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Bo Bichette on switching positions, Austin Martin, contract –



Bo Bichette on switching positions, Austin Martin, contract

October 15 2020

The Blue Jays infielder discusses how much of the playoffs he’s been watching, what part of his game he’ll be focusing on this off-season, if he would be open to switching positions if Toronto brought in another shortstop, what he knew about Alejandro Kirk before he made his MLB debut, the unique challenges his squad had to go through during the 2020 campaign, his time at the alternate site in Rochester, the scouting report on Austin Martin, if there’s been any talks about a contract extension, and working with his father Dante.

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How Rays’ Arozarena stacks up against Dodgers’ Betts in World Series –



When two No. 1 seeds meet in the World Series, you can be confident you’re going to see some of baseball’s biggest stars fight for the sport’s ultimate prize.

This Fall Classic is no different as it includes former Cy Young winners (Clayton Kershaw and Blake Snell), two former MVPs (Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger) and two former Rookie of the Year winners (Corey Seager and Bellinger again). And yet, for all the star power, the top performer between these two teams over the course of the playoffs has been 25-year-old rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena.

Arozarena has a .362/.422/.810 line, a playoff-best seven home runs, and almost twice as many hits (21) as the next best Ray in that category — Manuel Margot, who’s managed 11. The left fielder has been nothing short of a sensation, which caused his manager Kevin Cash to call him the ‘Cuban Mookie Betts’ during the ALDS.

That felt like an off-hand remark at the time, but not only has the moniker caught on, we are now witnessing a World Series where Arozarena and Betts are arguably the best and most important position players on opposing teams. Betts certainly showed his worth in Game 1 with a two-hit, two-steal performance that drove his club’s offence. As we wait to see if Arozarena has a counter-punch, it’s worth pondering on the validity of the comparison between the two.

First off, let’s get some context out of the way. Betts is a former MVP who was both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at his position in three of the four seasons prior to 2020 — and he could add to that collection of hardware in the off-season. His low point in recent years was a 2017 when he only won the Gold Glove and was worth 5.3 WAR. He just signed an extension worth $365 million dollars, and has a good chance to be an inner-circle Hall of Famer. It’s ludicrous to project Arozarena to reach those heights, no matter how good he looks right now — and to be clear, he looks outstanding.

With that said, it is fair to look at the Rays outfielder and try to tease out the Betts-like characteristics. Those characteristics can be found particularly in the pair’s athletic traits:

Watch every game of the 2020 World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers on Sportsnet and SN Now.

Arozarena vs. Betts as athletes

The Rays outfielder (five-foot-11, 185 pounds) and his Dodgers counterpart (five-foot-nine, 180 pounds) both have relatively similar frames that come with elite speed. Arozarena’s Sprint Speed is in the 93rd percentile whereas Betts clocks in as an 87-percentile runner. The difference between the two comes in how that speed manifests itself on the field.

Betts is an outstanding right fielder, as we’ve seen throughout the playoffs, and the fact he doesn’t play centre every day is a function of the guys he’s played alongside — Jackie Bradley Jr. rightly gets a lot of recognition here, but Bellinger’s Outs Above Average was 99th percentile in 2020 and 94th in 2019.

Arozarena, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown quantity in the field at this point. He’s been relegated to left by the Rays, but that’s not a scathing indictment of his abilities on a team with Margot and Kevin Kiermaier. In Game 1 the Rays opted to DH him in order to put Hunter Renfroe in the field, which indicates they don’t see him as a defensive ace at this point. Most of his scouting reports see him as a plus in the corner and someone who can handle centre. He looks like someone who will contribute in this area, but maybe not a defensive game breaker like Betts.

On the bases, Arozarena shows a lot of potential — the St. Louis Cardinals even used him in a pinch-running role in the 2019 playoffs — but he has yet to produce significant base-stealing numbers. His highest stolen-base total in a pro season was the 26 he managed in 2018 and his career minor-league success rate is just 69.3 percent. Betts, on the other hand, has 136 MLB steals and has only been caught 27 times — a success rate of 83.4 percent at the highest level. His 10 stolen bases this season were tied for seventh in the majors, and his BsR was fourth. He gave a very vivid demonstration of his capabilities on the bases with two steals on Tuesday night.

The overall takeaway here is that Arozarena has similar explosiveness and athleticism to Betts, but he has yet to convert them into tangible production. Although he can improve on the bases and in the field, matching Betts in those areas is almost certainly unattainable.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Arozarena vs. Betts as hitters

This is where the two players diverge, although not in a way that is 100 per cent negative for Arozarena.

Between the 2020 season and the playoffs, Arozarena has slugged .786 in 35 games, a number Betts has only matched during one such span in his career, during his MVP season. The rookie’s home run total in those games (14) almost matches the total Betts managed (17) in 68 contests. Arozarena’s max exit velocity of 113.1 m.p.h. during the regular season is one that Betts has only topped once in his 3,662 plate appearances since the beginning of the Statcast era — and it was a groundout to third.

The ball explodes off Arozarena’s bat, and it would not be a shock to see him exceed Betts’s career high of 32 home runs in a season some day. It’s also worth noting that 50 per cent of the flyballs he’s hit in 2020 have cleared the fence — a wildly unsustainable rate — so his power probably isn’t as world-beating as it looks right now. For context, since 2002, when batted ball stats started to be publicly tracked, the highest home run rate on flyballs in a full season is 39.5 percent, a feat Ryan Howard managed in his 2006 MVP season.

Where the biggest separation between these two lies isn’t raw power, it’s discipline. Betts knows the strike zone inside and out. He has no objection to taking a base and his ability to restrain himself from swinging at bad pitches also helps drive down his strikeout rate, which has been exceptional for his entire career.

In these playoffs, Betts has done a particularly good job of getting on base for his teammates, drawing nine walks against 10 strikeouts, good for a 0.90 ratio that’s even better than his career average of 0.79. Although Betts possesses good power, he has a leadoff hitter’s approach and profile.

Arozarena looks more like a typical power hitter at the dish. Although he’s not a wild hacker, there’s plenty of swing-and-miss in his game — even on pitches in the zone — which has driven up his strikeout rate. His BB/K ratio during the season was a below-average 0.27, and it sits at 0.31 during the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean he’s doomed to fall off a cliff at the plate. There are plenty of hitters who put up similar K/BB numbers in 2020 like Luke Voit (0.31), Jose Abreu (0.31), and A.J. Pollock (0.27) who had outstanding years. The issue with profiles like these is that they put a ton of pressure on a hitter’s power tool. If they’re not hitting balls over the fence, they struggle to create value offensively. Betts has hit just one home run during the playoffs, but he’s still been extremely effective for the Dodgers. It’s hard to imagine we’d be talking about Arozarena without the long balls.

Drawing a direct parallel between Arozarena and Betts was probably not a wise move on Cash’s part. The Cuban outfielder is winding down his age-25 season with 62 MLB games played between the regular season and playoffs on his resume. In Betts’s age-25 season, he won the MVP and put up 10.4 WAR. The bar is simply too high.

Even so, there’s every reason to be excited about what Arozarena is doing right now, and in the short term he may well go hit-for-hit with Betts in the World Series. That’s the kind of heater he’s on right now. Should he rise to that challenge — a proposition that got even tougher after Game 1 — it will mean that he’s had a playoff run for the ages. It won’t make him the ‘Cuban Mookie Betts’.

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Pacers hire Raps assistant Bjorkgren – TSN



INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana wanted its next coach to take the franchise in a new direction.

The Pacers were seeking someone who could communicate with today’s players, who was open to a new offensive philosophy and who could win some post-season games.

On Tuesday, president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard found his man in Toronto assistant Nate Bjorkgren.

“Nate is the right coach for us at the right time,” Pritchard said in a statement released by the team. “He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous.”

Terms were not immediately available though several reports said the 45-year-old Bjorkgren agreed to a multi-year deal.

He comes to Indiana after spending two seasons as an assistant on Nick Nurse’s staff in Toronto. There, Bjorkgren helped the Raptors capture their first NBA championship in 2018-19 and was part of a team that earned the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed each of the past two seasons.

He also won a G-League title while working for Nurse in 2010-11 with the Iowa Energy.

And though this will be Bjorkgren’s first head coaching job in the NBA, he went 126-74 in four seasons as a G-League head coach with the Dakota Wizards, Santa Cruz Warriors, Energy and Bakersfield Jam.

Bjorkgren is expected to be introduced Wednesday on a Zoom call.

“This is something I have prepared for during my career,” Bjorkgren said in a statement, thanking those involved in the selection process. “I also want to thank Nick Nurse for giving me my first professional coaching job 14 years ago. I’m looking forward to working with this great team to achieve our goal as NBA champions.”

Just winning some post-season games would be a start.

Despite making five straight playoff appearances, the Pacers haven’t won a series since defeating Washington 4-2 in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. Since then, Indy is 8-20 in the playoffs and has endured three first-round sweeps the past four seasons — the franchise’s only four-game sweeps since joining the NBA in 1976.

Post-season losses aren’t the only potential obstacle facing Indiana.

Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo returned in January after missing 12 months while rehabbing from a torn quad tendon in his right knee. Following the season’s stoppage and restart, Oladipo — worried about re-injuring his knee — announced he wouldn’t return to the court in Florida before changing his mind.

Since the Pacers’ elimination in August, speculation has centred on Oladipo’s future and whether he would remain in Indianapolis if he becomes a free agent after next season. If not, some believe he could be dealt, potentially leading to a major roster overhaul.

Bjorkgren replaces Nate McMillan, who was fired Aug. 26 just two weeks after agreeing to a contract extension through the 2021-22 season. In four seasons with Indiana, McMillan went 183-136, producing the fourth-highest victory total in franchise history. But he was just 3-16 in the post-season.

Bjorkgren, an Iowa native who played college basketball at South Dakota, left the G-League in 2015 to join the Phoenix as player development co-ordinator. He spent two seasons on the Suns staff before rejoining Nurse in Toronto.

“We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward,” Pritchard said,.

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How will Joe Thornton fit on the 2020–21 Toronto Maple Leafs? –



I wonder if, in the history of the NHL, more has ever been said about the signing of a player to a league minimum contract than has been said about Joe Thornton signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If an occasion has surpassed this, it can’t have been by much. Granted, it’s only natural given what the team and player have created in terms of potential storylines.

Take a sec to lay it out: An Ontario kid, a first-overall pick, plays 23 seasons and some 1,700 total games between two U.S. cities without ever winning a Cup. He’s a star, he’s famous. He makes all-star teams, and wins Olympic gold, the World Cup and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s best player. He gets older, he gets grey, he grows increasingly desperate for that Stanley Cup championship.

He goes home. He goes home for (likely) one last kick at the can, right as a talented young team sees its prized core hit its prime age. It’s all so Disney.

You’ll often hear media say they don’t root for players or teams but rather for stories, and if that’s true, there’s gotta be some journalistic types out there right now picking up blue and white pom-poms at their nearest dollar store.

All that’s been written and said about the potential storybook narrative brings me to two important questions that fans will actually want to kick around, which are: Where does Thornton practically fit in the Leafs’ lineup, and (sacrilegious though this is to question) was his signing actually a good use of that bottom-six roster spot? There’s also the question of if it’s even possible to divorce Thornton of All That Is Joe Thornton and just consider his value as a player, so we’ll touch on that, too.


Where does Joe Thornton best fit on this Toronto Maple Leafs team?

The Leafs had a few issues against Columbus in the play-in round, but one was really glaring. Their top two lines were stacked, and therefore supposed to draw the opposing team’s best players, meaning their third line could feast against weaker competition. In reality, they didn’t feast — not at all.

While Kasperi Kapanen and Alex Kerfoot were busy not feasting – fitting for those two to say they were fasting? – they also weren’t providing much else. And because of the type of players they are and what their job was supposed to be (depth scoring), they couldn’t even be used for heavy D-zone starts to prop up the other lines. They had to be protected to do their non-scoring, which is an overall drag on a team given the positions it puts other lines in.

That led to much speculation that this next version of the Leafs would have a bottom six that could at least do other things (defend, hit, wear opponents down) if they weren’t going to produce offence. Which brings me to Thornton and how, if he’s not going to produce offence, I’m not sure he’s going to do much else.

I’m confident he’ll be more willing to hang on to pucks in the offensive zone, control play, and play at the net, but let’s not kid ourselves about what he’s supposed to do. His role will be to help get some offensive punch out of the bottom six, and I’m not overly confident a ton of punch still exists.

I’m also pretty sure he won’t be taking more D-zone starts off the table from the top lines, meaning he may need some protecting himself. So there’s some justifiable grounds in questioning his addition, as has been done by my Hockey Central teammate Brian Burke:

But let’s not overthink this too much. Let’s lay the reality out much more plainly. We’re basically talking about swapping Joe Thornton in for Frederik Gauthier, not Thornton for Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, as those guys and their dollars went to improve the team’s defensive corps. Thornton can take that spot as a bottom-six centre (call it third-line centre for now), and create some offence at both 5-on-5 and on the second power play unit.

Keep in mind that while Thornton had only 31 points last season, he also had 18 assists at 5-on-5, which if you look at league-wide comparables (names like Jack Eichel, Nicklas Backstrom and Blake Wheeler) was pretty decent. That was all while playing the bulk of his minutes with a pretty meh Marcus Sorensen (18 total points) and Kevin Labanc (33 points).

So he didn’t exactly play with big talent (his minutes away from those two saw him drive play at a much more successful rate), and he also saw his power play assists fall off the map, tallying only five on a quite-bad Sharks special teams unit. It’s tough to play chicken-or-egg with laying fault for his limited power play points, but certainly some of it had to do with an overall bad unit.

It’s not at all unreasonable to think that if the Leafs play him 13 or 14 minutes a game (instead of 15.5 as with San Jose), if he sees power play time with more talented players (almost a certainty), and if he just has a little better luck, his numbers could tick up this season. Whatever mix of linemates he hops the boards with, from Wayne Simmonds to Ilya Mikheyev to Jimmy Vesey to Jason Spezza or whoever, he’ll almost certainly have quality finishers alongside him.

There’s also the matter of what his more reliable presence can do for the rest of the lineup, which includes allowing Kerfoot to play more at wing — where he looked at his best for the Leafs last season. With that, Thornton too can play wing when needed, allowing Sheldon Keefe some versatility not just in-game, but in-season as injuries mount and lineup juggling becomes standard.

I’ve been trying not to, but it’s also tough to not come back to the money in the end. How many minutes or points would constitute value on a league-minimum deal like Thornton’s? Elven or 12 decent minutes a night? Thirty-one points again, over 82 games? If you consider the type of players (usually just-OK prospects) that play for his number, the bar is pretty low.

Let’s go deeper into that part.

Was signing Thornton the best use of a bargain-basement spot on next season’s Leafs?

When looking at the potential UFAs available on Oct. 8, I dedicated a paragraph to some of the bigger names. With Thornton, I hinted at the things I mentioned above – he can still get assists and retains some effectiveness, but I closed with this:

At some point, though, the pace just slows too much, and the “getting some points” thing isn’t enough. If Thornton’s willing to play a minimal role (fourth-line minutes) and play for a fourth-liner’s salary, you could maybe talk me into it (and he is, by all accounts). The hard truth though is that even then, I’d probably prefer to spend the money on some young forechecking machine who can make your team tough to play in other ways.

When I wrote that, I don’t think I considered the idea that he’d play for just $700,000 (I figured $1 million was likely). That changes things. So while I outlined Thornton not being a perfect fit for the changes the team may have wanted to make, we also need to consider the fit of their salary cap, and how his addition may allow the Leafs to keep another valued contributor, someone who may not have been able to stay had the Leafs spent even as much as $1 million on that bottom-six centre spot instead. The fit consideration isn’t purely about his game — it’s the fit of the Leafs puzzle as a whole. When considered like that, Thornton looks like more of a win than just what his on-ice, tangible game will offer.

Speaking of fit, though, how much of his gains will be provided off the ice? I realize this stuff is unquantifiable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Is it possible to just consider Thornton for his value as a hockey player in this upcoming season, as we’ve aimed to do above?

I mean, of course not. Where the conversation about the “fit” of Joe Thornton takes me is from the hockey fit, to the money fit, then to the intangibles. The Leafs have dedicated their off-season to finding one thing: hockey obsessives. I thought that was one of the reasons they kept Kerfoot over Johnsson — he’s a serious hockey diehard, extremely passionate about his craft. That was the stated reason they wanted Joey Anderson from the Devils, too – he’s a hardcore, committed, hockey obsessive.

Y’know who else is? Leafs’ rising star Nicholas Robertson. Also motivated? Simmonds, come home to prove his last season was a blip and not the end. Vesey wants to do the same, saying he’s “going to come out with his hair on fire.” Thornton – Cup-chasing and hungry – fits that mold, too, as the type of desperate player the Leafs want to put around their core.

So yes, Thornton fits reasonably well for the Leafs on the ice. But it’s when you pull back that it really makes sense. The core players all finally have their big comfortable contracts, and the last thing they need is for those guys to actually get comfy.

Surrounding them with pros with passion, with veterans like Thornton and Spezza who can serve as examples that nothing is promised, and no single shot at the Cup should be taken for granted, should help get the most of them, too. To me, that fits what the Leafs are chasing here as much as anything else.

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