Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Adam Lind, Hall of Famer?

Who is Adam Lind? His career has followed that same two-faced pattern that seems to fit so many Blue Jays hitters. One year, he's hitting .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBI; the next season, he's down to .237/23/32. Here in 2011, he's rebounded in a big way, batting .328 with 15 HR and 45 RBI in just 49 games. He could be in line for his first all-star selection, though the AL is overflowing with star first basemen, so probably not.

Lind broke in with the Jays for a cup of coffee at age 22, then followed that up with half-seasons in 2007 and 2008. At the time, he was regarded as a star prospect, but struggled to produce consistently off the bat. His power was solid, but his batting average and OBP weren't good enough for a left fielder. What's more, he could barely play left field.

Lind is now playing first base, and despite missing some time to injury in the first half of the season, has been raking since coming back off the DL. The question now, of course, is: is this the real Adam Lind?

I'm inclined to think so. No, not the .328 average - I don't think that's a fair expectation. But he can certainly be a guy who hits 35 homers through the rest of his prime years. Lind is just 27 so he could potentially sustain that sort of production for several years.

Where would that get him? As of today, Lind has a whopping 95 career homers. Suppose he can get to 35 this year - that's 115. Figure he stays healthy and averages 35 from ages 28-32; that's five seasons and brings him to 290. If he can average 25/year for four years after that - he's got 390 career homers at age 36.

If you want to make a Hall of Fame home run case without being a regular at a young age, you need to be hitting them out in 50s, like Ryan Howard has. Howard, of course, spent years waiting for Jim Thome to leave Philadelphia, only playing his first full season at age 26. Since then, he's assembled a total of 268 career jacks by age 31 - actually, not far off what we projected for Lind above. I'd say Howard has more pure power and will be able to keep it up a little longer, but 500 home runs will be a long way off for him, too.

This is a story we see again and again - if you want Hall of Fame numbers in the counting numbers, you'd better get started early. As with most players like Lind, the power doesn't really come through until the player has his 'man-strength' in his mid-late 20s. Younger than that, guys like Lind aren't athletic enough to be valuable defensively or hit for enough average to justify a full-time spot.

In a way, then, the 500-homer benchmark for HoF sluggers is about more than pure home runs - it's also a proxy for longevity. Obviously, one side of that is the ability to stay healthy and maintain power into a player's late thirties; on the other hand, it's also about being useful enough in your early twenties to get playing time before your power has fully developed.

Look at Justin Upton, for example. He averaged 19 homers in his first three full seasons - nothing too amazing - you'd want to see more than that from your right fielder in Arizona. But he's also bringing good defence and some stolen bases - enough that the team can play him at a young age. Adam Lind and his ilk can't offer that at a young age despite the fact that they might turn out to be equally productive power hitters in their prime years.

So, there you have it. Hitting 500 home runs is about more than power. It's partly about bringing other skills to the table that get you in the lineup before you're strong enough to hit 30 a year.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Suspend Johnny Boychuk

I'll admit off the top that I'm biased. I'll try to keep this as objective as possible.

By suspending Aaron Rome, the NHL seems to have said:

"Enough is enough. If you hit a player in a way that is worthy of even a two-minute penalty, and that player is injured, you're getting suspended."

It's a way to make players responsible for their actions. It's a way to tell fans that they're responding when something goes wrong.

Something has gone wrong. Mason Raymond is out for 3-4 months with a vertebrae injury resulting from a hit by Johnny Boychuk.

Was the hit legal? No way. Boychuk tied up Raymond as the two were going for the puck. That's legal. Maybe you could argue there was some hooking or holding or interference...but I'm not too concerned. After all, it wasn't that action that led to any injury.

Instead, it's the subsequent action where Boychuk guides a bent-over Raymond, ass-end first, into the end boards. This occurs long after the puck has gone by and over 10 feet from where the play occurred. It's easily over the '0.5 seconds' guideline the league used for the Rome/Horton hit. A hit made late, resulting in an injury, should result in a suspension.

What's more, Boychuk doesn't just ride Raymond into the boards. He gives him a solid shot to the back as they go in. Raymond is half Boychuk's size. Hitting a player into the boards in a dangerous manner, particularly when the player is in a vulnerable position, is called Boarding. Boarding is a penalty. When a player is badly injured in a boarding incident, the appropriate penalty is a 5-minute major and a game misconduct. A 4-game suspension, by the NHL's recent logic, should follow.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Aaron Rome, Headhunter

A lot has been made in the last couple of days about Aaron Rome's hit on Nathan Horton - about how it was late, how it was blindside, how it was a headshot - and I thought I'd give a little perspective on the hit for Vancouver fans. There's been a lot of finger-pointing (literally and figuratively) about how it's not as bad as hit X, how the Bruins always get away with worse, about how it's part of a pattern of violence and disrespect by the Canucks, about how there's a conspiracy in the NHL discipline office to get Gregory Campbell a Stanley Cup ring.

Let's step back from all that and look at the hit. A couple preliminaries:

1. Aaron Rome is generally not a dirty player. He makes his hits, he drops the gloves now and then, but we don't see him slew-footing guys, sucker-punching etc. On the other hand, we haven't seen Rome in the NHL for that long.

2. The hit was late. By TSN's measure, Rome hits Horton about a second after he releases the puck; the NHL calls anything over 1/2 a second after puck release a 'late' hit. So 1/2 a second over the limit; not the worst thing ever, but Rome clearly had time to pull up.

3. Nathan Horton was, obviously, admiring his pass when he was skating straight up the ice. This is generally considered a bad idea, and the NHL's Mike Murphy essentially said it's OK to hit a guy doing this as it's a 'North/South' hit.

Was this a 'North/South' hit? When Horton releases the puck, Rome is a full 15 feet away, and he's not straight up the ice. After the pass is made, Rome pivots, takes two steps laterally along the blueline, and is suddenly in Horton's lane. In this way, he only would have entered Horton's peripheral vision at the last second, if at all.

Nevertheless, I think Murphy's assessment of 'North/South' is fair. Though Rome came out of nowhere, the idea of the N/S vs East/West distinction seems to be the motion of the player being hit rather than the hitter. If you're skating up the ice, you need to be aware of the players between you and the net, period. If Horton holds the puck, continues skating straight down-ice with his head down, and Rome hits him, it's a legal hit. The key is not what Horton can see - it's what he can reasonably be expected to see.

Blindside hits are dangerous because attacking players moving sideways in the offensive zone are busy looking forward at the net, at defenders in front of them, etc. They only have one set of eyes and can't be expected to also watch to both sides.

North-South hits are different. The player should already be looking forward, at the goal, at the defenders in front of him, etc. Any coach will tell you that after Horton makes the pass, his next task is to size up the positioning of the defenders and decide whether he should drive the net, hang up high in the slot, or what. There's a lot going on on the ice and he needs to know what's going on if he wants to set up a play. If Horton looks down ice for even a moment, he'll see the defender stepping into his lane.

Now what about the 'hit to the head' stuff? Murphy downplayed this, too, because it's not clear that Horton's face was 'targeted or the main point of contact'. Rome gets a lot of chest, too, and though his skates come off the ice, it's not so much that you could say he jumped, or above the standard for a charging penalty, say. When Horton falls, you can see that he hits the back of his head, hard, on the ice. So it could well be that Horton's concussion was caused by the fall, not the hit.

In any case, it seems like Rome is being punished for the result, not the act. If Horton isn't injured, it's a two-minute penalty, maybe. But the NHL is sending a clear message that if you choose to break the rules, even a little, you're responsible for the outcome. Intent is less important. Rome did break the rules - he made a late hit - and players have to understand that sometimes these plays go bad.

You know what? I don't have a problem with it. The NHL is having a PR nightmare and they can fight that battle more effectively by having the punishments fit the size of the headline. It makes the public think that they're dealing with the problem, rather than these terrible attempts at explaining that these are 'hockey plays'. I wish, however, that they'd get a little better at explaining their methods.

Secondly, I can't help but wonder if the NHL is choosing to send a message because it's Aaron Rome and he's less of a star. I thought it was pretty pathetic that Alex Burrows didn't get a 1-gamer for his bite on Bergeron. What if it was Ryan Kesler making this hit? And if Daniel Paille was the guy getting hit? I have to believe the NHL would have made it a 1-game suspension. Their failure to come down on star players is embarrassing.

Hopefully Brendan Shanahan can get this house in order a bit over the summer. As a tough guy himself, I'm sure he'll understand that players and teams need a little more predictability on how the rules will be applied. If you're going to apply the rules in a certain way, put it in writing. Are you going to cut playoff suspensions by half? Put it in writing. Will you base the suspension on the act, the result, or both? Put it in writing. Are you going to make exceptions when there's a star player involved? ...I'm sure there's a diplomatic way to put it in writing.