Nationals

Column: SEC needs to be flagged for soft schedule

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Column: SEC needs to be flagged for soft schedule

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Christian Robinson is a competitor. Naturally, the Georgia linebacker would like to see how the Bulldogs stack up against the best teams from around the nation.

Not to mention, he loves checking out new places.

But, when you play in the Southeastern Conference, those experiences don't come along very often. You see, the nation's top football league is content to sit on its laurels, scheduling a bunch of cupcakes instead of behaving like a champion.

Its motto could be, ``Have bus, will travel,'' because outside the conference there's rarely any reason to break out a plane.

``There are a lot of guys who've never flown on a plane before,'' Robinson said. ``I remember going out to play Colorado a couple of years ago, seeing the mountains. I had never been out there before. There's more than just football on the line in those kind of games. There's a lot of different experiences that - who knows? - you may never get to experience again.''

Enough already.

It's time for the SEC to be penalized in the rankings.

Personal foul, refusing to play enough tough teams.

This season, the 14-team SEC has a grand total of 14 non-conference games against opponents from the other so-called major conferences. And four of those are pretty much mandated by in-state rivalries - an early season meeting between Kentucky and Louisville of the Big East, plus Saturday's games against three Atlantic Coast Conference opponents: Georgia hosting Georgia Tech, Florida traveling to Florida State, and South Carolina playing at Clemson.

Mississippi State and Texas A&M didn't schedule anyone from another Bowl Championship Series conference. The only SEC teams that played more than one were Vanderbilt, which lost to Northwestern (Big Ten) and travels to Wake Forest (ACC) on Saturday, and newcomer Missouri, which apparently has yet to learn how the game is played since it met both Arizona State (Pac-12) and Syracuse (Big East).

Last weekend was downright embarrassing, a Saturday full of games that passed for an SEC-FCS Challenge. The biggest, baddest conference in the land beating up a bunch of lower-division schools that don't have the athletes, scholarships or funding to make it anything close to a fair fight:

Alabama 49, Western Carolina 0. Georgia 45, Georgia Southern 14. Auburn 51, Alabama A&M 7. Texas A&M 47, Sam Houston State 28. Kentucky 34, Samford 3. Florida 23, Jacksonville State 0. South Carolina 24, Wofford 7.

The whole day was a spectacle unbecoming of such a mighty league.

But the SEC is making no apologies.

``Our conference schedule is tough enough,'' South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday. ``We don't need to go play Oregon and Stanford and those kind of teams unless we want to lose a bunch of games.''

Wow, is the SEC running scared?

Probably not.

But the league is intent on protecting the lofty records of its best teams, and it's hard to argue with the results. Six straight national championships. A good shot at a seventh with No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia in the thick of things this season.

``If we keep playing the top teams from other conferences, our record isn't going to be near as good,'' Spurrier said bluntly. ``In our business, it's all about the record. There's no playoff, so it's whatever your record is. If you play all the best teams around the country and only beat four of them, everybody is going to be mad at you. But if you play some people you can beat and win nine or 10, everybody is happy.

``It's whether you want to be happy or want to play a whole bunch of tough teams.''

Granted, no one is taking on any and all comers.

A case can be made that the Big 12 is just as guilty of this gimme mentality, with only seven non-conference matchups against BCS opposition this season. But that's a 10-team league that plays nine conference games, one more than the SEC, leaving far fewer chances and less flexibility to pick up quality opponents.

The Pac-12 (11 games against other BCS teams) is in a similar situation, with a nine-game conference schedule and two fewer members than the SEC. The Big Ten also has two less schools (for now), which means its 14 out-of-conference games against BCS opposition carries more weight than the same number from its counterpart to the south.

The two weakest leagues have by far the toughest non-conference schedules. The ACC is taking on 21 BCS opponents, while the eight-member Big East has 15 such games. Much of that is out of necessity, since hardly any of those schools can just throw open the doors and expect 90,000 fans in the stands no matter who the home team is playing - which is the case at SEC powerhouses such as Alabama, Georgia and LSU.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the SEC is the unwillingness to venture very far from home.

Vanderbilt is the lone school going outside the conference's 11-state footprint, and one of those trips is for Saturday's game in neighboring North Carolina. The September trip to suburban Chicago to face Northwestern is the only time an SEC team has ventured north of the Mason-Dixon line or, for that matter, west of Dallas (Alabama faced Michigan in the season opener at Cowboys Stadium).

This is nothing new, either.

Florida hasn't played a non-conference game outside the sunshine state since a trip to Syracuse - in 1991! Georgia went more than four decades without playing a regular-season game outside the confines of old Confederacy (if Kentucky is included) until a 2008 game at Arizona State.

No other league comes close to being that provincial. The Big Ten, for instance, has nine games outside its state boundaries this season. The ACC plays 13, the Big East 11.

This is not meant to cast doubt on the SEC being the strongest conference of all.

But it's time to start ranking the teams more on who they're playing and less on reputation. There's some truly horrid squads in the SEC this season, and not nearly the top-to-bottom depth as past years. Tennessee and Kentucky are both winless in conference play and have already fired their coaches. Auburn is also 0-7 in the SEC and might be down to its final days with Gene Chizik at the helm.

Even so, if Alabama and Georgia win this week - and both are heavy favorites - the SEC will be assured of having a shot at another national title. Never mind that it's hard to see how Bulldogs, especially, deserve to be in such a lofty position.

Georgia (10-1) has defeated only two top-division teams with winning records, No. 6 Florida and Vanderbilt, and the loss was a blowout - 35-7 at South Carolina. No team has ever won a national title with such a lopsided defeat on its record. Yet here are the Bulldogs, two wins away from playing for the biggest title of all.

They should give thanks to the schedule.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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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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