Thursday, July 17, 2014

The MLB Midseason Slant for 2014 - Checkpoint

Three posts in less than a week? Yes. I make that happen. I'm a writer, and I'm happy to do this as much as I can. Plus, I also enjoy baseball.

To say the least, this baseball season started off with a bang. Sure, it always seems to do that, but it had some different colors and offseason stories that kept people that were involved with other sports talking about baseball. Regardless of whether it was good or bad press, it was still talk that stayed fresh in the minds of others. Now, we're halfway through the season, and things should start heating up.

We've seen another Japanese pitching powerhouse in Masahiro Tanaka, an ARod-less Yankees, the expansion of the Instant Replay rule, and numerous shocks and misses. We've seen many more baseball beards, and we're thick in the Derek Jeter farewell tour. If this was a soap opera, we'd be waiting for the gauntlet to be thrown and for things to start getting messy. Well, it very well could be. However, let's rest at this checkpoint and get some health items before we face the boss of this level.



Eastern Division

Overview: Admittedly, I find this to be a quiet division so far this year. While there are some hard-hitters and big names here, there hasn't been much contention as of yet. Then again, things could change come September.

Washington Nationals (51-42) - In a division where hitting isn't necessarily king, the team with the stronger overall pitching reigns supreme. This is where the Nationals thrive, and there are some diamonds in the rough, especially coming out of the bullpen and their back-end of the dugout. Crazy, I know, but this is the kind of stuff that lets you know that there's a good team on your hands--everyone steps up when called. I look forward to seeing these guys making a possible October run. It's totally possible.

Atlanta Braves (52-43) - If you're looking for a well-rounded team that has had bumps and bruises, you've got it here. They've had rough games and such, but we've got a team that's just starting in it's stride. Freddie Freeman is having the season of his life, and Julio Teheran is making a great showing so far in the starting rotation. Another upside is that they have utmost faith in their reserves, and if they're going to win out the East, that faith has to continue.

New York Mets (45-50) - You tend to ask yourself how a team could be so streaky, but then you look at the Mets and realize that it does happen, and you wonder when things will stabilize with the team. It didn't help matters that they lost some strong pitchers to the evil Tommy John in the beginning of the season, and it also doesn't help that there's inconsistent hitting all throughout the team. Things could get ugly if the team doesn't get reinforcements by the end of the month.

Miami Marlins (44-50) - For what it's worth, these guys make good showings in different categories. It seems like every time I turn around, this team gets younger and younger, eventually becoming sellers to better teams. So far, the rotation has been effective, and hitters like the mighty Giancarlo Stanton have looked mighty fine in their roles. Are they contenders? Not yet. They can threaten races, but there will be nothing to really get excited about in Floridaland--especially in St. Pete as well. [You'll see below in the AL.]

Philadelphia Phillies (42-53) - From a fan's perspective, this team took another nosedive this year. With numerous injuries and lack of depth in what seems like a veteran lineup, there's about as much inconsistency here than ever before. There really isn't a single player that stands out as being a hard-hitter, except maybe for Chase Utley, who has been the most consistent driving force on this team for a long while. This hurts my soul. Really. (And I can't wait to see more Cliff Lee.)

Central Division

Overview: This is always the most hard-hitting division in the National League. The top three spots are always extremely close, and save for the last place team, this is as close as anything. I love it.

Milwaukee Brewers (53-43) - These guys are a whole package and do not mess around. Although they had a weird losing streak at the beginning of the month, the monstrous start they had hasn't affected their standings for the most part. Jonathan Lucroy is being a total beast behind the plate, and pitching monsters Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo are leading the charge into what will seemingly be a fight to the finish.

St. Louis Cardinals (52-44) - Despite a few pitching hiccups to guys that led them to the World Series last year (WachaWachaWacha!!), the lineup has remained relatively healthy, and have relied on low-scoring games and strong defense to win as much as they have. Guys like Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter have been busting through as usual, and pitching forces Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn are using their pitching prowess to keep their team in the game. Shocker, right? We've seen this before, let's see some more.

Cincinnati Reds (51-44) - The Reds have had some issues lately in the injury sector, but seeing how many of these guys should be coming back soon, now's a good a time as any to make a strong run in the second half. The pitching staff has been a gem, having the lowest AVG against in the National League (though they haven't been able to avoid throwing that one pitch over the plate). Despite an injury to Votto and Brandon Phillips, guys like Todd Frazier have stepped up in their absence, keeping the team in the heart of the fight.

Pittsburgh Pirates (49-46) - PNC Park has been a godsend for these guys so far this year; then again, when is it not? The Pirates are a patient hitting staff, seeing the ball rather well and nearing the top of the NL in BB as a unit, as well as OBP (on-base percentage), and of course...getting on base is going to totally kill the other team. While we've seen a lot of uncertainty with the starting rotation, run support has generated a lot of momentum. Behind Andrew McCutchen, how can that go wrong? Honestly.

Chicago Cubs (40-54) - Year in and year out, I feel for these guys. While they don't have the strongest staff on paper, there is a lot of potential. Issue is, they're practically out of the frying pan and into the fire. Based on what I've read/hearing, the Cubs are allegedly a sleeping giant, with a strong farm system. Why they haven't used it yet, I'll never know. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Western Division

Overview: Ugh. This division looked way more exciting before last month, but this looks like a two-team show from here on out. I can't really go that much farther into it. Then again, it's been like this for the past couple of seasons. Shame, too. I like showdowns in the west. The other west. On TV. ...Nevermind.

Los Angeles Dodgers (54-43) - In the realm of tinseltown, you have a crazy mix of pitching, clutch hitting, and a lot of speed. Not only has this been exciting to watch, it has also been effective on the road, where they have totally dominated for the most part. Guys that have come into their own this year include a speedy Dee Gordon (aka "Flash Jr."), a sophomoric Yasiel Puig, and the whole of the starting rotation consisting of Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Haren, and Beckett. Sounds like an all-star cast, doesn't it?

San Francisco Giants (52-43) - For a long time, pitching has been the big draw in the city by the bay. Then again, when you've got a five-star force from Hudson, Vogelsong, Lincecum, Bumgarner, and Cain, of course you'll be a strong force. For the most part, slumps and injury bugs have hit the Giants' offense, and if that keeps up, the pitching (and the bullpen, no less) will have a hard time keeping strong in the second half.

San Diego Padres (41-54) - This team is a total broken record when it comes to team batting average. They haven't had very many bright spots at all in this season, but when it comes to their pitching staff, you've got hot-shots in Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, and Huston Street. Too bad they can't be out there all the time. It's all about synchronicity, guys. Work together.

Colorado Rockies (40-55) - Fact: The Rockies have the best team average in the NL. Fact: The Rockies have the worst team ERA in the NL. Well, crap. It looks like there's no middle ground, and the things that matter most aren't showing for much. The DL is jam-packed with pitchers, and while Tulo and company are keeping it real in the batter's box, it takes an old-school second half surge to make magic happen. Whether they can do that remains to be seen.

Arizona Diamondbacks (40-56) - As expected, these guys can hit and show a bit of patience at the plate, but they're sloppy and don't have the strongest of pitching staffs. The pitching staff suffered a massive outbreak of the Tommy John and the fielding has suffered numerous shoulder issues. Awkward trend, I must admit. Guys like Goldschmidt and Prado, for the most part, have remained consistent and strong amid a frail period in the team.


Eastern Division

Overview: "You are traveling in another dimension; a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind..." Yes, this division looks flipped compared to years past, but I am so not complaining about the differences among it all. It keeps things interesting, y'know? Not gonna lie though...this division looks like a hospital.

Baltimore Orioles (52-42) - While this team doesn't have the strongest and most well-known of starting rotations, this team is in sync and very scrappy. However, I couldn't help but notice that Chris "Crush" Davis has already struck out over 100 teams this season. While discipline is the least of their worries, it's pitching consistency and constant clutch hitting that'll get them to October. It's nice to not see these guys floundering in the basement like I did when I first started these.

Toronto Blue Jays (49-47) - I saw the DL for this team and almost said "wtf" in front of my own mother. Statwise, they don't have the steadiest of squads, but don't let that fool you. They know when to scratch each others' backs when absolutely possible, especially via the long ball. This sort of teamwork will be noticed, and it could take a team really far, especially when you've got a good mix of veterans and rookies making their way up the ranks. Are they a Wild Card team? That remains to be seen. The Division pennant is still a ways away. (#batflip)

New York Yankees (47-47) - Thanks to the media, we've been immersed in the phenomenon that is Derek Jeter's final season. For the most part, this has disguised that this team is getting older and this team is getting hurt way more often than most. Interestingly enough, there was a statistic showing Tanaka and Sabathia's DL stint, and that this is more DL payroll than what most teams have on their active roster. Anyway, there are some hard-hitters, but there are also some that haven't had the chance to shine. Go figure.

Tampa Bay Rays (44-53) - While these guys do have their good days, they haven't had a consistent enough lineup to really get a good run started. A rough month of June really staggered any glimmer of hope for the Rays in the first half, and the wavering faith of the fans doesn't help the hometown momentum any. However, it's good to see that David Price and Chris Archer are doing extremely well so far this season.

Boston Red Sox (43-52) - At the All-Star Break, we have the reigning World Series Champions scratching their heads in the basement of the AL East. While they boast a scary-looking pitching staff (Peavy's 1-8 record is rather sad-looking), they're toward the bottom in hitting, as injuries and inconsistent at-bats are really causing the team to suffer and not give the pitching any run support despite making a good showing.

Central Division

Overview: Ah, the division that I always touch last. Why? I have absolutely no idea. That always seems to happen. But you know what? Just for good measure, I made sure I finished this division first. Take that, history of poor love between me and AL Central.

Detroit Tigers (53-38) - Grant it, you might think that Miggy Cabrera might be the highlight of this team here, but you're sorely mistaken. Other offensive powerhouses like Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez have aided this offense-heavy squad along in the Central in these past few months. While the pitching staff is shakier than average, there is a veteran starting rotation that has been to the depths and back. The bullpen...I'm not so sure. That's obviously their weakest link right now.

Kansas City Royals (48-46) - As far as stats look, they seem to be the middle of the pack, but don't let that fool you. They've been steady as far as health goes, and they're keeping this race close for the most part. The hitting staff, most notably Alcides Escobar, has been very consistent, and have come up really big against stronger pitching staffs, which is great. My main concern is the next few months and the lack of experience moving forward. Let's see what happens.

Cleveland Indians (47-47) - We've seen a lot of injury as far as the outfielders go in a city that might just care more about the Cavs now. In any case, we don't have a steady starting rotation, and the fact that the team isn't the cleanest one fielding-wise in the AL (bottom in fielding PCT and tops in Errors) are just some of the problems that the team has to fix if they want to get a Wild Card spot. However, I will admit: Michael Brantley is fun to watch. Check out some tape of him and you shouldn't be disappointed.

Chicago White Sox (45-51) - Hiccup after rough hiccup, this team trudges on. With a lot of injury woes in the pitching sector, as well as a lot of fielding skips, things don't look all that great right now. For the casual outsider, the big story out of this team is rookie Jose Abreu. Despite an injury earlier this season, he's been the big guy among this team, putting on spectacles for numerous baseball fans around the country. Sometimes you don't have to be on the best team in order to make a splash.

Minnesota Twins (44-50) - Lack of consistent players, injuries, and uncertainty in management is currently the bane of this team's existence. Lack of run support and capitalizing on opportunities can be a real killer for these guys too. Oh, and when Joe Mauer isn't hurt, he's a gem. The team has a lot of potential, it's just that luck refuses to be on the side of these guys.

Western Division

Overview: Here we see the dreaded "NBA effect," where you see some really amazing teams, and then the "50 feet of crap then this team" deal. But you know what? This is where the spoilers are born.

Oakland Athletics (59-36) - WELCOME TO THE LAND OF BEARDS AND GANGS. The best strengths are from the bearded wonders on the rubber; the addition of Samardzija before the break really pumps things up too. Their incorporation of small ball and smart plate appearances really boost their odds of making it past the first round this October; however, this time, they really have to want it. Everyone's getting a piece of the pie so far this year, so things look pretty good.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (57-37) - We've got a team of a bunch of legends and stars, and so far, they've made a great showing. In a tight division such as this, keeping that fire in the belly is key. Health will be a big part of this, considering you have an aging Pujols, and youth with an exceptional amount of speed and talent in Erick Aybar and Mike Trout. You wouldn't want to lose that. Plus, the pitching staff has remained steady. That has to stick around too. Don't burn out by September, y'know?
(Quick question: How is it mathematically possible to have a pitcher with a *.** ERA? I'm being 100% serious right now.)

Seattle Mariners (51-44) - As far as plate discipline goes, you're not going to get the strongest and most patient hitters from Seattle, except if you're Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. In the pitching areas, you have a strong leader in King Felix Hernandez (11-2? Yes please.) and a very tricky bullpen. While they aren't in a tight race right now, they're keeping things interesting. The one thing that needs to be learned is patience, patience, and more patience. Things will come in time, and that time could give them the momentum for a fiery final month.

Houston Astros (40-56) - I sincerely hate saying this, but you almost come to expect this every season from Houston. Like, they have momentum in the beginning, and then it dies a slow and painful death. It also doesn't help that they barely have a payroll and their management is practically at vegetable status. However, if there is one thing that is going totally right with this team, it's Jose Altuve, and he is definitely proving his worth. Too bad he'll most likely be traded in turn for prospects.

Texas Rangers (38-57) - Whaaaaaa....?! While in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, everything seems to be going wrong with them. A streaky squad, they still own star power in Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre, but there's no sense of teamwork and any kind of sync in the team. They've been at the top for a long time, and this is a wake-up call to do some maintenance. Their pitching has been figured out, as they've given up the most ER in the AL, and it looks like the average hitting staff isn't enough to stop the bleeding. Fight for dignity now, boys.


Needless to say, we've seen a lot of freak injuries and a lot of unsung heroes in these 40-man rosters so far. Hopefully we still get to see a lot more new stars, as well as some of these accidents curbed. It's a strange request, but I couldn't begin to tell you how many guys I saw that I barely recognized on each squad, and I've been covering this stuff for over four years now.

In any case, here's to hoping that MLB's finest got a good amount of rest during this All-Star Break. Checkpoint: over.

Let's begin the second half.
See y'all (rather, ten of you) in October.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

AZ's Slant on Sunday - 2014 FIFA World Cup: A Retrospective

Oh, great. Now I'm not going to have anything to watch on TV before nightly baseball. I guess I can't always have nice things.

As eventful as this past month has been, it has gone by so quickly. Then again, that always seems to happen when you're having fun and enjoying the moment. While I'm sad that the World Cup is now over, a new chapter in football is starting to unfold, and we have seen the dawn of new stars,  the birth of legends, and the last stands of veterans throughout this tournament. Outside controversies aside, we have seen an incredible display of skill, playmaking, and excessive nail-biting. We've had more excitement than you can shake a yellow card at, and after this World Cup, there is no possible way for you to tell me that soccer is boring. No sir.

Even if you don't follow the sport, I've laid out a couple of the highlights from this Cup. A lot of them bear repeating, and there may be a few things you hadn't thought about during the tournament. Shall we?

One last time... OHHH-AAAYYY-AHHHHHH

There were more fireworks during this World Cup than in the previous Cup.
Throughout the 2010 World Cup, 145 goals were scored. That amount was reached during the knockout rounds in this World Cup. In this tournament alone, 171 goals were scored. Ten of those goals were hammered against host country Brazil in their final two matches. There were a lot of tears as well.

Goal-line technology wasn't a terrible idea.
This World Cup introduced a slice of the 21st Century in the implementation of goal-line technology. Because this is such a huge event, and every call needs to count, numerous cameras were set up around each net to monitor close calls to see whether close shots should be counted as goals or not. These analyses were also shown to the crowds in each stadium, much like the instant replays you'll see in MLB, the NHL, and the NFL. There were times in which is did come in handy, so the first time doing this wasn't a total bust.

Spain, England, and Italy looked bad, and they should feel bad.
We're looking at three countries from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), which is arguably the powerhouse conference compared to the rest of the world. Neither of these three teams made it out of the Group Stages, and especially in the case of 2010 Champion Spain, this really opened up a can of worms in the football world. Now grant it, Germany won the whole thing, but you know a change is coming when CONCACAF--represented this year by the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras--had a better showing as a whole than three teams that have the finances in their respective countries for leagues that also enhance talent. Sure, a lot of CONCACAF players play for UEFA clubs, but still. Winds of change, ladies and gentlemen.

This is has been unofficially named the "Pope Cup."
Pope Francis is from Argentina. Pope Benedict XVI is from Germany.
May I begin the hilarious mental imagery for you?

An American referee did Major League Soccer proud.
Here's looking at you, Mark Geiger.

Despite the U.S. Men's National Team going out in the Round of 16 (again), we have much more to be proud of this time around.
Don't get me wrong, I would have loved to see the US take on Argentina in the quarterfinal, even though they'd have probably succumbed to Lionel Messi somehow. But after the build of soccer support here at home, this is only the beginning. They've gotten attention from the mainstream media--although most of it was satire--but hey, any exposure is good, right? Brian Barrish of The Soccer Desk sums up this journey quite well here.

Ann Coulter earned her full-time status as an idiot in the Football Universe.
And I responded in my own, special way.

The Brazuca ball used in Brazil was infinitely better than the Jabulani ball used in South Africa.
You're probably wondering what language I'm speaking right now. These names are the different balls used for the previous two World Cups. Because of the aerodynamic design of the Jabulani, players often had difficulty curving the ball on free kicks, and the overall design was rather unique in the sense that it was hard to use. How, I'm not exactly sure, but I've never played a pickup game with one. But from first-hand experience, the Brazuca ball was a huge step in the right direction as far as the ball design for this World Cup. You don't notice it on television of course, but the design is rather innovative. Similar to a basketball, there are very small dimples on the ball, and considering that there were a handful of matches played on nearly-flooded pitches, this really made a difference in traction and overall movement on different grounds. Take it from me, a slippery ball is a massive pain in the behind, and with the Brazuca, things seemed a little less hairy in the elements for the men out there.

There was another biting incident. Plus, diving was curbed.
Luis Suarez, really? Oh, and diving is the Son of Soccer Satan. Oddly enough, I cover both of these subjects in a previous post. You should check that out right now.

This was a very eventful World Cup, that's for certain.

For my piece on the 2010 World Cup from South Africa, you can check it out here. Yes, my blog existed during the last World Cup, and it's one of the few posts from my first year of blogging that I can willingly stomach. It's a cute little time machine. This World Cup made me forget how that US loss to Ghana in stoppage in the Round of 16 killed my spirits. Well, I relived that in two sentences, and I realized that the loss to Belgium could have been as deadly to my sanity as that.

I'm certainly looking forward to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and I am definitely excited for next year's Women's World Cup in Canada. Yes, that's what got me started in '99, after all. Let's not fool around here.

Long live this sport. Except for the diving. That can die a fiery death.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Red Whines: Fit for a King

I don't know... Maybe I have been getting more easily irritated as of late. Maybe I'm making a big deal out of the media overload involving LeBron James. Or maybe I'm not as crazy as I think. We'll find out.

First, I see the #beforeLeBrondecides on Twitter.
(ex. "I am going to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay #beforeLeBrondecides")

Then, I see "I'm coming home."

Finally, I can't get away from it all. 

Who, in this technological age, really can, anyway?

If you have watched any sort of news coverage over the past 48 hours, whether it's been broadcast TV or cable, you have probably heard the name "LeBron James" thrown in there once or twice. Even if you weren't paying attention, you had to have heard a name drop on television. And if you've been on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, heaven help you. You might have gotten flooded with the news that NBA superstar LeBron James has left the Miami Heat and has a feature in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated that he is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, most likely to finish his career there. After playing in South Beach for four years and winning two NBA Championships there, he is being called the "prodigal son" in many cases.

In response, the NBA fandom (as well as many of its players) was thrown into a gargantuan frenzy. Yes, the word "gargantuan" was absolutely necessary, specifically for the point that it was something that you didn't exactly expect unless if someone was attempting to pen a happy ending somewhere on this earth. While many NBA fans had hoped and dreamed that LeBron would be going to their home team, everyone pretty much knew that the inevitable decision to leave Miami was going to be one for the ages. And it certainly was. If you follow sports at all, the words "I'm coming home" was all you needed to hear in order to know how this all ended. As it stands, LeBron James will be playing in a Cavaliers jersey once again.

Remember when all of those sad Cleveland fans were burning their James jerseys in the streets and stuff? How stupid do you think they feel right now? They've admitted their excitements and their apologies to the man who was raised in nearby Akron, Ohio. Some might not be as forgiving, such as the ones saying: "you still left us behind." However, his skipping out of Miami has left the Heat franchise with an awfully uncertain-looking group of players in their hands. On top of the major story, sports outlets like ESPN made sure to note that James' move to the Cavs has greatly increased the team's chances of making the playoffs and winning the NBA Championship next season and the lack of team power on the Heat has decreased those chances to 100-1 for them. In my mind, I'm like:


It was honestly like ESPN was going out of their way to make sure that this news story was the biggest thing to ever happen in the history of sports. While it is in its own right, c'mon, people. Horrible stuff is happening in Israel right now. I'm pretty sure that is more important that the Cavaliers' chances and the Heat's chances of winning the NBA Championship next June. It's not sports, but really. We're making this whole "return home" a bigger filmmaking magnet than it should. I'm pretty sure there are other human beings that agree on this and just don't talk about it because that involves people having to talk about it and later roll their eyes, groan, and question why they even wanted to bring up this whole story in the first place. It truly is a vicious cycle, isn't it?

For the longest time, LeBron James has not only been a "king" of the court, but he's also been the media "king" in regards to the basketball world. His skill that has often been compared to (and often argued to surpass) the accomplishments of Michael Jordan. Not only that, he has also been given an image of being a bit too big for his britches, regardless of what kind of person he is on and off the court. Nevertheless, he is the center of attention as being one of the biggest, most marketable athletes in the entire world. Plus, since he is at the status, he is also at the helm of being wrecked and being the center of public scrutiny. Why? Is it jealousy from the general public? Is it irritation from his face and name being plastered everywhere not just in the sports world, but also in mainstream media? There really is no clear-cut answer to this.

The main question that remains is this: Does he really deserve all of this fanfare?

Let's put things into perspective here... When Michael Jordan "semi-retired" and came back to play for the Washington Wizards, it wasn't made into this humongous deal. Then again, he didn't have this big deal of an interview saying that he was going to go to another team because he wanted to move on to bigger and better things. While Jordan still played for the Wizards, he will always be known for rocking with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990's. In LeBron's case, he was the standout star for Cleveland before leaving for Miami four seasons ago. He was going to another team that had other basketball titans that could roll with his style, and it was practically written in the stars that a team like that could win gold. This is the big thing that Cavs fans and supporters knew and refused to stomach. He is arguably the best player to wear a Cavs jersey, and now he is coming back to the team he once started with.

Here's a big kicker though... have we seen what kind of players the Cavs have now? It's almost like the shoe that Miami wore is on the other foot. Cleveland (even before LeBron made his announcement) looked like a contender, and now those odds have skyrocketed. LBJ is a playmaker, and his experience in the playoffs and his ability to make magic can make a difference. Ego aside, King James is the real deal. It's just annoying that the media is gushing over him as much as they are. We know he's good, and he might be a King Midas of sorts, but good gravy, he's not a demigod or whatever you want to call it.

The attention he is getting is fit for a king. One thing is for certain, he is handling it well. However, can the media handle their own self-imposed frenzy and come down from it soon enough? Probably not. Heck, I still don't think they've gotten over Donald Sterling yet. Oh well. One can always hope.

Now that I've gotten this out of the way, can we talk about other sports now? I know he's with Cleveland. I am content with this. Let us move on, ladies and gentlemen.