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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Parity problems? How risky is A.J? And a failing grade

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SOUTH HILLS – Parity is often cited in explaining the NFL’s wild popularity. The idea that because of the salary cap, and because of the shorter length of careers, teams can quickly rise from worst to first. We’re told there’s more unknowns, more possibility, entering each season. Makes sense, right? One problem: there’s no evidence of parity in the NFL.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark on parity:

Well, it’s a good thing that The Same Teams Don’t Win Every Year in football. That would be awful. Oh, wait. Just noticed something:

The Broncos are in the Super Bowl.

Right. Of course, they are — because the Broncos, Ravens, Patriots, Steelers or Colts are always in the Super Bowl. Always.

Those five teams have now represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in 16 of the past 18 years — and 11 in a row! But in a league with as much parity as the NFL, I’m sure the Browns will be charging into the Super Bowl any century now.

Thank heaven The Same Teams Don’t Win Every Year in football. Thank heaven Anything Can Happen in the NFL. Except that … uh-oh, just noticed something else. Here are four more teams that also made an appearance in the NFL postseason this year:

Packers — who have made the playoffs in five straight years, six of the past seven, 10 of the past 13 and 16 of the past 21.

Colts — who have made the playoffs in 11 of the past 12 years.

Saints — who have made the playoffs in four of the past five years.

Bengals — who have made the playoffs three years in a row and four of the Past five. 

***

Meanwhile, my buddy Dave Schoenfield had a fun little tidbit along these lines himself the other day. 

The NFL playoffs, over the past five seasons, have gone their merry way without eight teams — six of which have never even had a winning record in any of those five years. That would be the Browns, Bills, Jaguars, Raiders and Rams.

Over in baseball, on the other hand, 28 of the 30 teams have had a winning season at least once in the past five years. The only exceptions? The Mets and Astros.

 

The NFL lacks parity because it is more dependent upon one position, quarterback, than any other sport.

What do the Packers, Colts, Saints, Steelers and Patriots possess that the Browns, Bills, Jaguars, Raiders and Rams do not? A quality quarterback. It is the quarterback, and rules that further the importance of the passing game, that has lessened parity in the NFL.

Moreover, the divide between the QB Haves and the QB Have Notes does not close quickly because quarterback is the one position on the field in the NFL where the shelf life is quite long.

There’s no doubting the NFL’s popularity. There’s no doubting baseball could improve its own level of parity.  But let’s get over the parity narrative in explaining the NFL’s popularity. That’s not the reason. The NFL is one-day-a-week deal for most fans, requiring limited investment. It’s an excellent television sport. And the quasi-gambling that is fantasy football doesn’t hurt.

If anything, baseball returning to being a young man’s game has brought further parity by reducing the efficiency of free agency. Want more examples of parity? The Yankees have played in one World Series over the last 10 years.

And with that I’ll conclude my mini rant.

 

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS

9. The A.J. Burnett saga will likely (hopefully) conclude before pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton on Feb. 13. While many in the public seem to want Burnett back without question, there hasn’t been much talk of the risk associated with investing in a 37-year-old pitcher. I wrote about that risk Sunday.

 

8. It’s true that the aging curve for pitchers is cruel. Decline begins at 30 and accelerates in the mid 30s. But aging curves are amalgamations and there are always exceptions to the rule. Burnett certainly looks like an exception as he threw his two-seamer at an average speed of 92.9 mph in September – a season best – while also leading the NL in groundball and strikeout rates.

 

7. But every pitcher is headed for a performance cliff and it’s not always obvious when they are approaching the drop. As I mentioned in the article, Roy Halladay entered spring training of 2012 thought to be perhaps the best pitcher in the game. He retired in December. Burnett has a ton of mileage on his arm. He’s thrown 2,300 innings in his career, 40,000+ pitches, and his mph is down 2-3 mph from his peak. He also spent 24 days on the DL with a calf strain last season. The calf is not an elbow or shoulder but it might be a general sign of breakdown and weakening. If Burnett was a used car, you’d be leery.

 

6. Other concerns: only six pitchers 37 or older since 2008 have produced 3+ WAR in a season: Hiroki Kuroda (twice), Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Andy Pettitte, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon.

 

That’s a short list.

 

5. Moreover, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections system has Burnett in line for the sixth greatest decline among starting pitchers in teams of WAR (-2.0) in 2014. Maybe projections like that are another reason the Pirates have been hesitant to commit too many resources to Burnett.

 

4. Look, I still think the qualifying offer made sense for Burnett. There’s much less risk in a one-year deal. And I’ve always thought the ideal outcome for the Pirates was Burnett signing elsewhere and the Pirates enjoying draft pick compensation and spending the $8-$10 million they earmarked for Burnett elsewhere (See: Drew, Stephen). Now would Burnett make the Pirates a better team in 2014? Probably. But there is risk in committing 18-20 percent of payroll to a 37-year-old elbow and shoulder.

 

3 In other news about aging, 30-something ballplayers, Lance Berkman retired earlier this week. Berkman was an elite, switch-hitter and is probably underrated as he is a borderline Hall of Famer, putting up a .293/.406/.537 slash line for his career. The Pirates checked in on Berkman earlier this offseason, apparently wanting to know if he’d have interest in being a platoon partner at first base. If he can walk, he can hit.

With college baseball practice starting soon across the country, here’s another Berkman stat: as a junior at Rice, he homered 41 times and drove in 134 runs in 63 games. Crazy even in that era.

Anyways, the Pirates checking in on Berkman shows you just how  barren the first baseman market was this winter. It’s the greatest question mark – not Burnett’s status – the Pirates’ tow into spring training. Shortstop is No. 2 for me. Then starting pitching depth.

 

2. The Mariners are apparently interested in signing Nelson Cruz. Would a Cruz signing, or retaining Kendrys Morales, open the door for a Justin Smoak trade? It was reported back in December the Pirates had called on Smoak.

 

1. RIP, PSH.

howe

If you can play Capote and Art Howe, that’s quite a range.

 

HE SAID IT:

ESPN prospect analyst Keith Law on Austin Meadows:

“Might have the best shot of anyone in the 2013 draft class to explode into an 8-WAR player”

That seems rather ambitious but my man John Hart also is also extremely high on Meadows.

 

HE SAID IT II:

Dan Brooks on Burnett’s evolving pitch mix:

“A.J. Burnett is not a guy who has shown an incredible decline in stuff, but he has been a guy who has changed the way he has pitched over the last couple of years. With declines in velocity, you can get changes in pitch usage. When pitchers change the way they are approaching hitters, that signals they realize something is different this year as opposed to last year. They are trying to compensate. (Burnett) has become much more of a two-seam (fastball) dominant pitcher where he was a four-seam dominant pitcher.”

 

HE SAID IT III:

Sports Illustrated isn’t high on the Pirates’ offseason to date , slapping the Pirates with an F in their report card

From Cliff Corcoran:

Here’s what I wrote about the Pirates in November’s Hot Stove Preview:

As they proved with the additions of Byrd, Morneau and Russell Martin, and the March 2012 extension for Andrew McCutchen, the organization is willing to expand payroll to get and remain in contention. Its fans have then rewarded those decisions with increased attendance, which has thus increased revenues. It’s a very positive cycle, but it’s now the organization’s turn to keep that wheel spinning by adding the bats necessary to keep Pittsburgh in contention in 2014.

The Pirates have very clearly failed to hold up their end of the bargain this winter.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 13

The number of starting pitchers 37 or older who logged the innings to qualify for an ERA title since 2008.

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK:

I’ve started digging into season 2 of Homeland. Pretty darn good.

 

– TS

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