Bronson Koenig’s Uphill Climb

25 Jun

Originally published on Seth’s Draft House (ran by @SethDavisHoops)

Even Bronson Koenig calls himself “underrated.”

That might seem like a bit of an exaggeration for a guy who won a pair of Wisconsin state championships in high school, was a McDonald’s All-American nominee and four-star recruit, and presided over a Wisconsin Badgers team that reached two Final Fours and never bowed out of the NCAA Tournament before the Sweet Sixteen.

But the NBA Draft can be a cruel mistress for a player like Koenig, as combine measurements and subjective evaluations often matter more than college win-loss records. Neither last year’s No. 1 pick (Ben Simmons) nor this year’s expected top pick (Markelle Fultz) played on teams that even made the NCAA Tournament in their lone college seasons.

“The draft is about potential and all that stuff,” Koenig said in a phone interview while heading to Los Angeles International Airport on Monday night for his final workout of the pre-draft process, one with the Golden State Warriors. “But I know I’m a basketball player and a gamer. I win games and I have a high basketball IQ.”

No one who watched Koenig at Wisconsin would doubt those assertions. He missed just one game his entire college career and was a vital part of the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four trips in the 2013–14 and 2014–15 seasons.

He blossomed individually as a junior and senior, even as his team came back to the pack in the Big Ten and went through the sudden resignation of longtime coach Bo Ryan. Koenig, along with fellow recently graduated seniors Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter, was able to help the Badgers stay afloat in an improving Big Ten after losing Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker from the team that nearly won a national championship.

But like many other high-performing college point guards, such as Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, Koenig hasn’t been lighting up mock drafts. For what it’s worth, he says he’s never even looked at one. And being overlooked is nothing new for the La Crosse, Wisconsin native.

“My whole life, I’ve been underestimated and not ranked as high as I should have been,” Koenig said. “It doesn’t even affect me anymore.”

Koenig’s profile grew while he was in college for reasons beyond his performance on the court. As a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Native Americans, Koenig has been vocal in his disapproval of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, a cause he joined in protest at the end of 2016. When your livelihood is threatened, a slight in draft prognostications doesn’t seem so bad.

Whether it’s due to concerns with age (Koenig is 22 while projected top pick Markelle Fultz is just 19) or simply worries about a lack of athleticism, Koenig is not expected to be selected with one of the draft’s 60 picks. Draft Express only has him as the 43rd-best prospect in the Big Ten alone, on a list with current underclassmen who might be years away from being selected.

Still, NBA teams have shown a lot of interest in Koenig, who spent last summer in Los Angeles working out with celebrity trainer Corey Calliat, who helped devise actor Michael B. Jordan’s workout regimen for his role in Creed. Koenig attributes his decision to mostly work out by himself, as opposed to with other players, for the strides he made as a senior.

“Before last summer, I never worked out with a trainer in my whole life,” Koenig said. “Spending time on your own helps you a lot. From last summer to this season, I thought I made big strides…A lot of these guys work out in the big basketball factories and don’t get enough individual instruction. That’s kind of why I like to work with my own guy.”

Koenig is still recovering from a calf injury suffered in a workout with the Rockets that forced him to skip a meeting with the Lakers. But nothing was going to stop him from working out for Golden State, a team he says has a playing style that fits well with his own.

The 22-year-old got hurt in both the Portsmouth Invitational (“Second game there, I dunked and hurt my ankle on the landing”) and his first NBA workout, one with the Bucks (“75 percent through, I rolled my ankle on a guy’s leg”) which he says limited his availability to work out for other teams.

The Warriors do not currently own a pick in the draft, but, if Tuesday’s deals are any indication, trades will be abound in the next couple of days. Still, it would be a definite surprise if Koenig hears his name called on Thursday. He’ll be watching the draft in Chicago with his agency, Edge Sports, which also represents Yogi Ferrell who, like Koenig, was a productive Big Ten point guard. Ferrell went undrafted, played with the Nets in Summer League and, after impressing in the D-League, got called up to Brooklyn. A month and a half later, the Mavericks came calling and eventually signed him to a multi-year deal.

If Koenig is to stick around in the NBA, he’ll likely follow a similar path to that of his former college opponent. But, right now, the D-League isn’t on Koenig’s mind, neither is the possibility of playing overseas. He thinks he’s good enough for the NBA.

“All I need is that one chance,” he said.

Brooklyn’s Long Haul

25 Jun

Originally published on Seth’s Draft House (ran by @SethDavisHoops)

The Brooklyn Nets might be going through one of the strangest rebuilding processes we’ve ever seen. Without the luxury of top draft picks (despite featuring the NBA’s worst record in the 2016–17 season and the third-worst the year prior) or much in terms of attractive assets, sophomore general manager Sean Marks has to make do mostly with mid-to-late first rounders and second- or third-tier free agents.

But without the usual recourse for constructing a contending team out of the ashes of a massively shortsighted trade, Marks and Co. — with player development wizard Kenny Atkinson leading things from the bench — have cobbled together an interesting and cost-effective core with a significant amount of cap space this summer.

Restricted free agents like Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe, both of whom Brooklyn signed to offer sheets last summer but returned to their original teams, are probably going to be a focus again, as the Nets can use their room under the cap to throw out big offers at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Otto Porter and force teams like the Pistons and Wizards to match them.

That strategy might help Brooklyn find the two-way wing it needs but it’s also a risky one, as the Nets found out firsthand in 2016. So a name like Jonathon Simmons, who played well during the Spurs’ playoff run, is a possible target, even if he might have to be overpaid a bit to scare San Antonio away (much like how Detroit pried away Boban Marjanovic last summer).

It remains to be seen just how aggressive the Nets will be in free agency — this year’s crop isn’t too rife with the type of young guard/forwards that fit Brooklyn’s contention timeline — but they do have a pair of late first-round picks that could help beef up the frontcourt. They could add another from Portland if the Nets chose to sit out of the offseason bidding (relatively speaking) and use their cap space to absorb an extra contract.

The good news for the Nets is that the current draft class is very top-heavy, especially in the backcourt, which should bode well for their chances at getting a few quality forwards later in the first round. Caleb Swanigan, who was a unanimous first-team All-American in his sophomore season at Purdue, worked out with the team a few weeks ago and would be an interesting piece to play off Trevor Booker and Brook Lopez, who are Brooklyn’s likely frontcourt starters for the 2017–18 season.

Harry Giles is another intriguing name that might be available when the Nets first pick at No. 22. (Their other first-round slot is at No. 27). Giles is a former five-star prospect who only played 26 games at Duke — with middling results — and has already suffered multiple ACL injuries, so NBA teams are concerned about his durability. But at 6’11” with incredible talent, he might be worth the risk for a Nets team that hasn’t shied away from taking injury-prone players slipping in the draft.

When Marks traded Thaddeus Young on draft day last year, he took Caris LeVert with the Pacers’ first round pick he got in return. A lanky, 6–7 guard, LeVert broke out in his sophomore season at Michigan, averaging 13 points, four rebounds, and nearly three assists. He only played in 33 games as a junior and senior, though, because he had three surgeries on the same left foot in less than two years.

That pushed LeVert way down most team’s draft boards, allowing Brooklyn to pick him up at No. 20. While he missed the first month of his rookie year recovering, LeVert ended up having a pretty good debut season despite playing for 20-win Brooklyn. The previous regime did something similar by drafting Chris McCullough out of Syracuse, but he didn’t pan out with the Nets and was sent to Washington in the Bojan Bogdanovic deadline trade.

It would certainly make sense for Marks, who will have at least two first-round picks to gamble on a guy with Giles’ talent, especially considering that the Nets probably aren’t going to contend this season even in a diluted Eastern Conference. With a roster mostly full of low-salary, short-term contracts (aside from Lopez, Booker and Lin), Marks has the benefit of not really being tied down to anyone.

Another area Brooklyn is planning to use to fill out its roster is one that Marks, Atkinson and assistant general manager Trajan Langdon know well: the international market. The Nets might have the most internationally connected owner/front office/coaching staff in the entire league — assistant Chris Fleming is also the head coach of the German national team — and its executives have been out scouting in full force the last few months.

Marks and Langdon have been spotted at Euroleague games and the pair have seen Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic multiple times. Teodosic, of course, plays for CSKA Moscow, a team Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov used to be involved with. The Nets have been pretty open about their interest in Teodosic, who is 30 years old but is expected to make the jump to the NBA soon. Also, since he went undrafted all the way back in 2009, Teodosic is eligible to be signed directly. That’s where the cap space could come into play.

A good thing for the Nets’ front office is that it will have the luxury of taking the proper time to rebuild the franchise. That is a complete reversal from the strategy of the previous general manager, Billy King, whose ownership-encouraged, win-now mentality dug the hole that Marks and his staff have to get the franchise out of.

Now, Prokhorov has taken a step back from meddling with the roster and is letting Marks and his staff really put their stamp on the team. The real challenge is to see if the front office will be able to find the NBA’s next market inefficiency (think the Rockets’ stat-backed three-pointer philosophy) because it simply doesn’t have the ability to use the conventional team-building means. They can’t out-Process the 76ers or have the free-agent draw of the Heat so the Nets will just have to do something different, and the infrastructure to do that is finally in place. Now, let’s see if it works.

The Mets beat the Phillies in spite of Terry Collins

11 Apr

A pair of Jay Bruce home runs powered the Mets to a 4-3 win over the Phillies on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park as New York strung together consecutive wins for the first time in this young season.

The offensive struggles continued for the Mets, though, as Bruce’s longballs accounted for exactly half of New York’s hits against Jerad Eickhoff, Edubray Ramos and Joely Rodriguez. Score some for efficiency?

Anyway, the Mets could have put together more than four runs if they took more advantage of their seventh inning rally which tied the game at two when a Neil Walker sacrifice fly scored Bruce.

Bruce led off the inning with a walk against Eickhoff, who basically shut down the Mets in his seven innings. He then moved to third on a slow infield single from Curtis Granderson that forced an errant throw by Cesar Hernandez, which went down as an error.

After the Mets drew even on Walker’s sac fly, the Phillies intentionally walked Lucas Duda to fill empty first base — Granderson had moved up to second on Cameron Rupp’s error trying to get in front of Odubel Herrera’s attempt to throw out Bruce. Travis d’Arnaud flew out meekly, bringing up the pitcher’s spot with two outs, which forced Terry Collins to make his first real decision of the night.

He could send up lefty Michael Conforto or righty Wilmer Flores to bat for Jacob deGrom (or either T.J. or Rene Rivera, for full discosure). With Rodriguez, a southpaw, warming up in the bullpen for Pete Mackanin, Collins decided to go with Flores for the righty-on-righty matchup. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone. To me, it was a baffling choice. Why not at least have Conforto pinch hit and put the onus on Mackanin to either choose to leave in his cruising starter (Eickhoff was at 91 pitches) or replace him with the lefty out of the ‘pen?

The only downside to this, as noted by Gary Cohen on the SNY broadcast, is that with the recent DFA of Ty Kelly and call-up of reliever Paul Sewald, the Mets only had a four-man bench for Monday’s game. Put Conforto in, and then he’d run the risk of having him face Rodriguez which would likely precipitate Flores hitting for Conforto. That would have burned half of New York’s bench.

But, it also would have burned the Phillies’ only lefty specialist. Adam Morgan, a soft-tossing sometimes-starter, was also available, but he wasn’t warming up, so it was going to be Rodriguez or Eickhoff. With the pitcher’s spot due up second in the next half-inning for the Phillies, Mackanin would have had to make another pitching change anyway in the bottom of the frame.

Wilmer ended up flying out against Eickhoff to keep the score at 2-2, and the Mets grabbed the lead against none other than Rodriguez in the top of the eighth as Bruce crushed a hanging curveball into the second deck in right field. Ironically, the lefty-on-lefty matchup precipitated by Collins’ unease to possibly waste Conforto was the one that won it for the Mets.

Still, despite the eventual result, this was a tactical blunder by Collins. Forcing Mackanin’s hand could have either led to Conforto facing Eickhoff — which the Mets would have liked — or to Eickhoff departing with a lot left in the tank and Wilmer facing a lefty, which the Mets also would have liked.

Collins acted like a scared manager in that seventh inning, and that’s just about the worst type of manager one can be in the second week of the season. What’s the point of having an extra guy on the bench if you can’t turn that depth into runs and hopefully a win? Just the expected benefit of the Phillies not having their lefty available for the Bruce-Granderson-Duda portion of the Mets lineup should have been enough for Collins to send Conforto up there.

It ended up working out this time, but if he’s given a similar choice to make in the future, Collins would be much better advised to roll the dice. For a Mets team that can sometimes get lulled to sleep by opposing starters with sharp curveballs and boasts a lot of home run power against hard-throwing righty relievers, that’s a risk worth taking.

 

The Curious Case of Steven Souza

26 Sep

Prior to the 2015 season, Baseball America rated Steven Souza — a 25-year-old  outfielder in the Washington Nationals system — as the No. 37 prospect in all of baseball. Souza was drafted in the 3rd round by the Nationals out of high school in 2007 and struggled in his first couple of years in professional baseball.

Souza hovered around a .700 OPS from 2007-2010 in Rookie, A- and A ball, culminating in 2.5 seasons with Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. He struck out in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances in that time and hit just 26 home runs (in over 1,300 plate appearances).

His value during those seasons lied mostly in his surprising basestealing ability for his size (69 stolen bases over those four years) and his walk rate (around 10 percent). As Souza progressed (slowly) through the minor leagues, he started to get on base more and hit more home runs. Unfortunately, though, he continued to strike out at an alarming rate.

Then, in 2014, across A+, AA and AAA, Souza slashed .345/.427/1.004 and hit 18 home runs (with 28 steals) to earn a much deserved September call-up to the Nationals, in which he struggled mightily over his 26 plate appearances in the big leagues

Still, his incredible play that year in the minors maintained his value and Washington sold high on him that December, sending him to the Rays in the many-player deal that shipped Trea Turner and Joe Ross from the Padres to the Nationals and Wil Myers to San Diego from Tampa, among other parts.

In that deal, Washington essentially dealt Souza for Turner and Ross, who have already turned into valuable pieces for the Nationals. The Padres got former top prospect Myers, who — besides injury problems that have followed him his entire pro career — has shown signs of the potential that convinced Tampa Bay to send James Shields and Wade Davis in a package centered around Myers.

At the time, the Souza trade was viewed as a great one for the Nationals, who turned a high-strikeout, older prospect into two younger pieces that more fit the traditional high-upside mold. However, it was viewed as a bit of a confusing one for both San Diego and Tampa Bay but now, almost two years later, it’s the Rays that have been the clear loser in the swap.

Turner, who has since been transitioned from a shortstop into a center fielder by Washington, has posted an OPS of .917 this season in almost 300 plate appearances and has shown flashes of defensive greatness. But, his major tool is his bat which never profiled for much power in the minors but has exploded in the majors (.225 ISO in 2016). Oh, and he also steals a ton of bases. Ross has struggled with injuries but has posted 3.4 WAR in under 200 innings over the past two seasons.

After limping through an injury-filled 2015 campaign, his first in San Diego, Myers broke out this year, hitting 28 home runs, stealing 27 bases and posting over 2.5 WAR. The Padres have, to minimize his injury risk, made him a first baseman which limits his positional value but should keep him healthier for a longer period of time. Both Washington and San Diego have, from that trade, obtained key franchise cornerstones. Tampa Bay, well, hasn’t.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay expected Souza to be a bigger corner outfielder version of Turner, but it just hasn’t panned out that way for him or the team. The power has come in waves (career .171 ISO) but the inability to make consistent contact has dragged his OPS+ below the league average of 100.

Alarmingly, the strikeout rate has gone up to around 34 percent through his abbreviated MLB career. Had Souza not suffered a season-ending hip injury that has prevented him from qualifying for Fangraphs’ leaderboards, he’d lead the league in strikeout rate, with one higher than that of Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Justin Upton, to name a few players. To boot, his once-stellar walk rate plummeted from 10.8 percent in 2015 to under 7 percent in 2016. The Rays probably could deal with Souza’s strikeouts if they came with a decent amount of walks. 6.6 percent wouldn’t qualify as “decent.”

Injuries have played a major role in Souza being a relative disappointment for Tampa Bay, but his weaknesses in the minors should have been glaring red flags for what has happened so far in the majors. Players that have trouble avoiding strikeouts against AA and AAA pitching likely are going to have the same problem when they face the likes of Chris Sale or Noah Syndergaard.

Why the Rays viewed Souza as a higher upside option than Myers is unknown. Maybe they thought Myers’ injuries were never going to stop nagging him, or that Souza’s plate discipline would improve. Regardless, right now it looks like Tampa Bay made the wrong move, as the guy the Rays have is out for the rest of the season with a hip ailment — which could lead to a position change, much like Myers’ — while the Padres’ end of the deal is finishing up a very impressive first full campaign.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why Tampa Bay is stuck in what seems like a perpetual rebuilding phase. The lackluster fan base — partially owing to the political mess surrounding Tropicana Field, and the ballpark itself — is one explanation but another is trades like the Souza one.

For small- and mid-market teams, highly valued prospects and homegrown stars are worth their weight in gold. Tampa Bay turned (then) star James Shields and top prospect Wade Davis into prospects Myers, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi. Myers was traded for Souza and Montgomery was traded for the replacement-level Erasmo Ramirez after having run prevention issues with AAA Durham, while Odorizzi has stayed with the Rays and improved over the past three seasons.

To recap, all the Rays have gotten for an All-Star pitcher and the (pre-2010) No. 34 prospect in MLB are a right fielder with hip and strikeout issues, a starter with a 102 ERA+ in two seasons and Odorizzi. If a team like the Rays is going to try and sell high on a superstar — and package a highly touted starter-turned-reliever into a horde of prospect talent — it better work. When it doesn’t, it can set an organization back for years.

Baseball’s 1% Issue: Is it a problem? Part 1

23 Feb

All contract information from Spotrac and statistical information from Baseball-Reference

In his groundbreaking book on income and wealth inequality, The Economics of Inequality, Thomas Piketty writes about how, as industrialization has overtaken agriculture in the world economy since the Industrial Revolution, much of the world’s wealth has ended up in the hands of the few instead of the many.

Simply put, the top 1%, especially in the United States, keep getting richer and richer paydays as the bottom 99% makes less and less. Interestingly, the same trend is being seen in the MLB.

Since Spotrac’s salary rankings only go back to 2011, let’s take a look at the last five offseasons’ worth of contracts with regards to the performance of the players signed — a time period which happens to coincide with the most recent CBA. In that season, just nine players in the entire MLB were paid at least $20 million. Those players were Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Mark Teixeira, Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Carl Crawford and Ryan Howard. Of them, one (Beckett) is retired and only Cabrera — and arguably Mauer — is still somewhat worth such a large price tag.

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Each year since, the number of $20 million+ AAV (average annual value) players has grown. Last season, 25 such players fit that description and, for the upcoming 2016 campaign, it’s 38. Obviously, we’ll exclude the 2016 signings in this analysis because the regular season is around 40 or so days away.

A big reason for the sudden spikes in these contracts is the deferred monies of many recent deals that spread out the financial risk for teams. Still, the point holds that in a more and more lucrative baseball landscape — thanks to revenue sharing and massive television rights deals — teams are willing to give more players more money than they ever have before.

It appears that as revenues for teams have increased, they — with certain smaller-market teams like the A’s and Rockies aside —  have decided to invest more and more of their money in fewer and fewer players.

But, is this an efficient strategy for value-maximizing teams?

In the 2015 season, for example, of the top 25 position players (by WAR), just one (No. 22 Miguel Cabrera) falls into the $20 million+ AAV category. The next $20 million+ player behind Cabrera was Adrian Gonzalez at No. 45 (4.0 WAR).

For pitchers, though, the picture looks very different. 4 of the top 13 pitchers (by WAR as well) made at least $20 million last season, not including 1 (David Price) who “only” made $19,750,000 in 2015 but signed a 7-year deal this summer giving him a $31 million AAV.

Let’s take a look at the last five seasons of data to tell if there’s legitimacy to this seemingly stark contrast between position players and pitchers with regards to return on value for highly paid free agents.

Note: In these seasons, multiple players (such as Johan Santana, Alex Rodriguez, Cliff Lee and others) missed entire seasons due to either suspension or injuries. Their WARs and salaries weren’t considered in the averages calculated for each season.

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As we can see here, the $/WAR calculations over the five-year span vary significantly, with the 2011, 2012 and 2014 values ($6,672,676.83; $6,603,846.42 and $7,450,902.49) clustered somewhere around $7 million per WAR, which is the commonly accepted range of how much 1 WAR costs on the open market.

In 2013 and 2015, the $/WAR values are north of $10 million, meaning that front offices generally didn’t get the values they paid for from their highly paid players in those seasons.

So what WAR values would we expect if players produced exactly according to their contracts, assuming 1 WAR is worth around $6.5 million on the market?

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Answer: In none of the seasons studied did the collective group of $20 million+ players outperform the common expectation for them. In other words, front offices — in general — essentially wasted money on highly paid stars for performance that, due to both injury and underproduction, was not at the level expected.

It’s true that this is a simplified view of the very complex salary/performance dynamic in baseball but the other variables affecting it are issues I would like to get into in future articles. But, this initial analysis at least gives us a few certain precepts:

  1. Front offices are spending more and more money on more expensive players each season. In addition to spending greater amounts of money on a greater amount of players, those players are getting more money in each year of the contracts they sign — often due to deferred pay structures. This means that players — who all mostly follow a similar aging curve — are essentially given consistent raises even as their performance declines (see Teixeira, Mark and Pujols, Albert). This is not indicative of a market which incentivizes high performance with more money and deincentives low performance with less money.
  2. The gap between actual WAR and expected WAR is increasing and is much greater now than it used to be, Does this mean front offices, now over 5 years from the 2011 CBA agreement, are more willing to overpay free agents to pre-empt the next CBA, as the current one expires in December 2016? It’s possible that teams could be content to gain extra years of control for higher up-front payments to lock in contracts through the next agreement, but that is something to be studied in a future article.
  3. It’s a players market right now. Outside of the rare Kershaw/Greinke/Felix Hernandez, not many of the players included in this analysis outplayed a $6.5 million/WAR valuation of their contract. I hypothezise that most teams — this is another topic for further analysis — get the highest value per dollar on the second- and third-tier players that aren’t bringing in $25 million a season.

So does baseball have a 1% problem that’s as troubling as the one facing the US — and world — economy right now? It remains to be seen, but it appears it’s certainly possible. If salaries continue to rise — they will — and more players start to cross the $20 million AAV threshold, teams likely will continue to lose value per dollar. Does this mean teams should start implementing internal redistributive properties to better allocate their resources? That’s a question for next time.