Monday, July 24, 2006

Here Comes College Football!

Well, I've resisted the urge start preparing for the 2006 college football season, but with my order for season tickets submitted and August just around the corner, I think that the time has come. I will be out of town until the 7th of August, so content will be somewhat scarce for the next two weeks. The conference that I'm attending is at Michigan State, so I will attempt to track down a free internet connection to allow a post this weekend.

As for tonight's post, I think that its time to take a quick look at Texas A&M's schedule. I'll be taking a closer look at the Aggies when I return from Michigan, and will be previewing each week's opponent in the days leading up to the game.

At first glance, the 2006 A&M schedule looks shamefully easy. The Aggies start with four non-conference games in which they should be heavily favored and the first 5 Big 12 matches of the season look winnable as well. The last three games of the season are against Oklahoma, Nebraska and t.u. though, so things get tough in a hurry. A&M's doesn't have a Saturday off until the 18th of the November (the week before the t.u. game) so expect a fairly exhausted Aggie team on the 11th when they play Nebraska at home.

Sept. 2nd: The Citadel, 6:00PM, Kyle Field

The Aggies start with their easiest game of the season, and at home to boot. The Citadel is a Division I-AA program, and this should be a major blowout. Normally I would strongly disapprove of A&M playing a I-AA team, but this one is an exception to that rule. Texas A&M began as a military school and still has a very strong Corps of Cadets program. In fact, A&M produces more military officers than any other college or university in the country, save the service academies.

With that said, its pretty hard to defend a game against The Citadel with games against Army and Louisiana-Lafayette already on the schedule. This should be a blowout; any other result and I'm going to begin to regret my purchase of season tickets.

Sept. 9th: Louisiana-Lafayette, 6:00PM, Kyle Field
The Aggies follow up their compelling Citadel matchup with another toughie in La-L. The Ragin' Cajuns should be the class of the Sun Belt this season, which is kind of like being chosen the least backward Ohio State fan. Barring an appearance from a Sun Belt officiating crew, this should be win number two for A&M on the season.

Sept. 16th: Army, 8:15PM, The Alamodome
Given the previously mentioned Aggie Corps of Cadets, this is something of an interesting matchup off the field. In the week leading up to the game, watch out for Aggies sharing their favorite General Patton quote.
"Give me an army of West Point graduates, I'll win a battle. Give me a handful of Texas Aggies and I'll win a war!" --Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

I don't know yet if I'll be making the trip to San Antonio for this game, but without a complete meltdown, the Aggies should be 3-0.

Sept 23rd: Louisiana Tech, 6:00PM, Kyle Field

When you are BCS conference school and your toughest non-conference game is a toss up between the class of the Sun Belt and a lower-half WAC team, I think that your AD needs to take a good long look in the mirror. If you are looking for me during this game, I'll be in the stands desperately trying to evaluate the A&M secondary, based solely on their performance against four pretty bad teams. Why the secondary you ask?

Sept 30th: Texas Tech, 6:00PM, Kyle Field

The key question heading into this game is whether or not Gary Darnell has managed to cobble together a secondary out of some decent safeties, some oft-beaten cornerbacks and a fancy 4-2-5 scheme. Tech should be good (the top three wide receivers return and four OL starters are back) but not unbeatable (all new offensive backfield). I don't expect the Aggie defensive backs to do much more than slow the TT passing attack, but how much? With a heroic defensive effort, A&M has the offense to win this game. For the time being though, this one is too close to call.

Oct. 7th: @Kansas, Time TBA, Memorial Stadium

Kansas should be better than horrible again this year and conference road games always make me nervous. Still, Kansas looks like a running team and that plays into A&M's defensive strength very nicely. This one could well turn into a grind-it-out affair, but I think that the Aggies will prevail.

Oct. 14th: Missouri, 1:00PM, Kyle Field

It's tough to say how good Missouri will be without Brad Smith running the offense for the first time in what seems like a decade. They should be better than Kansas and this could be a trap game with A&M coming home between the first two long road trips of the season. If the Aggies keep their focus, this could well be the seventh victory of the season.

Oct. 21st: @Oklahoma State, 6:00PM, Boone Pickens Stadium

This is OSU's homecoming game so don't count anything out. The Cowboys have 9ish starters back on offense, including the 47th Woods brother to don the heroic orange, senior wideout D'Juan. While Oklahoma State will be better than a year ago, A&M should be able to hold their own in this game, with the Aggie offense overpowering the Cowboy defense to bring this one home. (For those keeping score at home, that's 4 can't-not-be-victories, 2 probable-victories, 1 probably-ought-to-be-a-victory and 1 toss-up.)

Oct. 28th: @Baylor, Time TBA, Floyd Casey Stadium

The Baylor Bears are getting better, having beaten the Aggies in 2004 and coming within 3 points last season. They are, however, still Baylor. This version sports a rebuilding defense and a superb punter. By this point in the season, A&M should start to resemble a seasoned team, and show it against Baylor with an easy road win.

Nov. 4th: Oklahoma, 1:00PM, Kyle Field

Adrian Peterson and Rhett Bomar come to town and just like that, the season gets hard for our intrepid Aggies. Oklahoma lacks experience on the offensive line, but something tells me that it won't be a problem this late in the season. The Sooner defense could well be the best in the country. I'm not prepared to declare this game unwinnable, but it should be the stiffest challenge for Texas A&M this season. This will be the first time I've seen Oklahoma in person and I have to admit that I'm pretty excited for this game. After this game, the Aggies should be at worst 7-3, but could be as good as 9-1.

Nov. 11th: Nebraska, 1:00PM, Kyle Field

The trend of tough opponents continues in A&M's 7th and final game at Kyle Field. Nebraska's offense will continue to improve this season, but this is the most winnable game of the final three. The two teams prior to Nebraska to beat Michigan in a bowl game went on to win the BCS title the following year. That is stretching it a bit for Nebraska in '06, but they are a smart pick to represent the North in the Big 12 Championship Game. Without having watched A&M play a game yet this season, I'm terming this one a toss-up.

Nov. 24th: t.u., 11:00AM, Texas Memorial Stadium

The 2006 version of t.u. should have a defense that ranks somewhere between good and great, but for me the key is the quarterback position. If whoever emerges has things nailed down by this point in the season, it could be a long day for A&M. The Aggie defense stands a pretty good chance against Jamaal Charles and company if t.u. can't muster a passing game to keep them honest. This game is right there with OU as the toughest of the season, and I'm very much looking forward to my first taste of another big rivalry.

In summary, the Aggies should be somewhere between 10-2 and 7-5. If I had to call it now, sight unseen, I would pick the Aggies to beat the Citadel, La-L, Army, La Tech, Kansas, Missouri, OSU, Baylor, and swing an upset in one of the last three games. With a close loss to Texas Tech and losses in two of the last three games, Texas A&M finishes the season 9-3 in third place of the Big 12 South.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Hillenbrand Trade

I'm sure that by now, everyone has heard about Shea Hillenbrand's speedy departure from Toronto. Of course, this isn't Hillenbrand's first run in with his team's front office, as he was able to talk himself into an expedited exit from Boston as well.

What jumps out at me is the way that everyone talks about Hillenbrand, as an ultra-competitive player. His general reputation seems to be that of a guy that doesn't have the greatest stats, but gives an entire effort every night, playing with hustle and grit.

Looking at the two teams that he has now had run-ins with, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays, is there a common thread? (Besides Hillenbrand himself of course.) Both are run by GMs who subscribe to the moneyball theory (Theo Epstein in Boston and JP Ricciardi in Toronto). I think that this raises an interesting question of how more traditional ballplayers like Hillenbrand interface with sabermatic GMs like Epstein and Ricciardi. Does the sabermatic approach, in seeking to quantify the performance of baseball players and then commoditize them, also run the risk of alienating the players? It will be interesting, with "moneyball" regimes in place in several major league cities, to see if this scenario plays itself out again with other old school players.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Statistical Saturday: Tigers Edition

My apologies for the divergence from Michigan football for a week, but it was a hectic week at work and I didn't have time to do enough research to put together something coherent on college football. I did have a chance to pick up NCAA 2007, and I'm mildly disappointed. Not because the game is bad, but because it doesn't seem to have improved much from a year ago. I've only had a chance to play three games, but I've yet to figure out how to cycle backwards through players and the zoom-in-on-a-big-play special effect is pretty awful. Also, when playing the screen just seems awfully cluttered. After I've played a bit more, I'll be back with something more substantive.

Now for this weeks look at the stats, I'm heading over to Major League Baseball, more specifically the AL Central. At the All-Star Break the Detroit Free Press ran a piece on the likelihood of the Tigers making the playoffs this season, including the following logic:

The key number to remember here is 95 wins. In the 10 full seasons played with the wild card, 23 AL teams have won 95 or more games. All 23 reached the postseason. The Tigers can play under .500 (36-38) and win that many games by season's end.

I've run into this 95 win talk in a number of places, but I find just a single problem with this. At present, the standings atop the American League go something like:

TeamRecordProjected Wins
New York55-3995

Assuming that all four teams keep or improve on their current winning percentages, at least one of these teams is going to win 95 games and not make the postseason. The hard-charging Twins are on pace to win 94 games this season as well. Given the quality of the AL this year, the Tigers cannot count on the Wild Card and must aim to win the Central for the first time in team history.

Continuing on the Tigers topic, with all the talk of acquiring a left-handed bat, I got a little bit curious about last years second half lefty wonder, Carlos Pena. After being released by the Tigers, Pena signed a minor league contract with the New York Yankees and is currently at AAA Columbus hitting .250/.379/.418 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs in 83 games. Not overwhelming numbers, but Carlos was always one of my favorites and so I wish him well. Given his usual tendency to heat up in the second half, I can't help but wonder if we won't see him in Yankee pinstripes before the season is over.

Finally, speaking of stats today, I've been poking around the College Football Query Tool over at IBFC. If you have an interest in the results of just about every college football game ever played, head over and check it out. I've really been having fun with it, so many thanks to IBFC.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Statistical Saturday Follow-Up

As a follow up to the post from earlier today about Michigan's tight end utilization, I've put together the following table summarizing touchdown contributions.

SeasonTotal TDsTE TDsTE %WR %RB %

These values most likely should have been included in the table of the previous post. From anecdotal evidence, the TE waggle on the goalline has been a significant part of the Michigan offense in the past, so any discussion of tight end utilization should include touchdown numbers. No trends jump out here either, although as expected the wide receiver contribution peaks in the final year of the great receivers (1998: Streets, 2000: Terrell, and 2004: Edwards). It also should be noted that Michigan's TE's produced more touchdowns in 2003 than in any other year this century. This is somewhat unexpected as 2003 also represents the low point for tight end receptions in my study window.

Statistical Saturday

Well, this is the first part of an ongoing series that I intend to carry on with right up until September 2nd and the glorious coming of another college football season. I'm calling the series "Statistical Saturdays," and every Saturday I'll be attempting to use numbers to back up some assertion or another. Earlier this week, MGoBlog carried the news that Michigan has received a verbal commitment from a decent tight end recruit. In the discussion that followed the post, the topic of Michigan's recent lack of top-notch TE play came up. I went so far as to make the assertion that Michigan's offensive woes were somehow related to quarterbacks choosing to focus on only one receiver (Navarre on Walker, Joppru and Edwards, Henne on Edwards and Avant). A couple hours of investigation later, and I'm claiming my initial position to be totally false. The contribution of the leading receiver to the offense in fact depends far more on the ongoing development of said receiver than it does on the quarterback's selection of targets.

The results of my research can be summed up by the following table:

YearLeading ReceiverReceptionsTotal Team Receptions% of TotalWR %TE %RB %Winning %
1997Howard3519118.3 30.9 21.4 47.6 100.0

My apologies for the clumsy table, html is not my strong suit (now if this were Fortran...). I would also have provided a pretty graph to illustrate the trends present in this data but, well, there really weren't any trends and the graph suspiciously resembled noise. Michigan's distribution of passes by position really seems to have no effect on their winning percentage. This surprised me somewhat, as I expected some trend to emerge. In 1997 Michigan threw A LOT to their running backs, something that fell off following that season. Michigan last exceeded 20% running back involvement in 2003, the season that Chris Perry was busy running over people and the running back screen provided a large portion of Michigan's short-to-medium passing game. Why is this significant?

Well, hearkening back to the original point of the post, Michigan's usage of their tight ends hit all time low in 2003, following the graduation of Bennie Joppru. Ignoring 1997 as an anomaly (I'll discuss this momentarily), Michigan's wide receiver contribution has remained at a fairly constant level, leaving the tight ends and running backs to pick up the remaining 30-40% of the receptions. Without a deep threat at either of these positions, this has largely represented the short-to-medium passing attack. Wide receiver involvement has been especially high in the last three seasons, something that I believe to be related to the increasing use of WR screens and Steve Breaston's value catching the ball near the line of scrimmage.

A final few thoughts should include my hypothesis that the '97 offense was an anomaly as that team was largely dependent on its defense to win games. I actually know very little about the team from that season, so if anybody out there has a better explanation for that season than "ball-control-offense" I would love to hear it. I should also note at this point that the data itself is up to interpretation as not all receptions are made by WRs, TEs, and RBs. In these cases, Charles Woodson was counted as a WR, QBs as running backs, and, depending the season, Jermaine Gonzales was sometimes counted as a RB and sometimes as a WR.

If you are still reading at this point, you're a trooper in my book. I would like to close by attempting to project how the upcoming season's table entry will look after all is said and done. For starters, a healthy Mike Hart, an improving Kevin Grady and plenty of running back depth most likely means less throws this season than in years past. I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan had 200 or less receptions this year, but I think that i will predict 215. Continuing with the wild guesses, Steve Breaston will lead the team with 45 catches. The WRs as a group will contribute 65% of the receptions while 20% will come from the TEs and the remaining 15% will be RB receptions.

Comments are always appreciated as I'm a relative newcomer to the analysis of sports statistics, and I'm always looking for new ways to gain insights into what happens on the field.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Some Tuesday Night Thoughts

First off, the All-Star game just having finished, I have to say that I'm pretty disappointed. Major League Baseball needs to drop the whole All-Star-winner-hosts-the-World-Series thing. Injecting meaning into the game has managed to cause the pitchers to actually try, and I for one would much prefer a 12-9 funfest to the 3-2 snoozer that I just watched. Tying the World Series to the All-Star game is kind of like inserting political content into my cartoons. At 9PM on a weeknight, I just want to be entertained.

Does anybody else feel like the AL was just toying with the NL? I mean, they let them lead for a huge chunk of the game, only to rip their heart out in the ninth. Good showing for the Tigers as well, getting all three representatives into the game early. Finally, I also enjoyed Ozzie Guillen's managing-to-win-style, refusing to guarantee playing time for the all players, then proceeding to play every position player except his own AJ Pierzynski. (Now with that said, you won't hear me say anything else good about Guillen the rest of the season).

In other Detroit sports, Brendan Shanahan has signed with the New York Rangers. Although this was an outcome that I had hoped for, it still hurts to lose such a significant Red Wing. With his departure, Shanahan has sent a strong signal to the Wings as to what direction the team should take next season (GET YOUNGER! REBUILD!). If they now use the salary flexibility to sign Belfour or Hasek, they will have taken a huge step backwards. Personally, I'm still hoping to see Sergei Samsonov in a Red Wings uniform next season, occupying a spot on the second-line and giving Mike Babcock the flexibility to move around streaky Mikael Samuelsson.

Best of luck to Shanahan next season. I'm sure that Rangers fans are salivating at the thought of him playing opposite Jaromir Jagr on the Blue-Shirts' top line. Shanny has always been one of the classiest players in the league and his exit from Detroit was no different. I can't wait to see him in the Hall of Fame.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Weekend Update

Sitting on the couch, watching the World Cup Final, one central theme struck me throughout the first 90 minutes of play...Marcelo Balboa has a huge man-crush on Zinedine Zidane. After Balboa managed to spend 100+ minutes talking about how great Zidane's career has been, how courageous it is to play with an injured shoulder and what a great leader Zidane is, Zidane got himself sent off for arguably the most outrageous head-butt I have ever seen. What was he thinking? That was just an atrocious loss of control by Zidane, but the silver lining is that it makes Balboa look kind of dumb, which I like. In all honesty, I found the first half of this game almost unwatchable. France's goal came on a penalty kick that was generated with a terrible, shameful dive in the box. Balboa declared Zidane's penalty kick to be incredibly clever, but in my uneducated opinion, he just about out-clevered himself out of an easy goal...a few millimeters higher and instead of bouncing in, the ball comes straight down and out. As I just wrote that last sentence, Fabio Grosso buried a penalty kick in the top-right corner of the goal, giving Italy the World Cup. Think the French could have used Zidane in that shootout? I think that I'm more happy than sad at the outcome (considering my disdain for the French team and only mild dislike for the Italians) but had you told me a month ago that an Italy-France final was in store, I wouldn't have watched nearly so much World Cup Soccer this time around. Well, congrats to the Italians all the same. Here come four more years of waiting for the US to get another shot at moving into the ranks of decent soccer nations.

On a totally unrelated note, I've gone ahead and purchased season tickets here at Texas A&M. While reviewing the schedule last week, I discovered that the only significant overlap of Aggie home games and Michigan games occurs on September 30th when Michigan plays at Minnesota and A&M plays Texas Tech. Both are semi-rivalry games, but I plan to monitor the battle for the Little Brown Jug on my portable XM radio while taking in the Tech-A&M battle in person. This game represents the largest threat to A&M starting 9-0, but more on that as the season draws a little closer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Where do we go from here?

Thinking about Steve Yzerman's retirement yesterday afternoon, I came to the conclusion that it, coupled with Brendan Shanahan's desire to test the free agent market and Ken Holland's inability to sign a top-flight goalie, leaves the Red Wings in a position where they might be further ahead to start rebuilding, as opposed to loading up for another run. If Detroit is to succeed in the long term, they need to focus on getting younger and finding stronger skaters who are not afraid to fight for the puck. At the moment the Wings have a surprisingly small number of players signed for next season. According to TSN, the Wings look something like this for next year:

Under Contract
C Datsyuk, Pavel
C Lang, Robert
C Draper, Kris
LW/C Zetterberg, Henrik
LW Maltby, Kirk
RW Holmstrom, Tomas
RW Samuelsson, Mikeal

D Lidstrom, Nicklas
D Schneider, Mathieu
D Fischer, Jiri
D Kronwall, Niklas
D Lilja, Andreas
D Chelios, Chris
D Cross, Cory

G Osgood, Chris

Without going into contract specifics (as I doubt that any of these players will be bought out) the Wings are on the hook for $33.624 million. They also have four restricted free agents. Assuming that they decide to retain all four, I've estimated salaries for the quartet.

Restricted FA
C Cleary, Dan $850,000
RW Franzen, Johan $850,000
RW Williams, Jason $1.1 million

D Lebda, Brett $850,000

This brings the team to $37.274 million with 19 players under contract. I expect them to carry 14 forwards, 7 defenseman and 2 goalies into the upcoming season; they are currently at 10, 8, and 1 respectively. One of the defenseman is Jiri Fischer, whose situation is still up in the air. If he retires, his salary comes off the books, but I will leave him there for the time being. Detroit needs to find 4 forwards and a goalie. Given the retirement of Yzerman and the Shanahan departure that I am now pushing for, Detroit is in a retooling year. I propose calling up Jimmy Howard and two of the four top forwards that drove Grand Rapids a year ago (Hudler, Kopecky, Filppula, and MacLean). I confess that I really don't know how exactly contracts work for these players, but I think that it would be safe to assume that these three players would not make more than $900,000 each. (Note, the two forwards to be brought up would be determined during training camp). This brings the total salary to $39.974 million with two forwards to sign.

Who is still available on the open market? Assuming a $44 million salary cap, the Red Wings would have around 4 million to spend. Would 3 million a year be enough to make a run at Sergei Samsonov? My heart says yes, but my head says no. Perusing TSN's list of available free agents, no names jump out at me right away, but Brad Isbister (BOS) and Mike Leclerc (CAL) will do. Together they should cost less than $4 million. Both stand to provide some inexpensive grit on the wing. If Samsonov could be had on the cheap, then another Griffin could be called up to fill out the roster. Proceeding assuming Isbister and Leclerc, next years Red Wings lineup could look something like:

1st Line
LW Zetterberg
C Datsyuk
RW Samuelsson

2nd Line
LW Williams
C Lang
RW Holmstrom

3rd Line
LW Maltby
C Draper
RW Isbister

4th Line
LW Leclerc
C Hudler
RW Filppula

D1 Lidstrom
D1 Lilja
D2 Kronwall
D2 Schneider
D3 Chelios
D3 Lebda

1 Howard
2 Osgood

Bench Depth
F Cleary
F MacLean
D Cross

While this team obviously has holes, it is significantly above average on the blueline and should be able to generate enough offense to stay in most games. The goaltending is a concern, but Howard was very good last season in the AHL and certainly has the talent to approximate the success of a Cam Ward or a Andrew Raycroft (two years ago). No matter what the Red Wings do at this point, they most likely won't be the favorites in the Western Conference, but I believe that this lineup should be good enough to compete with Nashville and Columbus for supremacy in the Central Division.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Wow, what a terrible day in Detroit

Well, that might just cap the single most disappointing day in Detroit sports history. While the Yzerman retirement was hardly unexpected, the fact that he waited so long to announce it gave me some false hope. Hearing him hang it up today was a little bit of a letdown. Ultimately I'm happy that he's going out at the right time, with something left in the tank, the way it should be.

As for the rest of the bad news, on top of the Tigers losing, Ben Wallace has verbally committed to a contract with Chicago. So much for being blue collar, huh Ben? Being the highest paid Piston in history wasn't enough respect for you? I hope that this doesn't come off sounding too bitter, because I find it hard to care enough about basketball to be bitter. Still, the deal is something of a head scratcher for me. Why would the Bulls shell out 52 million dollars for a system guy with no offensive ability? Do they really think that Wallace will be able to replicate his success on another team in another system? Big Ben isn't getting any younger and I can't imagine that an extra $4 million is worth turning an entire city against oneself. Without the fans from Detroit, staunchly defending Wallace, it will be interesting to see in 10 years what his legacy is with regards to the brawl in the Palace. I don't know that there has ever been a superstar athlete more closely tied to the identity of his city who has up and left like this. Wayne Gretzky leaving Edmonton? Roger Clemens leaving Boston? In the end it comes down to Ben wanting to leave and I just can't come up with anything to compare this treachery to.

You can be the judge of whether I properly contained my bitterness, but personally I think I failed. Tomorrow I'll be back with some Red Wings offseason commentary and perhaps an early look at the upcoming season for the Texas A&M Aggie Football Team.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Farewell to The Captain

While I hate to blog at work, I just couldn't pass this one by without saying something.

Steve Yzerman has retired.

I think that most Wings fans knew that this was coming, but it is hard to take all the same. The biggest let down is that the team couldn't get him one more cup this season when he was clearly in the best shape of the last three years or so.

Still, Yzerman walks into history as the quintessential Red Wing and the greatest leader in the history of professional sports. He is a lock to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.

Growing up a Detroit sports fan in the late 80's and 90's, the big four were always Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Alan Trammell and Joe Dumars (and later Grant Hill). Yzerman's retirement brings an end to the era of the big star in Detroit sports. With both the Pistons and the Tigers embracing the team-first dynamic, the Red Wings now in salary-cap purgatory and the Lions run by Matt Millen (who can't seem to attract or draft a big name star), I suspect that it will be a long, long time before Detroit can once again boast a superstar in any sport, let alone every sport.

My greatest hope is that Yzerman will transition smoothly into the front office and remain a fixture in the Detroit sports scene, as did Joe Dumars and Al Kaline before him. To Yzerman, I say thank you for your years of dedication to professional sports in the city of Detroit, and the best of luck in all your future endeavors, you will be missed.