Final Big Ten Standings show Early Season Favorites Struggle while Nebrasketball is Alive and Well

Final Big Ten Standings (and analyzing where the favorites went wrong) 

As predicted, the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans occupied the top of the conference for most of the year.  Not including a non-conference loss to Georgetown, Michigan State stumbled down the stretch to close their regular season to the tune of a 5-6 record.  By giving the Spartans two of those losses to sweep the season series, Michigan clinched the regular season title.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin fell off the pace in the early portion of the season and seemed to lose the momentum that prompted the best start in their school’s history.  But an eight-game winning streak brought them from 4-5 to 12-5 in conference with a chance to claim 2nd place outright in the final game of the season.  A loss on the road to the suddenly stingy-at-home Nebraska Cornhuskers ended those hopes.  Without further ado, here are the final standings for the 2014 Big Ten basketball season and how the results compared to my predictions:

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Some teams played with lower variance from the expectation (both good and bad), finishing with six or less “unexpected results” and finishing within one game of their final expected standings.  Teams in this category include: Michigan, MinnesotaIndiana and Purdue.  While no one outside of West Lafayette, Indiana likely expected more from this Purdue Boilermaker team, a veteran coach Matt Painter surely has to be disappointed in Purdue’s performance.  Minnesota, on the other hand, had tournament aspirations dashed after some head-scratching losses and only two wins on the road in conference.

On the crazy side, some teams wildly traversed through their seasons, finishing with eight or more unexpected results – and naturally with mixed consequences – including: Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern.  At the bottom of the conference, Northwestern impressed early in the year with surprising wins against Illinois, at Indiana, at Wisconsin, and at Minnesota, but they soon returned back to Earth with losses at home to Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State.  The Wildcats finished two games above their expectations at 6-12, surprisingly performing better on the road (4-5) than at home (2-7).

Illinois is another team that exhibited this superior road performance phenomenon, but a 4-5 away record vs 3-6 home record advantage is hardly indicative of some underlying talent on the road.  Despite starting with high expectations for themselves, they finished an inconsistent season two games under my already-lowered expectations.

Projected at the start of the conference portion of the schedule to finish near the top of the conference, Ohio State had an abysmal season by Thad Matta’s standards, finishing three games below expectations.  This was largely due to Craft & Co consistently failing to hold home court and losing both chances they had against Penn State.  Wisconsin’s conference season was a mixed bag but they finished right in line with expectations.  By tying for 2nd in the conference during the regular season, Bo Ryan’s streak of leading Wisconsin to a top 4 finish in the Big Ten is extended to a remarkable 13 years…sigh.

Here are the Home-Away splits for each team:

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Michigan out-performed my expectations by one game – largely a product of their league-best 7-2 record on the road.  However, finishing with an 8-1 home record is what really clinched the Big Ten Regular Season Conference title.  The home loss for the Wolverines came against Wisconsin, as the Badgers avenged their home loss in the first meeting between the teams in Madison, Wisconsin.

As a quick side note, Michigan beat Nebraska 71-70 in Lincoln, Nebraska early in the season on January 9th, making them the only team to win on the road at Nebraska in conference play.  Nebraska was 0-2 at the time, well on their way to an 0-4 and subsequently 1-5 start.  That means they finished the last twelve games of their season 10-2!  Who saw that coming??

For a blast into the past, check out this article by Jason King published on ESPN back in August of 2012, only a couple months after Nebraska hired Tim Miles: http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/8225419/all-access-recruiting-nebraska-coach-tim-miles-men-college-basketball.

King shadowed Tim Miles on his first summer on the Nebras-ketball recruiting trail, writing an excellent piece that showed the rigorous timeline Miles held himself to.  After reading the article in 2012, I recall being impressed by both Miles’s friendly demeanor and competitive tenacity, and more so how they could exist simultaneously.

Plenty of people expected a turnaround after seeing Miles’s track record at North Dakota State and Colorado State University.  But very few expected it this fast.  Almost two years after his hiring, Nebraska stole the role of Big Ten breakout basketball team of the year from Iowa, who slipped to three games under my expectations.  Supporters of TIm Miles have to be growing in number every day, and the group of people who decided to hire him have to be smiling even brighter than before.

Let’s get a better look at how the top of the conference shook out.  In the following table, the individual unexpected results are shown for the top half of the conference, consisting of the pre-season favorites plus Nebraska.

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While Wisconsin played to my expectations, fellow pre-season favorites Michigan State, Ohio State, and Iowa each underperformed by three games for different reasons.

The formula is very clear: hold home court and travel solidly.  Iowa failed to hold home court, and only stole a few wins on the road over similar under-performers.  Retroactively looking, their schedule was probably the toughest since their one-plays were against Purdue and Nebraska at home, and Penn State and Indiana on the road.  Missing a chance to play those teams a second time hurt their chances this year.

Ohio State had problems extending well into every aspect of their game.  Similar to Iowa, they did not travel particularly well, going 4-5 on the road.  Three losses at home is not a death sentence, but it becomes one when one of those losses is the first half of a season sweep to Penn State.

Michigan State struggled against its fellow top competition during the regular season, going 0-4 against the group of teams that make up the top 4 in the conference and going 1-5 against the top 5.

(click chart to embiggen)

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At the end of the Big Ten regular season, the Michigan Wolverines are your champions by a full 3 games!

Analyzing the Final Stretch of the Big Ten Basketball Season (and see where each team will finish)

Updating Current Standings, Talking Underachievers (and see where each team will finish)

49 games left in the 108 game season

Now that every team has rounded the corner and is into the home stretch, I figured we would evaluate the conference landscape again.  And maybe alter the predictions a bit since we have more information about each team.  Following are the current Big Ten standings, along with the deviation each team has made from the results I predicted at the beginning of the season.

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The deviation isn’t calculated by total wins and losses compared to the final standings, but by wins and losses accrued compared to their expected total at this point of the season.  For example, the Iowa Hawkeyes have performed right in line with their expected results through their first 10 games (win% = 60%), not with their expected results through all 18 (66.7%).

As you can see, most of the teams want to be .500, as seven teams are separated by two wins!

For comparison, here were the starting predictions from the beginning of the season (click to embiggen n such).

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The overachievers so far this season fall into two categories.  The Michigan Wolverines are the lone “surprise” team to qualify as a conference contender, while the second category of “surprises” dragged any potential Big Ten bubble teams into NIT oblivion.  This bottom of the barrel category includes the Northwestern Wildcats and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who currently combine to be 6 games better than their expected records.

The underachievers are teams that had stellar tournament resumes in the non-conference portion of their schedules, yet couldn’t produce amidst the tight, suffocating Big Ten defenses – as Minnesota and Illinois are currently a combined 7 games below their expected records.  By struggling mightily out of the gate, each team blew their shot at a reasonable seed on the bubble and made their NIT championship aspirations clear.

For some reason, these two seemingly-perennially talented teams can’t put together a cohesive, mistake-free basketball team.  Only essentially winning out or winning the Big Ten tournament would get these teams in the field.  (Indiana would normally fall into this category as well, but concerns about their returning talent made this drop-off more foreseeable.)  The common thread connecting these struggling teams are their new head coaches.  The Illinois Fighting Illini are led for the second year by head coach and former Michigan-killer, John Groce.  You may remember him from such times as Michigan’s 2012 loss to Ohio in the round of 64.  Richard Pitino, son of Michigan-killer Rick Pitino, is the Minnesota Golden Gopher’s man at the helm for the first year.  His only prior head coaching experience is an 18-14 campaign for Florida International (maybe we should figure out the correlation between years head coaching at a school and the success of that school in the Big Ten).  I will talk more about these teams in a moment, after the expected final standings.

For clarity, the deviations from the expected results of each game so far leads to the following expected final standings.  The predictions of each game that give these final standings have not changed from the beginning of the year due to observation bias of each team.  I resisted the urge to come up with an alternate set of predictions to penalize struggling teams like Illinois and reward teams like Northwestern because I believe they will revert back to the mean somewhat over the rest of the season.  That means we get funky results like…. The Wisconsin Badgers continue to lose and Michigan doesn’t fall ball to Earth from the Blazing-Ball-Of-Winning it is currently riding.  Which, maybe it will happen? But maybe not. Anyway, I’m sticking with it and here are the adjusted final standings to be expected.

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Underachievers

Thus far, a couple teams have underperformed expectations, but not severely (the Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes).  They can make their way back into the championship race.  Other teams have imploded in the worst way possible, leaving no hope for the rest of the season (Minnesota and Illinois).

While Minnesota hasn’t brought in a Rivals 4-star recruit since Rodney Williams in 2009, every coach has to understand the necessity of high-level talent to compete for a championship – so there can be no sympathy for Richard Pitino there.  The obvious star-ranking disclaimer applies here: Trey Burke was rated lower than 140 other players in his class. Star-rankings are not infallible; they are just very, very, predictive..  So the lack of 4-star recruits isn’t alarming by itself.

However, Minnesota’s offense has been so lackluster that the talent-void is a problem.  They play at one of the slowest paces in the country, which allows them to miraculously lose games consecutively at Nebraska, to Northwestern, and at Purdue, while winning others at home against Ohio State and Wisconsin.  By itself, a team that plays at a slow tempo is not bad.  Positively, it can suggest that a team forces its defenders to work for the whole shot clock on a long, brutal, well-orchestrated possession.  However, with Minnesota’s 165th nationally ranked field goal percentage, it suggests Minnesota struggles to get open look chances for drivers and shooters.  Likewise, in the Big Ten, they commit the 9th most turnovers and 10th most fouls, a product of an undisciplined team.

On the other hand, Illinois has NO excuse for their less than inspiring performances in Big Ten play so far.  They have a balance of talented players in each class and a pair of senior leaders in guard Joseph Bertrand and three-point shooting forward Jon Ekey.  Their problems run so numerous it isn’t conducive to count them all here.  The most alarming statistic is their inability to create assists for each other, ranking dead last in the conference and 330th in the country in total assists.  They simultaneously can’t make three-pointers, ranking 275th in three-point field-goal percentage on offense, while allowing their opponents to make them at a 34.5% clip, good for 193rd in the country.  It’s an ugly combination.

Home Stretch

Amongst all the contenders, Michigan has the least favorable closing schedule.  In fact, only Illinois and the Purdue Boilermakers have a tougher remaining schedule in the whole conference.  This makes the Michigan’s final expected record incredibly tough to attain.

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For comparison’s sake, Ohio State essentially has the advantage of playing the #62 team in the country eight times instead of playing the #42 team in the country eight times.  That is the difference between St. Bonaventure/Colorado/Stephen F. Austin (#61,#62,#63) and Kansas State/St. John’s/Xavier (#41,#42,#43).  What slate looks easier?

In breaking down the final stretch of games for the two frontrunners, Michigan and Michigan State, the Michigan State Spartans have the clear advantage.  While no games in the Big Ten season are considered “gimmes,” MSU has a few games that would qualify as the equivalent of a four-foot tap-in putt, as their home slate eases up considerably.  Following is the schedule for each team’s final home and away games, ordered from top to bottom by toughness.

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Michigan State has three home games left against lower-tier teams where they should hold home-court easily, whereas Michigan only has two.  On the road however, the Spartans have a tough slate filled with dangerous teams, including their return leg to Ann Arbor.

In order to not lose ground, both teams will need to win on the road against Purdue.  A similar situation occurs as they both have to play in Columbus against Ohio State.  OSU will be anxious to make up ground in the conference race against Michigan and may be fighting for a piece of the conference title against MSU on the last day of the season.  Besides the rematch in Ann Arbor between UM and MSU, the away games against OSU will be either Michigan team’s best chance to take an inherent advantage in the race and register a W instead of an L.

Finally, common games in opposite barns (home/away) against Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois will be the coin flip to decide who deserves the title.

Whereas….

Michigan has Wisconsin at home and Iowa and Illinois on the road

Michigan State has Wisconsin on the road and Iowa and Illinois at home.

(Substituting Indiana for Northwestern at home looks like a disadvantage, but it isn’t – Northwestern has actually done better on the road in conference!)

That makes three toss-ups for Michigan and only two for MSU (playing Illinois at home no longer counts as a tough game).  Unfortunately, Michigan could stumble their way across the gate with five or six more losses if nothing goes well, whereas MSU can really only suffer a maximum of four more.

The only sure thing left about the season is that whoever wins the rematch between the two teams in Ann Arbor will have their nose just about crossing the finish line first.

First Quarter Big Ten Conference Review

Big Ten Conference Basketball Predictions (adjusted for results)

A quarter of the way through the Big Ten season, the standings are starting to take shape. Here we will update the conference standings and compare the expected results against what really happened.  The state of Michigan is off to a combined 9-0 start while the rest of the Big Ten is 19-28.

But the schedule will toughen up for the Michigan Wolverines starting today as they have an away date with a Wisconsin club fresh off a bitter loss at Indiana.  How Wisconsin will react to their first loss of the season is unclear.  And while Michigan had defensive issues of their own exposed in closer than expected wins over Nebraska and Penn State, they have to be feeling good about how they are playing because of their undefeated record.

After playing Wisconsin in Madison tonight, the Iowa Hawkeyes come to Ann Arbor to challenge Michigan’s competency at home.  Finishing the brutal three game stretch is an away game in East Lansing against the Michigan State Spartans.

For those of you keeping track at home, those three teams currently combine for a remarkable 46-5 record.  It will be a tough stretch to say the least.

Luckily, the Michigan Wolverines can outperform anyone at home – illustrated by their 16-2 record at home in Big Ten play the last two seasons.  And if they can hold home-court and only beat Iowa during this hellish stretch, most people will consider it a victory.  However, challenges breed opportunity – and stealing a win from MSU or Wisconsin would make Michigan a favorite for the rest of the Big Ten season, firmly entrenched in the contender category.

While winning two of the next three is still an unlikely proposition, the 4-0 record Michigan currently sports has to give them the confidence to make it possible.

After that, a home date with Purdue closes out the January portion of the schedule.

Standings as of January 18th:

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Without further ado, here are my adjusted expected final Big Ten standings:

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The rationale behind adjusting the standings was not based on performance or style, just the game results versus my initial outcomes.

Here are my thoughts about the results organized by team:

Penn St: Indiana and Minnesota both won in State College, PA. Then lost to Michigan on the road. Both validate their place in the lowest tier, probably at the bottom.

Nebraska: They lost to Michigan on their own home court and then at Purdue, validating their place in the lowest tier.

Northwestern: Lost to Michigan and Iowa on the road. Unsurprisingly, lost to MSU at home. However, came out of their home court with a win against Illinois. Upgrading expectations slightly – but more likely just a result of playing against in-state rivals.

Purdue: Beat Nebraska at home – validating spot in bottom-mid tier.  Split on the road with a loss at Minnesota, but surprisingly won at Illinois, slightly upgrading expectations.

Indiana: Expectedly lost to MSU at home in Bloomington, validating their place in the middle tier.  Held home-court by beating Wisconsin for the first time in thirteen attempts. Won on the road against Penn State, as they should.

Minnesota: Won at home vs Purdue and OSU, Won on the road against Penn State, but lost on the road vs MSU.

Illinois: Expectedly won at home vs PSU and lost on the road at Wisconsin.  Major downgrade after a loss at home to Purdue and but lost also lost at NW, downgrading expectations. Lost at home vs Wisconsin.

Iowa: Holds home-court vs NW, loses on the road to Wisconsin.  Surprisingly wins on the road at OSU.

Wisconsin: Holds home vs Iowa, Illinois.  Loses on the road at Indiana.

OSU: Holds home vs Nebraska, but fails at home against Iowa.  Loses on the road at MSU and Minnesota.

Michigan: Wins on the road at Nebraska and at home against cupcakes NW and PSU don’t go very far to validate this team’s place near the top of the standings yet, but that early season win at Minnesota is looking better after Minnesota’s upset of OSU.

MSU: Winning everywhere, even if it gets close (OT games at home vs OSU and Minnesota). But also winning on the road at Indiana (who just beat Wisconsin in Bloomington) and cupcake Northwestern.

More to come (1/12/14)

Hey everyone! Not much to talk about right now.. Besides close games in Lincoln, Nebraska and Madison, Wisconsin, an upset of Ohio State in Columbus by the Iowa Hawkeyes is the lone surprise of the week.

In a few days we’ll break down the first quarter of the Big Ten season, assessing the outcomes and adjusting the end of year expectations. In addition we’ll talk more about the Michigan men’s basketball team and what players will need to perform to carry this year’s team past the Sweet Sixteen.

Thanks for your patience, folks!

Complete Big Ten Conference Predictions

Big Ten Conference Basketball Predictions (plus other Week 1 observations)

Since the inception of the Big Ten schedule on New Year’s Eve, the first week’s results show the clear divide between the guaranteed tournament teams that should occupy the top 25 all year and teams fighting for a chance into the back end of the NCAA tournament.

While Michigan has a great team looking to build on the success the program has had recently, it has struggled against top-notch competition (see: @Duke, vs. Arizona).  Even more unfortunately for Michigan, its two most hated rivals – Ohio State and Michigan State – are currently ranked #3 and #4(Coaches)/#5(AP) in the country, depending on who you ask.

It doesn’t matter much because in either case, a third Big Ten team rounds out the top five – Wisconsin clocking in at #5/#4.

For anyone keeping track, Michigan is #34 in both “others receiving votes category” right now.  For a team with five freshmen and sophomores in a recently-depleted seven-deep rotation (senior Jordan Morgan and junior Jon Horford are the lone upperclassmen), early struggles are expected.  By the end of the year, expect this team to be in the top 25.  But winning the Big Ten will take a fantastic effort.

Since the schedule will be so important in determining the Big Ten champion in a season with so many talented teams at the top – we’ll keep an updated list of the results of the season here.  In addition, we’ll talk about the results of the year compared to the expected outcomes, so we will really know when the tide has shifted in someone’s favor.

It will also make for a great tool to keep track of rooting interests that most favor the Michigan Wolverines later in the season…

Without further ado, since most people in southeast Michigan are covered in snow… here is the forecast for 2014 Big Ten men’s basketball season:

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A season sweep by Michigan State over Ohio State will be the difference at the top.  Five teams – MSU, Michigan, OSU, Wisconsin, and Iowa – all finish in the top 25, securing tournament bids.

The three bubble teams in Minnesota/Illinois/Indiana suffer to find opportunities to get quality wins against the teams at the top, winning mostly only while playing at home.

The first punches in the battle will be thrown this week when Wisconsin hosts Iowa today, Sunday, at 6:30 and then Illinois on Wednesday.  Ohio State visits Michigan State on Tuesday with a chance to make a big statement.  If they win, its not only a big resume-building win early in the season – it is a big tiebreaker in the conference race to go along with the confidence they gain beating the Spartans in Breslin.

Look for both Wisconsin and Michigan State to ferociously hold home-court with close wins.

Standings as of January 4th :

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Last week:

Michigan earned an early win on the road over Minnesota last week, causing concerns about Minnesota’s closing ability in-conference yet again.  As for Michigan, the win upgrades conference expectations, even amidst questions regarding Glenn Robinson III’s health.

While little information has been put out regarding his long-term or short-term status, Beilein was pressured into giving a statement and cautiously classified Robinson as a “game-time decision.”

Ankle injuries can be especially nagging, and if the injury isn’t given adequate time to fully heal up-front, the injury can be re-aggravated easily and the location can be a reoccurring spot of pain when the player returns to full speed.

I would love to see Robinson III sit for as long as it takes to guarantee he won’t be suffering any symptoms come tournament time in March, when every team needs to be playing its best basketball.

While there were likely unique factors influencing the decisions of the Mitch McGary and the staff, hopefully the staff avoids risking a recurring injury like McGary’s, where his back pain was clearly present in the summer, but only now was the pain severe enough or limiting his play enough to warrant surgery.

Regardless, Michigan’s season is off on the right foot. And it continues noon, Sunday the 5th, at home in Michigan’s only game of the season versus Northwestern.

A Discussion of the Future of the Michigan-Michigan State Football Rivalry

Michigan State’s recent football is success is much more than the result of merely the last year of work.  What State’s success is built on started when Mark Dantonio was hired to be the head coach for the 2007 football season and is the result of State recruiting the right players into the program ever since.

Note that the word that we chose is not the best players – rather it says the right players.  State’s success is the result of the right kids joining up with a man that knew the how to win within the system.

Michigan State is no football slouch, but recruiting top-notch talent to East Lansing has never been done before.  Understanding this, Dantonio’s first goal was to set out to make State the premier destination for in-state kids.

A man by the name of Rich Rodriguez helped out Dantonio in this endeavor by choosing to leave the state of Michigan virtually untouched, choosing instead to harvest Florida for players like Denard Robinson.

For four classes from 2008-2011, Michigan grabbed only 20 players from the state of Michigan.  Meanwhile in one class, Michigan State signed ten players from Michigan, including soon-to-be star, Max Bullough.

After Dantonio was ridiculed for stating his desire for State to recruit nationally, it was he who had the last laugh – many key parts on both sides of the Rose Bowl winning Spartan team are from out-of-state recruits.  Wide receivers, defensive backs, and running backs from Florida and Georgia combine well with lineman from California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to form a team that is increasingly more national with each passing year.

However, Brady Hoke’s first full classes bucked the Wolverine’s downward trend by signing 9 players from Michigan in 2012 – including 8 of the state’s top 12 (compared to 2 for State), and 8 players in 2013 – including 6 of the top 11 (compared to 3 for State).

The balance of power in the state of Michigan for more than just the foreseeable future is surely up for grabs.  If Michigan State parlays this Rose Bowl season into a successful recruiting class filled with system players from around the country, there’s no reason to believe their temporary loss of recruiting control in the state of Michigan will be the end of the Spartan’s dominance of the rivalry.  While a traditionally successful Michigan Wolverines team will draw talent away from a Michigan State Spartans team, the final pieces yet to decide during this year’s recruiting cycle are falling green.  Unfortunately for the Wolverine, Michigan State can continue to hone its ability to run the ball and play the stingiest defense allowed by rules with any personnel – meaning they won’t miss a high school senior that chooses another university.

The catch of course is that Michigan typically recruits better than Michigan State – yet has been losing anyway.  So some ask why this is even a question.  This is true.  Recently it has been obvious that State has superior player development.  However Michigan’s would-be senior class, signed in 2010, is in absolute desolation.  This doesn’t explain why the losing started in 2008, but is important to understanding the current state of affairs – even if it won’t matter during Brady Hoke’s annual performance review.

Out of the 27 kids who committed, only 8 are still on the roster, with only Devin Gardner, Drew Dileo, Courtney Avery, and Jibreel Black becoming contributors.  Several of the committed players never made it to campus, some suffered career-ending injuries, while more left for more playing time elsewhere or just left football altogether.  While the class was ranked higher than Michigan State’s at the time of signing, Michigan’s is obviously handicapped.

And the suffering is not over for Michigan yet.  While the team was young along the interior of the offensive line and the defensive backfield last year, they at least had a reliable group of seniors.  This season, several more veterans graduate leaving behind starting spots to a group missing the majority of its senior class.  The absences will be felt mostly along the offensive and defensive lines and at the wide receiver position.

In other words or if you didn’t follow those last couple paragraphs, Michigan uf’d up again.

On the other side, Michigan State’s team is thriving.  There are underclassmen training in a system they will be executing in two years, sure of its merits.  So while Michigan is searching for answers on both sides of the ball, Michigan State really is reaching their full potential as Sparta, stocking up and constantly preparing for the next round of battles.  Once the last of Michigan’s small class of 2010 is gone and graduated after the 2014 season, there will be no more excuses for underperforming.  The roster will be fully stocked and the two-deep depth charts will be full of talented upperclassmen.  The only question becomes, does the Michigan coaching staff survive until then?

Why Doug Fister Had To Go

Why Doug Fister Had To Go (instead of Rick Porcello):

Before we get into the importance of starting pitching vs having a dominant bullpen in today’s game, let’s look at the core of the Tiger’s starting pitching staff as they will stand at the beginning of next season:

Justin Verlander = 31 years old. Salary = $20 million. He is worth every penny just to stop him from ever pitching for another team. Never slowing down since his debut season when he won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006 – his MVP and Cy Young award speak for themselves, but one thing he would love to add to his resume is a World Series MVP.

Anibal Sanchez = 30 years old. Salary = $8 million. Apparently learned a few things from being around the guys on the staff as he finished 4th in Cy Young voting after lowering his ERA to a career best 2.57 and his WHIP to a career low 1.154, while tying his career best with 202 strikeouts.

Max Scherzer = 29 years old, but turns 30 in the middle of the season in July.  Salary will increase this year with arbitration to ~$13 million.  Coming off a Cy Young season of his own, he is worth the money to keep and watch how he develops into his 30s.

That’s a core of pitchers that makes any manager happy come playoff time, when every game counts.  Not unrelated is the fact they command over $40 million annually, or about the salary of the whole Miami Marlins team.

Here is the root of the problem: Doug Fister will be 30 when the season starts and Rick Porcello will be 25.  That would mean our top four pitchers are all on the wrong side of 30.

To give that some scale, while Porcello has had some below average years, he has postseason starting experience and has potential to keep improving.  On the other hand, Fister made his MLB debut when he was 25, in one inning of relief during a blowout loss!  While Fister had arguably the best year of his career last year with career highs in strikeouts and wins and has really come into his own as a pitcher, his WHIP has increased each of the last three seasons, reaching a career worst 1.308 last year.

First off, at age 30, like the rest of the Tiger’s expensive core starters, how many years of elite production does he have left?

The Tiger’s didn’t want to ask that question about a fourth pitcher that costs over $5 million.  Instead they calculatingly gambled that Porcello will continue improving through his prime, similarly to how Fister did, while they still have him on contract for only $3 million.

While the Tiger’s infield was just retooled to reduce our crippling defensive deficiency, both Fister and Porcello are groundball pitchers.  The defense will be improved, but it is unreasonable to expect it to become an area of strength for various reasons.

Miguel Cabrera is moving back to his old position and may not be as sharp as he once was, that is debatable.  Ace shortshop Jose Iglesias and newly-acquired veteran Ian Kinsler will man the middle for years to come, but their chemistry needs to be developed before the results start exceeding expectations.  Especially considering the uncertainty at third base, where Detroit will be installing a new starter at the position for the first time since Cabrera switched positions.

Secondly, the value of starting pitchers only goes so far.  Since the Tigers first reached the World Series again in 2006, teams with stellar relief pitching have won all the World Series titles – whereas the Tiger’s bullpen has been and is still an area of concern.  While starting pitchers eat up innings throughout the year and provide high value, games are rarely won in the first six inning.

Powerhouse Bullpens and World Series Championships:

2006: St. Louis Cardinal’s closer, Jason Isringhausen, is the Cardinals highest paid pitcher.

2007: Boston Red Sox have eight relief pitchers who pitched in 20 or more games that have an ERA less than 4.0 – four of which are near a 2.0 ERA!

2008: Philadelphia Phillies have six relief pitchers with an ERA 3.5 or less who each pitched 40-90 innings.

2009: New York Yankees. Two words. Mariano Rivera.

2010: San Francisco Giants had a loaded bullpen – in addition to All-Stars Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo, this team was boosted in the playoffs by a midseason trade for relievers Ramirez and Lopez, who put up ERAs of 0.67 and 2.34 respectively

2011: St. Louis Cardinals. A midseason trade for Edwin Jackson allows a respected pitcher, Kyle McClellan, to transition to the bullpen filled with solid righties and lefties to allow for situational substituting (righty vs righty, lefty vs lefty).

2012: San Francisco Giants, led by Sergio Romo, has a bullpen with five pitchers under 2.9 ERA.

2013: Boston Red Sox star closer Koji Uehara had a 1.09 ERA while over 12 pitchers clocked 20 or more innings in a true bullpen by committee.

Instead of mimicking the unsuccessful starting pitcher strategy of the post-2008 Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tiger’s executive Dave Dombrowski prudently dealt away one of his aging starting pitchers in exchange for two young lefties that provide extra support in the bullpen.  More importantly, he signed All-Star free agent closer Joe Nathan to a two year contract worth $20 million, addressing the main issue.

In the end, the Yankees have proved to us there is never enough money in the budget to guarantee a championship.  All Dombrowski can do is learn from the mistakes of teams in the past, and spend money on positions that have directly hurt the Tigers in the past.  I believe he has done just that.

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