Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2013 NCAA Tournament Picks

Before I get started, a warning: these picks are almost certainly going to turn out to be terrible.  I finished dead last in my pool the last two years, which isn't exactly much of a track record, and I can't say I follow college basketball obsessively outside of the tournament itself.  With that said, I'm going to go ahead and make them anyway.  Just, caveat emptor, is all.

Midwest Region
(1) Louisville vs. (16) North Carolina A&T/Liberty
(8) Colorado State vs. (9) Missouri
(5) Oklahoma State vs. (12) Oregon
(4) Saint Louis vs. (13) New Mexico State
(6) Memphis vs. (11) Middle Tennessee/St. Mary's
(3) Michigan State vs. (14) Valparaiso
(7) Creighton vs. (10) Cincinnati
(2) Duke vs. (15) Albany

Most Likely to Emerge

Obviously the most likely to emerge tends to be the top seed, and Louisville is the hottest team in the region, with just one loss since January (and that was on the road and in five overtimes).  People have talked about how this region is tough for Louisville, but is it really that tough before the possible Elite Eight matchup with Duke or Michigan State?  I know Saint Louis has also been hot (also only one loss since January, also in overtime on the road), and I know they're a good defensive team, but I have a hard time totally buying them.  It doesn't help that they start in San Jose against New Mexico State, a team that is top 50 in both rebounds and field goal percentage, is used to playing out west, and has won 18 of their last 20.  I'm not saying Saint Louis will definitely get upset, but to even get to Louisville in the Sweet 16 will be a grind for them.  I have Louisville in the Final Four.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed for a First-Round Upset

After what I just said you might think Saint Louis, but I think it's actually Oklahoma State.  Don't forget that Oregon was ranked tenth in the country as late as the end of January before a late-season skid (losing six of their last eleven regular-season games) sent them tumbling, and even a Pac-12 tournament title only got them a 12 seed.  They're underseeded if you ask me, and Oklahoma State is an unconvincing powerhouse.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3 Seed) Final Four Candidate

I'm not really convinced there is one.  People will tell you Saint Louis because their defense is so good, but again, I'm just not seeing it.  I might go with seventh-seeded Creighton because they can score (and led the country in field-goal percentage) and because of Doug McDermott; a team with one great player can always get hot.  But even getting past defensive-minded Cincinnati will be a challenge and I don't see Creighton taking out Duke unless McDermott scores about 50.  But let's say Creighton because this is pretty much the same Duke team that fell on its face in the first round a year ago.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

Well, your options are the Creighton/Cincinnati winner (or Albany, I guess) taking out Duke, or the winner of Colorado State/Missouri taking out Louisville.  I'm not buying Colorado State and Louisville already pounded Missouri on a neutral court once this season.  Creighton could beat Duke with points, or Cincinnati could beat them with stifling D, but I think this bracket is likely to see its top dogs win at least two games.


Louisville over Missouri
Oregon over Saint Louis
Michigan State over St. Mary's
Duke over Creighton

Louisville over Oregon
Michigan State over Duke

Louisville over Michigan State

West Region
(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Southern University
(8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Wichita State
(5) Wisconsin vs. (12) Mississippi
(4) Kansas State vs. (13) Boise State/LaSalle
(6) Arizona vs. (11) Belmont
(3) New Mexico vs. (14) Harvard
(7) Notre Dame vs. (10) Iowa State
(2) Ohio State vs. (15) Iona

Most Likely to Emerge

I've been waiting weeks to pick against Gonzaga in this bracket.  I'm sure they're good and all, but the West Coast Conference means they've played exactly one tournament team - St. Mary's, one of the last four in - since a loss to Butler on January 19.  They haven't won a game over a tournament team other than St. Mary's since December.  As impressive as it is that they've only lost twice, they simply don't have the schedule of the other top teams.  Assuming you buy the Mountain West and Atlantic Ten as tough conferences this year - and with each getting five teams in, more than the ACC, the committee appeared to - you have to go all the way down to Memphis on the #6 line to find another supposed powerhouse with so little challenge on its recent schedule.  Gonzaga could well go down the minute they get punched in the face, like they did in 2004, when they were seeded #2 (their previous highest seed) and fell to Nevada in the second round.  Gonzaga has yet to show they can be the favorites.  In fact, since their shock run to the Elite Eight as a #10 seed in 1999, you know how many times they've been back there?  Zero!  I know those were all different teams, but still.  I don't buy Gonzaga as a Final Four team, I'm sorry.

So who comes out?  Favor Ohio State.  I don't trust any of the other high seeds in this region, and while me saying that has been a recipe for disaster before (hello, 1998 Midwest regional), Ohio State isn't exactly TCU; they were in the Final Four just last year.  Jared Sullinger may be gone, but OSU still has talent and they're battle-tested - since the start of February, they've played just four games out of thirteen against non-tournament teams.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed for a First-Round Upset

Gonzaga is probably talented enough to get out of the first round, unfortunately - although the part of me that desperately wants to see a 16 seed win a game would be somewhat disappointed if it were Gonzaga and not a traditional power anyway.  Keep an eye on New Mexico, but I'd really take a look at Wisconsin.  Like Oregon, Ole Miss seems underseeded to me at #12 - probably because the SEC was down this year, they were in the worse half of it on top of that, and their nonconference schedule stunk.  Well, maybe they're not underseeded.  But with Marshall Henderson raining threes they're dangerous.  Wisconsin doesn't score or shoot the ball very well, and Ole Miss is a top-20 rebounding team.  This game will largely depend on Henderson; if Wisconsin's defense can lock him down, the Badgers probably win.  But if Henderson hits five or six threes and Wisconsin gets outmuscled on the glass, I like this one for the Rebels.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3 Seed) Final Four Candidate

Kansas State is a strong consideration.  Wisconsin always seems capable of making a run if they can avoid stumbling early just because their defense is so good.  And don't sleep on the Pitt/Wichita State winner... whoever that is.  But keep an eye on Arizona.  This is a team that was top-five for most of the first half of the season and owns wins over Florida and Miami, the latter decisively.  They have lost six of their last seven against teams that made the field (and it should be seven of their last eight thanks to that Colorado screwjob), but they have a lot of pedigree and what I think is the easiest #3 seed matchup on the board in the second round (New Mexico).  They do have to get past a tricky first-round tilt with Belmont, but after that, one great game against Ohio State could be the biggest hurdle to a surprise run to Atlanta.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

Since I've picked Ohio State to make the Final Four, saying yes here means that I have to think Gonzaga will go down in the second round.  So I'll say... yes!  I don't particularly trust Gonzaga and Pitt has a real shot as long as they don't get completely outworked on the boards (and assuming they get past Wichita State, of course).  I'm less convinced that Wichita State can do it, especially since they don't shoot the three very well, but Gonzaga is vulnerable - remember, Loyola Marymount, one of the worst teams in the country, hung with them for a half in the WCC tournament final - and I like the chances they bow out early.


Pittsburgh over Gonzaga
Mississippi over Kansas State
Arizona over New Mexico
Ohio State over Notre Dame

Pittsburgh over Mississippi
Ohio State over Arizona

Ohio State over Pittsburgh

South Region
(1) Kansas vs. (16) Western Kentucky
(8) North Carolina vs. (9) Villanova
(5) Virginia Commonwealth vs. (12) Akron
(4) Michigan vs. (13) South Dakota State
(6) UCLA vs. (11) Minnesota
(3) Florida vs. (14) Northwestern State
(7) San Diego State vs. (10) Oklahoma
(2) Georgetown vs. (15) Florida Gulf Coast

Most Likely to Emerge

Some people like Georgetown, and Michigan has had its moments this season, but for me this region is between Kansas and Florida.  As good as the Jayhawks have been at times this season, they have a puzzling tendency to go to sleep on occasion, most notably their February 6 loss to TCU (one of just two conference wins for the Horned Frogs) and their 81-58 drubbing at the hands of non-tournament team Baylor on March 9 with sole possession of the conference regular season title at stake.  The bad news for Kansas is that their road to the Final Four includes several potential land mines against teams equipped to punish that lapse in concentration.  North Carolina has struggled against top teams this year but they're always talented and are coming off two straight Elite Eight appearances.  The Sweet 16 could feature a matchup with VCU, which shocked Kansas two years ago and always plays tough defense, or Michigan, a team ranked #1 in the nation as recently as February 2 and possibly underseeded thanks to a dicey run-in.  Any of those teams could take Kansas out even if the Jayhawks don't mysteriously take a game off.  Meanwhile, Florida has been to two straight Elite Eights, is one of the top shooting teams in the country, and has an easier route to the Elite Eight in my book.  I'm taking them to the Final Four.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed for a First-Round Upset

Two years ago, VCU's run from one of the last four teams in the field - and a team many thought had no business making it at all - to the Final Four was one of the most amazing stories in tournament history.  This year, VCU has a new conference (trading up from the Colonial to the Atlantic Ten) and their highest seed since 1985.  So often in the tournament, highly-seeded mid-majors can stumble under the weight of expectation when they're used to being the underdog.  It doesn't help VCU to be in the 5-12 game (historically the most prone to upsets) nor facing a team in Akron from a conference, the Mid-American, that relishes the underdog status as much as the Colonial used to.  (Akron's MAC colleague Ohio went on a Sweet 16 run just last year and nearly made the Elite Eight.)  Truth be told, I'm not sure VCU is a great matchup for Akron - the Zips aren't the best free throw shooting team, an advantage you'd like to have when facing a team known for its defense - but history says VCU is at risk.  Florida and Michigan also both have chances to stumble - the Gators face Northwestern State, the nation's top-scoring team, and Michigan is in trouble if Nate Wolters decides to go all Stephen Curry on them - but I'd put VCU's odds the best.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3 Seed) Final Four Candidate

I was entertained to see Jay Bilas pick VCU to come out of this region considering he was one of the loudest voices against their initial selection two years ago; doing his penance, I guess.  For me, you have to look at #4 Michigan, which at the end of January had one loss and was ranked #1 in the country.  They did struggle on the way in, but get their stars going and they'll be as tough an out as anyone, and a very dangerous matchup for Kansas in the Sweet 16.  I'm still taking Kansas, but if that top subregional breaks down at all, Michigan easily has the tools to take advantage.  If you want to look even deeper than the #4 line, try #8 North Carolina.  Yes, they disappointed in a down year for the ACC, but Roy Williams has two national titles and probably wouldn't mind bouncing his former employers in the second round.  If they can get rolling, it could just be a matter of outplaying Florida or Georgetown for 40 minutes to get to Atlanta.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

North Carolina (or Villanova) toppling Kansas seems more likely to me even though I buy Kansas over Georgetown generally; I just don't think much of that San Diego State/Oklahoma pairing as Georgetown's possible second round opponent.  Going to say it won't happen in this region.


Kansas over North Carolina
Michigan over Akron
Florida over UCLA
Georgetown over Oklahoma

Kansas over Michigan
Florida over Georgetown

Florida over Kansas

East Region
(1) Indiana vs. (16) James Madison/Long Island
(8) North Carolina State vs. (9) Temple
(5) UNLV vs. (12) California
(4) Syracuse vs. (13) Montana
(6) Butler vs. (11) Bucknell
(3) Marquette vs. (14) Davidson
(7) Illinois vs. (10) Colorado
(2) Miami vs. (15) Pacific

Most Likely to Emerge

There are three obvious candidates: former #1 Indiana, Miami (once ranked as high as #2), and Syracuse (once ranked as high as #3).  Marquette has made noise in the past and could again, but I'm not really feeling it.  You'd have to like Indiana... which is kind of why I don't.  The Hoosiers have rarely responded well to success this season, giving up their early #1 ranking with a loss to Butler in December, climbing back to #2 only to lose to Wisconsin, reaching #1 again with a win over then-#1 Michigan only to turn around and fall to Illinois, managing to hold the #1 ranking after that loss and beating Ohio State and Michigan State only to give up the #1 spot for good with a loss to Minnesota, followed by a loss to Ohio State on Senior Night.  I don't think the Sweet 16 is a problem for Indiana but I'm hesitant to pick them.  Miami, by comparison, flew under the radar much of the year - as late as January 21, they weren't even ranked (thanks in large part to awful early-season losses to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State).  Then they beat Duke 90-63 and everyone sat up and took notice.  Even in a down year for the ACC, 15-3 in conference is nothing to sneeze at, and Miami added the tournament title for good measure, in the process becoming the first team in history to win the ACC's regular season and tournament titles and not get a #1 seed in the NCAAs.  But maybe that slight suggestion of being undervalued will be added fuel.  And coach Jim Larranaga knows what it's like to reach the Final Four, having gone there with George Mason in 2006.  As for Syracuse, they've struggled the past two months but could put it together at any time.  Personally, I'm going to take Miami.  Teams that are rarely high seeds seem often to struggle when put in that spot, but I'm hopeful that the ACC gauntlet has toughened the Canes up a bit.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed for a First-Round Upset

Syracuse and Marquette are both at some risk against lower-seeded teams that know what it's like to win in March - #13 Montana won a 12-5 upset in 2006 and can really shoot, while #14 Davidson went to the Elite Eight in 2008 and gave eventual Final Four team Louisville all they wanted in the first round last year.  I'll say Syracuse is more likely because Montana shoots it well and because Syracuse sometimes struggles in these early games - last year as a #1 seed they came as close as any #1 has to losing since about 1996.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3 Seed) Final Four Candidate

Since I mentioned Syracuse earlier, you have to look at them, but that's a pretty light "dark horse."  You want to go deep, consider #6 Butler - a team that knows what it's like to go to the Final Four, though personally I think they're at real risk against #11 Bucknell - as well as #7 Illinois and #8 North Carolina State, both of whom were highly ranked early in the year before fading due to early conference struggles.  Both own wins over #1 teams (Illinois beat Indiana and NC State took out Duke).  Illinois fell out of favor in the polls when they lost seven of their first nine Big Ten games, including an awful home loss to Northwestern, but this is still the same team that beat Gonzaga by 11 in Spokane, and if Brandon Paul decides to score 35 points like he did in that game, Illinois can beat anyone.  Likewise, NC State can get hot if C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell are scoring and crashing the boards.  I'm not sure that's enough to get them by Indiana in the second round, but if they do, what's stopping them from making a deep run?

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

I like Indiana and Miami to meet in the Elite Eight, so I'm going to say no, but because of the potential of Illinois and NC State, I don't think you can rule it out entirely.


Indiana over North Carolina State
Syracuse over UNLV
Marquette over Bucknell
Miami over Illinois

Indiana over Syracuse
Miami over Marquette

Miami over Indiana

Final Four
(MW1) Louisville vs. (W2) Ohio State
(S3) Florida vs. (E2) Miami

I like Louisville and Miami to meet in the finals.  Both teams seem to be peaking at the right time.  For the champions, I'll take Miami.  Sort of a risky pick, but it's no fun picking a powerhouse like Louisville that already has a couple of titles under its belt (to say nothing of Rick Pitino's history).  83-79 the final.  So, go out and pick the exact opposite of everything I said here.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Three for the road

Apropos of not a whole lot, I decided to make a list of three places and/or things I would like to see in each state of the US. Why three? Well, why not - plus only two things wouldn't be enough to justify a visit. Note that none of the three things will be capitol buildings I've yet to visit, as those are a given, though I will include things in capital cities. Also, while I will number the three things, it is in no particular order. There isn't much rhyme or reason to the lists: it's three places I find noteworthy or interesting and wouldn't mind seeing in my lifetime, but it hardly constitutes a comprehensive list of things I'd want to see in a given state (well, maybe a few of the more boring ones) nor is it liable to constitute a list of things I would definitely have to see on any one visit to a state.


1. Dauphin Island
2. Noccalula Falls Park, near Gadsden
3. First White House of the Confederacy, Montgomery


1. Point Barrow
2. Kenai Fjords National Park
3. Unalaska Island, Aleutian chain


1. London Bridge, Lake Havasu
2. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, south of Why
3. Meteor Crater, west of Winslow


1. Hot Springs National Park
2. Ozark National Forest
3. Pea Ridge National Military Park


1. Yosemite National Park
2. Death Valley National Park
3. Channel Islands National Park


1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
2. Loveland Pass, US Route 6 west of Denver
3. Hanging Lake, east of Glenwood Springs


1. Mark Twain House, Hartford
2. Yale campus, New Haven
3. Long Island Sound lighthouses


1. Cape Henlopen State Park, near Lewes
2. Fort Christina State Park, Wilmington
3. Kilcohook Coordination Area


1. Florida Keys
2. Cape Canaveral
3. Dry Tortugas National Park


1. Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta
2. Savannah
3. World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta


1. Pearl Harbor, Honolulu
2. 'Akaka Falls State Park, north of Hilo
3. Captain Cook Monument, south of Kailua-Kona


1. Craters of the Moon National Monument, southwest of Arco
2. Shoshone Indian Ice Caves, north of Shoshone
3. Mesa Falls, northeast of Ashton


1. Old State House, Vandalia
2. Kaskaskia (only part of Illinois west of the Mississippi)
3. Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, south of Cairo


1. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
2. Corydon (old capitol plus a Civil War battleground)
3. Turkey Run State Park


1. Field of Dreams, east of Dyersville
2. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch
3. National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque


1. Castle Rock, south of Collyer
2. Monument Rocks, south of Oakley
3. Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States, near Lebanon


1. Mammoth Cave
2. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, south of Hogdenville
3. Churchill Downs, Louisville


1. Grand Isle State Park
2. Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, east of New Orleans
3. Kent Plantation House, Alexandria


1. Acadia National Park
2. West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
3. Snow Falls Gorge, West Paris


1. Point Lookout State Park
2. St. Clement's Island State Park
3. Ocean City miniature golf courses


1. Cape Cod
2. Nantucket Island
3. Salmon Falls Glacial Potholes, Shelburne Falls


1. Mackinac Island
2. Isle Royale National Park
3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore


1. Headwaters of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca
2. Gooseberry Falls State Park
3. The Northwest Angle


1. Vicksburg National Military Park
2. Biloxi Lighthouse
3. Fort Massachusetts, West Ship Island


1. Gateway Arch, St. Louis
2. Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri, north of St. Louis
3. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence


1. Glacier National Park
2. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, near Crow Agency
3. Missouri Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks


1. Chimney Rock, south of Bayard
2. Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Omaha
3. Great Platte River Road Archway, near Kearney


1. Lake Tahoe
2. Hoover Dam
3. Las Vegas

New Hampshire

1. Mount Washington
2. America's Stonehenge, near Salem
3. Lost River Gorge, near North Woodstock

New Jersey

1. Cape May
2. Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, north of Long Beach
3. Great Falls of the Passaic, Paterson

New Mexico

1. White Sands National Monument, southwest of Alamogordo
2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
3. Capulin Volcano National Monument, southeast of Raton

New York

1. Niagara Falls
2. Boldt Castle, near Alexandria Bay
3. Montauk Point

North Carolina

1. Kitty Hawk
2. Cape Hatteras
3. Linville Falls, Blue Ridge Mountains

North Dakota

1. Geographic Center of North America monument, Rugby
2. International Peace Garden, north of Dunseith
3. Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway, southwest of Fargo


1. Put-in-Bay (on South Bass Island in Lake Erie)
2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
3. Grant Birthplace, Point Pleasant


1. Ouachita Mountains, south of Poteau
2. Natural Falls State Park, west of Moseley
3. Lake Texoma State Park, southwest of Durant


1. Crater Lake, northeast of Medford
2. Ice caves, south of Bend
3. Hells Canyon Overlook, north of Homestead


1. Fallingwater, Mill Run
2. National Aviary, Pittsburgh
3. Flight 93 National Memorial, north of Shanksville

Rhode Island

1. Newport
2. Block Island
3. Fort Adams State Park, near Newport

South Carolina

1. Charleston
2. Myrtle Beach (mini golf capital of the world!)
3. Congaree National Park

South Dakota

1. Mount Rushmore
2. Wind Cave National Park
3. Geographic center of the 50 states, near Castle Rock


1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
2. Rhea County Courthouse and Scopes Trial Museum, Dayton
3. Shiloh National Military Park


1. South Padre Island
2. San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Park, east of Houston
3. Guadalupe Mountains National Park


1. Zion National Park
2. Capitol Reef National Park
3. Arches National Park


1. Lake Champlain
2. Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site, east of St. Albans
3. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory, near Waterbury


1. Mount Vernon
2. Shenandoah National Park
3. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park


1. Point Roberts
2. Olympic National Park
3. Mount Rainier National Park

West Virginia

1. Weirton
2. New River Gorge
3. Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area, southeast of Richwood


1. Door County
2. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
3. Amnicon Falls State Park, southeast of Superior


1. Yellowstone National Park
2. Grand Teton National Park
3. Devils Tower, northeast of Gillette

Feel free to weigh in on any you've seen, or suggest alternates. Do remember that if I haven't listed something really obvious (like the Grand Canyon) it's probably because I've already been there, although me completely overlooking something can't be totally ruled out.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Talking bracket

I always feel like college basketball is like a class I didn't go to. I don't pay too much attention during the season, but then comes the last couple weeks and suddenly I'm cramming like crazy for the final. This year is no exception. The question is, does seeing a team several times in the conference tournament really tell you what they're all about, and how likely they might be to succeed in the NCAAs? Well, I guess we'll find out. Let's take a look at the brackets.

South Region

(1) Kentucky vs. (16) MVSU/WKU
(8) Iowa State vs. (9) Connecticut
(5) Wichita State vs. (12) VCU
(4) Indiana vs. (13) New Mexico State
(6) UNLV vs. (11) Colorado
(3) Baylor vs. (14) South Dakota State
(7) Notre Dame vs. (10) Xavier
(2) Duke vs. (15) Lehigh

Most Likely to Emerge

Well, you'd have to say Kentucky, of course. They have two losses this year - one was in the SEC tournament final, and the other was an early-season buzzer-beater loss to Indiana... who, curiously, is on track to face the Wildcats in the Sweet 16. That's if you believe the Hoosiers can make it that far, of course; with a trio of dangerous mid-majors in their pod, don't be surprised if they don't. I watched Duke play a bit in the ACC Tournament and came away unconvinced, but aside from maybe Baylor I don't know who really scares me before the Elite Eight if I'm Duke. Still, with a vulnerable two seed, Kentucky are clear favorites.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed For a First-Round Upset

Poor Wichita State. They had a great season, but they fell prey to the committee's seeming yearly tendency to put a strong mid-major on the 4-5-6 line and then pair them against one of the feistiest teams at the 11-12-13. In this case, it's VCU, the, oh yeah, DEFENDING SOUTHWEST REGIONAL CHAMPIONS and apparently hitting their stride at the right time. Wichita State could go to the Sweet 16, or they could be headed home early.

Baylor and Indiana are both playing teams that can score, but it's always hard to know how putting up bunches of points in the WAC (as New Mexico State does) is going to translate to facing a Big Ten defense. I think it's likely both Baylor and Indiana escape their first round games (I refuse to call it the second round just because of the play-ins, sorry), but don't be shocked to see either game come down to the final few possessions.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3-Seed) Final Four Candidate

Is there even one in this region? If forced to choose, I might cast my lot in with #6 UNLV - they score, they rebound, and they own a ten-point win over North Carolina, a more dominant defeat than either Kentucky or Duke (one point each) managed over the Tar Heels. If they're to go far, expect possible shootouts with both Baylor and Duke.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

I doubt it. While I think Duke is vulnerable, I don't like either Notre Dame or Xavier to beat them (those teams are too inconsistent themselves). Kentucky faces an interesting potential second-round test in defending champ UConn, but talk about inconsistent - the Huskies were just 8-10 in what I didn't think was that great of a Big East this year, and also count a loss to Central Florida among their "accomplishments."

West Region

(1) Michigan State vs. (16) LIU-Brooklyn
(8) Memphis vs. (9) St. Louis
(5) New Mexico vs. (12) Long Beach State
(4) Louisville vs. (13) Davidson
(6) Murray State vs. (11) Colorado State
(3) Marquette vs. (14) BYU/Iona
(7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia
(2) Missouri vs. (15) Norfolk State

Most Likely to Emerge

I suppose "most likely to emerge" is probably a silly category in some ways, since by definition a top three seed will be "most likely." Sentimentality has me leaning toward Michigan State, and they've been tested. Missouri, as good as they've been this year, runs the risk of being that team that has a huge year out of semi-nowhere (the Tigers were an 11 last year) and then stumbles early (see Gonzaga's #2 seed in 2004 for a key example; San Diego State and Notre Dame last year are recent examples). A lot of pressure comes with a high seed line and some teams aren't up to matching it. Plus, Marquette was in the Sweet 16 just last year and poses a tough matchup for Mizzou in the Sweet 16 (which I do think they'll probably get to).

Most Likely Top-Five Seed For a First-Round Upset

#5 New Mexico sort of fills the Wichita State role in this region - and #12 Long Beach State fills the dangerous sleeper role. While the victory that put LBSU on the map (a win at then-#9 Pitt on November 16) was rendered mediocre by later results, the 49ers still have a win over Xavier on a neutral court and competitive losses at Kansas and North Carolina (and Creighton) in their back pocket. If Casper Ware gets going, the Lobos could be in real trouble.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3-Seed) Final Four Candidate

#4 Louisville has been there before - in 2005 they made the Final Four as a 4 seed against the lowest-rated #1 (Washington), and they made the Elite Eight in both 2008 (as a 3 seed) and 2009 (as a 1 seed), the latter of which they lost to Michigan State (then the #2). Think the Cardinals might be up for a little revenge? They looked pretty good in running to the Big East tournament title and easily handling ranked teams Marquette and Notre Dame. Then again, this is most of the same team that tripped against #13 Morehead State last year, so watch out.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

Probably not. Missouri may be risky, but their potential second-round opponents are Florida (lost four of their last five) and Virginia (lost five of their last eight), hardly hot hands at the moment. Michigan State may be the weakest one seed, at least by seeding, but I doubt Memphis (or Saint Louis) will have enough against them.

East Region

(1) Syracuse vs. (16) NC-Asheville
(8) Kansas State vs. (9) Southern Miss
(5) Vanderbilt vs. (12) Harvard
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Montana
(6) Cincinnati vs. (11) Texas
(3) Florida State vs. (14) St. Bonaventure
(7) Gonzaga vs. (10) West Virginia
(2) Ohio State vs. (15) Loyola (MD)

Most Likely to Emerge

Ready for a semi-shocker? I'm going with Florida State. I watched Syracuse twice in the Big East Tournament and did not like what I saw at all. Maybe that doesn't outweigh their dominant regular season, but this team isn't great at rebounding, so all you need to do is force them into an off shooting night. My guess is someone will. Ohio State could make it out as well, but I really liked what I saw from the Seminoles against UNC and Duke in the ACC Tournament. With my luck this will turn out to be a classic overreaction and they'll trip against St. Bonaventure, but for now I'm sticking with it.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed For a First-Round Upset

#5 Vanderbilt has a recent history of falling flat on their damn faces, losing first-round games in this pod in 2008 (a 21-point loss to #13 Siena), 2010 (66-65 to #13 Murray State) and 2011 (69-66 to #12 Richmond). Would you bet on that team? Their win in the SEC Tournament does seem to set them up better this year, but Harvard already owns a win over Florida State this season and shoots the ball even better than Vanderbilt does. Wisconsin, which doesn't do any one thing particularly well, is also at risk against Montana, but I wouldn't be shocked to see the Badgers make the Sweet 16 (although so could Harvard if things break right for them).

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3-Seed) Final Four Candidate

At #8, Kansas State (which owns a sweep of Missouri this year) is criminally underseeded - and they could make Syracuse pay by banging the boards and taking the Orange down in Round Two. If that happens, the Wildcats might just be poised to run all the way to New Orleans.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

It's hard to say they DEFINITELY will. And I don't see Ohio State losing. But I really think Kansas State can take out Syracuse - assuming they get to them. Let's say there's a... 30% chance it happens. I just made that up.

Midwest Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Lamar/Vermont
(8) Creighton vs. (9) Alabama
(5) Temple vs. (12) Cal/South Florida
(4) Michigan vs. (13) Ohio
(6) San Diego State vs. (11) NC State
(3) Georgetown vs. (14) Belmont
(7) St. Mary's vs. (10) Purdue
(2) Kansas vs. (15) Detroit

Most Likely to Emerge

It's probably North Carolina, but I have the feeling that if one region is going to break way down, it might be this one.

Most Likely Top-Five Seed For a First-Round Upset

Any of Georgetown, Michigan or Temple could go down - I think they're all vulnerable. Belmont shoots the lights out, nearly won at Cameron Indoor in November, and draws a Hoyas team with a recent history of nosedives (getting the doors blown off by VCU last year as a six seed, losing by 14 points to #14 seed Ohio in 2010). Speaking of Ohio, there they are at the 13, and I'm not sold on Michigan. Temple draws the winner of Cal/South Florida, an awful matchup in my estimation, but so was USC/VCU on paper. Forced to pick one, I'll go with Georgetown.

Best Dark Horse (Non-Top-3-Seed) Final Four Candidate

If you believe in Michigan, they work in this spot - on paper they're clearly the best team in their pod, and after nearly upsetting Duke last year they might be primed to take out UNC. But I'm not sure I believe in them. Take a look - I'm serious - at #7 St. Mary's. They're the kind of team that's toppled Kansas recently (VCU last year, Northern Iowa in 2010), and they went to the Sweet 16 as a ten seed just two years ago. And if they can get to the Sweet 16 and Georgetown lost in the first round, then the best possible team awaiting them is San Diego State... and if they can make the Elite Eight, anything can happen. Of course, they do have to get past Purdue first.

Will a Top-Two Seed Lose Before the Sweet 16?

I say yes. Kansas will have to contend with either St. Mary's or Purdue, two teams that nearly matched up in a regional final two years ago, and North Carolina won't exactly have an easy task if they draw Creighton - or Alabama, which came pretty close to Kentucky at Rupp Arena in January.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Jaime Garcia was pulled in the fifth inning last night, which marked the fifth consecutive game - all of them in the NLCS - in which the St. Louis starter did not pitch more than five innings (and only in Game Three, when Chris Carpenter went five exactly, did they even hit that mark). As a result, the talking heads have been abuzz about the fact that no team has ever won a postseason series when its starters have failed to pitch more than five innings in any of the first five games.

#1: This isn't too surprising, since in MOST cases this would indicate that the starters were getting absolutely shelled.
#2: It's not like this happens very often.

With the exception of their six-spot that chased Garcia in the fifth inning of Game One, the Brewers haven't scored more than two runs in any inning in the series, and in Games Two through Five they've topped out at four runs. The ERA for the Cardinals' starters is not good, mostly because they aren't pitching a lot of innings, but check it out:

Cardinals starters: 22.1 IP, 15 ER, 6.04 ERA
Brewers starters: 27.2 IP, 19 ER, 6.18 ERA

And that's with Randy Wolf allowing just 2 ER in 7 IP in the Game Four win. The other four games, Zack Greinke (x2), Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo have combined to go 20.2 innings (barely over five a game) and allow 17 earned runs for a combined ERA of 7.40.

So why are the Cardinals winning? Because neither team's starters are pitching well, but the Cardinals' are pitching slightly better, in spite of LaRussa's quick hook. Really, this is a total non-story, and if Carpenter gets one more out in Game Three there isn't even anything to talk about.

And, of course, because St. Louis' bullpen has thrown 21.1 IP in this series and allowed four earned runs, whereas Milwaukee's bullpen has thrown 15.1 IP and allowed 9 ER. 1.69 bullpen ERA vs. 5.28 bullpen ERA... hmm. I wonder how they're doing it?

The irony is that St. Louis' bullpen was not very good this year. Really, St. Louis didn't pitch that well in general, finishing 8th in the NL in ERA - there's a reason they were the NL's highest-scoring team and yet barely snuck into the playoffs. But just ask the 2005 White Sox how scalding-hot pitching (even if it is mostly your relievers in this case) can carry you in October.

By the way, the last team to have its starters go five innings or less in each of the first five games of a series? The 1984 Padres, in the World Series against Detroit, which they lost in five games. The five starters (Ed Whitson, Tim Lollar, Eric Show, and Mark Thurmond twice) went a COMBINED 10.1 innings in the series, with Whitson (in Game Two - which San Diego still won) and Thurmond (in Game Five) both getting yanked in the first inning, Lollar failing to make it out of the second in Game Three and Show getting pulled in the third in Game Four. Only Thurmond's Game One start saw a starter complete the fifth. The combined ERA for those four starters over five games? 13.94. St. Louis' starters are doing just a LITTLE better this series.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Curse of the whoever this douchebag is

Before I launch into this, I should probably state for the record: I don't hate the Red Sox. In fact, under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I dare say I rather like the Red Sox, at least when they're not playing a team I particularly want to win (a rather short list). With that said, the way the media focuses on them (and the Yankees), and the way their fans have gone, in less than a decade, from cartoonishly depressed by their failures to cartoonishly arrogant about their successes is kind of annoying.

Don't agree? Well, in the interest of hilarious hindsight, let's take a look at this now extremely awesome article posted on NESN.com in January. It's so over the top that, knowing what we know now about how the season went, it almost reads like sarcasm.

The Red Sox have won 100 or more games three times in their 110-year existence.

They will make it four in 2011. But this team has the potential to accomplish something even bigger than winning 100 games.

The Red Sox won 90 games. And I don't think the "bigger" thing this guy was talking about was the biggest September collapse in Major League Baseball history.

The last time the Red Sox reached the 100-win mark was 1946, when they went 104-50-2 and lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

Prior to that, the Red Sox posted 101 wins in 1915 and 105 in 1912. Both seasons ended with World Series titles.

Will the duck boats be rolling through the streets of Boston again next fall?

That depends. The Bruins' parade wasn't postponed six months, right? No? Then no.

Bookmakers like the Red Sox’ chances. Current odds put them at 9-2 to win the 2011 World Series. Only the Phillies, at 7-2, are bigger favorites, with the Yankees not far behind at 5-1 shots.

As usual, the bookmakers just made a lot of money on people who thought the Red Sox were going to win the World Series.

Championships, of course, aren’t won in January. But championship teams are built during the offseason, and Theo Epstein has put together a roster that would make Branch Rickey proud.

It took an awfully long time before the Red Sox put together a team about which you could say that. (Zing! Tom Yawkey doesn't care about black people.)

Look at the starting lineup.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
Carl Crawford, LF
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Kevin Youkilis, 3B
David Ortiz, DH
J.D. Drew, RF
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie, SS

The Red Sox offense was actually pretty potent - amazingly, considering how things finished, it was the highest-scoring in baseball, with 875 runs.

Speed. Power. Plate discipline. This lineup has it all. Good luck finding a hole from 1 to 7. Saltalamacchia is a bit of a wild card, but the 25-year-old could be ready for a breakout season. And whoever is the starting shortstop -- Scutaro or Lowrie -- gives the Red Sox one of the toughest No. 9 hitters in the game.

Holes in the lineup? Well, Carl Crawford and his .289 OBP say hi. Drew only played 81 games and did not hit well when he did play. "Wild card" Saltalamacchia broke out to the tune of .235/.288/.450. Lowrie OBP'ed .303. Still, the Red Sox as a team led the league in OBP and slugging and were second in batting average.

Besides a potent offensive attack, the Red Sox will boast airtight defense, perhaps the best of any team in baseball.

Quantifying defense is always tricky, but the Red Sox were 12th in the AL in errors. Baseball-Reference has them basically average in terms of fielding runs saved, owed mostly to the right side of their infield. But sure, whatever.

Turn to the bench, and manager Terry Francona has plenty of options.

Mike Cameron, OF
Darnell McDonald, OF
Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie, INF
Jason Varitek, C

Cameron played 33 games for Boston this year and didn't hit a lick; he was traded to the Marlins in July for basically nothing. McDonald was a 32-year-old journeyman with a career .314 OBP; in 79 games his OBP was .303. Lowrie, more often the backup shortstop/infielder, also posted a .303 OBP. Varitek only played 68 games and had an OBP of .300.

Youth, experience and versatility will ride the pine like lions waiting to hunt. Depth won’t be a problem, especially with players like Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson and Josh Reddick on the farm.

Depth was a problem. That .349 team OBP owed mostly to four guys: Gonzalez, Pedroia, Ortiz and Ellsbury, who were the top four on the team in both OBP and plate appearances, and handily so. The bench by and large did not hit. Reddick played in 87 games with a .327 OBP. Anderson got five September PAs. Kalish missed most of the season and never reached the bigs.

Now, you might say, "How was this guy supposed to know about injuries and that all these guys wouldn't really hit?" He wasn't, I guess, but that's kind of the point. You don't really know what's going to happen, which is why you should write columns that say things like "the Red Sox are favorites to win their division" and not "the Red Sox are going to be the greatest team in the history of ever."

In 2010, the Red Sox scored 818 runs (second-most in the majors), or 5.1 per game. They hit 211 home runs (second in MLB) and posted a .790 OPS (tops in MLB). The offense, with even more weapons now, could demolish those numbers.

And, in fact, the offense scored 875 runs - 5.4 per game - and put up an .810 OPS. They did hit 203 home runs, slightly fewer, but banged 352 doubles, tops in the league. So what was the problem?

Yet one run is all it might take to win a game on some days with the starting staff the Red Sox have assembled.

Whoopsie. The team ERA of 4.20 was ninth in the AL.

Jon Lester, LHP
Josh Beckett, RHP
John Lackey, RHP
Clay Buchholz, RHP
Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP

Lester is a Cy Young winner waiting to happen. Beckett will notch more than six victories. Lackey should be better equipped to avoid the one-bad-inning syndrome. Buchholz has become a force. And Dice-K might be the best No. 5 starter ever. The Japanese right-hander is the only pitcher in the rotation who’s never been an All-Star, but this could be the year he ends that streak.

Lester had a good year but nowhere near Cy Young status, and he was lousy in September. Beckett did notch more than six wins (his 2010 total) and led the starters in ERA and WHIP, but he also fell apart down the stretch. Lackey was horrendous all year, throwing 160 innings with a 6.41 ERA. "Force" Clay Buchholz was good but made just fourteen starts. And Matsuzaka threw just 37.1 innings of 5.30 ERA ball before hitting the DL in mid-May.

Every Red Sox starting pitcher has something to prove. While the Phillies might be the popular choice as the best rotation in baseball, don’t be surprised if people are singing a different tune come October.

Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are both Cy Young candidates in the NL. Josh Beckett's 2.89 ERA would be fourth-best in the Phillies' rotation. But hey, who's counting?

When Red Sox starters have to hand the ball to the bullpen this season, Boston fans won’t have to have to cover their eyes and pray. The weak link in 2010 could be one of the best relief corps in the business.

Papelbon and Bard had pretty good years overall, and Alfredo Aceves emerged as a reliable long man. The rest of the pen was pretty much cover-your-eyes awful.

Tim Wakefield, RHP
Scott Atchison/Matt Albers, RHP
Hideki Okajima, LHP
Dan Wheeler, RHP
Bobby Jenks, RHP
Daniel Bard, RHP
Jonathan Papelbon, RHP

Okajima is the only known left-handed quantity. But youngster Felix Doubront has talent and should see some action. Rich Hill, Lenny DiNardo and Andrew Miller also could contribute.

Okajima threw 8.1 innings before being demoted to Pawtucket; he never returned. Doubront saw 10.1 innings of action with a 6.10 ERA. Hill pitched 8 innings before getting hurt. DiNardo never threw a pitch for Boston. Miller made 17 appearances, of which 12 were starts; his ERA for the year was 5.54.

The right-handers in the mix all bring experience and different styles to the fire. Need long relief? Call on Wakefield to disrupt hitters’ timing. Need a middle-inning specialist to get key outs? Wheeler knows how to do the job, and Atchison proved serviceable last season. Albers could be a diamond in the rough. Want heat? Jenks and Bard throw seeds. Want to turn out the lights? Papelbon is pitching for a contract, so trust he will be ready to show he’s far from washed up. Reliability and consistency -- foreign concepts to Boston’s bullpen last season -- will be common words associated with this group.

Wakefield mostly started, and mostly wasn't very good, with an ERA over 5. Wheeler and Atchison were usable but unspectacular. "Diamond in the rough" Albers had a 4.73 ERA in 56 appearances. Jenks threw just 15.2 innings - with a 2.234 WHIP! - before vanishing from the face of the earth.

Every day should feel like Christmas for Curt Young, the new Red Sox pitching coach. The former A’s pitching coach didn’t have anything close to the horses he has now, and Oakland’s staff posted a 3.56 ERA last season, the best in the American League and fourth-best in the majors. Imagine what he can do with a Grade A collection of arms.

Oakland's pitchers also get to pitch half their games in the Coliseum, one of the friendliest parks for pitchers in all of baseball.

The Red Sox were slated to win about 95 games last year. They won 89 despite injuries to Pedroia (a former MVP) and Youkilis (a possible future MVP). Add them back, along with the new players and a healthy Ellsbury, and 100 wins doesn’t just appear plausible. It seems downright inevitable.

Youkilis missed more than 40 games, getting only 82 more plate appearances than in 2010. Also, possible future MVP? Settle down. Youkilis is already 32 and his third-place finish in 2008 seems a long time ago.

So does a date with history.

The 2001 Mariners won 116 regular-season games to set the American League record for most wins in a single season and tie the 1906 Cubs for the major league record (though the North Siders accomplished the feat in 152 games). Both those teams failed to win the World Series. The Cubs lost to the White Sox in six games in the Fall Classic. The Mariners didn’t even make it that far, falling to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS.

The Red Sox have no intention of suffering a similar fate. The way they are constructed, they could surpass the 116-win mark, but nothing less than a World Series title will make Boston happy.

"They could surpass the 116-win mark?" Come ON, man. You can't say stuff like that. 116 wins is no one's birthright. You know what the '01 Mariners' expected record was, based on their run differential? 109-53. They still needed seven wins' worth of luck. And they outscored their opponents by 300 runs. 117 wins would require a ridiculous amount of luck. And you would need to add 28 wins over last year to get there. That is REALLY hard to do.

The 2011 Red Sox possess all the pieces to have a season for the ages. If everything falls into place and the breaks go their way, they could do more than set records and become champions. They could do more than take their place on Immortality Peak and end up being mentioned in the same sentence as legendary clubs of the past: the 1929 A’s, the epic Yankees teams of the ‘30s, the 1970 Orioles, the 1976 Reds.

Honestly, when you read this, doesn't it seem like it was written by a Yankees fan as a jinx? How did this slip through? Who thought posting this was a good idea?

The 2011 Red Sox could accomplish a feat that has never been done. They could unseat the 1927 Yankees as the greatest major league team of all time.

Well, they did accomplish a feat that had never been done. Looks like the '27 Yankees don't have much to worry about, though.

That would be something to celebrate.

For the Rays.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

MVP = Moronic Verducci Position

Some years there's a slam-dunk MVP vote. But whenever there isn't, and especially when there's a guy having a great season on a not-so-great team, we have to deal with it. The eternal conflict. "Should you only be the MVP if your team makes the playoffs?" The answer, of course, is no. And the history of baseball will bear that out. Albert Pujols won the MVP on a fourth-place team in 2008. The 2003 Rangers finished twenty games under .500, dead last in the AL West, but Alex Rodriguez was the MVP. And so on. Perhaps in really close cases you can make an argument for team quality as a tiebreaker... but I wouldn't. You try to find who had the best season. Period.

Unless you're Tom Verducci.

Here's his ballot as of now:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston*
2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
3. Justin Verlander, Detroit
4. Jose Bautista, Toronto
5. Curtis Granderson, New York
6. Dustin Pedroia, Boston
7. Robinson Cano, New York
8. Adrian Gonzalez, Boston
9. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay
10. Josh Hamilton, Texas

Okay, not bad. I don't know about Bautista being fourth, but hey. Ellsbury has a really good case to be MVP. But... wait a second. What's that asterisk?

Yes, there is an asterisk next to Ellsbury. This vote is not final. If Boston does not make the postseason, there is no sense in handing the MVP to a someone on the team that just staged the greatest September choke in the history of the sport. It would be like handing out Best Actor or Actress awards to anyone in Gigli.


God. Where to begin.

Okay, let's start here. Tom: you realize that a baseball team has 25 players on it, right? (In fact, in September it can have even more than that!) And you realize that Ellsbury is one dude. It is very difficult to will a team to victory all by yourself in baseball. And it is ESPECIALLY hard to do that when your pitching staff's ERA in September is 5.85!!! How much of that is Jacoby Ellsbury's fault, exactly? In 25 games in September, Ellsbury is hitting .373/.417/.682. In 120 plate appearances, he has 11 doubles, 7 home runs, and (if you like that sort of thing) 19 RBI. Even though he hits leadoff!

The best part is this: Verducci is basically saying that if Ellsbury goes 0-for-10 with seven strikeouts and falls down twice in the outfield in the next two games, but the Red Sox win them both and make the playoffs, he will vote for Ellsbury. But if Ellsbury goes 10-for-10 with five homers and robs two more over the wall, and the pitching sucks again and the Red Sox lose? Bum. Not the MVP.

The same thing happened in 2007. David Wright had a hot September - .352/.432/.602. In August he was even hotter, including a .516 on-base. But of course the 2007 Mets were choking dogs, blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to play. This certainly was not Wright's fault, but nevertheless it was laid at his feet in the voting, where he finished a distant fourth. The winner was Jimmy Rollins, who won despite having distinctly inferior stats to Wright. But of course, his team caught Wright's, so even though Rollins put up a pretty meek .333 OBP in September, he was the MVP.

Now, this isn't fair to guys like Cabrera and Bautista, who both have great stat lines and would be perfectly good winners (Bautista more so, since his numbers are better and also he doesn't play first and do it not that well). But if you think Ellsbury is the MVP on September 27, then he's the MVP on September 29. Otherwise, what you're saying is you're basing the entire decision on two games, or a big 1.2% of the season.

But let's see if Tom can defend his position.

Sorry, Jacoby, but four of the 14 teams in your league make the playoffs. Only one AL player since the expanded format began in 1995 won the MVP for a non-playoff team (an enhanced Alex Rodriguez in 2003). Ellsbury can take home every Player of the Year Award that's out there, but this is Major League Baseball. The greatest value possible -- the reason these players play the game -- is to be a winner, and there are too many great candidates from too many available playoff spots.

No, I didn't think so. First of all, what voters have done in the past should not provide a bright-line directive for future ballots. Second of all, THERE ARE 25 GUYS, MORE IN FACT, ON EACH TEAM. Over the course of a season - since last time I checked this was not the MVPOCTIS (Most Valuable Player on a Contending Team in September) Award - Ellsbury has done as much to help his team win as anyone in the league. That you think this should be tossed out because of two games if the rest of his team does not live up to his performance is embarrassing. If Boston's pitching continues to get shelled, there is virtually nothing Ellsbury can do to singlehandedly save Boston's season. That is just not how baseball works.

That said, Ellsbury has been so phenomenal that Bautista could hit 10 more home runs and Ellsbury still would have more total bases than the Toronto outfielder. (All stats entering this week.) I'm okay with either Verlander or Cabrera taking the MVP if Boston completes its all-time collapse. Cabrera has reached base more times than anybody in the league, plays every day, leads all of MLB in batting with runners in scoring position, will win the batting title with an average near .340 and has the best adjusted OPS by anyone other than Bautista.

That's right. Ellsbury has been phenomenal. How phenomenal? So phenomenal he can't be MVP if his team's pitchers suck! That's how phenomenal. Fuck yeah.

(This graf tells you a lot about Verducci's thinking, or lack of it, by the way. Yes, Ellsbury has 359 TB to Bautista's 310. He also has 650 at-bats to Bautista's 506, in part because he hits leadoff but mostly because Bautista has walked 79 more times than Ellsbury. 310+79 = 30 more bases for Bautista. Oops. Total bases ignore walks and therefore don't mean a whole lot. Unsurprisingly, Bautista has 70 points of OBP on Ellsbury, along with 61 points of slugging. Now, Ellsbury plays center and does so pretty well, which makes his offense harder to replace than Bautista's. By that standard, if you want to say Ellsbury is more valuable, it's hard to argue. But the reason why is not his total bases. I'm not even going to touch Verducci citing Cabrera's average with RISP.)

Okay, how about Tom's NL MVP ballot?

1. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee
2. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles
3. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee
4. Albert Pujols, St. Louis
5. Justin Upton, Arizona
6. Lance Berkman, St. Louis
7. Joey Votto, Cincinnati
8. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
9. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia
10. Shane Victorino, Philadelphia

Braun has had a great year. But he plays left, and not that well. Truthfully neither he nor Kemp is a great outfielder, but Kemp plays center, a much harder position at which to replace offense. With the two having fairly similar offensive lines, I would have broken the tie in Kemp's favor, for that reason.

See you if you can guess why Tom Verducci went the other way.

Kemp has put up a monster season with MVP numbers, leading the league in WAR, runs, total bases, home runs and RBIs. But his team, the Dodgers, didn't play a meaningful game for the last two-thirds of the season. Los Angeles was nine games out by the middle of June.

You hear that, Matt Kemp? Your team was bad! Therefore your numbers do not count. Never mind that you played all sorts of games against contending teams that certainly would not want you to do well against them and still did well against them. Never mind that you spent the season hitting in front of guys like Juan Uribe and Juan Rivera while Braun had the .400-OBPing Prince Fielder behind him. Never mind that you play in the NL West, maybe the toughest hitters' division in baseball, while Braun got to feast on a lousy NL Central. The team around you wasn't that good, so your season was irrelevant.

And this business that Kemp had no help in the lineup? Baloney. Kemp batted with 87 more runners on base than did Braun. Kemp had 24 more plate appearances with runners in scoring position -- and Braun was the better hitter in those spots (.347-.327). The seasons of Kemp and Braun are too close not to give it to the guy who delivered the most value in terms of context.

Dude, what are you TALKING about? Who cares about average, first? Kemp had a better OBP with runners in scoring position and with men on. See if you can guess why! That's right, it's my second point: PRINCE FUCKING FIELDER. When Kemp came up with men in scoring position, he could be walked - as he was 35 times out of 195 PAs - because pitchers were happy to take their chances with Juan Uribe, Juan Rivera, or the pu-pu platter of garbage hitting behind Kemp all year. 24 of those walks were intentional. You know how many times Ryan Braun was intentionally walked with RISP? TWO. You know why? BECAUSE THE GUY BEHIND HIM HAD A .400 OBP AND ONCE HIT 50 HOMERS IN A SEASON.

Ryan Braun had IMMENSE protection every time he came to the plate. Not once this year did Ron Roenicke fill out a lineup card that had anyone other than Prince Fielder hitting behind Ryan Braun. You know how many different guys have hit behind Kemp? TEN. Here's the list: James Loney, Marcus Thames, Juan Uribe, Jerry Sands, Jay Gibbons, Rod Barajas, Casey Blake, Juan Rivera, Aaron Miles, and Andre Ethier. Fielder has 35 home runs; this entire crew has 61, and the high man is Barajas (with 16), who served as Kemp's lineup protection all of once. Aaron Miles and his career 75 OPS+ hit behind Kemp more times than Barajas did. No one (except maybe in the late innings with a LOOGY waiting) was lining up to walk Braun so they could pitch to Fielder. Kemp could be walked with minimal fear. And Verducci's own rankings bear this out. The Brewers had a great season but they didn't win 115 games. You've got Braun and Fielder ranked 1 and 3. If Fielder is that good, can you really turn around and say Braun didn't have the help everyone thinks he did? No. He did have that help.

Again, Braun had a great year. But Kemp had as good or better a year, at a more premium defensive position, in a harder division in which to hit, AND he didn't get to play fully 44 of his games against the Astros, Cubs and Pirates, on whom Braun unsurprisingly feasted. Here's Braun's line against the Cardinals, by comparison: .225/.267/.366. So against the ONE OTHER DECENT TEAM IN HIS DIVISION, Braun absolutely gagged. It's a small sample size, of course, and you can only play the teams on the schedule. But if this is about "winning" and "coming up big for the team in big spots" - well, Braun really dogged it against Milwaukee's top contender.

Kemp, by comparison, destroyed divisional rivals. He hit .359/.446/.672 against the Giants, a team whose staff averaged this line against: .232/.309/.347. He hit .318/.408/.485 against the Padres, who play in the hitting-unfriendliest park in baseball and whose staff averaged .245/.313/.375 against.

In fact, how about this: against teams with a .500 record or better, Kemp hit .323/.390/.588. (He hit .324/.406/.580 - pretty much the same, if slightly better as you'd expect - against teams below .500.) Braun hit .337/.399/.643 against sub-.500 teams and .328/.395/.529 against those over .500. Also comparable numbers, but that's a pretty big dip in slugging. Anyway, the general point is that Kemp, no matter what you think about his team's quality, did not shrink from good teams, which to me is the only adequate notion of "pressure." Verducci suggests that because the Dodgers were nine games out by the middle of June, that presumably means their players no longer cared about the season. Uh, nine games out in the middle of June? We've just seen the Red Sox blow a nine-game lead over the course of SEPTEMBER. If "pressure" is real at all, I would think there'd be just as much on a team at the far fringes of contention to try to drag itself back into the race as on a team that's led its division for the better part of three months and watched its rivals disappear in the rear-view mirror.

Ryan Braun wouldn't be a travesty of an MVP vote. And neither would Miguel Cabrera, though there are many better choices. But the issue is how Verducci defends his votes, and what that says about how he understands baseball. And what it says is: he doesn't understand it nearly as well as he thinks he does.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The star system

Today on Grantland, Bill Simmons' increasingly insufferable vanity project, Simmons himself posted an article about leading men in Hollywood. Simmons clearly has interest in a lot of things that aren't sports - he's taken plenty of heat over the years for the extent to which pop culture pervades his sports writing - and the formation of Grantland was no doubt at least partly intended to give him even freer rein to write about the topics he finds interesting. And what he found interesting today was a bunch of stuff about how Ryan Reynolds isn't a leading man and how he thinks there are 24 male movie stars currently in Hollywood. Too bad a lot of what he wrote was completely ridiculous.

Simmons' pitch begins this way: Hollywood "make[s] too many movies and do[es]n't have nearly enough stars." This leads him to the following:

That's how we arrived to a point in which the following two facts are indisputable.

Fact: People believe Will Smith is the world's biggest movie star (even though he doesn't make great movies).

Fact: People believe Ryan Reynolds is a movie star (even though he isn't).

Uh, okay. Isn't "movie star" kind of a subjective term? Isn't it determined by the audience to a large extent? Thus, if "people believe" that Ryan Reynolds is a movie star... doesn't that kind of make Ryan Reynolds a movie star?

Out of curiosity, what does Bill Simmons think makes someone a movie star? Good question, because he barely explains it. He spends most of the first part of the column talking about what actors aren't movie stars. The only time he even begins to explain is after giving his list of 24 guys he thinks are movie stars. Here it is: "All of them can open any movie in their wheelhouse that's half-decent; if it's a well-reviewed movie, even better."

That's it. Never mind the huge definition issue inside this definition (what exactly constitutes a given actor's "wheelhouse" and who determines that? And how much money qualifies as "opening" a movie?). What it basically boils down to is that Bill Simmons thinks that the following 24 guys are movie stars based on this loose definition.

"Smith and Leo; Depp and Cruise; Clooney, Damon and Pitt; Downey and Bale; Hanks and Denzel; Stiller and Sandler; Crowe and Bridges; Carell, Rogen, Ferrell and Galifianakis; Wahlberg and Affleck; Gyllenhall (it kills me to put him on here, but there's just no way to avoid it); Justin Timberlake (who became a movie star simply by being so famous that he brainwashed us); and amazingly, Kevin James."

The best part of this list is how quickly he goes away from his own definition and just picks guys he likes. Let's go through point-by-point.

1. Will Smith

Well, no argument here. He's been the lead or co-lead in sixteen movies since 1995 - only two (Ali and The Legend of Bagger Vance) failed to hit nine figures worldwide. Of the other fourteen, half topped $350 million worldwide. He hasn't starred in a film since 2008, but then he has been kind of busy engineering successful careers for his children. He's obviously a huge star.

2. Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio has been the lead in ten films since 2000. Only half made $100 million domestically, but only Revolutionary Road had a particularly bad showing (making only half its budget back domestically) and it barely ever topped 1,000 screens. But he headlined Inception, a massive hit (though Christopher Nolan's name probably added value too), and of course there was Titanic, even if it made him as much or more than the reverse. It's also gotten hard to separate DiCaprio from Martin Scorsese - who gets more credit for the success of Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island? - but you could make a similar case for Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock in the 1950s and no one would say Stewart wasn't a star. DiCaprio's a star.

3. Johnny Depp

Prior to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp might have been more of a "people think he's a movie star" type (though again, doesn't that just mean he is?). Everyone knew who he was, but he didn't necessarily make a lot of big movies, appearing in weird bombs like Don Juan DeMarco, Nick of Time and The Astronaut's Wife. Sleepy Hollow was the only hit of his career - and then the first Pirates film made $300 million domestically. The question, though, is how much of Depp's movie stardom depends on him being Jack Sparrow specifically. For an answer, check out The Tourist, which only made $67 million in the US (though it went over $275 million overseas, a strong performance). You can't say this film wasn't in Depp's wheelhouse - it's (based on the trailer) an action film with some comedy and romance in which Depp gets to play a semi-bumbling hero. You could apply the exact same description to the Pirates films, couldn't you? (Okay, The Tourist isn't supposed to be very good, but since when does that stop people from seeing movies?) Depp's only other big hits in the post-Pirates world have been Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (movies based on established properties tend to do pretty well), Alice in Wonderland (which rather shockingly made over a billion dollars worldwide - but Depp isn't the lead, anyway) and Rango (kids' movies make money almost without exception).

So to what extent is Depp a movie star? Without Jack Sparrow I think it's pretty easy to argue he's just a solid B-list guy, since you'd think an A-lister could have opened The Tourist with $20 million on a December weekend, which Depp failed to do. On the other hand, is he the only one who could have made Jack Sparrow what he was? And if so, doesn't that make him an A-lister anyway since without him POTC could have just been another Cutthroat Island? I honestly don't know. I could listen to arguments either way. But let's leave him on the star list for now.

4. Tom Cruise

More of a slam dunk than Depp, certainly. For nearly two decades, Cruise has been arguably the biggest sure thing in Hollywood - he virtually guarantees $100 million domestically, the classic barometer of success. Here's his major-part resume from December 1992 until 2006, with domestic gross in the millions in parentheses: A Few Good Men (141), The Firm (158), Interview with the Vampire (105), Mission: Impossible (180), Jerry Maguire (153), Eyes Wide Shut (55), Magnolia (22), Mission: Impossible 2 (215), Vanilla Sky (100), Minority Report (132), The Last Samurai (111), Collateral (100), War of the Worlds (234), Mission: Impossible 3 (133). That's quite the streak of moneymakers, with only a slow-moving Kubrick dirge and a P.T. Anderson film in which Cruise was only an ensemble member anyway breaking it. The irony of Cruise's winning streak is that it actually disproves Simmons' star definition to some extent, or at least alters it. Interview with the Vampire, for instance, was completely out of Cruise's wheelhouse. Anne Rice herself was legendarily furious with the casting (though she did apparently recant after seeing the film). Likewise, Collateral is far from the typical Cruise role. Yet both those films still made over $100 million domestically! Cruise was such a big star he really could open anything - even Eyes Wide Shut opened at #1 with over $21 million until the moviegoing public realized even Tom Cruise couldn't make them sit through a two and a half hour rumination on fidelity. Cruise's last couple films (Valkyrie and Knight & Day) have not bombed but have not been giant hits, although Cruise's oddball public persona of the last few years may not have helped. Assuming Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol returns him to 100+ heights, it will be safe to say he's still a pretty big star.

5. George Clooney

And now we're already drifting pretty heavily into "I call BS" territory. George Clooney is absolutely the kind of guy who just seems like a movie star. People like him. But can he open any movie as long as it's not a total reach? The answer, looking over his history, is pretty clearly "no." To be fair, Clooney does not appear in a lot of films destined to be massive crowd-pleasers, and when he has - the Ocean's Eleven movies, in particular - he's done well. But aside from those films, The Perfect Storm, and the execrable Batman and Robin, Clooney has never starred in a film that made $100 million domestically or even had a $20 million opening weekend (both of which I think are pretty good "success" barometers for a film, along the lines of Simmons' "Let's get tickets, so-and-so's in town" test for what makes someone a first-ballot Hall of Famer - if you're hitting those numbers, people came to see you). Michael Clayton, a critically acclaimed movie that certainly fell within Clooney's wheelhouse, opened in over 2,500 theaters on October 12, 2007. It made just over $10 million, good for fourth behind Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, The Game Plan, and We Own the Night. I mean, really? George Clooney, huge movie star, can't even outgross We Own the Night, which opened in fewer theaters? Okay, it starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, not some bunch of nobodies, and it probably seemed more exciting than the story of a corporate lawyer. But then again, Tom Cruise took The Firm and made $158 million. Up in the Air was another Clooney movie that had critical acclaim - when it went wide to almost 1,900 theaters on Christmas Day 2009, it finished sixth with just over $11 million. I should note that given their budgets, both films were moderately successful. But unless he's robbing casinos, George Clooney does not seem to be a huge movie star. People are not amped to see him doing any old thing. And yet he pretty clearly is a huge movie star... right? Simmons' theory is beginning to show some serious cracks already.

6. Matt Damon

Damon has a stronger case than Clooney, although even he does not really live up to Simmons' definition. Can he open any movie in his wheelhouse? To answer, let me direct you to Green Zone, a Jason Bourne-like thriller set in Iraq. It opened in March 2010 in more than 3,000 theaters... finished second in its first week and was out of the top ten after just three. It grossed only $35 million domestically on a budget of $100 million. This despite having the star of the Bourne films and the director of two of them!

Now, I would say Matt Damon is obviously a movie star. But the point here is that Simmons' primary criterion is pretty much useless. A star will open any movie in their wheelhouse? Oh, it has to be half-decent. Well, Green Zone was 53% among the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes - rotten, but not by a whole lot, with more positive reviews than negative reviews. Yet Damon couldn't even will it to half its budget! What kind of movie star is that?

I might go so far as to argue that there are basically three movie stars of the last 20 years - Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and Will Smith - and then there's everyone else. At least, if you want to use Simmons' definition, which basically does not allow for a single misstep.

7. Brad Pitt

Pitt actually has by far the best case of his Ocean's co-stars. In addition to those films, Pitt has delivered either a $20 million opening weekend, $100 million domestically, or $300 million worldwide - or some combination of the three - on the following films since 1995: Seven, The Mexican, Spy Game, Troy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Inglourious Basterds, and Megamind (though this last was animated). For God's sake, Troy made $500 million worldwide, and that movie isn't even that great or particularly noteworthy! He had a $20 million opening weekend with Spy Game and The Mexican! Dude's a movie star.

8. Robert Downey, Jr.

At this point we have to stop and ask - what degree of longevity is necessary to make someone a movie star? Downey has successfully opened just four films as the primary lead - Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Sherlock Holmes, and Due Date - all of which came out in 2008 or later. As one of the three leads in Zodiac - a David Fincher movie widely acclaimed to be excellent - he saw it make less worldwide than it cost to produce. He was co-lead with Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, which bombed in spite of a fresh score from RT's top critics. And it seems ridiculous to suggest that the "wheelhouse" of Robert Downey, Jr. of all people is "action star," so there's really no reason The Soloist shouldn't have been successful, right? Yet it opened in fourth place on a thoroughly mediocre weekend in April won handily by Obsessed, a terrible movie without a big star. I don't think Downey's done enough yet for stardom by Simmons' definition, especially since two of his four successes were superhero movies, which typically do well. Yes, he added value, but he wasn't the sole reason they opened big.

9. Christian Bale

Another tricky one. Bale, as the star of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, obviously has two titanic successes to his name. But is that Bale? Or is it Batman? Or is it Nolan, for that matter? And Bale's only two other major successes are Terminator Salvation - in which he plays a character who already appeared in at least two other movies - and Public Enemies, in which he was co-lead with Johnny Depp (and even then, it was only a moderate success domestically, though it did open with $25 million). So is Bale really a huge star? Or is he a good actor who has managed to land some choice roles in films that probably would have done pretty well regardless? The only mild success (at best) of films like 3:10 to Yuma and The Prestige proves that Bale is, at the very least, nowhere near the Cruise or even Pitt level.

10. Tom Hanks

Back to an actual star. Hanks had a Cruise-like run in his heyday - between 1992 and 2002 he was good for nine figures domestically every time he played the lead or close to it: A League of Their Own (107), Sleepless in Seattle (126), Philadelphia (77), Forrest Gump (329), Apollo 13 (172), Toy Story (191), Saving Private Ryan (216), You've Got Mail (115), Toy Story 2 (245), The Green Mile (136), Cast Away (233), Road to Perdition (104), Catch Me If You Can (164). Like Cruise, he was able to drag Road to Perdition to $100 million despite being cast dramatically against type, and his only sub-$100 million performance was in Philadelphia... for which he won Best Actor. (So you know, not too bad.) Even Hanks has proven unable to drag every single movie to massive success - Charlie Wilson's War was good and also starred Julia Roberts, but was not a hit. But The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were both big hits, as was Toy Story 3. Hanks is clearly one of our few nearly bulletproof stars and belongs on the top tier.

11. Denzel Washington

Since 2000, Washington has nearly always been good for $20 million or more on the opening weekend, though his films rarely rack up huge domestic grosses in total (only Remember the Titans and American Gangster crossed $100 million in the US). Star, although probably half a step down from Cruise, Hanks and Smith.

12-13. Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler

Since The Wedding Singer came out in 1998, Sandler has been good for either a $20 million+ opening or $100 million+ domestically with few exceptions, and most of those fall into the category of "outside the wheelhouse" - Punch Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me - with the only exception being Little Nicky. Still, nine of his twelve starring roles since 2003 have made over $100 million. Obvious star, especially since he's a guy who is always clearly the principal draw in his films. Stiller isn't quite the slam dunk, but since Meet the Parents came out in October of 2000, he's done 17 movies where he was either the lead, played a major character who was featured in all the ads (such as in Dodgeball) or was a leading voice (the Madagascar films). Of those 17, nine grossed $100 million or more domestically and three of the remaining eight at least had $20 million or more opening weekends. He does have a couple wheelhouse bombs - both Duplex and Envy bombed in wide release - but you can easily argue that's the fault of the films for being awful. On the other hand, Sandler did huge business with widely panned movies like Grown Ups. So I'm willing to call Stiller a star, but he's at least half a step down from Sandler.

14. Russell Crowe

Crowe is definitely a guy everyone thinks of as a star. But if we're thinking of stars as guys who can reliably open decent movies... I'm sorry, he's just not. Not the average moviegoer. His only big hits are the following: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, American Gangster, and Robin Hood. Those are the only ones to cross $100 million domestically. Master and Commander opened with over $25 million and made it to $93 million domestically, but that's the only other one. His post-Gladiator disappointments include Proof of Life, Cinderella Man, A Good Year, 3:10 to Yuma, Body of Lies, State of Play, and The Next Three Days. All opened in at least 2,000 theaters; only two of them finished top two their first weekend. And this is in spite of the fact that I don't think any of them was reviewed particularly poorly. But what this tells me is that Russell Crowe has been in a few movies people wanted to see - not that people inherently want to see movies that star Russell Crowe. Under Simmons' definition he's out.

15. Jeff Bridges

I was a bit surprised to see Bridges on the list at all. He can be the top-billed guy in a movie - but honestly, I'd be worried about its prospects unless it has a lot else going for it. I love Bridges, but he's not that kind of guy. And the stats back it up. True Grit was a hit - but it also had Matt Damon and the Coen Brothers' name attached to it, in addition to being a remake of a known film. Tron: Legacy was a hit, but it was a sequel and he was only the co-lead. And beyond that... point me out another hit. Iron Man and Seabiscuit are basically the only two, and he wasn't the lead in either. He starred in plenty of films in the 1990s, but (a) that's more than a decade ago and (b) none of those were big successes anyway. Hey, remember White Squall? How about Arlington Road? Bridges can be the lead in a movie, but only if you value critical recognition over the big bucks. He cannot open your movie by himself, not without something else working in the movie's favor.

16-19. Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis

What a bizarre hodgepodge for Simmons to group together. Yes, they're all comedians, but wow. I'll give you a hint: at least half of them don't belong here.

Let's tackle Carell first. His filmography is pretty short, but he's shown an ability to open a film and make a good deal of money - Dinner for Schmucks, Despicable Me, Date Night, Get Smart, Horton Hears a Who, Evan Almighty and The 40-Year-Old Virgin all had big openings, and most of them crossed $100 million. His one real misstep was the non-wheelhouse Dan in Real Life; even Evan Almighty, derided as an incredible bomb, still made $100 million (it's just that its budget, for some reason, was $175 million). You may not want Carell to carry your hugely expensive effects-laden movie, but he can carry your average comedy.

Ferrell is pretty reliable for a solid opening, though this doesn't always translate into huge grosses. Aside from Land of the Lost, Curious George and Semi-Pro, everything in his wheelhouse has opened well, even forgettable mediocrities like Kicking and Screaming and Bewitched.

I'm not sure what to make of Rogen. If you just look at the numbers, it's pretty impressive, at least until you realize that he's only been the lead in a few films. Those films: Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Observe and Report, The Green Hornet, and Paul. He was also co-lead in Funny People, but Sandler's clearly the top star draw there. So of the other six... well, three opened well and three didn't. Paul was decently reviewed but basically tanked; Zack and Miri had Kevin Smith's name behind it as well as decent reviews but didn't do much (though the name probably didn't help). At any rate I think we'd have to say that the jury is still out on Rogen at best. Simmons mentions in the article that it's possible to be a movie star right now even if you're not one in a few years, but Rogen's last lead role tanked, so let's hold off.

Finally there's Galifianakis, the most egregious inclusion of the entire list, IMO. The problem? HE ISN'T A LEADING MAN!!!! I mean, you have to be kidding. He's clearly on here because Simmons thinks he was the best part of The Hangover films and then he also had Due Date - but he isn't the star of any of those. He's the comic relief. Downey is the star of Due Date - you can't possibly give two people credit for opening the same comedy - and Galifianakis is at best #2 in the Hangovers and probably #3. He's a superstar who guarantees a good opening weekend? Uh, I don't fucking think so. As soon as I saw that I started questioning the entire column, which I had been blithely reading up to that point.

20. Mark Wahlberg

This is just not correct. Wahlberg has had some successes, but his record is littered with "didn't quite get there" movies. The Lovely Bones, Max Payne, We Own the Night, Shooter, Invincible - none were terrible bombs, but none was a huge hit. Planet of the Apes was a success; Rock Star bombed. He's a guy like Crowe - we tend to think of him as a star, and certainly he gets cast in lead roles all the time. But is he a STAR in the sense that his presence in your film guarantees a big gross or even a big opening? Not really, no.

21. Ben Affleck

Even at the peak of Affleck's powers - whenever exactly that was - this really wasn't true. And again, he's a guy we think of as a star, he's well-known, all that - but his presence in your film does not guarantee big bucks. Between 2003 and 2004 he was in four straight bombs - and maybe that's the fault of the movies for being terrible, but you're never going to see Tom Cruise appearing in four straight bombs. And The Town is the first movie Affleck's carried to a big opening since Daredevil, way back in 2003 - if you even want to give him credit for that, since that was around the peak of the Marvel craze's first wave. This is straight-up Boston bias on Simmons' part, if you ask me.

22. Jake Gyllenhaal

Simmons says there was "no way to avoid" putting him on the list. Well, yeah, there kind of was, seeing as how Gyllenhaal has really opened only three movies in his entire career - The Day After Tomorrow (co-lead, more about Emmerich's CGI disasters), Jarhead, and Prince of Persia. Source Code was not a big hit. Love and Other Drugs went nowhere in the US. Brothers and Rendition didn't do much. Zodiac, as said before, was not a big hit, despite good reviews and TWO of Simmons' stars! If that's not damning I don't know what is. Anyway, Gyllenhaal is the "starry" type. Maybe he can open the right movie, but he cannot open any movie that fits him.

23. Justin Timberlake

Another ridiculous inclusion. Simmons states that Timberlake "became a movie star simply by being so famous that he brainwashed us." Yeah, except he's not a movie star. I mean, he's a STAR, and he APPEARS in movies. But I don't think that's what we were looking for. Timberlake's only major roles to date have been the following: The Love Guru (flop), The Social Network, Yogi Bear, and Bad Teacher. The last three all either opened well or got to $100 million. But he isn't the lead in any of them! You couldn't possibly argue that Timberlake was the one who successfully opened The Social Network. If Friends with Benefits, his first true starring role, is a big hit, get back to me.

24. Kevin James

I don't buy it. James has had some success, but he has precisely ONE hit to his own name: Paul Blart: Mall Cop. His other successes (Hitch, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grown Ups) all feature either Smith or Sandler, and The Dilemma was not a big hit. Zookeeper will probably do well because it's a movie pitched in the general direction of children released during the summer, but how much credit do you want to give James for that? Again, I would want to see more before I would elevate him to a list of gigantic movie stars.

The best part is at the end when Simmons lists some people who he likes but aren't movie stars. The list includes Jeremy Renner (who in God's name was arguing him as a movie star? Again, obvious The Town bias), Josh Brolin (similar profile to Bridges, really, just absent starring in Tron), James Franco (was the #2 guy in three Spider-Man movies, but again, no, I don't think anyone was really arguing for this), Jesse Eisenberg (has successfully opened three movies if you include the animated Rio, meaning he has at least as much business on this list as does Timberlake) and Ryan Reynolds, the guy who inspired the column in the first place, and with whom I'll end.

Simmons argues that Reynolds is not a movie star, and that therefore Green Lantern was doomed to fail. I would argue, instead, that Green Lantern was doomed to fail because it's a piece of shit, as seen by its 17% rating from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. It's possible that some of this can be laid at Reynolds' feet, but I doubt all of it can. Consider that two Fantastic Four movies did big business even though their biggest male star was Michael Chiklis. Superhero movies don't have to have big stars in them, because the characters themselves, coming in with some history behind them, are what intrigues audiences. People snickered when Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as the Prince of Persia - but the movie made money because people wanted to see a Prince of Persia movie. I think what it comes down to in this case is that the Green Lantern movie was particularly poorly done, and maybe that Green Lantern himself just isn't that interesting a character to people. I don't think it's that people were just rejecting Ryan Reynolds as a superhero. They were rejecting the movie.

Really, Simmons contradicts himself at almost every turn. He says that Tobey Maguire isn't a movie star because people won't go out of their way to see a film he's in unless it has Spider-Man in the title... then includes guys like Johnny Depp - no guarantee of anything unless he's Jack Sparrow - and George Clooney, who pretty much can't open a movie if he's not Danny Ocean. So what was the point, exactly? Jamie Foxx isn't a movie star because he's just a famous person who acts and sings... oh, like Justin Timberlake? And so forth.

In the second half of the column he talks about William Goldman's point that Smith is actually our only movie star because all of his movies make money. I would still add Cruise and Hanks - and you can't really argue that they don't count anymore when Smith himself hasn't put out a movie in three years - with a couple others (Washington, maybe Depp and DiCaprio, Pitt, and then Sandler) a rung down the ladder. Aside from that I think I'd pass on calling the rest stars. Or, at least, if you're going to call them stars there are others you probably have to include. Look at Vince Vaughn's history - he's a bigger star than a number of guys on the Simmons list. Liam Neeson's last three years are surely at least the equal of someone like Affleck or Gyllenhaal. And while I think his movies tend to make money in spite of and not because of him, Sam Worthington's essentially three-film career - Avatar, Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titans - has been jaw-droppingly lucrative. At the very least, he belongs on the list before someone like Timberlake or Galifianakis, who don't even star in the films they're in, does.

Okay, I think that's plenty. Let this be a lesson to Bill Simmons: you can't just post a bunch of subjective crap about movie stars on the internet without some random guy spending hours writing a post that no one will ever read all of to take you to task.