One Man, One Reason, 64 Fantasy Baseball Teams

JustinMattingly3

The eight men staring down Justin Mattingly were making him sweat profusely, more than he ever had before.

The jangling nervousness persisted despite the fact none of the nine were in the same room. Eight tiny screens crammed onto the Skype conference call interface. Still, their intensity and seriousness both intimidated and exhilarated Justin. These men approached the game with the fastidious earnestness he admired.

He thought back a few weeks.

Mid-summer 2013, Robert Adams, a fellow player in one of Justin’s leagues, approached him about joining another of his fantasy baseball leagues. But first, he said, Justin would have to apply and interview.

Interviewing for a league?

Yes, just like a job.

He had successfully navigated the initial interview, a group chat hosted through Facebook Messenger.

So there he sat, facing the eight-man entrance committee for Fair Ball, a rotisserie league so intense it drafts high school kids who haven’t even been drafted by actual MLB teams yet.

“I may be a student and have other stuff going on,” he said. “But this league is their whole life.”

His application required links to past successful teams so the league could affirm his dedication. In 2012, Justin sent 40 of his 64 teams to the finals with 20 emerging champions. Professionals on the diamond interest Justin, but nothing compares to those who consider themselves fantasy baseball pros.

As Justin awaited their decision, he pondered something he discovered through the application process. According to the league’s commissioner, Fair Ball is ranked the 13th-toughest league in the world by RotoWorld, a fantasy sports site. Did he really want into this?

Had he decided to lay off this pitch, that it was too fast and too tight, it would be to jump off the mountain after climbing arduously since grade school. Passing the interviews and getting into the league is the byproduct of his life’s baseball mélange. From his family, born with foul line chalk in their blood, to a childhood trauma, to Kevin Costner, everything in his life seemed to be leading to this chance. So he accepted.

Now, nearly 18 months later, the Syracuse University sophomore cannot verify the validity of that 13th-toughest league ranking because he’s never seen this list, but he can believe it.

“I hope it’s false, though,” he said. “I pray to God there aren’t 12 tougher leagues.”

***

Justin grew up around baseball, inheriting the love for a ballpark, score card and crackerjack box from his dad, who in turn had learned how to love the game from his father. Baseball fandom is a congenital condition in the Mattingly family.

Connie and his father Wayne took the family to see every Major League park. They’ve been to all 30 current MLB stadiums, including a few more, such as old Yankee Stadium and Olympic Stadium of the now-defunct Montreal Expos.

It was on one of these trips – he thinks it may have been 2000 – when Justin saw Albert Pujols playing for the Peoria Chiefs, St. Louis’ Class-A affiliate. It took young Justin one game of in-person viewing for the sweet-swinging righty to become his favorite player.

Suddenly, Justin bled Redbird red. He lived with wins and died with losses, blogged daily about the Cardinals and took up the harmonica in homage to Stan Musial.

Wayne understood. Justin emulated him that sense. The Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds, particularly hard-nosed Johnny Bench, drew in Wayne when he watched NBC’s Game of the Week during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Wayne not only watched baseball throughout high school, but played, too. Justin’s older brother Jarrod even played college ball at Clarkson University in New York. Justin followed suit, but didn’t have the heart for playing.

As it turned out, Justin loved watching the pros play ball more than he loved taking the field himself.

“Justin was a good player and enjoyed it when he was young,” Wayne says. “But he wasn’t as passionate about being a baseball player as much as he was being a baseball fan.”

For some parents, this would’ve been devastating. The worn tale of a parent living vicariously through their children is all too familiar, and teaches us that only tension and anguish can come from that. But Wayne, who still lives in the same small town he grew up in, isn’t like that at all.

“If (Justin) was worried about disappointing me, he shouldn’t have been,” Wayne said. “It’s his life and he has to do what he wants.”

***

            Justin started playing at 7-years-old on a Sports Illustrated for Kids site, which should come as no surprise because of his love for players, á la Pujols. He established a “Fathers-Sons” league with four friends, their dads, and his dad. Just as fantasy baseball’s inventor Dan Okrent has never won a league, Justin has never won the “Fathers-Sons” league. He’s even lost to his dad in the finals a few times.

After being reeled-in his first year, Justin gave himself up to the game.

By the time he was in high school, he thought, “Why should I mock draft? It’d be fun to just make this draft another league.” As he drafted, his list of teams grew longer and longer. He didn’t know when to stop. It struck him one day while he watched March Madness on the television. A 64-team tournament…hm, why not run 64 teams?

It should also be noted that all 64 leagues are free, there is no prize money. The rewards are glory, happiness and an excuse to watch more baseball.

Justin may be an extreme case, but he is not so different from many others. He’s one face of the growing masses. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association the number of Americans playing fantasy sports has more than tripled in the last decade, up to a record 41.5 million this year. This means roughly 13 percent of Americans play fantasy sports. A 2013 Forbes article estimated that fantasy was an industry worth upwards of $70 billion – and that’s just the football sector.

Fantasy had stunted growth in infancy due to both the perception of it as a geeky game and the difficulty of collecting box score statistics. But with the Internet, keeping stats became easier. Justin has quite literally grown up with fantasy sports as they slowly gained traction beginning when the Internet was fully commercialized in 1995 – the same year Justin was born.

Justin is one of the first to come of age in the era of fantasy sports popularity. He is a pioneer of the changing way to show love for the game: through fantasy. His generation is the first to experience baseball like this, connecting to the game by digitally “interacting” with the player rather than catching the game of the week on national TV or purchasing packs of baseball cards. People now arguably spend more time with baseball than ever before as they manage their teams. The common fan knows more about MLB as a whole rather than knowledge of just their hometown club. With increased player exposure, the concept of hometown teams has also lessened, just a little. After all, how did a New Yorker end up with incurable Redbird fever?

After Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1773, George Macartney wrote, “This vast empire on which the sun never sets…” and the same applies to Justin. Sun up or sun down, Justin’s lineup tinkering. He spends copious amounts of time – 60 to 90 minutes per day – configuring his 64-ship fleet.

To control his empire, Justin runs most squads through the usual suspects – Yahoo!, CBS and ESPN – but one league operates through Facebook Messenger. Each team drafts on the message board. Then, by hand, they each keep painstaking track of their own stats, transactions and points scored.

In those years, from the beginnings on SI Kids, his love for baseball has grown into what several people, from his father to his best friend, have called “obsession.”

“An ex-girlfriend said that once,” Justin says. He pauses, then smiles, “Which is really funny because she’s an ex-girlfriend.”

He treats this trade-off like receiving a no-brainer offer in one of his leagues.

***

To fully understand Justin, you need to take into account what he calls the worst day of his life.

December 8, 2011: Sitting in 11th-grade English, he checks his phone – something he’s done every five minutes for countless days – to finally realize a nightmare: Pujols is leaving the Cardinals.

See, there are a few things you should know about Justin. He is a devout Christian. He describes the day he anticipates drinking a Budweiser while watching a baseball game with his friends – but not a day before his 21st birthday. In everyday conversation, Justin forgoes profanity for expressions like, “Aw, shucks!” In short: He’s a pretty good kid.

But he is not that boy this day. Something inside him detonates and an explosion rips through the classroom. Dropped F-bomb shrapnel flies dangerously around the room. Justin runs from class without even asking the teacher.

Devastated in the bathroom, he calls his mom, pleading to be picked up. But she says no. His mother, Connie, wants him around people. He cannot be alone in this moment. Forced to leave his hideaway, he spends the rest of the day lying prone, motionless on the floor of a sympathetic teacher’s classroom.

Usually, Justin’s not like this, not so inconsolable and irrational, unable to function when something that seemingly insignificant impacts his life. I know him as easy-going, intelligent and affable. But he had built up baseball as such a crucial part of his life – Pujols centering that universe – that this abandonment of order lurches his world over the precipice, into chaos. As the Pujols Pedestal topples, Justin unhinges slightly in an attempt to physically deal with the emotional distress.

Once home on that dark day, he’s forced to confront the man. The wall above his bed is plastered with cut-outs, a shrine to Pujols. In the bedroom of his Philadelphia, N.Y. home, Justin sits on the floor, staring up at his hero. His mom comes in.

They cry together, Justin for Pujols and Connie for her son.

***

As Justin tells me these baseball stories, he can’t help but stop to laugh, his teeth framed by a dark, scraggly beard which extends to his brown, closely-cropped hair. He casts a concerned look at me through his glasses every two or so tales to make sure he’s neither boring nor overwhelming me. He will get midway through a needless apology for talking so much before realizing he’s done neither. He’ll break off mid-apology, energetically hurtling into his next story animatedly waving his arms.

Though Justin loves telling stories, his dad didn’t know how many teams Justin had until I asked him.

And that, for Wayne, is perfectly reasonable because, well, how could anyone think Justin has time? Even before the 64 teams, every summer Justin works 20-hour days across four jobs. He doesn’t even drink coffee.

Within the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL) alone he holds two positions: Assistant to the President as well as Media Relations Director for the Watertown Rams, a league team. When he’s not at the park, he’s serving at Riley’s By The River, an Alexandria, N.Y. restaurant, or acting as the Assistant News Editor for Syracuse’s University’s newspaper, The Daily Orange.

Marcus Shelmidine, Justin’s roommate at Syracuse and co-worker for the Rams, says Justin does a lot of work and does it well.

The two were teammates for travel sports in high school, southpaw Marcus pitching with Justin behind him at short. Their competitive friendship continues with late-night, high-stakes FIFA battles.

But when they’re not playing the fútbol videogame, Justin is up late nights anyway.

“Every night he would stay up later than me, and I’d be up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework,” Shelmidine said. “Last year, when the (fantasy baseball) mock drafts came out, Justin would stay up so late.”

Marcus remembers this time fondly, “His light pissed me off.”

***

Prime drafting time for fantasy baseball leagues is February and March. Combined, those two months have 59 days. Justin’s in 64 leagues.

He drafts at least once per day for those two months, plus he still mocks to hone strategy.

This past year, he ran into a dilemma.

The drafts of his two most important leagues – one of them being Fair Ball – fell on the same day he was scheduled to fly back to Syracuse. He was returning from spring break in Florida where he and his grandparents attended spring training games. As a lone flyer on a Saturday morning, Justin was offered a bump by the airline to a later flight, plus $500 airline credit. The next flight didn’t depart until Sunday morning, but money outweighed delay. Plus, it didn’t matter where he drafted from as long as he had his computer.

Justin’s been looking forward to draft day since the World Series ended.

“No matter what people say, whether it’s your mom’s birthday, or Christmas,” Justin said. “Nothing is as important as auction day.”

He crafts a gigantic spreadsheet including player rankings from over 30 sources (Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, Tristan Cockcroft, etc.) for auction values. He compares them to one, almighty predictor.

“Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster is my bible,” Justin said. Those sources are plugged into the spreadsheet and then he goes to work taking averages. But Shandler defies the law of averages because Justin, in any conflict, goes with Shandler.

Though he wasn’t comfortable, he hunkered down in an airport seat bunker in a corner of Ronald Reagan national airport. He drafted from two in the afternoon until eleven at night.

Soon after, he drifted off to sleep. Around 3 a.m., security guards forced him to move to a different section of the airport. Despite all the hassle he remembers the day with a smile.

As we continue talking, it becomes clear that he isn’t just talking about the plane ticket. The game itself means so much more. Fantasy Baseball is just a vehicle to be closer to the action. It’s his way of being a part of the game he loves.

In the “Fathers-Sons” league, his dad holds the bragging rights for his titles – won by defeating Justin no less. But winning is not the true meaning of father and son playing together. Justin describes fantasy baseball as “The Great American Game” because, for him, fantasy is tangible. He compares the league to the quintessential scene in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner says, “Dad, wanna have a catch?”

Fantasy baseball is that catch. Spending time together, with a common love for the game…that’s the point. That’s the point to all of this; Justin’s father overcame apprehension about fantasy baseball to interact with his son, just to be there with him.

Justin later said he’s considered cutting back next season because it’s too taxing to manage so many teams. But the number of teams doesn’t matter, because he won’t change. Whether he manages 64 teams or just one, whether he’s in the toughest league in the world or just the one with his dad: Justin will love the game the same.

Justin pauses toward the conclusion of his overnight airport story. His eyes glaze over. His narrative had started in the airport, but taken off and flown higher and higher until, out of the window seat, he looked down, surveying his life’s landscape. Dispersed throughout that landscape of rectangular crop fields and city buildings, baseball fields litter the land.

Baseball fields are, after all, easy to identify from an airplane seat.

As he spoke of the night spent drafting in the airport, his words may have held greater meaning.

“I think I would do it again,” he said. “Because it all – I mean, everything – comes back to baseball.”

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.

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Win and In: 2014 Playoff Predictor

With just over one week remaining in the Major League Baseball season, there are just a few teams in each league that will make the postseason cut, which chops the field of teams from 30 to 10.

The National League’s five teams have been set because, unfortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers faded so dramatically. They’re third place in the Wild Card race at 4.5-games back, which means they won’t have time to make up ground on Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Boring.

Not so in the American League where only some teams have already wrapped up playoff spots.

The Baltimore Orioles (93-62) have a very convincing 13-game lead – literally insurmountable – in the AL East, and the Los Angeles Angels (96-60) have bested their in-state rival Oakland to secure their AL West divisional crown.

The Detroit Tigers (86-69) are struggling to fend off the Kansas City Royals (84-70), whom the Tigers are unaccustomed to squaring off with this late in the season.

But for now, we’ll treat it as if the Tigers will hang on to that precious lead in the AL Central.

If they don’t: the Wild Card awaits, which means they have to play the dreaded play-in game, which is like a 50-50 toss-up.

Right now the standings for the AL Wild Card race are:

Team Wins Losses GB
Oakland 85 70
Kansas City 84 70
Seattle 83 72 1.5
Cleveland 81 74 3.5

For all intents and purposes, the Indians are out of this race like Henry Clay’s presidential chances. (The Kentuckian ran four times and lost all of them.)

So it’s down to three, strong teams located west of the Mississippi river to decide who gets to face whom in the one-game playoff.

The Oakland Athletics face a tale of two series coming into their final week of the season. The team has been struggling mightily – really mightily, like if they don’t make the postseason it’d be the worst collapse of all-time. They have to play the best team (record-wise) in baseball right now – the Angels – for the next three games.

The good news? They’re at home in the Coliseum, for one, and for two they throw their best three starters (Samardzija, Gray, Lester) at LA.

But the problem is that they’ve been struggling so mightily that those three haven’t been pitching really well. Jeff Samardzija is still 6-12 on the season, despite being 2-7 when he came over from the Cubs.

The really good news is that they get to play the Texas Rangers (62-93), who are the worst team in baseball in terms of record and run differential (minus-136), while being second-worst in runs allowed (753).

Even though the Athletics must play on the road, it’s OK, because Texas is the worst home team in the Majors. They have an abysmal mark of 28-46 in Arlington.

The really bad news is that, weirdly, the Rangers are playing great baseball as of late. They’re 8-2 in their last 10 games and suddenly heating up. Plus, if they can’t take the best-looking girl in school to the dance, they’ll try to sabotage everyone else who can. They’ll have their A-Team out there to play the A’s on their last weekend of baseball.

The Angels have been playing garbage lineups lately, so let’s assume the A’s win two out of three, but with the way the Rangers have been playing, they certainly won’t sweep, and it’s likelier that they’ll split the series. They’ll go 4-3 down the stretch, staving off a collapse that would make Billy Beane bludgeon every individual seat in the stadium with a maple bat.

Final Record: 89-73

The Kansas City Royals need to play eight games to conclude their season, which is one more than the Athletics, but it may not be such a difficult challenge.

Oh wait. Or so I thought. They’ve played 154 games thus far – their record stands at 84-70 – but ESPN schedule, nor Google, has them down for playing more than seven games for the rest of the season.

Oh wait again. MLB.com has the schedule right. Always use MLB.com over everything, people. Tonight they are picking up a suspended game, which sits at 4-2 Indians in the bottom of the 10th inning with the Royals having three more outs.

Let’s count that as a loss for Kansas City.

This means that the Royals have seven more games – all on the road – against the Cleveland Indians (3) and the Chicago White Sox (4).

The Royals-Indians series is interesting because, should the Indians sweep or take all but one of the three games from the Royals, that means they clamber up the Wild Card standings and drag the Royals down. It’s a pivotal series for the two clubs, certainly.

Kansas City has a paltry plus-16 run differential and a mediocre home record at 42-38. (Good thing they’re playing all their games on the road where they’re ten games above .500, at 42-32.)

They’re skidding as of late, 4-6 in their last 10 games, and run into Carlos Carrasco, who’s been dominant lately, and Danny Salazar.

But they get lucky when facing the Chicago White Sox, because they don’t have to hit against the dominant Chris Sale. So this series will kind of be a joke considering they throw their three best guys in James Shields, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura.

It can be said that the White Sox may win one on the back of Jose Abreu – they’ve done it all season – especially in a dicey pitching matchup with Jeremy Guthrie taking on hot-cold Hector Noesi, so the White Sox may win one.

The Royals will drop two of three from Cleveland, but take three of four from Chicago to finish the year 4-4 in their last eight.

Final Record: 88-74

The Seattle Mariners currently say 1.5-games out of a wild card spot, and they’re raring to get back into the mix.

Luckily for them they play an absolutely average ball club in the Toronto Blue Jays, albeit in the Rogers Centre, and a Los Angeles Angels team that didn’t care in their series four days ago, so really won’t care in their series four days from now.

In the Blue Jays series they do get Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, two of Toronto’s stronger pitchers, but they avoid the guy who could shut them down on any given night in Marcus Stroman. So another plus and they also get to face J.A. Happ and the mediocre Todd Redmond, who just recently became a spot starter. Yeah, it’s been that kind of a year.

When looking at the fact that this series is on the road, it becomes evident it’s probably better that way: the Seattle Mariners are a much better club on the road (45-32) than they are at home (38-40).

So they’re getting the worse matchup on the better playing field – I never thought I’d type that about AstroTurf.

They should win three of four from Toronto.

Then they come back to Washington to take on the Angels – a team that will probably throw Jered Weaver on a pitch count and lift him early, same with C.J. Wilson.

This will not be a competitive team for the last three days of the season, kind of like a Week 17 NFL team that’s already locked-up a first-round bye.

Seattle will sweep Los Angeles.

That’s quite a bold 6-1 record to finish the season for the Mariners.

Final Record: 89-73

Provided that Cleveland doesn’t make a big run, or Detroit doesn’t suddenly start playing horrendously, here are the projected AL Wild Card Standings:

Team Wins Losses GB
Oakland 89 73
Seattle 89 73
Kansas City 88 74 1

This could all unravel if Seattle splits their series with Toronto, because that would force them into a tie with Kansas City, which would mean a one-game playoff for a one-game playoff.

And that would be awesome.

Ray Rice’s Suspension Is Too Long

When Ray Rice was given an indefinite suspension last Monday, many people felt like the clumsy, awkward case of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious spouse from an Atlantic City elevator had (finally) come to a fitting close.

The two-game suspension he was initially given seemed much too light, even before the inside-elevator view surfaced of Rice punching his then-fiancée, now-wife, Janay Palmer Rice in the head. When that video did surface, there was pandemonium.

Everyone contributed their thoughts in on this issue, and most people rightly eviscerated Rice after the incident. Fingers flew to assign blame: Many pointed at Rice, Keith Olbermann blamed Goodell, Kirk Minihane said it was our own fault. But we all agreed: it’s unacceptable.

Ray Rice’s New Rochelle, N.Y. high school removed his jersey from their rafters, Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton called for his immediate and permanent banishment, and the general public cried out for a stiffer penalty than just two games.

Then Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely.

What Ray Rice did is horrible, but the punishment of a lifetime is too excessive.

After hearing about Rice’s ban, I didn’t initially know what to think. I knew that Rice wasn’t the first NFL player to abuse his girlfriend/fiancée/wife domestically, but I didn’t know how many cases you could really compare it to.

Apparently, there are quite a few comparisons. Using the USA Today NFL Player Arrest Index, I was able to discover exactly how many players had been arrested for domestic violence since the year 2000.

Care to take a guess at how many there were?

78.

–Click on the link to view the full list Domestic Violence Rates in NFL

78 NFL players have been arrested a collective total of 86 times on the charges of domestic violence.

1 NFL player has a lifetime ban.

Those numbers are so grossly disparate that it seems like it should be a typo, but it’s not.

The NFL has now officially taken a tougher stance on domestic abuse, with a 6-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second, but it took a single player for that to happen, the last of 78.

Because what Ray Rice did was videotaped, and the whole country could see how gut-wrenchingly horrible it is, he bore the brunt of the new penalty.

Consider Greg Hardy, who played in his Carolina Panther’s week one matchup against the Buccaneers. When he was convicted on his domestic abuse charge July 16th, the headline in the Charlotte Observer reads, “Greg Hardy guilty of assaulting female, communicating threats”. In other terms: “Greg Hardy punched and kicked his girlfriend while saying he would murder her”.

Take Michael Pittman, the former Arizona Cardinals Running Back. In 2001 he was arrested twice in two weeks for domestic violence. The first time, his wife, Melissa, locked herself in a car to flee from her husband’s flying fists. The second, he smashed her house’s sliding glass door, trespassing and terrorizing her. His wife then confessed there were “30 to 40” unreported instances of domestic abuse in their marriage. Pittman was eventually suspended one game. Then, he started 14 of the remaining 15 games, and in the off-season, he signed a 5-year deal worth $8.75 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And what about Brandon Marshall? Yes, he heard raucous explosions of cheers as he caught three touchdown passes, helping his Chicago Bears upset the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football, but not too long ago he was arrested once every year for three seasons between 2007 and 2009 for domestic abuse. He hit his fiancée three different times before announcing he had split-personality disorder and started seeing a therapist.

Marshall received a three-game suspension from the NFL. He appealed the decision and won, reducing the punishment to a one-game suspension and a fine of two combined game checks, which totaled $52,353.

That was a light slap as punishment for Brandon Marshall, a repeat offender.

No one cried out that he should receive a harsher punishment, there was no uproar.

Maybe it’s because it wasn’t on tape. If we’d seen Brandon Marshall punching his wife, or Greg Hardy’s homicidal tirade, or Michael Pittman breaking and entering into his wife’s home, would it then become real? Would we have been spurred to action then?

Given that NFL fans were able to ignore the descriptive words of domestic violence 85 times before, I say no.

But this is a video, and what people saw was real.

For those who have been the victim in domestic violence, this was nothing new. But for people who have never experienced domestic violence before, this was the realization and graphic footage that made it shocking.

Speaking to the former point, USA Today ran an article about women who are refusing to trade-in their Ray Rice jerseys. They wear them with pride. Some of them are even survivors of domestic abuse themselves. They defend Ray Rice, even though what he did was vile and monstrous.

So while I don’t support Ray Rice, or what he did, it is tough to conclude that a lifetime suspension is the right move here by the NFL. I applaud the NFL for their actions to toughen their stance on domestic violence in their sport, but Ray Rice needs not be their intimidating example.

The Curse of the Well-Meaning Fan

I am a curse on Henry Owens.

Living only about an hour drive from Portland, I love to go up and see for myself the players in the Red Sox farm system that could contribute to the big league club one day. I chronicled my first adventure to Hadlock here, in April.

I mainly bought the ticket to Hadlock to see Owens, partly because he’s only 21 years old, which I can relate to, and two, I’ve heard so much hype surrounding the guy because of his talent. Plus, on Twitter I discovered we both have the same awesome pair of Larry Legend socks.

The southpaw is tall, 6-foot-6, and stays between 90-92 on his fastball. He mixes in his lethal curve ball, around 68-70, to fool hitters late in at bats. I was excited to see it in person.

And I did see it, but only in flashes.

The outing I saw him pitch in Portland was his worst of the season. In five innings pitched, he yielded six runs – all earned – across nine hits, one of which was a dinger, and three walks. He labored through with 90 pitches, and only struck out four.

This is the guy who threw a rain-shortened no-hitter in his season-debut against the Reading Phillies, and gave up three or fewer runs in 16 of his 20 starts with the Sea Dogs this season. This is the guy who finished his Double-A, Eastern League season first in wins (14), first in strikeouts (126), and third in ERA (2.60), despite his call-up Pawtucket at the end of July.

So, you get it, the guy is really good.

Side note to the story: In April, I decided to go to Syracuse University for this fall.

Fast forward five months.

I turn on the TV in in my dorm room one night and I’m surfing channels, trying to acclimate to the new station IDs in Syracuse. I see that the Rochester Red Wings game is on an obscure channel. They’re just beginning a game against the Pawtucket Red Sox. Who’s pitching? Henry Owens. How’s he doing? Not well. Three hits and two walks turns into four earned runs over six innings pitched. He records nine strike-outs, but still, the line is tied for the worst Triple-A start of his career to that point.

Then, about a week later, I’m sitting my dorm room on a Friday morning, finished with class at 10:30, when hear that the local team, the Syracuse Chiefs, are hosting a playoff game that night. Syracuse was hosting it’s first playoff game in 16 years, facing elimination down 2-0 in the series, winner advancing to the Governors’ Cup. To whom is Syracuse down to in the series? Of course, the Pawtucket Red Sox. As I’ve written here, I love minor league baseball for it’s reasonable pricing and quality of talent. So I bought tickets to go with three of my friends. On the way to the ballpark, my friend Tim Scott, a fellow Red Sox fanatic, mentions that Henry Owens will start tonight’s game.

I was pumped. I hoped I could see vintage Owens in this game, having missed out on it against Trenton back in April, and on TV against Rochester. Third time is a charm right? Wrong.

The lede really spoiled any drama I could muster. Owens got shellacked.

He gave up five earned runs, the most in any of his Triple-A outings, and only threw four innings of work, the fewest of his Triple-A career thus far. He walked three and gave up eight hits, tied for his high in a PawSox uniform.

It could have been a lot worse, though. Owens displayed his great off-speed stuff again getting out of one particular jam in the top of the fourth where he had the bases loaded with no one out, but gave up only one run.

Still, Owens was roughed up by many of the Chiefs hitters who made solid contact, and he was especially terrorized by Emmanuel Burriss, with two bunt base-hits, a home-run, and a double.

I’m usually not a superstitious fan. I don’t believe that my team lost because the couch was six inches to the right of where it normally is, or that I didn’t put on my left sock before my right that day, or even that I didn’t eat a quarter-pounder precisely a quarter of an hour before game time. Nearly all of the time, I go to a game and believe that the players on the field, and their actions, are completely independent from my presence.

But now it’s three times that I have been and each time, it’s been…not great.

How badly has it gone?

Really, really bad.

Really, really badly.

His ERA nearly quadruples, he gives up double the amount of home-runs and his hits-per-nine-innings balloons to twice it’s normal size. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is also better when I’m not there, but it’s less drastic.

So it’s not just a psychological thing, he actually performs worse when I’m in the bleachers.

So when Henry Owens makes his major league debut next season, for his sake, and though I’d like to, I won’t be watching.

 

ESPN the Mag or Sports Illustrated: Who Do You Trust?

The two major sports magazines in the country, Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Mag, are always vying for readership. What helps get more readers than being right? Plus, if you want People to buy your magazine (I mean patrons, not the other magazine) then you have to be funny or right. And right is the best way.

I’m looking at which magazine provided the better NFL Preview issue last season, via accuracy of their picks. The 2014 season previews just arrived in my mailbox last week, so hopefully it’ll help us extrapolate results ahead, giving us a better idea of what these teams records could be. And, to assure you, I am not pointing back, in retrospect, and ridiculing their picks because they’re wrong, merely making observations. I had the Houston Texans as a Super Bowl contender last season (along with the magazines) but then they went 2-14.

The first troubling thing is that the two do not cover football in the same manner. ESPN the Magazine is the one I prefer, because it gives projected records, schedule breakdowns, best/worst case scenarios, playoff chances, and interesting side-bars. Last year they had “Non-QB MVP” and this season it’s a segment called “Secret Superstar” which can help familiarize a casual fan with the NFL’s unsung heroes.

So, to determine how well ESPN the Mag did for predictions, I calculated out the Predicted Wins and used the absolute-value difference between that and Actual Wins to figure out how many wins their projection was off by. Out of all 32 teams, ESPN picked five records correctly, which doesn’t sound impressive, but is considering the variables in a 16-game season with injuries, suspensions, morale, etc. They picked the Cincinnati Bengals with 11 wins, the Denver Broncos racking up 13 wins, the hapless Oakland Raiders managing four wins, the St. Louis Rams an impressive seven, and – my personal favorite – the Dallas Cowboys, once again, finishing a mediocre 8-8. They predicted nine more teams within one win of their actual record. That makes for 14 of 32 to be predicted within one game of their actual finish, a 44% clip.

The numbers also varied by division. For example, the super-competitive NFC South had an absolute value deviation of 5.5, meaning that the predicted record was, on average, off by nearly six wins – a gigantic sum. Conversely, the easy-to-predict AFC North finished with an absolute value deviation of 0.75, a minuscule number. Essentially, they nailed it.

Here’s the divisional breakdown of how well ESPN did.

Division Off

The average difference between ESPN projections and actual finish was 2.59 games, a modest finish. That number would be much lower if it wasn’t for the vastly under-performing Texans, Redskins, and Falcons squads and the large disparity between the 3-win projected team of the Arizona Cardinals winning 10 games.

Here’s the full chart.

Full Chart

Sports Illustrated actually fluctuated from year to year. In 2013, they essentially gave power rankings of the entire conferences, but gave no records predictions. This season they gave divisional predictions, but again without the record. It’ll be tough to compare them year to year as they tinker with coverage. Maybe I’m just bitter that their method doesn’t give me numbers to compare, but it does seem like the win predictions are useful in analysis. There are positives in that, just ranking the best teams flat-out without a record, but simultaneously it’s always nice, as an analyst, to see their breakdown and their why. Yes, SI does that with their write-ups (all done by one staff member) and they re-cap high-impact additions and subtractions, but their analysis is lacking compared to ESPN the Mag and their ink is used on summary of the off-season.

Nevertheless, we can take the power rankings, assign each team a number and then contrast that with their ending result for the year.

Sports Illustrated did not pick the Miami Dolphins to win the AFC East like ESPN the Mag did, but they had some highly-erroneous picks as well, highlighted by the article bashing the Carolina Panthers everything, ranking them last, only to see the blue-and-black capture second-place.

SI

Since “power-ranking” of teams is significantly easier than picking a win-loss record (it is so based on volume and opportunity for certain things to go wrong), then SI gets less sympathy. They did well in the AFC, picking the top five teams in generally the correct order, but the one team they were really down on – the San Diego Chargers – burned them in the long run.

Also, I recognize that this may not mean much because it is only a one-year study, but I hope this can become an annual study and see if trends develop.

So while this study is far from having a hard-line conclusion, it appears that, if you’re a betting person, ESPN the Magazine is the advice you should heed.