A Look at MLB; Zig-Zag Theory; 6 Must Bet NFL Games in 2014

 

dodger joy

 

MLB

The 30: Armed and Dangerous

www,grantland.com

The Phillies and Jays are pitching surprisingly well, the Yankees are getting their money’s worth from their offseason prize, and the A’s are cruising behind an out-of-nowhere ace.

by Jonah Keri

It’s Week 3 of The 30

 

Started From the Bottom and never left.

30. Houston Astros (5-14 record, -41 run differential, no. 30 last week)

29. Chicago Cubs (5-12, -18, LW: 28)

28. Arizona Diamondbacks (5-16, -51, LW: 25)

27. Philadelphia Phillies (8-10, -21, LW: 23)

26. Miami Marlins (9-10, +13, LW: 27)

25. Minnesota Twins (9-9, +7, LW: 29)

24. New York Mets (9-9, -7, LW: 26)

Am I allowed a bit of optimism in the bottom tier of the rankings? Eh, screw it; I’m going for it. Check out this stretch of pitching lines by Phillies starters:

April 13: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K

April 14: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 6 BB, 3 K

April 16: 9 IP, 11 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K

April 17: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

April 18: 4 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 2 BB, 1 K

April 19: 7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K

That’s five quality starts in six outings, including three games against a talented Braves lineup and two more games at Coors Field, baseball’s toughest park for pitchers.

Now, I’m admittedly cheating by creating arbitrary starting and end points: April 12 brought a half-decent start, but it lasted only five innings, while April 20 saw the Rockies score six runs in four innings against Roberto Hernandez. Still, that stretch of successful starting pitching is a little hint of something for a team that could legitimately finish last in its division. The rotation is about to get a big boost, too: Jonathan Pettibone, who allowed those eight runs on April 18, is back in the minors, and Cole Hamels is slated to return Wednesday against the Dodgers.

But the offense, Marty. Something’s got to be done about the offense.

Even after dropping a 10-spot on the Rockies on a summerlike Sunday afternoon at Coors, the Phils still rank 10th in the National League in runs scored. Ben Revere, one of the worst-hitting everyday outfielders in baseball, is hurting his team more than he should be because manager Ryne Sandberg is batting him leadoff. Marlon Byrd, who’s now 36, has made the buy-high two-year contract he got over the winter look bad by getting off to a .254/.293/.380 start. Carlos Ruiz, who’s 35 and keeping the team’s AARP spirit alive, has gotten off to a .204/.328/.286 start after signing a three-year extension this offseason. Cody Asche, who struggled in his debut season last year, still doesn’t look like a major league hitter, batting .196/.275/.304 through 17 games. Maikel Franco, one of the best third-base prospects in baseball and the guy in line to replace Asche, is batting just .153/.231/.186 at Triple-A this year following a monstrous 2013 campaign.

It’s only April, but it’s not too early to see that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will be facing the same dilemma this year he has the past couple of seasons: whether to cash in veteran talent for future help.

Once again, it’ll be an interesting call. On the one hand, the Phillies have players who would net a huge return. Cliff Lee, for instance, would be a great addition for a handful of big-revenue clubs, even with a $25 million salary this year and next and a $12.5 million buyout (or $27.5 million salary) in 2016.

The Red Sox, for one, have more than enough money and more than enough prospects to pull off a blockbuster deal that would help Boston this year and help Philadelphia for years to come. On the other hand, the Phillies are trying to hold down their status as an attendance juggernaut.1 The massive TV deal the Phillies had been chasing is now money in the bank, thus somewhat limiting the damage the team can do to its brand by unloading an elite player like Lee. Still, these are the factors in play when mulling a deal of this magnitude in 2014, especially with one of the most present-day-focused GMs in the game calling the shots. Stay tuned.

Erratic Eddies Their kingdoms for some consistency.

23. Chicago White Sox (9-10, 0, LW: 21)

22. Seattle Mariners (7-11, -1, LW: 17)

21. San Diego Padres (9-10, -7, LW: 24)

20. Cincinnati Reds (8-10, +12, LW: 20)

19. Colorado Rockies (10-10, +13, LW: 22)

18. Toronto Blue Jays (10-9, +4, LW: 19)

17. Los Angeles Angels (8-10, +13, LW: 16)

On the season premiere of my podcast last week, the first question I asked Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos was simple: How have the Jays gone from being a last-place team in 2013 to near the top of the division in 2014? His answer was even simpler: Toronto’s pitchers no longer stink.

Well, most of the time, anyway. In the eighth inning of Thursday night’s game against the Twins, Jays relievers capped an ugly doubleheader by surrendering six runs on eight walks and three wild pitches, making Toronto the first team to walk eight batters in an inning since the Orioles did so against the Rangers on April 19, 1996. Bullpens can be volatile, particularly on a night like Thursday, when near-freezing temperatures made gripping the ball an enormous challenge. Plus, despite a recent setback, underrated right-handed closer Casey Janssen is due to come off the DL sometime in May, which should help solidify Toronto’s pen.

The starting rotation is the Jays’ true wild card, and their true key to success: On a game-by-game or even a batter-to-batter basis, this is one of the game’s toughest starting fives to predict.

Take Brandon Morrow’s Sunday start against the Indians. The 29-year-old right-hander began his day with a long battle against leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, ending the at-bat by whiffing Bourn on a wicked split-changeup in the dirt. As both this Brooks Baseball pitch chart and this insightful Jays Journal post point out, Morrow had some experience throwing a changeup with a split-fingered grip before this season, but it wasn’t a reliable out pitch, with Morrow often forced to rely on other offerings, especially his slider, in two-strike counts. That slider popped up in the next at-bat Sunday, as Morrow continued Nick Swisher’s 2014 woes by fanning him on a pitch down and away. The split-change was the star of Morrow’s afternoon, though: In each of his two matchups with Indians slugger Carlos Santana, Morrow threw his new hammer pitch in two-strike counts, both times seeing the pitch dive way out of the strike zone, and both times making Santana look terrible as he chased it for strike three. Per Brooks, Morrow threw the split-change 26 times Sunday, registering 18 strikes, including five swinging.

Unfortunately, Morrow also showed shaky fastball command. Immediately after striking out Santana for the first time, Morrow got locked in a long battle with Michael Brantley, which ended with a fastball up and down the middle that got smashed to Columbus. Brantley stung Morrow again in the fourth after the next Santana strikeout, this time smashing a double. Morrow’s final line on the day wasn’t too bad, as he allowed two runs on three hits, with six strikeouts and two walks. Still, Jays fans had to be shaking their heads after watching Morrow leave following five innings and 95 pitches despite being so dominant at times. It was the same old tantalizing Morrow: enough promise to get excited, and enough inconsistency to leave the team wanting more.

Mark Buehrle (0.64 ERA) and R.A. Dickey (6.26 ERA) will probably wind up meeting in the middle of their current stat lines while eating 400-plus decent innings between them. How the other guys fare — the promising Drew Hutchison, the back-from-the-dead Dustin McGowan2, and, yes, the maddening Mr. Morrow — will likely be what swings the Blue Jays’ season, one way or another.

B-Students The talented teams off to slow starts, the decent teams we’re not quite ready to call top contenders, and … the Brewers.

16. Cleveland Indians (8-10, -7, LW: 14)

15. Tampa Bay Rays (9-10, +1, LW: 9)

14. Baltimore Orioles (8-9, 0, LW: 18)

13. Pittsburgh Pirates (8-11, +1, LW: 11)

12. Kansas City Royals (9-8, -5, LW: 15)

11. Boston Red Sox (9-10, -5, LW: 7)

10. New York Yankees (11-8, -9, LW: 13)

9. Texas Rangers (11-8, -6, LW: 12)

8. Milwaukee Brewers (14-5, +18, LW: 10)

7. San Francisco Giants (11-8, +9, LW: 8)

It’s happened only once in the past 23 seasons, but it sure feels like the AL East champion might fail to win 90 games this year.3 There are two reasons for my hunch (however unlikely it is to come to fruition). First, the division doesn’t appear to have any true weak links this year. The Jays will be a .500 or better team if they have even slightly better luck than last year, plus better starting pitching. And while the Orioles’ pitching isn’t very good, they should continue to hit. Second, injuries are decimating some of the leading contenders. I picked the Rays to win the division at the start of the season, but I have much less faith in that happening now that Matt Moore is out for the year, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson are out at least another month each, and a thin bullpen is already getting taxed. The Red Sox don’t have it as bad with only Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks on the DL, but these Sox are less talented than last year’s edition, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew gone.

The latest significant casualty is Ivan Nova. The Yankees’ no. 4 starter got hammered for eight runs in four innings against the Rays on Saturday, with four blasts leaving the yard. The snarkfest over Nova’s outing (which upped his season ERA to 8.27) lasted a few hours, until we learned he has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Recent history tells us that partial UCL tears don’t tend to heal quickly, or without surgery, so Nova’s season might be over.

The good news is that the Yankees have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with or without Nova. For starters, Masahiro Tanaka has been even better than advertised, which is saying a lot. ESPN contributor Jason Collette passed along this wild Tanaka nugget: This year, Tanaka has thrown 130 fewer pitches than Justin Verlander and 125 fewer pitches than James Shields … yet the Yankees’ new ace has induced more swings and misses than either (51 for Tanaka, 50 for Verlander, 47 for Shields). Tanaka’s splitter might be the best pitch in baseball at the moment; per Brooks Baseball, batters have whiffed 60 percent of the time on that pitch.

There’s more goodness throughout the staff. Michael Pineda has looked terrific through his first three starts, throwing tons of strikes; and no, I’m not buying GooGate as the secret to his success, though the hysteria around it was pretty funny. Hiroki Kuroda is keeping his team in games as usual, while CC Sabathia is pitching better than his surface stats would indicate, striking out more than a batter an inning (despite a big drop in fastball velocity) but getting victimized by a 31.6 percent home run–per–fly ball rate that’s simply not going to last.

Don’t sleep on the Yankees’ bullpen, either. While the surface stats look lousy due in large part to a couple of random blowups by Cesar Cabral and other secondary guys, Shawn Kelley is mowing down hitters (he generated eight whiffs on 27 pitches against the Rays on Sunday), Dellin Betances is gunning 96 mph fastballs by everyone, and Adam Warren is looking sharp in high-leverage work. This Sandman-less pen might not be so bad, especially when closer David Robertson returns from the DL.

The bad news is that the Yanks probably need their pitching to excel all year long, given the roster weaknesses on which we’ve already harped many times. Derek Jeter looks ancient diving in vain at grounders to either side; Brian Roberts is no longer anything close to a playoff-caliber second baseman; Mark Teixeira’s return from the disabled list only reminds us he’s not Mark Teixeira anymore; and we can count on one hand the number of non-prospects who suddenly become impact players at age 26, which bodes ill for Yangervis Solarte’s staying power.

None of which is a death sentence. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Yankees have used more defensive shifts than any team except the Astros this year, as they try to compensate for Jeter’s and Roberts’s diminished range and also respond to baseball’s fastest-moving trend. They added multiple boppers over the winter, and their offense could get a boost once Brian McCann and Brett Gardner start hitting. The Yankees are banking wins early in a suddenly winnable AL East, and they won’t be shy about making deals if they’re in the race come July.

Running out a stars-and-scrubs lineup isn’t always pretty. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, though. Especially this year, and especially in this division.

Separating From the Pack More games played means more flaws exposed, and fewer teams looking elite.

6. Detroit Tigers (9-6, +1, LW: 2)

5. Washington Nationals (11-8, +5, LW: 6)

4. Atlanta Braves (12-6, +23, LW: 5)

3. Oakland A’s (13-5, +32, LW: 4)

2. St. Louis Cardinals (11-8, +11, LW: 3)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (12-7, +15, LW: 1)

What the hell is going on with Jesse Chavez, who’s come out of nowhere to post a 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and top-10 AL K/BB rate in four starts?

Coming into this season, the 30-year-old right-hander had earned a reputation as a journeyman after playing for five teams.4 He worked as a reliever for most of his career, totaling just two starts before this season. Chavez’s performance improved in 2013, as he fanned nearly a batter an inning and gave up just three homers in 57? innings out of the Oakland bullpen. Like most relievers, he operated with a narrow repertoire, in his case throwing fastballs and cutters about three-quarters of the time.

Last season, Chavez showed subtle signs he could be capable of something more than what he delivered out of the pen. The A’s saw flashes of his sometimes excellent curve and changeup during five Triple-A starts, and on June 13, Chavez offered a glimpse of what he could do at the big league level if given an opportunity to start.

“We’re playing the Yankees, and the game goes to extra innings,” recalled A’s pitching coach Curt Young. “And he really starts showing what he can do. He goes through multiple times in the order, and he’s got just great command of all four pitches.”

Chavez demolished Yankees hitters that day, firing 5? shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out seven. It was only one game, sure. But for Young and the A’s, it was a glimpse into the future, a sneak peek at what the best-case scenario could look like if they ever needed Chavez to step into the starting rotation.

That day arrived this spring, when Jarrod Parker suffered an elbow injury that knocked him out for the season and A.J. Griffin also hit the DL. Chavez immediately flourished. In his season debut against the Mariners, he allowed one earned run over six innings en route to a 3-2 A’s win. He was masterful against the Twins six days later, fanning nine, walking none, and surrendering a single run while pacing a 7-4 victory. Five days after that, he pitched seven innings against the Angels, allowing one earned run in another nine-strikeout, no-walk performance.5 No less an authority than Mike Trout raved about Chavez’s stuff that night, and no wonder: You’ll rarely see Trout look as overwhelmed on a pitch as he was on this 2-2 Chavez curveball in Trout’s first at-bat of the game.

Chavez continued his excellent work Sunday against the Astros, allowing one run in six innings while striking out six. While he walked a season-high three batters, which more than doubled his 2014 total, Chavez also made his way into the A’s record books:

A few days before Chavez took the mound for his fourth start, I asked him what’s driving his early-season success.

“Getting ahead, throwing strikes is the key thing for any pitcher’s success,” Chavez said. “Curt [Young] preaches that: Throw strikes, stay down in the zone, trust your stuff.”

That advice from Young, while sound, seems extraordinarily simple, almost facile. As you might expect from one of the league leaders in strikeout-to-walk rate, Chavez also ranks in the top 10 among AL pitchers in percentage of strikes thrown. But if every pitcher simply needed to try harder to throw strikes in order to actually throw strikes, they’d presumably all have managed it by now. Of course, it’s not actually that straightforward, and Chavez acknowledged that his head wasn’t always in the right place in the past, which messed with his approach.

“I used to try to do too much,” Chavez said. “That’s why I was up and down for the past four years. I just have to instill all of this in my head, just simplify things, make everything a little tighter and crisper.”

While Chavez is the A’s most unlikely success story this year, he’s on a team full of unlikely success stories. Despite their injuries, the A’s sport the lowest ERA among all American League teams, with the second-lowest walk rate. Credit the system: Though Young, manager Bob Melvin, and others preach pounding the strike zone to all A’s pitchers, the process starts earlier.

“We try to get as many strike-throwers as we can in the minors,” Young said. “The guys we acquire usually have that history. If you don’t put guys on via walks, it just makes things so much easier.”

A quick peek at the numbers shows this is nothing new, with A’s pitchers posting the lowest walk rate in the AL last year. If the A’s can again stay near the top of the league in that department, a third consecutive AL West title could be nigh.

Chavez will be the most interesting test case. It’s easier for a pitcher to trust his stuff and fill up the strike zone when he throws a nightmare-inducing curveball, like Sonny Gray does, or has spent years building up elite fastball command, like Bartolo Colon had dating back to last year.

If Chavez is still hanging with the likes of Lee and Felix Hernandez five months from now, this “throw it over the plate” thing might really start catching on.

1.Last season marked the first time in six years that Philly drew fewer than 40,000 fans a game, but its average attendance of 37,190 still ranked among the NL’s leaders.

2.McGowan is one of the best stories in baseball this year, coming back from multiple major injuries to make his first start(s) since 2011. Still, he’s not a great bet to post a 200-inning load. A guy like top prospect Marcus Stroman, whom Anthopoulos hinted might not be far from making The Show, could supplant McGowan before long.

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zig zag

Zig-Zag Theory

By Marc Lawrence

VegasInsider.com

 

NBA Zig Zags…Up In Smoke

Long before “The Gold Sheet” first called out the premise, Zig Zags were primarily recognized as popular rolling papers for those who enjoy their smoke of choice.

In NBA handicapping circles, Zig Zags are trendy applications that have been profitable moneymakers during the playoffs.   The premise is simple:   ‘Play On’ a team off a playoff loss in its very next game.   The theory is that in a short series involving imminent elimination, a team in more inclined to bounce back with a good effort off a losing performance than it is to continue its losing ways.

How have these plays held up of late?  You might be surprised.

Here are pointspread results of NBA Playoff Zig Zags from 1991 through 2013.

Game On, Dude

Overall: 745-661-36 (52.9%)

Game Two: 186-147-13 (55.8%)

Game Three: 188-151-6 (55.4%)

Game Four: 153-155-7 (49.6%)

Game Five: 117-118-6 (49.7%)

Game Six: 72-67-2 (51.7%)

Game Seven: 29-23-2 (55.7%)

The strength of NBA Zig Zags appears to be in Game Two where they become a near 56% point-spread play on the blind.   That’s especially true for home teams off a Game One home loss as they are 50-33-1 ATS (60.2%), including a spotless 4-0 SU and ATS as an underdog.

Burn Baby Burn

Like all things that are popular, though, they eventually burn out and revert back to the norm.   A combination of the ‘law of averages’ and an adjustment by the odds makers has seen the NBA Zig Zags go up in smoke since 2001.   That’s confirmed by the fact that these plays slipped dramatically the last 13 years (2001-2013), going 434-412-26 – or 51.3% – overall as opposed to a 311-249-10 mark – or 55.5% – in games played from 1991-2000.

Talk about a buzz kill.   Round ‘Em Up

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nfl cheer

 

Six must-bet games on the new 2014 NFL schedule

By JOE FORTENBAUGH

www.covers.com

The LVH sports book in Las Vegas will be releasing their full assortment of Week 1 sides and totals now that the 2014 NFL schedule has been revealed to the public. But why limit our initial inspection of this season’s slate of action to just 16 games played at the beginning of September?

Instead, here’s a look at six matchups we’ve very interested in betting into as soon as the lines hit the board.

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks (Week 15, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

No team boasts a greater edge in home- field advantage than the defending champs, who have gone 24-8 SU (.750) and 22-10 ATS (.687) at CenturyLink Field during the regular season since the arrival of head coach Pete Carroll in 2010.

In addition, Carroll is 3-1 both SU and ATS on home turf against archrival Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, who have failed to top 19 points in a game in each of their last four visits to the Pacific Northwest – outscored 111-52 during that span.

Projected point spread: Seattle -4.5

Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles (Week 3, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

With the Cowboys languishing as an 8-8 unit in each of the last three years and the Giants coming off a disappointing 7-9 campaign, Philadelphia-Washington has the potential to become the NFC East’s most explosive rivalry.  The Birds won and covered in both showdowns with the Skins last season and hit the board at the LVH sportsbook as a 25/1 shot to win the Super Bowl back in January.

But while the hype will surround Chip Kelly and the boys from South Philly, beware of this new-look Washington squad coached by Jay Gruden, that will feature a 100 percent healthy Robert Griffin III under center – not to mention Pro Bowl wide receiver and Philadelphia castoff DeSean Jackson, who comes complete with a copy of the Eagles’ playbook.

Projected point spread: Philadelphia -5

Denver Broncos at New England Patriots (Week 9, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

The 15th career meeting between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will see both signal callers take the field at an age of 37 or older, so who knows how many more of these legendary showdowns we have left.

Brady holds a 10-5 SU and 8-6-1 ATS lifetime edge against Manning, but the last five encounters have seen the Denver quarterback post a 3-2 SU mark against his counterpart while going just 2-3 ATS. This is a revenge spot for Brady and the Pats, who fell 26-16 at Denver during last January’s AFC Championship game. Be advised that over the last five years, Brady has been a home dog just once. That instance? Last season’s Week 12 come-from-behind win over Manning and the Broncos.

Projected point spread: Denver -1

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 17, Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET)

Since 2011, the Saints have gone an ultra-impressive 21-4 SU and 20-4-1 ATS when playing within the comfortable confines of the Superdome. But during that stretch, this same team has posted a lackluster 8-12 SU and ATS mark in outdoor road games, highlighted by a 3-5 SU and ATS record in those situations last season.

This issue has been on full display in New Orleans’ last three trips to Tampa Bay to face a terrible Buccaneers team, who has gone 2-1 both SU and ATS against the Saints over the last three years despite being a home dog in each instance. New head coach Lovie Smith is going to turn this bumbling Buccaneers franchise around in a hurry, which is why Tampa Bay plus the points is a divisional showdown we’ll be monitoring closely.

Projected point spread: New Orleans -2.5

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers (Week 10, Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Eliminate last year’s Week 9 Chicago-Green Bay tilt, that saw Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers exit the game with a shoulder injury after throwing just two passes, and you have a Green Bay team that has won and covered in six straight meetings against their rivals from Illinois.

In 13 career appearances against Chicago, Rodgers is 10-3 SU and ATS with a completion percentage of 67.5 percent, 21 touchdown tosses and a passer rating of 97.4. On the other side of the field stands Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who is 1-8 SU for his career against the Packers, with a completion percentage of just 55.9 percent, 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 65.1.

Projected point spread: Green Bay -7

Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders (Week 16, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

This game has about as much sex appeal as a cockroach infestation and would likely be deemed unwatchable if it weren’t for both gambling and fantasy football. But since we’re talking about wagering, this matchup is worth mentioning because you have to go back to the year 2004 to find the last time the Buffalo Bills covered a spread on the West Coast.

That’s right. Since 2005, the Bills are 0-4 both SU and ATS when playing on the left coast. In addition, Buffalo hasn’t covered the spread against Oakland since these two teams met back in 2004, with the Raiders going 3-0 ATS versus the Bills in the three meetings between these two franchises since.

Projected point spread: Oakland -3

 

 

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