Friday, September 21, 2012

Melky Cabrera, the batting title and MLB's vivid imagination

Melky Cabrera seemed to be aboard a runaway train towards winning the NL batting title until Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area broke the news that he has been ruled ineligible to win the award. Giants fans may be happy about the decision for two reasons: One, Cabrera winning the batting crown would have been yet another reason to ridicule a team whose history has the clear rubbed all over it, and two, this now gives Buster Posey an outside chance to catch up and win the title himself.

But the true result of this batting paradox is an endless back and forth over the minutia of statistics, rules and traditionalism. Sometimes following Major League Baseball feels like being in a really strict math class where everyone is expected to solve trigonometry questions with an abacus or else they’ll get beaten with a ruler. I digress.

Two types of people read this blog (I hope people read this blog, anyway): Those who follow me on Twitter and friends or family members that aren’t completely obsessed with sports like I am. The following is a breakdown of the situation for the latter group. If you already know the story, bear with me.

Why Melky could have won the award

Cabrera was hitting .346 at the time of his suspension, a batting average that remains the highest in the National League. At first it appeared that he was out of the running for a batting title because his 501 plate appearances were one short of the 502 that are required to win the award.

Of course the MLB has a rule for that. Of course they do.

Rule 10.22(a) states that if a player is short of the necessary plate appearances to win the award, and adding those plate appearances doesn’t lower their average enough to take them out of contention, then those plate appearances will be added. In laymen’s – Melky gets a free 0-fer, his plate appearances magically jump to 502, his batting average remains .346 and the batting title is his.

Why Melky won’t win the award

Cabrera actually reached out to Major League Baseball and asked to be removed from contention. Here is the statement that Cabrera made to the Associated Press:

''I ask the Players Association to take the necessary steps, in conjunction with the Office of the Commissioner, to remove my name from for the National League batting title. To be plain, I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted, and I believe that it would be far better for the remaining contenders to compete for that distinction. So too, the removal of my name from consideration will permit me to focus on my goal of working hard upon my return to baseball so that I may be able to win that distinction in a season played in full compliance with league rules. To be plain, I plan to work hard to vindicate myself in that very manner.''

Commissioner Bud Selig is granting Cabrera’s public relations maneuver request, thus rule 10.22(a) will not be enacted on his behalf and the NL batting title is now a race between Andrew McCutchen (.339) and Buster Posey (.335).

Why this whole situation is completely absurd

Rule 10.22(a) exists for a pretty admirable reason. Tony Gwynn was on his way to winning his third straight batting title in 1996 but when all was said and done he was four plate appearances short of 502. They created the provision for Gwynn to win the award; he took an 0-for-4 and his average remained the highest. The reward was his. The added plate appearances are for players who lacked them due to shortened playtime or injury (but testosterone kept Melky relatively healthy, I’m sure). That same rule would have aided Cabrera in winning a tainted award, and yet some are outraged that the league is changing the rules in the middle of the game to avoid it.

But it’s true that the batting title isn’t actually an award – really, it’s a statistical fact. Even without him being crowned, his batting average will remain the highest in the NL. He who has the highest batting average in a minimum of 502 plate appearances wins the crown. If that’s true, then it is a statistical fact that Tony Gwynn didn’t have enough REAL LIFE plate appearances to be awarded in 1996. The same can be said for Melky Cabrera, who doesn’t have enough REAL LIFE plate appearances to be eligible for the award now.

Amendments will surely be made this offseason. Players who test positive for performance enhancing drugs will not be eligible for rule 10.22(a) or the batting title at all, most likely. But the real enemy here isn’t Bud Selig or Melky Cabrera or even PEDs. The real enemy is imagination, because without that, Melky’s 502nd plate appearance wouldn’t exist in the first place. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

49ers continue to flash their dominance in defeating Lions 27-19


Two weeks into the NFL’s 2012 season, and the 49ers have already won two games in which the score is no indicator of how dominant they’ve been. The 49ers beat the Lions 27-19 at Candlestick Park last night, but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. Up until the waning moments of the fourth quarter the lions had only mustered four field goals. Had it not been for a deep completion to Calvin Johnson thanks to a missed offensive pass interference call, the Lions probably would have turned the ball over on downs and the game would have been over.
San Francisco will surely get a lot of credit from the media now. Several sports personalities, including Jim Rome and Michael Irvin (who predicted four touchdowns for Calvin Johnson last night), have become “believers” in Alex Smith. Everybody knows about the 49ers defense and their run game. But I want to talk about all aspects of the win last night, not just those “sexy” angles from ESPN.

Random bits of Ruthlessness

- Aldon Smith is a phenomenal pass rusher and he looked stout against the run, but watch for teams to exploit his inexperience in coverage during the course of the season. He looked really raw in coverage last night and gave up some big chunks of yardage on swing passes. With Parys Haralson out, the 49ers will need to coach Smith up quickly.

- Mario Manningham has quietly become one of the best additions this offseason. He split reps with Randy Moss last night and shined when the ball came his way. Three catches for 28 yards and a 29-yard pick up on a reverse are not too shabby for a guy who isn’t playing every down.

- How long is Randy Moss going to be cool with seeing such limited playing time and targets? He was only thrown to one time, so unless they’re planning on trying to get defenses to forget about him (and I don’t think they will), he’s been a non-factor so far.

- Delanie Walker is going to have to really step his game up. From memory, he has four drops on the season of easily catchable balls. He also got called for holding to negate a big Alex Smith run in the fourth quarter.

- Speaking of drops, Smith would probably have a completion percentage over 80 had it not been for receivers dropping balls. Last night’s game featured drops from Walker, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Bruce Miller, Manningham and Vernon Davis. None were poorly thrown balls.

- Vernon Davis had another two touchdown catches last night. With so many weapons on the field, it’s going to be hard to key on Davis every play. He might just take his touchdown record back from Rob Gronkowski this year.

- People are calling it “the Moss effect”: Michael Crabtree is coming of age. He had three catches on the 49ers’ final touchdown drive, all for first downs. His hands look fantastic, his routes look clean. He could be in for a 90 catch, 1,000 yard season if he stays healthy.

- The 49ers have by far the most complete defense in the NFL. Fantasy owners are still sitting their running backs when they play the 49ers, and now they might want to sit their quarterbacks too. Kevin Smith had 53 yards on 16 carries, and Matt Stafford had under 200 yards passing and no touchdowns before the garbage time scoring drive. The defensive backfield looked better than ever – flying around, hitting hard and keeping yet another elite quarterback in check.

- Frank Gore is forever young. I wrote in the offseason about how Gore might have another productive season in response to fantasy experts that said players should stay away from the 29 year old back. The way he’s running right now, he might have even more than that left in the tank. He’s so patient, so savvy and so explosive when he hits the hole. He showed some ankle breaking cuts last night, and it seemed like every time he touched the ball he ran for a first down. He may not have the home run speed that he had in years past, but he definitely seems to be benefitting from Kendall Hunter.

- Anthony Davis might be one of the chippiest players on the 49ers. He got into it with the Lions’ Cliff Avril on Twitter following the game last season and dominated Avril last night. You’d like to see him put a muzzle on the extracurriculars during the game, but as long as he continues to keep Alex Smith clean it doesn’t really matter what his attitude is. Check out BASG's postgamer for some more hilarity from the guy who made #StopCohn possible.

- Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Alex freaking Smith. I don’t want to swoon too much, but I’ve got an unbelievable man crush on this guy. I used to feel like the whole “never had two years with the same offensive coordinator” excuse was a complete cop out; now I’m not so sure. Jim Harbaugh has done a fantastic job of coaching up Smith, who almost quarterbacked his way out of the NFL completely two years ago. Smith had a revival last year by being safe and getting the job done when he needed to, but Smith looks like a completely different quarterback in his first two games than he did last year. Don’t just watch the highlight reel on Sportscenter; check out every play that Alex Smith dropped back for on Sunday. He’s setting his feet, going through his progressions, showing pocket awareness and throwing accurate balls. He used to look like Colt McCoy dropping back. He’s starting to look like Tom Brady now.

If there’s one complaint I have about Alex it’s that he’s not looking downfield and finding the open receivers deep. That, of course, doesn’t matter if Smith is completing passes and moving the chains, but you’d like to see more big plays for this offense. Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and say it right now: he may not be recognized for it, but in terms of quarterback rating and completion percentage, Smith will be one of the top five quarterbacks in the league when all is said and done.

- One more thing: check out this dude photobombing Smith's postgame interview with NBC. I don’t know who you are, or how you got on the field, but I respect you, photobomber. You’ve got gusto. You’ve got swag.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A closer look at Alex Smith's incompletions in Green Bay

Scott Warfe (East Bay Sports Guy) footed the bill for BASG writers to have access to NFL Rewind, an online package for watching any NFL game. I took the opportunity last night to rewatch the 49ers game, focusing on the offense, so I could see why San Francisco was so effective moving the ball.

One of the best parts about the package is the coach's film option: it allows you to see the whole field on every play instead of following the ball like the national broadcasts force you to. You can really understand how plays develop from that angle. I paid close attention to Alex Smith's pre-throw reads to better understand his decision making process.

Smith finished his day 20-26 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His completion percentage was an astounding 76.9. Compare that to Aaron Rodgers, who went 30-44 with 303 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers may have passed for 89 more yards, but he also threw the ball 18 more times. His completion percentage: 68.1.

Smith had six incompletions on the day. Three of them were passes intended to Delanie Walker, two were passes to Crabtree, and one was targeted for Vernon Davis. What I discovered about these incompletions make Smith's day that much more impressive.

The three Walker passes

With the exception of left tackle Joe Staley (who struggled with Clay Mathews after splitting his nose open on the first play), Walker had the most disappointing performance of any 49er on Sunday. He ended up absent from the box score despite being targeted on three different throws. Two balls were thrown right into his numbers, bouncing off of his chest incomplete. The last pass saw Walker covered pretty soundly; Smith hit him with an outside shoulder throw that was a little high, but Walker tried to catch it with one hand and the pass fell incomplete. It was a fairly accurate throw, not an uncatchable ball by any means.

Two passes to Crabtree

As the second quarter neared closing, the 49ers inserted Colin Kaepernick for a designed run that netted 17 yards. Smith was put back in the game and he attempted two passes before they brought David Akers in for what ended up being a NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal. They ran the same play on both downs: Michael Crabtree ran sideline routes and Smith, seeing that the cornerback had Crabtree well covered on both plays, threw the balls high and well out of bounds. He took the safe route; it didn't get them any closer to the uprights, but it also ensured that the ball wouldn't be turned over. And besides, Akers didn't end up needing the extra yardage after all.

The Vernon Davis pass

Smith's last incompletion came early in the third quarter. Davis ran his route out of a three point stance, cutting between the two inside linebackers and underneath the Packers' safety. While running his route, Davis got bumped by both linebackers, interfering with the timing of the pass. The safety fell in to cover Davis while Smith threw the pass to a location slightly ahead of where Davis could catch it. The ball hit off of the tight end’s hands while another Packers' defending was bearing down on him; he likely would have been crushed had he caught it. Nevertheless, this represented the sixth and final incompletion on Smith's stat line.

The quarterback was bailed out by a couple of nice catches by receivers when he threw balls high – a pass to Mario Manningham on the sideline and one jumping first quarter catch by Randy Moss come to mind. This is something to consider – as good as Smith was, he did still had some flaws in his game. But as a whole, Smith had an excellent day under center; both on the throws that were caught and those that weren't.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

49ers grate the cheese in Green Bay, defeat Packers 30-22

The 49ers came in to their monster Week 1 matchup with the Packers in Green Bay as 5-point underdogs, but if the court of public opinion was in charge of setting the line it probably would have been a touchdown. Even I – in all of my fervent, fanboy optimism – had a sinking feeling that the 49ers would get picked on by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. It mattered not – the 49ers walked out of Lambeau 30-22 victors in the opening week of the 2012 season.

All the reasoning behind why I believed the 49ers WOULD win proved true. Alex Smith indeed looked a lot more polished than he has in years past. The run game was revitalized and punishing with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter sharing the responsibilities. The preseason defense that looked so suspect was really a mere pimple on the intricate face of Vic Fangio’s regular season game plans.

Here are a couple observations from the game.

- Although we saw a lot less Randy Moss than I expected, he had a big impact while he was in the game. He caught 4 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown – quite the contribution for a guy returning to an NFL field after over a year without playing.

-The 49ers ran the ball a total of 32 times for 186 yards and a touchdown. Although Kendall Hunter appeared to be a difference maker during the game, he only ended up with 9 carries for 41 yards (and a not-too-shabby 4.1 average). Frank Gore was the man yet again, toting the ball 16 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. The score was a 23-yard scamper late in the game that I’m sure Gore wouldn’t have finished off had he been the primary ball carrier for the entire contest.

- Vernon Davis showed some pretty good hands on his touchdown catch in the 3rd quarter, but the goal post wasn’t impressed by his celebratory dunk attempt. Watch SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10 Plays” this week for a highlight of Davis getting rejected.

- Colin Kaepernick only saw one play, but it looked like a designed run and it got the 49ers a good handful of yards. Looks like the 49ers will be getting Kaepernick involved this season after all. He got the 49ers close enough to attempt an end of the half field goal. More on that in a minute…

Role reversal: an ironic day for the 2005 draft

- Alex Smith finished his day 20-26 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions; a stat line that resembled a lot of his starts last year. But Smith clearly outplayed Rodgers, despite the Packers’ QB throwing for over 300 yards. Smith made all the throws that needed to be made; all the while it was Rodgers who had the back-breaking mistake – an interception that resulted in Frank Gore’s touchdown run.

- Smith distributed the ball more efficiently than ever before: he hit six different receivers on the day and involved every wideout on the roster en route to the win. It was nice to see Smith hit Mario Manningham on a few different instances; Mario was pretty much MIA in the preseason, but he looked game ready today.

- The Packers sacked Alex Smith 4 times today and yet the 49ers’ quarterback never fumbled or threw an interception under duress. He still seemed to favor taking a sack over taking a risk, but he did show progression in his playmaking ability. One play that stood out: he rolled right and looked to run, drawing the linebacker off of Bruce Miller. He then dunked the ball right over the defenders head and into the hands of Miller for a first down.

- A 49ers fan member of Boyz II Men, who performed at the game today, made a bet with Aaron Rodgers before the game: If San Francisco wins, he has to wear an Alex Smith jersey.  I’m REALLY hoping a picture of that gets leaked. Heads will explode, I tell you!

- One more pretty significant stat: Alex Smith surpassed Steve Young today for the longest streak of consecutive passes without an interception at 185. Young threw 184 before getting picked off.

The 49ers defense doesn’t lose a step

- Aldon Smith spent a lot of his afternoon playing tag with Aaron Rodgers. His highlight of the afternoon was chasing Rodgers down in the backfield in the opening of the game; a play that got negated by an unsportsmanlike call for removing his helmet. I never liked that penalty much anyway, but this one was particularly auspicious. Aldon’s helmet was already halfway up his face before he pulled it off. Nothing celebratory about it.

- The 49ers ran a wide variety of different personnel sets to counter the Packers’ 4 and 5-wide receiver sets. They weren’t any worse for the wear, even when they had to pull NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis in favor of cornerback Perrish Cox.

- It’s clear that teams won’t have fun running against the 49ers again this year. Not that the Packers like clouds of dust to begin with, but Cedric Benson only had 18 yards on 9 carries. If you have a fantasy running back going against the 49ers this season, I suggest you start calling that a second bye week and planning for a replacement now.

The leg of Akers

Jim Harbaugh brought David Akers in at the end of the second half to attempt a 63-yard field goal and he nailed it. It doinked off the crossbar, but it had the right spin to fall on the winning side of the goal posts, tying Akers for the longest field goal in NFL history. Of the others that hold the record, two of them were kicked in Denver. Akers has had the word “record” mentioned following his name several times since coming to the 49ers; that’s definitely not a bad thing.

A few words on the replacement refs

There was an interesting situation that led up to the Packers first touchdown – it was a pass interference call on a throw to Jermichael Finley in the end zone (it looked completely uncatchable, from my couch at least). Clumsiness and chaos ensued in the end zone, and the whole scene got pretty ugly. I noted on Twitter that things probably wouldn’t have gone any better had the regular referees been in, trying to defend the scabs. Of course it all went downhill from there.

The most notable mistake by the crew today came on a Randall Cobb punt return that resulted in a touchdown. Cobb was sprung by a few questionable blocks, including one surefire hold on Larry Grant and a no-doubter block in the back on Anthony Dixon. The refs initially threw a flag for the block in the back, but then picked it back up and awarded the Packers the touchdown.

The other mistake that stuck out – and could have proved the most costly – was the no-call after a late hit on Frank Gore’s touchdown run. He got hit walking into the end zone, helmet-to-helmet, and sat on the ground looking dazed for several seconds afterwards. No flags were thrown. Gore could have been seriously injured, and the replacement refs did nothing to control it.

Ultimately, the adversity that the 49ers faced wasn’t enough to stop them from winning in Lambeau for the first time since 1990. The Packers 13-game home win streak ended. It was their first loss in a home opener since 2006. For San Francisco, it was a loud statement to the NFL – there's no regression here. The 49ers are going to contend for a championship again in 2012.