In this week’s normal edition of Around the Dorm, “Ref” Marc Trotochaud asks of our panel of three experts — Michael Battista, Tom Ballard and Harrison Duhr — three questions: What’s going to happen at the World Series? Did the NFL’s new rules make the death of the kick return inevitable? Do you think Team USA gave it their all at the World Cup of Hockey or could they have made it farther?
1. Considering the teams still in contention for a world series berth, what two teams have the best shot and which will come out on top?
Michael Battista: For me, it’s the Chicago Cubs in the National League (NL), and the Boston Red Sox in the American League (AL). Chicago dominated this season, being the first team to clinch a playoff spot. There were 60-plus home runs on that team between third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. With their offense and great pitching leading them to the top of the central, they are my pick to win it all. The Sox are also really good this year, especially fitting with David Ortiz retiring at the end of the season. The AL East has been the most competitive in the league, with each wildcard spot being held by a member right now, and Boston battled Toronto Blue Jays for that top spot. They seem like the best team in the AL right now, and their bats don’t lie. Though I won’t shed a tear when Ortiz loses the big one in his curtain call.
Tom Ballard: It’s World Series time already? It seems like only yesterday that Salvador Pérez and the Kansas City Royals creamed the New York Mets last year. Unfortunately for both teams, a return to professional baseball’s largest stage seems to be slim to none. This year I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NL’s Cubs go after the AL’s Red Sox for the Commissioner’s trophy. The Cubs 98-56 record so far shows that these guys know what winning looks like this season (also they already clinched the NL Central title). The Red Sox are pretty red hot on fire right now. They’ve won their past eleven games against the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Sox are going to take the AL East division win and they’re going to take that momentum straight to the World Series. I know it’s a pretty safe bet to go with the Cubs and the Sox for this year’s Series, but I don’t see any New York miracles happening this year.
Harrison Duhr: My guess for the 2016 World Series is Chicago Cubs-Cleveland Indians. There’s no denying how hungry the city of Chicago is for a Cubs championship. After making strides last year by advancing to the NL Championship Series, the Cubs are arguably a more complete team with the additions of Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and Jayson Heyward’s defense (certainly not his offense). Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are a lethal trio of player-friendly, moneyball analytic style of management. Meanwhile, Cleveland is the upcoming young squad with the right amount of veterans. A guy like Mike Napoli has a great track record of playing well in October and has the potential to lead this lineup to the fall classic. Plus a pitching staff as complete as Cleveland’s can go a long way. When it is all said and done, I believe Chicago will knock off Cleveland in six games.
Michael gets 1 point for not shedding a tear for Papi. Tom gets 3 points for not deluding himself about New York. Harrison gets 2 points for recognizing the Cubs dominance.
2. Did the NFL’s new rules make the death of the kick return inevitable?
Michael: No, because it’s either backfiring or not really mattering at the moment. Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported that during the preseason the percentage of touchbacks decreased compared to the same time frame last year by 1.2 percent. That isn’t a large percentage, and honestly, who can fully trust the preseason? But the fact is coaches and players will probably adapt to this more than anything. Instead of kicking the ball deep into the endzone, maybe shortening the kick itself will give teams less incentive to touchback and give defenses more time to get there and stop runs. Pro Football Reference has data suggesting that punts into the endzone have even gone down 13 percent during weeks one and two compared to last year. Time will tell if this rule matters, but I don’t see kick returns dying yet.
Tom: Perhaps it’s something out of “The Walking Dead,” but it seems to be that the kick return is still alive and well. I know why the NFL is concerned about the kick return — it doesn’t take a physicist to know that the speed and force most of these guys bring packs a punch. While the rule was meant to incentivize taking a knee if a returner catches the ball in the end zone, it also incentivized shorter kicks. According to data from the NFL preseason, 42.2 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.The figure was slightly higher from the preseason last year, before the rule, at 43.4 percent. I recently saw footage of Penn State’s kicker, Joey Julius, absolutely plowing down a Michigan University kick returner and it hurt me just watching it. The NFL may want to watch the show “How to Get Away with Murder” because they have failed to club the kick return into extinction. Perhaps if more kickers were like Julius, returners might not be willing to run with the ball and instead just take a knee and brace for the impending impact of a stampeding kicker.
Harrison: I believe the NFL’s new rule will lead to the kick return’s death within three to five years. It’s easy to forget how vicious the NFL can be at times in the comfort of our own homes. Some of the worst injuries in the history of football have occurred within kickoff returns. The most notable, in my opinion, was the tragedy of former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand in October 2010. This was the last day Eric ever walked, let alone played football. The full force of two teams sprinting three-fourths the length of a football field generated enough power to fracture his spine. As exciting as a 100-plus yard kickoff return touchdown can be, it’s not worth having another incident that leaves a man paralyzed.
Michael gets 3 points for citing sources and stats. Tom gets 3 points for the references and the Penn State pancaking. Harrison gets 2 points for mentioning safety.
3. After USA Hockey’s exit from World Cup contention, do you think they gave it their all or could they have made it farther?
Michael: If that was giving it their all, then I am scared for the regular NHL season. Team USA got outclassed not only by Canada, not only by Team Europe (A.K.A. anyone who didn’t make their national team or whose national team didn’t make it), but by the freaking Czech Republic (CR). The CR didn’t win a game all tournament until they faced and beat the U.S. I love Coach John Tortorella because his antics are amazing at times — almost like a continuous car crash — but he still somehow really disappointed me with his team selection. Phil Kessel and Justin Faulk, both quality NHL players with international experience, were snubbed. One of those guys is a veteran talent, and the latter young blood that did amazing things for Team North America. So yes, they gave it their all for what they had, but there was a lot of opportunity to make this team better. Although, I do hope the World Cup of Hockey continues to exist because I loved this tournament.
Tom: I wasn’t expecting another miracle on ice with Team USA this year in the Hockey World Cup, but to be honest, I don’t even think SEAL Team Six could have rescued the team in their final matchup against the CR. The team’s 0-3 record in the contest was
plain terrible. They only scored five points and not a single one of those came from Patrick Kane, right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks and defending NHL scoring champ and MVP. The fact that experienced Olympians, such as David Backes and Erik Johnson, weren’t included in the lineup for the team causes me to think that this whole train wreck could have been avoided — but alas, it was not. In the meantime, it might be helpful if we joined Phil Kessel and try to forget that this whole thing even happened.
Harrison: I think Team USA could have done better but the timing of the World Cup impacted their level of play. Similar to MLB’s World Baseball Classic, having an Olympic like tournament at the beginning of the season isn’t really appealing. Athletes are creatures of habit and ritual, especially going into a season. Plus, coaches aren’t a fan of risking injury of their star players to compete in a tournament they have no control over. If this tournament was maybe at the end of the season or replaced the All-Star break, players would be more inclined to try harder.
Michael gets 3 points for extensive hockey knowledge. Tom gets 2 points for not expecting a miracle. Always believe! Harrison gets 2 points for an interesting perspective.