Nationals

Column: Playoffs? Not yet, but finally on the way

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Column: Playoffs? Not yet, but finally on the way

The final whistle of the national championship game also signals a new beginning.

It's time to start saying goodbye to the Bowl Championship Series as we know it. The cartel hijacked the postseason in 1998 and despite a tweak here and a tuck there, kept it roughly the same during that run, despite facing more criticism than the replacement refs. Mercifully, though, the 2013-14 season, ending at the Rose Bowl next January, is guaranteed to be the last gasp.

The most obvious change the season after that - without going full Jim Mora on you - will be PLAYOFFS???

Or to be more exact, a four-team mini-playoff in January 2015. The site is still to be chosen from among a half-dozen bids, and after that, the process will be open to all comers, the way the NFL chooses its Super Bowl cities. For plenty of us, that can't happen soon enough.

``I won't kid you, this system has been plenty good to us,'' Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood said as the second-ranked Crimson Tide wrapped up preparations in search of their third BCS title in the last four years, this time against No. 1 Notre Dame.

``But I got a lot of calls and texts from friends on other teams who don't think it's fair,'' Norwood added, with a quick glance over his shoulder to see if anyone else was listening in. ``Me, too. When I was in high school at D'Iberville (Miss.), the chance to play for a state title was everything. You could lose a game here and there, and not feel like your season was done. It's a lot fairer for everyone.''

College football won't be that democratic for a while. How fast and far ``bracket creep'' begins remains anyone's guess. The current TV deal extends out a dozen years and most of the same guys who ran the last version of the BCS remain in charge. As noted above, they do not like to be bullied.

There's also nothing in the contract that even hints at expanding the format. But if the mini-playoff proves successful enough, and especially if there's some turnover at the top of the conferences in charge, adding four more teams to the mix could come as early as a half-dozen years down the road.

Anything beyond that, especially the 16-team playoff that would do college football justice, is no more than a pipe dream at the moment. Remember: It took a century or so of wrangling just to reach the threshold of a playoff. So for the moment, let's limit the discussion to the mini-playoff.

Asked what challenges the new order will present to the BCS, executive director Bill Hancock thought the committee charged with selecting the playoff teams will be scrutinized way more than its NCAA basketball counterparts. For teams and players, he suggested ``the week between the semifinals and the championship game is going to be a big adjustment.

``The rhythm will be a lot different than the regular season. There will still be a break and then a big game, and then a bigger game after that. Pros are used to that,'' he added. ``For 19- and 20-year-old kids, it could be tough.''

The toughest adjustment, though, could be the bowl committees themselves. The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls have already been assured of spots in the national semifinal rotation, expected to be joined by the Fiesta Bowl and two other sites - maybe Atlanta and Dallas.

``We've got a semi every three years and eight other significant games,'' Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said. ``Obviously, we're pretty happy with the road map.''

Few of the bowl committees further down the food chain are feeling that comfortable. There were 35 bowls this season and while TV ratings have generally held steady, a slight drop in attendance for the second straight year has some in the industry wondering whether they've reached the saturation point.

``I'm getting that question a lot,'' said Wright Waters, who heads the Football Bowl Association, which looks after the interests and paperwork for all the non-BCS bowls. ``My initial reaction is that as long as the bowls continue to market themselves as events, and not just games, and focus on getting strong regional matchups and competitive, compelling games, we'll be fine.

``I think the challenge is going to be the perception - in the minds of the public and the players - more than the reality. I worry are we going to have the seven (BCS-sanctioned) games and everything else will be well, something less. We saw a little bit of that this year, where teams were focused on winning a championship, then went to a second-tier bowl and lost their enthusiasm.''

From where he sits, however, Wright doesn't see the long-term problem as supply. With the Western Athletic Conference on the verge of dissolving, there will be 10 conferences playing next season, plus independents and any team with a 6-6 record will be bowl eligible. To make certain the demand for second-tier bowls can be met in a way that makes money for the schools, the committees and the host cities involved, the FBA commissioned an analysis back in August.

``It will be nice to get an opinion for somebody who's actually studied the situation,'' chuckled Wright, an old-school guy who used to head the Sun Belt Conference. ``Up until now, the only thing we've had a surplus of is opinions.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at www.Twitter.com/JimLitke

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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