approximately six shots fewer. Again, top-notch goalie play (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) is commonly agreed to have propelled the Ducks.

In 2008, exactly half of the field has an average SOGD in the negative. Tied for fourth worst in the league in that statistic (as well as tied for worst in the playoff field with Minnesota) is none other than Pittsburgh.

Despite all their offensive talent, even on the blue line, the Penguins still spend more time in their own zone, on average, than they do in their opponents'.

The one ray of hope for Crosby and Co. is that they were the beneficiaries of a blockbuster trade that brought Pascal Dupuis and Marian Hossa to the team, long after the negative SOGD was cemented. They also acquired a reliable defenseman in Hal Gill.

Hossa and Crosby have not been healthy at the same time for long, so it's impossible to tell whether that would have helped generate more shots for Pittsburgh and thereby alter the differential toward the positive.

Root like hell, Penguins fans, but know that the odds are against them.


And now, to the rest of the league...

Here, for your reference, are the conference standings with the final SOGD for each team:

Eastern Conference
1. z-Montreal -2.5
2. y-Pittsburgh -3.1

3. y-Washington +3.4
4. x-New Jersey +1.3
5. x-NY Rangers +5.5
6. x-Philadelphia -3.0
7. x-Ottawa +0.2
8. x-Boston -1.9
9. Carolina +3.7
10. Buffalo +1.9
11. Florida -2.5
12. Toronto +1.7
13. NY Islanders -0.6
14. Atlanta -8.1
15. Tampa Bay +0.5

Western Conference
1. z-Detroit +10.9
2. y-San Jose +5.5
3. y-Minnesota -3.1
4. x-Anaheim -0.7

5. x-Dallas +0.6
6. x-Colorado +1.4
7. x-Calgary -0.2
8. x-Nashville -0.2

9. Edmonton -5.1
10. Chicago -0.6
11. Vancouver -1.4
12. Phoenix -0.2
13. Columbus +1.6
14. St. Louis -1.3
15. Los Angeles -3.4

Based on semi-recent history, it appears that the New York Rangers are a sleeper team in the East, and Washington might also be poised for a legitimate run.

The only potential sleeper in the West appears to be Colorado, though they may possibly be a step too slow with their aging vets in the 2nd round against (likely) Detroit, or San Jose.

All that said, don't be surprised to see both New York and Washington in the Eastern Conference Finals, and top seeds Detroit and San Jose vie for the Western Conference Crown.

Taking it another step, based on the Red Wings' goalie play and Washington perhaps being on the edge of a burnout due to their remarkable surge and relative lack of experience, perhaps we'll see the Rangers and the Sharks for the Cup.

Expounding just a shade more, with New York and San Jose dead even on the SOGD (+5.5), we could see a 7-game thriller, with the final edge belonging to the Rangers based on slightly better team save percentage (91.1% vs 90.6%).

Feel free to argue, of course, but I would wait a round or two before becoming too vehement.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

#92: Littlefield's Legacy: Lynchburg Loses

(this is the first of a possible series illustrating the mismanagement of the Pittsburgh Pirates under former General Manager David Littlefield)

The Lynchburg Hillcats fell Friday night, 7-3, to the defending Carolina League Champion Frederick Keys.

The significance of one minor league team's victory over another is largely muted by the buzz of the multi-billion dollar business that is Major League Baseball.

It is dulled all the more by the fact that Lynchburg is merely the High-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Frederick belongs to the Baltimore Orioles organization, and both of the parent teams are years away from contending.

What is significant about this particular game (to a follower of either franchise, or any casual baseball fan wondering how deeply the troubles of the Pittsburgh Pirates run) is this:

Baltimore Orioles first-round draft pick Matt Wieters hit a pair of home runs in his professional debut, going two-for-three with a walk.

Last week, I noted how the Pittsburgh Pirates only need to be previewed by looking at their upper management and ownership.

The Pirates passed on Wieters for a relief pitcher/closer from the Clemson Tigers, Daniel Moskos. Keep in mind, this was the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft.

The Orioles organization, in the very next draft slot, scooped Wieters up, much like an opportunistic hockey forward netting a sloppy rebound.

The dividends were as immediate as they can be.

Of course, former general manager Dave Littlefield is not the only one to blame. Their former scouting director, Ed Creech has much to do with the state of the Pirates minor league system. They drafted for signability (Wieters was represented by the ever-greedy Scott Boras), rather than doing what a team is supposed to do: take the best available player on the board.

Nevertheless, it happened on Littlefield's watch.

The plot thickens as, tonight (April 5, 2008), Moskos is scheduled to be the starter for the Hillcats.

Moskos vs. Wieters.

Something tells me we're in store for some great cosmic irony.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

#91: Innocuous Screenshot

-- A very interesting screenshot from Monday night's opener.

-- A couple other random thoughts.

-- Welcoming a couple more blogs.

---Nostradamus McClouth?---

This is a silly thing to do, but everything that needs to be said about the Pirates near-collapse Monday night has been said by all the more popular Pittsburgh-based weblogs.

I thought a way I could maybe spice up the blog here a bit would be to pull a couple of screen shots that tell the story, or at least A story of all the televised games I can find. Or, at least, remember to record.

Now, many Pirate fans thought they could breathe easier once Opening Day centerfielder Nate McClouth hit a 3-run shot to right to open a 4-run lead, with the team only needing to get 6 more outs. He hit that homer on a 2-0 pitch right down main street.

Just before he stepped into the batters box, however Nate called his shot.

He's not looking at the first base coach. He's gauging the distance.

Of course, opening night jitters from Damaso Marte and Matt Capps saw to it that everything the Pirate offense did prior to the 12th inning was necessary only to prolong the game, but at least it all kept the Braves from winning a game that the Pirates came to take control of.

On a separate note, the lesson I learned on Opening Day was this:

Jose Bautista provided the Pirates ninth run in the top half of the ninth inning by laying down a suicide bunt. At the time, I thought it was kind of a classless act. If they get the run by swinging away, it's a different story, but I thought that bunt was just rubbing into the Braves' faces (meaning they were going to come out and destroy the Pirates on Wednesday and Thursday for retribution). To me, it equated to a guy kicking another guy in the unmentionables while he was down.

As it turns out, that run was necessary to prevent a "typical" Pirates collapse.

Hence, the lesson learned: "Never balk at the Pirates scoring runs, no matter how they come."

Re-reading that last sentence, I suppose that should have been obvious to me.


And, finally, quick shout-outs to:

Mike of, welcoming him to the world of the Pittsburgh Sports blogosphere. Can't have too many Mike's here.

Also, Michael (presumably also a "Mike") and Steven of Hyzdu Headquarters. It's about time that someone named a blog after the man who broke Ken Griffey, Jr.'s home run record at Moeller High School in Cincinnati.

Go visit. Now.

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