Dexter Fowler: A Hit Or Foul?

ct-dexter-fowler-cardinals-contract-20161209This week expectations finally became reality. The St. Louis Cardinals announced the signing of Dexter Fowler. Fowler’s name had been long mentioned, even late in the season when it became apparent the Cardinals needed an outfield upgrade with Matt Holliday’s departure, and was the known prime target for the Cardinals during the off-season. We know what Fowler received, five years and 85 million dollars. But what will the Cardinals receive from Fowler?

Dexter Fowler is a 30-year old center fielder, coming off a career season that was capped by winning the World Series. Last year Fowler played himself into the big money contract from the Cardinals by hitting .276 with 13 home runs and 48 runs batted in while maintaining a .393 on-base percentage and playing solid defense. But as already mentioned, that was a career year for Fowler. This is likely not what we will see from Fowler during his five years here in St. Louis.

To get a better idea of what to expect we need to look at Fowler’s entire career. During his career his 162 game averages are a .268 batting average, 12 home runs, 52 runs batted in, and a .366 on-base percentage. As you can see those numbers are not too far off from last year’s totals during his career year. Fowler has been a pretty consistent hitter during his career; which is something that the Cardinals batting order needs with its numerous hot-and-cold hitters. But the constant refrain from fans after Fowler’s signing is about his on-base percentage and defense. Let’s take a closer look at those two points and see what we can expect.

Fowler led off for the Chicago Cubs last year, with a talented and deep lineup behind him, working his way to a .393 on-base percentage; the best by a leadoff hitter in the majors. However that was his highest mark during his nine-year career and he will be coming to a lineup that is not nearly as deep and dangerous. So we shouldn’t expect him to reach that level again but he should get on enough to still set the table for the lineup. His career mark of .366 would have been third on the team last year, just behind Aledmys Diaz’ .369 mark.

As far as Fowler’s defense goes, it is a case of recent memories. Fowler was a plus glove for the Cubs last year in centerfield but just as last year was a career year at the plate for Fowler, so too was his defense at an all-time high. Last year marked the first time in his career that Fowler finished with a plus UZR rating (a metric that measures runs saved). In fact for his career Fowler is -63.1 in UZR. Now granted he has played center in some of the quirkiest parks (Colorado, Houston, and Chicago) but the narrative that he is a significant upgrade in centerfield for the Cardinals is false. But there is also the fact that Fowler began playing a deeper centerfield last year, and consequently saw his best defensive performance. Did the shift to a deeper position for Fowler lead to improved defensive performance and will it start a new trend for him? That could be. But still he is not the conversation as one of the game’s top defensive outfielders, but just like at the plate he is an upgrade over the past for the Cardinals.

So where do I stand on the Fowler signing? Given the words and information laid out above it may not seem like I am a fan of the deal. But I am. I just want people to truly understand that player the Cardinals signed. I will relate it to another recent signing from the other professional team in St. Louis, Paul Stastny. Fans were ecstatic for his signing, believing they were bringing in a top play-making center. But in reality Stastny is simply an above average center that does a lot of the little things needed to win. That is what I feel Fowler will do for the Cardinals.

He will get on base, he is an upgrade in center defensively, he is an above average base runner, etc. I actually think his biggest asset may be his personality. From listening to his press conference he seems like he has an upbeat, outgoing, and candid personality. Something that has been missing from the team over the last few years. He will no doubt be a media darling here in St. Louis, but hopefully he can also bring some spark and fun into a Cardinal clubhouse that many times seems business like (outside of Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez antics). So was the Dexter Fowler signing a hit for the Cardinals or a foul one? I think the signing is much like Dexter Fowler the player. It’s not a home run but it’s not a strikeout. It’s a solid single up the middle.

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Eight Would Be Great, End The Debate

grab-2016-12-04-11h32m58s194It’s December and after three months of weekly who deserves to be ranked where we finally get the culmination all college football fans were waiting months for, the field of four for the 2016 College Football Playoffs. This year’s field will include traditional powers Alabama and Ohio State, one of the preseason favorites in Clemson, and a resurgent Washington team that has finally capitalized on years of promise. But are those the correct four teams?

In my opinion these are likely the four best teams in college football this year, but I do have a problem with how they ended up here. The reason for my issue is because of the ever-changing guidelines that the committee deems important not just from year to year but from week to week. I will be honest, do I think that Penn State is a better team that Ohio State? No. But Penn State did beat Ohio State head to head, and did win the conference championship game.

When the committee decided to keep Ohio State up high in the weekly playoff rankings it showed that they were putting more of an emphasis on the eye test. But is it really an eye test or is it a “program” test. Do you think that if the roles were reversed, with exact same schedules and seasons switched between Ohio State and Penn State, that Ohio State would be on the outside looking in? No, I think they got the benefit of the doubt because they are THE Ohio State. And that is the big issue here. We heard how Michigan should have gotten consideration over Washington, why?

Two years ago TCU was left out of the final four, in addition to Baylor, because the Big 12 did not have a championship game. TCU, which was ranked #3 in the final regular season playoff rankings, defeated Iowa State 55-3 in their final game yet dropped out of the final four. All because they did not have that 13th game and a championship title. This year however Ohio State, which did not even win their conference division, was a shoe-in and Michigan, who failed to win the division as well, was deemed a worthy choice as well.

Yes these games are the money makers, and Ohio State and Michigan bring in large viewership ratings and fans that travel. But when College Football decided to institute rankings to better determine a national champion, beginning with the original plus one format from the BCS days back in 1998, I am pretty sure that program prestige was not included among variables used for the ratings.

The playoff committee needs to be more transparent. Why are they ranking teams where they are? Is it simply the eye test? Clemson has six games this year of wins under 10 points, not including their loss to Pitt. Does strength of schedule matter? USC was playing perhaps the best football of anyone in the country and had a S.O.S. of 5th in the country but they weren’t considered like Michigan, Penn State, or Wisconsin. What about non-conference opponents? Take a look at Washington’s non-conference opponents (Rutgers was their biggest non-conference win). Does a conference championship matter or not? Because it did in 2014 but in 2016 it’s obvious that it doesn’t. So what are the criteria that the committee is judging by?

There is of course one simple solution. Expanding the playoffs to eight teams. That is the number that should have been put in place when they moved from the BCS to the current format. But you know how people are, afraid of change. It took them how many years to get to the BCS from the bowl format. And it took them almost two decades to go from the BCS to the four game playoffs. I understand that argument that no matter how much you expand you will be alienating those next tier teams that will have an argument to  be in. Expand to eight and teams nine and ten will argue, expand to 16 and teams 17 and 18 will be upset. But that’s only if you are expanding for that purpose of including more teams. My reasoning isn’t to just include more teams but to choose the teams who HAVE a right to be included in playoffs, the conference champions.

Eight is the perfect number because you could give the five power conference champions an automatic bid into the playoffs. A conference championship should mean something. Then with the three remaining spots you give one to the highest ranked non-power five team and then have two wild card spots which go to highest remaining ranked teams, whether that be a power five team or not. Doing this would also put more emphasis on the conference championships. It is unlikely that had Colorado defeated Washington in the Pac-12 championship game that the Buffaloes would have been in the final four. But why is that? Why shouldn’t they have had that opportunity. Same goes for Penn State who won their conference championship AND defeated a team that is in the final four (Ohio State).

By expanding the playoffs to eight teams you are eliminating the debate over which conference is better than the other. In a four team format at least one power five conference will always be left out. An eight team format also allows for teams that may have got off to a slow start this season (USC) to fight for a national title. The conference championship games in essence become part of the playoffs too, giving an automatic bid for a chance at the trophy. But this only makes too much sense. We have seen how hard it is to change the minds of those that run college football. Why would they want to make things simple? In fact I kind of think they like the chaos that surrounds the playoffs. Because who cares if it’s a fair system or that they get it right, there is no such thing as bad press right?

 

 

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Perron, Playing the Perfect Role

David Perron

I will admit that when the Blues announced their big off-season signing of David Perron this past summer, I was skeptical. I didn’t see how he would fit in with the Blues, at least in terms of the type of team they had last year. Then the Blues and coach Ken Hitchock announced they would be adjusting their style of play to a more up-tempo pace. I still was reserved in the signing because I did not think he would play a significant role on the team. But a quarter of a way through the season and I will admit, I was wrong.

David Perron has played his role with the Blues perfectly. Perron has shown he is versatile enough to play on any line, bouncing mainly between the second and third lines but also getting shifts with the top line when needed. On the year Perron is second on the team in points (15), tied for third in goals (6), and third in shot percentage. He is on pace for a 20-goal season, which would be the first time he reached that mark since the 2013-14 season. And while he is known to be a streaky player, and is currently on one of the streaks with an NHL best seven game active point streak and a total of 10 points during those games, it has been his play off the puck as well that has made an impact.

Many fans are like me who remember Perron from earlier this decade when he was the flashy skater always looking for a highlight reel play. However he has shown that he has rounded out his game during his time spent with Edmonton, Pittsburgh, and Anaheim. Perron has taken his high energy which was only noticeable during offensive rushes towards the net and put that in his fore-checking and defense. Perron actually ranks 6th on the team currently in hits (20) among forwards and is third on the team with 18 takeaways. While that may not seem like a huge number it is the fact that he combines that with his offensive skill, doing both jobs he is asked to do and filling his role as a two-way player with upside.

One needed to only watch last night’s shootout win over the Minnesota Wild to see what Perron brings to the Blues. Perron recorded two assists in the game and netted the deciding goal in the shootout period. In addition his energy on defense was noticeable, resulting in a team high three takeaways during the game, while adding a hit.

Perron may not have lived up to the hype when he broke into the NHL at 18 years old, after finishing second in the QMJHL among rookie goal scorers with 39 goals. (Prospect Story HERE) However as his career continued, of which he is now in his 10th season, he has shown that a player can grow and still be a valuable piece for a team. He set aside the talk of being a highlight reel offensive talent and went to work on the defensive side of his game to become an ideal two-way player. So while Perron may not be what teams and scouts thought he would be and wanted, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, he may be what you need.

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Home Sweet Home, The Slump Buster

128794346Whether you are battling injuries, off the field issues, team chemistry, a change in team philosophy, or just need a change of scene. Every team needs them, the slump buster.

In baseball if you are a pitching staff with woes there is the Atlanta Braves. In basketball if your team is having trouble there is the Philadelphia 76ers. And in the NFL if anything at all is wrong with your team you can count on a game against the Cleveland Browns to make you feel better and bust your slump, giving your team the confidence it needs.

Recently the St. Louis Blues were in desperate need of a slump buster. And the Blues may have found it in their schedule, home. The Blues will play 11 of their next 15 games at home and kicked off that stretch with wins on back to back nights to extend their home record this year to 5-1 with one shootout loss. The Blues were coming into this home stand off back to back losses in which they were out scored 11-2. In a season full of change, they needed one more change.

And that change came with the familiarity of returning home. The 2016-17 season soundtrack should probably be Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has already announced this will be his last year behind the bench for the Blues, they have head coach in waiting Mike Yeo on the staff, they lost several prominent veterans in David Backes, Brian Elliott, Steve Ott, and Troy Brouwer, they are implementing a new system of play. With all of the changes the return home can be the team’s slump buster.

They should now be able to work on the new style of play during practices without having to adjust times because of travel, or worrying about being tired. The new system is exciting to watch but this is something new for them. Although the Blues’ style of play has been entertaining to watch with them ripping shots from all angles rather than trying to set up for the perfect shot like in the past; this is still a new system. They need to practice it and work on it. As exciting as it is to see Alex Pieterangelo hit Paul Stastny on a quick outlet pass, just imagine once the players get used to the quicker pace and developing a type of chemistry that we have seen glimpses of on their quick connection passes.

With the return home they can also feed off the energy from the fans, boosting their confidence. We saw them earlier this week falter in New York, with an abysmal 5-0 loss. It seemed as though they had no energy. They fell behind early and although they out shot the Rangers in the game it was a common thread that has shown as of late, lack of teamwork. The Blues may be out shooting their opponents but the offense has been lacking. That comes from not working with each other. And when the Blues are struggling, the fans’ energy at the rink should ideally energize the team.

It is that spark of energy at home that has already shown itself to be key in this home stand. The Blues scored first in both games this weekend, winning both games. Today, against the Avalanche, the Blues scored in the first period for the first time in seven games. Do you know what the Blues record is this season when scoring first? It is now 6-1-2, when they don’t score first it is 1-3. Scoring first is key for this team right now. And the energy from the fans can help the team come out fired up.

During the next 15 games for the Blues they will host top teams like the Blackhawks and Capitals in addition to traditional nemesis’ the Stars and Sharks. This portion of the schedule comes at the perfect time for the Blues; like when a desperately lonely man is seeking out some comfort at 3 in the morning and spots a similarly situated woman across the room. The Blues need to build their confidence and nothing does that quite as perfectly as home sweet home.

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SLU, Jump On the Wagon Early

slubluecrew_crop_northLast week local talk was abuzz with Saint Louis University basketball news, and we aren’t talking about the horrifying new school logo. The Billikens had just received an oral commitment from Carte’Are Gordon, one of the most highly desired recruits in the nation. This was just months after pulling off a seemingly large upset and signing Jordan Goodwin to a National Letter of Intent. Ever since SLU announced the hiring of Travis Ford as their head coach the local hoops scene has suddenly been thrust back into the limelight.

While SLU did manage three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament from 2012-14, in which they won at least 26 games each season, it has been awhile since SLU basketball has received the kind of buzz they are generating now. And it all begins with bringing in the best local talent. They may have been a year late on getting Jayson Tatum (heading to Duke) to join his father’s alma mater but they are quickly making up ground locally with recruits and grabbing up the best local talent since they were able to bring Larry Hughes aboard back in 1997.

I have been able to watch local hoopster Jordan Goodwin, a senior this year at Althoff, up-close for the last three years. While Goodwin may not have the natural, explosive skills that put him on a McDonald’s All-American team he is by all means a player that every coach wants. Goodwin can do anything that is asked on the court; score (19 ppg), rebound (9 rpg), or run the offense (3.2 apg). A 6’4″ guard Goodwin has all the tools to be a glue type of player at the next level, just as he has been in high school, filling whatever role is needed. The Billikens snatched Goodwin away from the University of Illinois despite many saying he would choose to play there with his good friend Jeremiah Tilmon.

Once SLU nabbed Goodwin it seemed to put them on the local radar for recruits. Because just months later the Billikens received an oral commitment from Carte’Are Gordon. Gordon is a different type of player than Goodwin. Gordon is a 6’9″ uber-athletic power forward who will be in his junior year at Webster Groves. Gordon is the “next-level” type of player. He is ranked anywhere between 9th and 40th nationally and just spent the summer with the USA Basketball U-17 team. Goodwin and Gordon follow in the footsteps of another local standout; Zeke Moore, a 6’6″ forward from Riverview Gardens, in joining the Blue and White.

While SLU was picked to finish last this year in the Atlantic-10 preseason poll the future appears bright for the Billikens. In addition to bringing in Goodwin next year the Billikens also signed Hasahn French, a 6’7″ power forward who choose SLU over UMass and Minnesota. They will also have transfers Javon Bess, a starter for Michigan State, and Adonys Henriquez, from Central Florida, eligible to join the team next year. Combine that with the addition of Gordon the following year and SLU has what looks to be an exciting team coming together.

The type of SLU team that Coach Ford is bringing together is different from what we have seen in the past. In the past we have had the hard-nosed, scrappy teams with Jim Crews, Rick Majerus, and Brad Soderberg on the bench. But Coach Ford is sealing the borders and keeping top local talent at home. That will only build interest locally and in a circle of life effect, garner the attention of more top local talent. Chaifetz Arena has always been a great place to watch a game, even when the games weren’t very exciting and ended with scores such as 50-40. But in the coming years we may be seeing an exciting team that can put up points and win, bringing back memories of glory days at the Arena. This is just the start for Coach Ford at SLU, he hasn’t even coached a game yet. But he is already bringing in top talent and that is always a good place to start when building a team.Who knows, maybe one day the names of Goodwin and Gordon will join the likes of Claggett, Dobbs, and Bonner in SLU folklore. My advice to local basketball fans, get in early and jump on the SLU bandwagon before it gets crowded.

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Miz-eww

middle-tennessee-missouri-football2M..I..Z…EWW!!! That’s all I can say after watching this weekend’s game between the Missouri Tigers and Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Between a team in the SEC and a team in (hold on while I look it up) Conference USA. Between a team that is the University for an entire state and a school that has to help point out where it is located in the state. A game that saw Middle Tennessee out score Mizzou and walk away with a 51-45 win at Mizzou’s homecoming.

We have seen Mizzou lose these types of games before, remember Troy back in 2004? Mizzou was ranked #19 and lost to Troy despite having a Heisman hopeful on the team in Brad Smith. But Saturday’s game was worse than the game against Troy because Troy pulled out all the stops in that game 12 years ago; using fake punts and wide receiver passes. This past Saturday’s game Mizzou was flat-out outplayed by Middle Tennessee. This was a game that Mizzou should never lose.

Sure Mizzou was coming off two pitiful performances (LSU and Florida) and the Blue Raiders showed they could put up points at times this season. But Middle Tennessee is still a team that lost to Vanderbilt, a team that Mizzou is expected to hang around with in the SEC, by 23 points. Mizzou is playing in arguably the toughest conference in college football while Middle Tennessee had just joined Conference USA in 2013 after spending the previous decade plus in the Sun Belt Conference.

The main reason for the Tigers’ loss on Saturday was once again the overwhelming story of the 2016 season, the faltering Tiger defense. The Tiger defense had ranked in the top 15 in the NCAA for several consecutive seasons, including last year. They even earned the moniker “D-Line University” for routinely sending defensive linemen to the NFL. And despite the loss of two defensive linemen this past offseason and the graduation of Kentrell Brothers, there was still plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball coming into this year. They have possibly their best defensive back in 20 years with Aarion Penton and the defensive line features two future NFL players in Charles Harris and Terry Beckner. So why the lack of success this year?

You need look no further than the coaching staff’s decision to change their defensive scheme; going from a pressure and attacking front to a gap control scheme. Rather than letting their most talented players (the defensive linemen) do what they do best, and control the point of attack; they have asked their players to maintain gap control. The reason is because they want to shut down their opponents running game in a running dominant conference. Seems like a good idea. However the Tigers are thinking too much in this scheme and that is showing in the game.

Sure there were games when the Tigers defense allowed big running games in the past (see the game against Auburn in the SEC Championship game). But the defensive change hasn’t made a difference at all this year with Middle Tennessee State running for 300 yards on Saturday. This was three weeks after seeing LSU have two running backs go for over 100 yards each against Mizzou.

I understand that they have a new coach and he used this same system in Memphis where it worked and helped make him a rising name in coaching circles. But why depart from a scheme that helped put your program on the map, attracting potential recruits, and then stick with a scheme that is clearly not working. Rather than players shooting into the bacfield and making plays they are now standing up at the snap of the ball and thinking about their assignments. Now not only are players not succeeding on the field, but they are not happy off the field. In all honesty these players (such as Harris and Beckner) have NFL asperations. And they aren’t putting up the statistics that will look good come draft time.

Yes winning changes things. If they were having success with this scheme then maybe players would be happier. But there have been rumblings that players do not like this scheme either. And we have all heard that coach speak about “buying in”. There were plenty of missed tackles on Saturday and players should never give up on a play. But the biggest reason for such a drastic change in results is the coaching scheme. This is on the coaches not the players.

While an attacking defensive front may get gouged with big runs on occasion it can also create big plays, even on non-passing plays. A defensive linemen in the backfield creates just as much havoc during a hand-off as when the quarterback is getting sacked. It is hard to change-up a scheme in mid-season but it’s not like the lack of defense wasn’t noticeable before this past week. The defense has looked porous all season long, outside of their expansion level opponent Delaware State. The coaches should have seen that changes needed to be made earlier.

So why not just tell the players to go all-out, think less and relying on instinct. You just might get the players more excited and start creating plays on the defensive side of the ball. Heck what’s the worst that can happen? You lose to Middle Tennessee State on homecoming? Oh wait, that already happened. Mizewwww.

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So Far, So Good

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Photo Credit: Scott Rovak via http://www.nhl.com/blues/

Coming into the 2016-17 season my biggest question for the St. Louis Blues was “What kind of team will they be?” With Ken Hitchcock announcing this will be his last year behind the bench for the organization, a coach-in-waiting already on staff, the big three roster departures, and a shift in play style; there were plenty of reasons to be nervous about this season for the Blues. Would this season be a step back? Would this just be a team in transition? But after just three games those concerns have been erased as quick as a Vladimir Tarasenko snapshot.

Let’s first get this out of the way. Yes, it has only been three games. The Blues in fact got off to a fast start last year as well, opening the season by going 5-1. And showed scoring punch in those games as well, netting 21 goals in their first six games. So the end results aren’t anything new for the Blues, who are the only team in the NHL right now with three wins and who rank second in the league in goals scored. But it is the means that has fanbase excited.

The new, faster paced, puck possession style that Hitchcock promised during the summer has been a drastic change over their dump-in, play the body style that we have been used to under Hitchcock’s regime. While the Blues are actually averaging fewer shots this year than last year (27.3 to 30.2) they are also allowing four fewer shots per game. And this is where I think the change in style of play has made the biggest difference. When the Blues play a possession style game they are able to take advantage of their offensively talented defensemen. With Alex Pieterangelo, Colton Parayko, Kevin Shattenkirk, and yes even Jay Bouwmeester; the Blues have four above average offensive defensemen. Putting the puck on their sticks more often to move the puck up ice and into the attacking zone is something that can propel the Blues’ success this season.

In the past despite having these offensively talented players on the blue line the Blues preferred to reach center ice and throw the puck in or even at times skate right up to the blue line and just chip it in rather than carry the puck in. This is something I pointed out back in the playoffs when watching teams advance, the successful teams did not freely give up the puck when moving into the attacking zone.

Whether it was done out of necessity, because of the loss of physical type players like David Backes and Troy Brouwer, or if it was an edict passed down by Doug Armstrong and the higher-ups; the Blues and Hitchcock seem to have finally bought in with the shifting style of play in the NHL. Now we have heard Hitchcock promise before to go faster, and we have seen the Blues attempt to play with smaller players before. But the immediate success of the new style of play for the Blues this year will hopefully be enough to prevent Hitchcock from falling back to his old coaching ways.

The NHL season is a long one, and there are sure to be ups and downs. But after three games this season and seeing how the Blues are playing I no longer think this year will just be a transition season. They have already answered my question, “What kind of team will the Blues be?”…the Blues are a young, transitioning team that haven’t lowered their expectations. The St. Louis Blues are a team to get excited about and expect success from in 2016-17.

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