Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Golfing Garbage

            I have really become infatuated with the game of golf over the last six years.  I used to play relatively often in high school, but never really found the time between partying and school work (yeah right) to get out on the links while in college.  Only once I graduated from PITT did I find myself with enough time to really get focused on improving and become a more knowledgeable golfer.
            I have never taken one lesson in my life.  For the most part I have received some advice from my father and progressed through trial and error.  I used to slice off of the tee about 75 percent of the time.  Over time I taught myself how to correct it and would go as far as to say that now I only slice about 20 percent of the time – if not less.  I actually find myself duck-hooking more than I slice, which I’m not sure is a good thing or a bad thing.  After years or slicing, I guess I’ll live with it.  My approach accuracy and putting could always use some work, but for the most part I would say that I have come a long way when it comes to improving my score.
            On a good day I can shoot in the low-to-mid 80s.  I shot my all-time low last summer when I came in with an 82 at Indian Mountain.  On a bad day I will approach 100, although I can not recall the last time I went over the century mark.  I bet that is something most amateur golfers can’t say.  Either way, averaging in the low 90s isn’t bad for someone who has only gotten serious about the game a few years ago.
            There are so many places that a person can go to get golf tips now-a-days.  There are numbers of magazines, such as Golf Digest and Golf Illustrated to name a few.  Local courses have golf pros that can give lessons.  However, perhaps the biggest source of golf information today in the Golf Channel.  I mean you can’t really beat 24 straight hours of golf.
            I watch the Golf Channel somewhat regularly now.  I’ll stop by the Golf Fix for a few pointers, check out Donald Trump’s show or watch a bit of whatever tournament is on at the time.  I will always take heed to some pointers.  I won’t do anything drastic to change my swing, but it’s always nice to learn how to play different shots.
            Unfortunately, one can’t watch the Golf Channel without seeing advertisements or infomercials for “new equipment designed to shave stokes off your score immediately.”  Now that I have become more in tune to the game of golf, I can’t help but be disgusted at some of these commercials.  I mean I know the Golf Channel is trying to market some of its new toys and make some money for the industry, but some of the things the people say are down-right laughable.  I thought the Golf Channel’s purpose was to help its viewers, not lie to them about improving their game so quickly with the use of a special club.
            The most popular tool out there is the Medicus Driver.  This driver has several hinges on it that break if the player doesn’t swing the club on the correct  swing plane.  Here is the ad for it…
            The Medicus Driver has been chosen by pros as the #1 swing trainer club in the world. It is the best selling golf training aid ever! It is used by over a million amateur golfers and thousands of professionals and now it's BETTER THAN EVER! Once you learn to swing the Medicus Driver without breaking it you know you are swing in tempo and on plane. You'll get rid of that slice and start hitting longer, straighter shots and start shooting lower golf scores!
Yes, right away people.  The golfer will start to hit it longer and straighter and cut shots within days!
Um, no they won’t.  Not unless the Medicus Driver can teach them how to chip and putt as well.  Let’s say the driver does actually help someone and they do get their swing plane for their drive down.  So what if they crank it 300 yards.  They still have 150 yards left to the pin.  Everyone knows the saying, “Drive for show, putt for dough.”
Personally, I think the drive is the least important shot of all of the shots one would play on a hole.  Obviously the player wants to keep it in bounds and not have to take a penalty, but as long as they are in play they are in decent shape.  Regardless of whether the person is in the rough or the fairway, 100 yards out or 250 yards out, even lie or downhill lie, if they really want to cut strokes they are going to have to hit a good approach shot and be able to sink a putt.
Just because the player can hit the ball longer and straighter does NOT mean they will cut strokes.  They need an all-around game.  Having a proper swing place doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to hit a good shot.  Besides, does anyone think Jim Furyk could swing the Medicus without it breaking?  I’d say 26 pro wins isn’t bad for a person who probably taught himself his own swing.  This piece will keep coming back to a central theme: Don’t focus on what everyone says will work for you.  You find what works best for you.
Next there is GPS.  Sure, it is nice to know how many yards it is to the back of a bunker or to the center of the green, but how much does it really help?  It may help the player choose the right club, but that still doesn’t help them hit it.  It’s not like they can be like, “Oh, its 147 yards to the pin?  Let me set the dial on my pitching wedge to 1-4-7.”  Not many amateurs are going to land on the green, let alone stick it two feet from the cup.  I agree, knowing the yardage helps.  Knowing whether it is exactly 173 yards or guessing it is about 180 because the 150-marker is a little bit ahead isn’t going to make or break the player.  An amateur should just concentrate on aiming for the center of the green and go from there.
Lately I have seen infomercials for the Tour Striker and the Speed-Woosh.  Cool names, right?  The Tour Striker is designed to help a player work on forward shaft lean, which is supposed to compress the ball more and make it go farther.  The Speed-Woosh is a shaft with a movable ball on it that is supposed to show the golfer how to add more club head speed.  If the ball slides down the shaft before they reach the impact zone, it’s wrong.  If the ball snaps to the end of the shaft toward the end of their downswing then they are generating the speed at the proper time.
Whatever.  I have hit 300 yard drives before.  I have hit a 3-iron over 200 yards.  I hit pitching wedges 150.  Never have I concentrated on my forward shaft lean.  The ball is only going to go a certain distance anyway.  What’s another 15 yards?  Same with club head speed.  What does it really matter?  When a player starts trying to swing harder – that’s when things get out of whack.  They can turn their hips too quick and blast it to the right and into the woods – which usually happens to me when I try to swing harder.  They can roll their top hand over too fast and hook it.  They can torque their body and turn so violently that their shoulder height changes and they top the ball or take a huge divot.  A player should swing at whatever tempo makes them feel the most comfortable.  They should do whatever helps them keep their movements in sync and the ball going straight.  Who cares if they are hitting a 9-iron into the green or a 5-iron?  They still have a chance to make it on in two.
 My personal favorite is the ads for the ‘do-everything’ utility clubs.  The infomercial shows a guy with a 4 handicap talking about how the new driving iron has helped him out so much.  Then it shows him hitting it out of a waste bunker from 200 yards out.  I highly doubt that a guy with a 4 handicap is going to be in that position more than once a round.  Why would he absolutely need that club?  The people they use for these ads are obviously not as good as they say they are or else they wouldn’t be promoting a club that helps them escape trouble so often.  Again, why lie?  Show me a guy who shoots 120 using it.  Let him tell me how it well it actually works.
Until someone comes up with the putter that Rodney Dangerfield used in CaddyShack, I will not be spending one cent on any of these gimmicks.  I have taken off an average of about ten shots over the last three years without the aide of any tool or person.  I found out what I have to do in order to hit the ball a decent distance.  I found out what I have to do in order to hit the ball straight.  That is all that matters.  Find out what works for you as an individual and work on it until it becomes a habit.  Spending hundreds of dollars on weird practice clubs won’t guarantee a reduction in strokes.  The trial-and-error system has worked well enough for me and that is what I would suggest.
Now, if I could just find out what I have to do in order to consistently sink ten-foot putts…

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Picking the Conference Finals

No. 2 Miami Heat (58-24) vs. No. 1 Chicago Bulls (62-20)
Bulls won season series, 3-0 (99-96, 93-89, 87-86)

Miami Leaders (in series)
Points: Wade, 29 (33, 34, 20)
Assists: James, 5.5 (5, 6)
Rebounds: James, 9 (10, 8)
FG %: 44.2 (99-of-224)
FT %: 78.6 (55-of-70)
3pt %: 36.7 (18-of-49)

Chicago Leaders (in series)
Points: Rose, 29 (34, 26, 27)
Assists: Rose, 6.3 (8, 6, 5)
Rebounds: Boozer, 9.6 (10, 9, 10)
FG %: 44.6 (107-of-240)
FT %: 82.3 (51-of-62)
3pt %: 25.9 (14-of-54)

Why Miami could win: LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Arguably two of the top five players in the NBA, Chicago doesn’t really have anyone who can match up with these two defensively.  Wade averaged 29 points in three games, while James wasn’t far behind at 27.5.  James missed the first game of the series with an ankle injury or else he might have been the team’s leader in scoring.  Regardless, the Bulls will be left to pick their poison with two guys that are beyond deadly.  Both are nearly unstoppable in the open court and both have developed their jump shots.  Each shot over 50 percent for the season, although I am sure a lot of shots were taken near the rim.  Still, making half of your shots is pretty darn good.  They are equally as dangerous attacking the basket.  Not to mention Wade and James tend to get most of the calls when driving to the hoop and shoot 75 percent from the line.  Then there is Chris Bosh.  Although he has been somewhat inconsistent as of late, he is still probably the best No. 3 option in the NBA.  On the other side of the ball, whereas Chicago likes to push it in the open-court, Wade and James are more than capable of trailing the play and blocking shots.  The only thing that can cool the Heat is their end-of-game performances.  It has hurt them all season.  If the Heat, let alone any team, can’t execute in the clutch then they aren’t going to win a championship.

Why Chicago could win: It never hurts to have the league’s MVP and the Bulls have that is Derrick Rose.  Rose is just as deadly, if not more, than Wade and James when attacking the hoop.  He finds space where others find none and always seems to finish in acrobatic ways.   However, his jumper is still not finely tuned as he is shooting under 42 percent so far in the playoffs.  Rose has drawn some criticism lately for shooting too often and relying on his jump shot.  If he is off from distance, he has to attack the paint or it will be a long night.  Carlos Boozer, once a top-ten player, should have an advantage over Bosh due to his size.  Bosh is more of an outside four-man and doesn’t necessarily like to play in the post.  Still, Boozer has been inconsistent as well and needs to show up.  Rose will need someone else to score with him, whether it is Boozer or Luol Deng.  If Rose is left trying to do everything by himself, the Bulls will have a tough time moving on.  With Boozer, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, Chicago should have the rebounding advantage.  Miami has size, but it isn’t as athletic as these three.

SM’s pick: As much as it pains me to say this, Miami in 6.  Even though Chicago took all three games during the regular season, this is supposed to be why the Heat came together.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want Miami to lose.  But I think the Wade/James/Bosh combo will be too much for the Bulls to keep up with.

No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs. No. 3 Dallas Mavericks (57-25)
Mavericks won season series, 2-1 (111-103, 103-93, 95-99)

Oklahoma City Leaders (in series)
Points: Durant, 29.3 (32, 28, 28)
Assists: Westbrook, 8.6 (10, 7, 9)
Rebounds: Ibaka, 7 (4, 9, 8)
FG %: 45.7 (113-of-247)
FT %: 73.6 (53-of-72)
3pt %: 43.2 (16-of-37)

Dallas Leaders (in series)
Points: Nowitzki, 22.5 (34, 11)
Assists: Kidd, 9.6 (12, 10, 7)
Rebounds: Chandler, 15.3 (18, 10, 18)
FG %: 46.7 (114-of-244)
FT %: 84.6 (55-of-65)
3pt %: 37.1 (26-of-70)

Why Oklahoma City could win: The NBA is run by super stars and Oklahoma City has one of the best in Kevin Durant (aka Fred Clarke).  He led the entire league is scoring at 27.7 point-per-game and did even better than that in his three games against Dallas.  The Thunder also have another budding super star in Russell Westbrook.  Together the two accounted for over 47 percent of the team’s scoring during the regular season.  Westbrook as recently received some flack for shooting too much, especially when he has scorer like Durant on his team.  Westbrook seemed to heed the media’s words in Game 7 against Memphis, as he put up only 12 shots to Durant’s 25.  OKC’s knock in the past has been its lack of a big man, so it went out and traded for Kendrick Perkins.  The Thunder also have Serge Ibaka, so they definitely have a defender in the paint now.  However, the thing that worries me is Durant’s disappearing acts in the playoffs thus far.  He scored 11 points in Game 6 against the Grizz, and had another game with only 19.  Against Dallas in the conference finals, one bad game could make the difference between getting to the Finals or going fishing with Kenny Smith.  If he were to struggle in, let’s say, Game 5 with the series tied 2-2 – the Thunder’s chances would be all but over.  Still, Dallas doesn’t really have anyone who can guard Durant and he is fully capable of putting his team on his back.  He will have to if Oklahoma City wants to play for a championship.

Why Dallas could win: Much like Dallas with Durant, Oklahoma City doesn’t have anyone who can D up Dirk Nowitzki.  Dirk is too big for Durant and Harden and too quick for Ibaka or Perkins.  He had 34 points in the first meeting and had 11 in 11-and-a-half minutes in the second meeting before leaving with a back injury.  The only game the Thunder won was the last meeting of the year.  However, Nowitzki and Caron Butler did not play and OKC only managed to win by four.  The two things Dallas really has going for it is its bench and its three-point shooting.  Although injuries have forced Shawn Marion into the starting lineup, the Mavs still have Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic – all of which scored over 20 points in Game 4 against the Lakers.  Game 4 also showed the Mavs’ shooting ability from deep, as they connected on 20-of-32 three-point attempts – tying a playoff record.  They finished with 49 threes in the series.  Dallas has at least five guys that can knock down a triple at any moment.  As we have seen in the past, three-pointers can change momentum in a heart beat.  The Mavs’ Tyson Chandler has been a rebound vacuum in the paint.  It will be interesting to see the matchup between him and Perkins.  Chandler is quick and skinny, while Perkins is slow and big.  Whoever can stay out of foul trouble will help their team doubly, as they will collect rebounds and protect the paint defensively.  The question for Dallas will be if DeShawn Stevenson can stay in front of Westbrook, as the older and slower Jason Kidd will almost certainly defend Thabo Sefolosha.

SM’s pick: I love the OKC story, and I love how their young talent gives it their all every single game, but Dallas will be too much.  The Mavs, who may be the best team in the NBA right now, have more firepower than the Thunder.  They should be riding high with confidence as well after dispatching the Lakers in four straight games.  Dallas in 6.

Friday, May 13, 2011

No More Washing Away Ball Games

            Imagine for a moment that you are a professional baseball player and you have finally made it to the big leagues.
            Pretend that you are Mitch Moreland, a 1B/OF for the Texas Rangers, and you have finally become an every day starter after beginning your professional career in 2007.  Five years of playing, waiting and doing your part has finally paid off.
            Now flash to this past Wednesday.  You can use whatever ‘flash’ you want.  Quantum Leap flash.  Wayne’s World flash.  For those of you who like the show ‘Scrubs,’ you can use that one.  Whichever one you like.
            You step to the plate in the third inning, as Mitch Moreland of course, with the bases loaded.  The sky is dark, the fans are screaming and the pitcher is starting to get nervous because he has just allowed five straight batters to reach base.  You tighten your grip on the bat as you realize that this is the opportunity to blow the game open.
            The pitch comes in.  SMACK!  You know it as soon as it leaves the bat.  It’s outta here.  You watch in excitement as the ball sails over the right field fence.  You try to suppress your feelings as you round the bases after your first-career grand slam but it’s hard.  Your heart is pumping.  Your hands are shaking.  You can’t wait to get back to the dugout so you can be congratulated by all your teammates.
            Then, a few minutes later, the skies open up and it begins to pour.  After hours of sitting around and waiting for the rain to let up the game is eventually postponed.  Not suspended.  Postponed.
            See, there is a big difference between the two.  Suspended means the game will pick up on a later date from the point in which the game was stopped.  Postponed means the game was cancelled.  Or in this case, it’s like it never happened.
According to MLB rules, if a game can not be finished and is not past the fifth inning (or past the top of the fourth with the home team winning), the game and its stats will not count.  The two teams will have to start over from scratch.  Only if the score is tied or the home team is losing and has yet to get its ‘last ups’ – and it is after the fifth inning - will a game be suspended and finished.
This means that first-career grand slam that you we so happy to hit no longer counts.  Your ecstatic fantasy owner that just picked you up the day before and got you into his lineup is now extremely pissed off.  Everything is erased.
On the flip side, it turned out to be a good thing for Oakland pitcher Gio Gonzalez.  His six hits and seven earned runs no longer inflate his ERA and WHIP.  His atrocious performance no longer matters.  In theory, he never even took the mound.
I think this rule is downright ludicrous.  No game or its stats should ever be erased.  Any game that is stopped due to inclimate weather should be suspended until a later date.  It’s not like it was the players’ fault that it started to rain or snow or, in Minnesota’s case, hail the size of golf balls.  There is no reason to say that just because a game did not get past the fifth inning it doesn’t count.
So Major League Baseball is telling me that if a guy becomes the 14th player to pop two grand slams in the first four innings (or the same game) and the game gets called - he is just as quickly erased from the record books?  That doesn’t sound very fair or logical to me.
What if a pitcher has struck out every batter he has faced through four innings?  What if he has a great chance of tying the all-time record for most punch-outs in a game with 20?  Just because it starts to rain and the game can’t be finished he gets his historic performance thrown by the way-side?  How dumb does that sound?
Heck, in that case if I am a pitcher and I am getting hit all over the ball park early on, I will just throw over to first base a million times and pray that it starts to rain.  I’ll step off the rubber and wipe my forehead for two hours in hopes that the game won’t make it past the fifth inning.  I know it sounds outlandish, but it’s technically a possibility.
All the two teams would have to do is finish the game as part of a double-header or on one of their days off.  It wouldn’t matter if it was the next day or the next month.  The point is that no actions went to waste.  Yeah, the same pitcher may not finish the game (although he could if it is later down the road), but he would still retain all of his accomplishments or failures.
I know it can work both ways (a guy hitting two homers or a guy striking out twice), but this obviously hurts the players with the positive stats more.  If a guy strikes out twice and gets them taken away - who cares?  But if a guy drops his first-career grand salami I bet he is going to be upset.  And who knows, maybe there are some performance-based clauses in his contract.  Maybe he comes up three RBIs short at the end of the year and loses out on $500,000.  Again, it’s a stretch, but it’s definitely possible.
The point I am trying to make is that no pitch, swing or stat should be washed out by the weather.  Instead of making up a full nine innings on a later date, why not just pick up from where the game left off.  Why should it matter if it was in the third inning or the seventh inning?
Come on, Major League Baseball.  Be nice and give Mitch Moreland back his first career grand-slam… and me my ten fantasy points.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The New Kid in Seattle

            In case you still haven’t heard of Michael Pineda, here is some help.
            The new kid in Seattle has arguably been the best rookie pitcher in the majors so far this year.
            His stats: 4-2 record, 2.58 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 39 K, 12 BB, .210 BBA – all of which are above (or below) the league average.  He has surrendered just 29 hits in 38 1/3 innings of work.  Furthermore, he has only given up two homers – both of which came in his last start against Texas.  It was also his first non-quality start of the season.  He did however post nine strikeouts for the second consecutive game. 
            Pineda may have received the loss his last time out (5-2 at home to the Rangers), but the four earned runs were the most he had given up since his first start at Texas (three).  His earned runs in six games: 3, 1, 1, 0, 2, 4.  Pretty good for a rook.
            The kid throws gas.  He hits the mid-to-upper 90s constantly and has a nice breaking ball to boot.  If opposing batters only get a hit 21 percent of the time, imagine how many times they swing and miss and look dumb.  As I told you before, he is Felix Hernandez II.
            Fortunately, while everyone slept on Pineda I was able to get him in all three of my fantasy drafts.  Lucky me.  Now I get to reap the rewards.  That is until the Mariners shut him down because they have imposed an innings limit.  I mean he is only 22 years old after all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Most Improbable No-Hitter in History

            Perhaps the most improbable no-hitter in Major League Baseball history was thrown last night, May 3, 2011.
            It wasn’t improbable because there were so many great defensive plays or the pitcher was going up against a team with a heavy-hitting lineup.  No, it was more because this certain pitcher had never thrown a complete game in his major league career and was on the verge of losing his job.
            Oh, Francisco Liriano, how you defied the odds and had me leave 56 points on my bench in my fantasy points league.
            Surprisingly, I’m not that upset with my decision to leave Liriano on the bench.  How could I be?  After seeing his first five starts of the season, I was starting to wonder if I had a shot at being a major league pitcher.  I know I could have done a better job than he was doing up until last night.  I mean Jim Abbott could have probably come out of retirement and done a better job throwing right handed.  For those unfamiliar with Jim Abbott – he has no right hand.
            Liriano entered Tuesday night’s game sporting an ugly1-4 record with a 9.13 ERA and a 1.90 WHIP.  ERA is earned run average.  It basically tells you how many runs the pitcher would allow if he pitched a whole nine innings.  The league average as of Wednesday was 3.90, so that gives you an idea of how bad Liriano has been.  WHIP is walks/hits per innings pitched, meaning he was allowing at least two guys to reach base every inning.  The league average is 1.31.  Again, not good.
            Furthermore, Liriano’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (which is a good stat to look at when determining how good a pitcher is at being consistently around the strike zone) was a mere 1:1 (18 to 18).  That’s pretty terrible.  When a pitcher sits a guy down and then promptly puts the next man on base (in theory) he isn’t going to do very well, especially if he is giving up another walk or hit in the same inning with his current WHIP.
            On top of all of that, Liriano had never ‘gone the distance’ before.  He had never recorded 27 outs in a game.  He wasn’t far off in 2006 though, when he went 8 2/3’s against Tampa in an 8-1 win - striking out seven and walking none.  Other than that he had only gone eight-plus innings six times in his 94 career starts.
            Liriano had pitched so poorly entering Tuesday night’s game that there were talks of him being replaced in the rotation.  I don’t know if he was stepping up to the challenge or if it was just his magical night.  The coaches mentioned something about finding a flaw in his release point.  Who knows.  Regardless, he sure as heck picked a good time to step up and throw the best game of his career. 
            Although Liriano did throw the Twins’ first no-hitter since 1999, it was far from pretty.  Liriano walked six guys while striking out two.  He threw 123 pitches in the game.  Only 66 of them went for strikes.  I’m sure it helped that the Chicago White Sox are in the bottom quarter of the league in batting average.
            To top it all off, it was a 1-0 game going into the bottom of the ninth.  The first out of the ninthwas shaky, as the Twins’ short-stop threw a short-hopper to first basemen Justin Morneau.  Luckily Morneau scooped it and held on for the out.  Liriano then walked the speedy Juan Pierre and probably had his manager, Ron Gardenhire, losing his mind.  With one steal and one bloop single, a no-hit bid could have quickly turned into a tie ballgame
            Alexei Ramirez popped out to short for the second out and brought up lefty Adam Dunn.  Liriano quickly fell behind 3-0 before stepping up and getting two strikes.  On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Dunn laced a line drive to short that was caught for the game-ender.  If the ball was hit three feet to the left or to the right it would have been a hit.
            Through it all, Liriano may have saved his job for at least a few more starts.  The only thing I know for sure – he will still be on my fantasy bench when he goes out for his next start at Boston.