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Stadium Series: Crossing an item off my sports bucket list — My experience at Lambeau Field

I like going to Major League Baseball stadiums that I’ve never visited before because baseball stadiums, while each adhering to the field dimensions regulated by MLB, have their own distinct features and quirks that separate them from the others, whether it’s the now-gone hill and pole in center field of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston, or the famed ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.

I don’t have the same feelings about NFL stadiums because, for the most part, there is nothing notable that distinguishes one from another.They are pretty much cookie-cutter facilities without unique features. There is one exception to that rule, in my opinion: Lambeau Field in Green Bay. That is the one NFL building that I feel is a classic that all football fans should visit in their lifetime. For me, that journey took place this past weekend.

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I am a fan of the Texans, who only played at Lambeau Field one time previously — a 24-21 Houston victory on Dec. 7, 2008. With the NFL’s scheduling formula, the Texans only play in Green Bay once every eight years because the teams play in different conferences. Knowing that, I knew if I didn’t go to the Week 13 game this year, I didn’t know if I would ever make it to Lambeau. Seeing a game at Lambeau Field has been on my sports bucket list for a while, so I made the trip from New York to experience a Packers weekend in Green Bay.

Stadium Tour

My Lambeau Field experience began on Saturday morning, with a tour of the stadium. I had never gone on a stadium tour before, but that was one of the things I wanted to do on this trip. It did not disappoint. It was informative, with tour guide Mike sharing a lot of information about the history of the team and facility, and took us to places throughout the stadium, most notably through the tunnel Packers players run through to take the field every home game and onto the outer edge of the field. It was a pretty cool experience to be standing there looking out at the nearly 80,000 empty seats — or, more accurately, bleachers — that just over 24 hours later would be filled with rowdy fans cheering on their team.

While being on the field was the highlight of the tour, there was more to the 90-minute-long experience. Other highlights of the tour included getting a panoramic view from a deck high above the south end zone, which is the highest point in Green Bay. Other stops included areas of the stadium that are accessible to people who buy suites and the Champions Club, which Mike described as similar to a country club, that has indoor seating in an area filled with Packers memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, and access to the aforementioned viewing deck near the south scoreboard.

Packers Hall of Fame

After the tour, my next stop was to visit the Packers Hall of Fame which, as you’d expect, is filled with memorabilia and information about the history of the team and its best players. Highlights of the Hall of Fame include a room that houses the Packers’ four Lombardi trophies, of course named for the team’s famous head coach Vince Lombardi, and a replica setup of Lombardi’s office including the actual desk, chairs and telephone he used while serving as the team’s coach. There were video exhibits showcasing such events as highlights of 1967’s Ice Bowl — which was reportedly the impetus for Lambeau getting the nickname the Frozen Tundra — and the original Lambeau Leap, which was first performed by S LeRoy Butler on Dec. 26, 1993. Among the more unique memorabilia included in the Hall of Fame’s collection is pieces of goalposts from key games throughout Packers history and the trade agreement 1992 deal that sent young QB Brett Favre from the Falcons to the Packers for a first-round draft pick that would ultimately become RB Tony Smith, who totaled 329 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns in his NFL career.

The Game: Texans at Packers

Then came Sunday and the game between the Texans and the Packers. The weather provided what I was hoping for — snow, which I feel is the part of the true Green Bay football experience. There was light snow for most of the morning and throughout the game. With a noon kickoff, there were already people in the parking lot tailgating by the time I got to Lambeau shortly before 9am. The weather didn’t deter fans from getting to the stadium hours early to partake in the usual drinking, eating and game-playing that is associated with tailgating. But it’s not just in the stadium parking lot, it extends beyond the grounds of Lambeau. The owners of nearby homes surrounding the stadium allow people to park in their yards and set up mini-tailgates for a fee — generally ranging from $10-40, depending on the home’s distance from the stadium. Nearby restaurants and bars also run their own pregame tailgate parties, offering unlimited food and drinks for a fee. I opted to go with the tailgate at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, which had Super Bowl champion and Packers Hall of Fame WR Antonio Freeman in attendance signing autographs.

At noon, it was time for the main attraction of the weekend, with a kickoff temperature of 31 degrees and snow falling throughout the duration of the game. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the stadium — the original bowl plus some of the earliest additions — is made up of aluminum bleachers, which can get uncomfortable on cold days so many people either bring their own seat cushions or rent one upon entering the stadium. The newest additions in the upper levels of the stadium offer more traditional stadium seats.

As for the game itself, both offenses got off to slow starts — each team lost a fumble on their first offensive drives of the game — with no points on the scoreboard until Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to WR Randall Cobb nearly halfway through the second quarter for a 7-0 lead that stood until Texans QB Brock Osweiler tied to the game with a touchdown pass to TE Ryan Griffin midway through the third quarter. The Packers then took a 14-point lead with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter — a pass to a wide-open WR Jordy Nelson early in the period and a three-yard run into the endzone by RB Aaron Ripkowski with 4:18 remaining in the game, putting Green Bay up 21-7. The Texans responded around the two-minute mark with a 44-yard catch-and-run by WR DeAndre Hopkins, but a missed PAT by K Nick Novak kept the score at 21-13. After a failed onside kick, the Texans were able to keep the Packers from earning a game-clinching first down, but with only one timeout remaining on the drive, the Texans got the ball back with just four seconds remaining. With the ball at their own 12-yard line, the Texans tried a short pass followed by several laterals as a last-ditch effort to score, but that failed as the Packers handed the Texans their third straight loss in front of a crowd of 77,867.

Both teams now sit at 6-6 on the season, with the Packers in third place in the NFC North and the Texans falling into a first-place tie with the idle Titans and, following Monday Night Football, the Colts in the AFC South.

Overall, even though the team I was rooting for lost, it was a good weekend as I finally got a chance to experience Lambeau Field for the first time. It is a trip that I would recommend any NFL fan should take at some point — including the tour — because of all of the tradition and history associated with the team and the stadium.

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Why I Don’t Agree With New York Banning DraftKings and FanDuel

On Tuesday, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman ordered daily fantasy sports (DFS) operators DraftKings and FanDuel to stop accepting bets by state residents, arguing that the companies’ games are considered illegal gambling, according to state law. I disagree with the decision, which affects me as a New York resident who has been playing in NFL contests on DraftKings this season. The companies plan to appeal the decision.

For some background, DFS companies are legal under federal law; a 2006 federal law exempted fantasy sports from a prohibition that was instituted on online gaming, under the guidance that it is a game of skill as opposed to luck. Schneiderman apparently doesn’t agree that DFS is legal under that law, saying “it is clear that DraftKings and FanDuel are the leaders of a massive, multibillion-dollar scheme intended to evade the law and fleece sports fans across the country.”

In his letter to DraftKings, Scheiderman stressed some of the differences between DFS and traditional, seasonlong fantasy sports that makes DFS illegal while the seasonlong variety is legal, including that the “instant gratification” makes it easy to play DFS, which has “no long-term strategy.” He also argues that DFS is closer to poker — in that a small number of pros profit at the expense of more-casual players — than a lottery. According to Schneiderman’s investigation of the site’s data, the top one percent of winners get the majority of the winnings.

Let me address the points made by Schneiderman. First, I think comparing DFS to poker hurts his argument because I have long argued that poker is a game of skill that, like DFS, should be exempt from that 2006 ban on online gambling. Schneiderman seems to think that because the outcome of the contests relies on outside forces that the DFS players cannot control — namely the athletes — there’s no skill involved in winning at DFS. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, DFS participants have no control over the performance of the players they select, but there is skill involved in choosing which players you want on your team. The people who do it right study stats of previous games and the players’ matchups in the coming games to determine who to select — you’re not randomly selecting players with no basis for your choices.

This also goes into my counterargument to Schneiderman’s point that the top one percent of DraftKings players win the most money. Many of them are DFS professionals who do it full-time. They spend hours, and even days, to select their lineups each week. Conversely, a casual player like me often spends some time on Sunday morning choosing players before the kickoff the 1:00 games. Naturally, you would expect the people who are able to put more time and research into it to win more often — and that would kind of indicate there’s some skill involved in DFS, not that it’s a “multibillion-dollar scheme,” which was the conclusion that Schneiderman jumped to.

Further, those DFS pros are wagering a lot of money, with the possibility of a large payout. So, of course, they’re going to get the majority of the winnings when most DFS players are probably closer to me; I play in one $3 contest a week, and sometimes add a second, similarly priced contest. I don’t expect to win thousands of dollars when I’m wagering so little. I’ve won $10 each of the past two weeks, which is a decent return on my small investment.

Going back to Schneiderman’s letter, he charges that DraftKings promotes its games as “a path to easy riches that anyone can win,” enticing player with claims of becoming a millionaire. That scenario sounds familiar. Where have I previously heard claims of easy riches and becoming a millionaire? Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m thinking of New York Lottery commercials. Of course, that’s it.

So how do DraftKings’ and FanDuel’s claims of winning big differ from the New York Lottery’s? Simple. New York runs its lottery and profits from the people who gamble on it, hoping to win millions in contests in which they have no control over the outcome. Which is pretty much the argument Schneiderman makes for banning DFS — which, I should point out, New York doesn’t make any money off of. And that, in my opinion, is why Schneiderman is going after the DFS companies — he wants his share of the pie from the more than 500,000 New Yorkers who play DFS, according to DraftKings spokeswoman Sabrina Macias.

The fact that Schneiderman only banned DraftKings and FanDuel — by far the two largest and most successful DFS operations — and not the other, smaller sites that run DFS games seems to confirm my suspicion that it’s about money. He is going after the two sites that make the most money off of DFS becasue the state stands to gain the most by going after those two sites.

So the solution is simple. Rather than banning DFS, New York should regulate and tax it. By regulating it, the state can control how DraftKIngs and FanDuel run their games, to make sure it’s not the “scheme” that Schneiderman thinks the sites are running. By taxing it, New York gets its share of the millions of dollars that the sites take in from New York residents. New York is obviously not opposed to gambling; in addition to the lottery, the state regulates the New York Racing Association, which runs several horse racing tracks across the state, and a couple years ago legalized casino gaming other than the Indian casinos that have long operated on Indian reservations in the state.

Thoughts?

MLB All-Star Game Final Vote: Who deserves to make the teams?

The American League and National League rosters for next Tuesday’s All-Star Game were announced yesterday but, as has become customary in recent years, there is one spot left in each league for fans to vote on who they think deserve it. There are five candidates for each league’s Final Vote, and here is who I think should make the cut.

American League

Given the size of their teams’ fan bases, I think either Benintendi or Stanton will win the vote, probably Stanton, but I don’t think either of them deserves it. My vote goes to Rosario, but playing for the Twins will hurt his case.

National League

This is a tough call. I think Muncy will get a lot of votes because he’s a bit of a feel-good story, hitting 20 home runs already after not playing at all last season and having just 215 at-bats in Major League Baseball prior to this season. But he’s not the best candidate in my opinion. My vote goes to Aguilar, who has a couple more home runs and a batting average that is more than 30 points higher than Muncy’s. Out of the 10 players in the Final Vote between the two leagues, I think Aguilar is the one who most deserves to be in the game.

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MLB All-Star Teams: Altuve leads the pack, Markakis gets his first nod

All the votes have been counted and the 2018 MLB All-Star starters have been announced. Reigning American League MVP Jose Altuve led all players with 4.84 million votes. It is his sixth All-Star selection, including five in a row. The top votegetter in the National League was Braves 1B Freddie Freeman, with more than four million votes cast for him, his third selection. Freeman’s teammate, OF Nick Markakis, is among the notable players selected to start. The veteran will be appearing in his first All-Star Game in his 13th season in the majors.

Here are the full rosters for both leagues, with some analysis:

STARTERS

C Wilson Ramos, Rays: He had a late push to get past the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, which was the right call by the fans. Ramos was my vote.
1B Jose Abreu, White Sox: He’s one of the few bright spots on one of the worst teams in the majors. I voted for Mitch Moreland of the Red Sox, but you can’t argue with Abreu.
2B Jose Altuve, Astros: He’s the best second baseman in baseball and plays for one of the best teams in the league. No-brainer.
SS Manny Machado, Orioles: He may not be on the Orioles by the end of July, but he’s having a season worthy of being on the All-Star team.
3B Jose Ramirez, Indians: He’s putting up good offensive numbers for a team that is likely going to be a division winner.
DH J.D. Martinez, Red Sox: He is one of the keys to the Red Sox success this season. The only real choice at DH.
OF Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Aaron Judge, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels: No surprises or arguments to be made with these three selections.

RESERVES

C Salvador Perez, Royals
1B Mitch Moreland, Red Sox
2B Gleyber Torres, Yankees
SS Francisco Lindor, Indians
3B Alex Bregman, Astros
OF Michael Brantley, Indians; Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers; Mitch Haniger, Mariners; George Springer, Astros; Nelson Cruz, Mariners

The American League reserves are outfield-heavy. One of the biggest snubs here in my opinion is Astros DH Evan Gattis, who has been crushing the ball since the end of May. Torres is on the DL and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star Game so will likely be replaced on the roster.

PITCHERS

SP Trevor Bauer, Indians; Jose Berrios, Twins; Gerrit Cole, Astros; J.A. Happ, Blue Jays; Corey Kluber, Indians; Chris Sale, Red Sox; Luis Severino, Yankees; Justin Verlander, Astros
RP Aroldis Chapman, Yankees; Edwin Diaz, Mariners; Joe Jimenez, Tigers; Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox; Blake Treinen, A’s

Bauer was chosen as a replacement for Verlander, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday and will be unavailable for the game. Availability may require other pitching replacements to be made as well. Hopefully that includes Rays SP Blake Snell making the team. He’s having a breakout year and is probably the biggest snub in either league. He’s probably more deserving than Berrios or Happ, but those players are both on the team because their teams each needed a representative. There are a few good candidates to start the game. I would lean toward Cole, but it could also be Kluber or Severino.

STARTERS

C Willson Contreras, Cubs: He surpassed the Giants’ Buster Posey in voting and is having a good year, but I voted for the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, who I still think should have gotten the nod here. He’s having a better season than Contreras, but playing for a team with a pretty small fan base obviously hurt Realmuto in the voting.
1B Freddie Freeman, Braves: He got the most votes in the National League, and he is deserving of being selected for the team.
2B Javier Baez, Cubs: Like his teammate, Contreras, he made a late push, overtaking the Braves’ Ozzie Albies in the voting. I voted for the Reds’ Scooter Gennett.
SS Brandon Crawford, Giants: He got my vote, and is the right call at the position.
3B Nolan Arenado, Rockies: He’s having the type of season people have come to expect from him. Another no-brainer pick.
DH Fans don’t vote for a DH in the National League
OF Bryce Harper, Nationals; Matt Kemp, Dodgers; Nick Markakis, Braves: At the start of the season, only Harper would have been expected to be on the team. Kemp and Markakis are surprises, but are both deserving of the honors. All three (eventually) got my vote.

RESERVES

C Buster Posey, Giants; J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
1B Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Joey Votto, Reds
2B Ozzie Albies, Braves; Scooter Gennett, Reds
SS Trevor Story, Rockies
3B Eugenio Suarez, Reds
OF Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; Lorenzo Cain, Brewers; Christian Yelich, Brewers

Despite being a last place team, the Reds have three reserves on the team. It’s good to see that Realmuto and Gennett made the team after being snubbed in the voting. Dodgers OF Max Muncy has hit 20 home runs, coming out of nowhere this season, and should be on the team. He is a final vote candidate so still has a chance to make it.

PITCHERS

SP Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Jacob deGrom, Mets; Mike Foltynewicz, Braves; Jon Lester, Cubs; Miles Mikolas, Cardinals; Aaron Nola, Phillies; Max Scherzer, Nationals
RP Sean Doolittle, Nationals; Josh Hader, Brewers; Brad Hand, Padres; Kenley Jansen, Dodgers; Felipe Vazquez, Pirates

Scherzer should get the start for the National League, based on the numbers he’s putting up this season and the fact that the game is in his home park this season. DeGrom is among the best pitchers in the majors this season and gets the Mets’ obligatory spot on the roster.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the five final vote candidates in each league and make my selections.

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What does the MLB playoff picture look like on July 4th?

July 4th is typically considered to be the unofficial midway point of the Major League Baseball season, so it’s a good time to take a look at what teams are in a good position to make the playoffs and which teams are likely just playing out the rest of the season before they can begin their offseasons on October 1st.

American League

We’ll begin with the American League, in which five teams may already have the playoff spots clinched. The junior circuit has four teams that are currently on pace to have 100-win seasons and, barring a major second-half collapse, those teams will make it to the playoffs, securing the two AL wild cards in the process. The Red Sox and Yankees hold the top two spots in the AL East, with the Red Sox a game ahead of the Yankees, and the Rays in third place, 15 games out of first. There’s a similarly close race in the AL West, with the Astros holding a half-game lead over the Mariners, with the third-place A’s eight games back of the division lead. With the wild cards likely coming out of the East and West, that means there will only be one playoff team coming out of the Central, and that appears to be the Indians, who are 11 games ahead of the Tigers; the Indians are also the only team in the division with a winning record.

While the five playoff teams seem to already be determined, seeding will be important heading into the postseason. The three division winners will secure themselves spots in the two ALDS, while the wild cards will have to play each other in the one-game playoff for the opportunity to play the No. 1 seed in an ALDS.

al-picks

Looking back at my preseason picks, it looks like I’ll have an 80% success rate on the five AL teams I projected to make it to the postseason, with my only miss being picking the Angels over the Mariners for the second wild card. I had the Red Sox and Astros winning their respective divisions, and I’ll stick with that despite the fact that the Yankees and Mariners could easily end up as division winners.

National League

The playoff picture in the National League is much murkier than in the American League, with seven teams currently within a half-dozen games of the league’s two wild cards. Not only are more teams in the race, but there are more surprising teams that weren’t expected to compete for playoff spots this season.

The biggest surprise is probably in the NL East, where the Nationals were the preseason favorites to win the division for the third straight season but find themselves a game under .500 after losing to the Red Sox on Wednesday, their fifth straight loss and giving them a 2-8 record in their last 10 games. Their subpar season has opened the door for the Phillies and Braves, and those teams are taking advantage of the opportunity for a different team to win the East. Despite losing their last series to the Yankees, the Braves remain atop the division, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Phillies. Most people expected both of those teams to start being competitive in a season or two, but they are ahead of schedule in their rebuilding processes and both look like they could be playing meaningful games in October for the first time in several years. The Nationals are seven games behind Atlanta.

Both the Phillies and Braves are getting production out of young guys, with young SPs Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin both recording sub-3.00 ERAs through the first half of the season for Philadelphia. For the Braves, 2B Ozzie Albies leads the teams in home runs and OF Ronald Acuna looks like he is on his way to earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. But it’s not just the rookies helping the Braves get to first place in the East. 1B Freddie Freeman is putting up good numbers and OF Nick Markakis could have a career year at the age of 34. While those teams are overperforming, its a subpar performance from OF Bryce Harper that is hurting the Nationals. The power is still there, with more than 20 home runs, but he’s hitting just .216 on the season.

The top two teams in the NL Central aren’t surprising, but the order may be. The Brewers hold a one-game lead over the Cubs, with the Cardinals seven games back, in third place. And there are four teams with a realistic chance of winning the NL West. The Diamondbacks currently lead the pack, followed by the Dodgers at 1.5 games back. The Giants are in third, 3.5 games out of first, and the Rockies are five games behind the D-backs.

The Cubs and Phillies currently hold the two wild cards in the NL, with the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals and Rockies all within five games of the second wild card; the Nationals are 5.5 games back, while the Pirates still have a shot as they sit 7.5 games behind the Phillies.

nl-picks

Taking a look at the mess that is the NL playoff picture, I’m going to say that four of the five teams that currently hold playoff spots will stay there, with the Cardinals overtaking the Phillies for the second wild card. I think the Phillies will struggle a little in the second half and fall out of the wild card. I think the Cardinals have a run in them and will make the postseason. So my five playoff teams as of today are the Braves, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Cardinals. So that is two changes from my preseason picks, above, with the Nationals and Dodgers falling out of my postseason projections.

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The latest MLB All-Star Game voting results: Are the fans getting it right?

Voting for the All-Star Game has been open for a few weeks now and with the game just under a month away, MLB has released has released its second weekly update at where the voting stands in both the American League and National League. The league made some changes to the voting process this season, notably opening the voting later than usual and greatly reducing the number of votes each person can cast, limiting it to 35 votes per email address. And it appears that those changes have led to the voting being more reflective of who actually deserves to get in the starting lineups for the All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., on July 17.

Here are the latest polling numbers, as of Monday (June 18) and Tuesday (June 19) for the National and American leagues, respectively.

National League

C Despite not having the type of season we’ve come to expect from him, with just four home runs so far in 2018, Buster Posey is leading NL catchers, with about a 90,000-vote lead over the Cubs’ Willson Contreras. I voted for J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins, who has a higher average than Posey and has hit more than twice as many home runs as the Giants’ backstop in fewer at-bats. Playing for a bad team like the Marlins, though, Realmuto isn’t getting the recognition he deserves and isn’t even in the top five in the voting.
1B The Braves’ Freddie Freeman is running away with the voting here, earning nearly 900,000 more votes than Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs. You can’t argue with the fans here, as Freeman is putting up MVP-type numbers for a first-place team that is exceeding expectations. Freeman got my vote.
2B Another Brave is getting the nod here; this time it’s Ozzie Albies, who isn’t hitting for average but does have 16 home runs on the season. It was Albies’ relatively low average that kept me from voting with him. I went with the Reds’ Scooter Gennett, who sits at third in the voting with nearly 150,000 votes to make up and Javier Baez of the Cubs sitting between him and Albies.
SS Brandon Crawford is playing for a sub-.500 Giants team, but his .315 average and eight home runs are enough for him to get enough votes to hold about a 550,000-vote lead over another Brave, Dansby Swanson, at shortstop. Crawford was my pick on my ballot.
3B Nolan Arenado of the Rockies has over a million votes, giving him a lead of nearly 450,000 votes over his closest competitor, 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant of the Cubs. I think the voting could be closer than that, but Arenado deserves to win the vote, and he was on my ballot, edging out Bryant.
DH With no DH in the National League, fans don’t get to vote for one.
OF Not only is Braves veteran Nick Markakis in the top three of outfield voting, but he is the leading votegetter at the position and second to only Freeman in the National League. He is joined atop the outfield voting by the Nationals’ Bryce Harper and the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp in second and third place, respectively. Markakis leads the National League with 92 hits, giving him a .327 average that puts him on pace to set a career high. It’s Markakis’ 13th major-league season and it looks like he’ll make his first All-Star appearance, and it’s deserved based on the season he had. Having said that of the top three in voting, only Kemp got a vote on my ballot. I had the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon and A.J. Pollock of the Diamondbacks, who is currently on the DL, on my ballot. Blackmon is currently fourth in the voting and Pollock isn’t in the top 15. I have no argument with Kemp being in the top three, but Harper isn’t deserving of it. He has 19 home runs, but he’s hitting just .212. The game is in his home ballpark, though, and he’s one of the bigger names in the sport so he’s getting votes, for better or worse. If I were to redo my vote now, I’d replace Pollock with Markakis.

American League

C This is probably the most surprising result to me — in a good way. Yankees C Gary Sanchez led the voting at the time of the first update last week, despite a sub-.200 average, but he has now been overtaken by the Rays’ Wilson Ramos, who is hitting .286 with nine homers. Ramos, who leads by about 60,000 votes, got my vote and will hopefully hang on to the lead throughout the balloting.
1B Jose Abreu of the White Sox sits atop the voting at first base, with about 160,000 more votes than Mitch Moreland of the Red Sox. They have very similar numbers at this point of the season. Abreu has a slightly better average and one more home run. I think he has a more recognizable name than Moreland, which helps him in the voting, but I put Moreland on my ballot.
2B The Astros’ Jose Altuve in this second voting update has taken over the overall lead in both leagues, with more than 1.5 million votes. The reigning AL MVP is more than a million votes ahead of the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres. While Altuve’s power numbers are down this year, he is the only player in the majors to surpass 100 hits so far this season, with 102. And his .342 average is the best in MLB. He got my vote.
SS The Orioles have the worst record in the majors, but that isn’t stopping people from voting for Manny Machado at shortstop. And that is understandable with a .310 average and 18 home runs for a player who could be traded before the trade deadline. The Astros’ Carlos Correa is behind Machado in voting, almost 145,000 votes back. It’s surprising that Correa is ahead of the Indians’ Francisco Lindor, who’s in third place. Machado got my vote.
3B The Indians’ Jose Ramirez leads the voting at third base, which isn’t surprising since he’s hitting .289 with 21 home runs, but the player in second place is surprising. The Yankees’ Miguel Andujar is ahead of the Astros’ Alex Bregman. It doesn’t matter, though, since Ramirez has a lead of nearly 400,000 votes and should end up as the starter. He was on my ballot.
DH There’s no surprise here, with Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez leading the voting. He’s having a terrific first season in Boston, hitting .315 with 22 homers. He got my vote, and he’s really the only viable choice at DH.
OF There are three big names in the top three outfield spots, and they’re not very surprising. Mookie Betts of the Red Sox is leading at the position, fewer than 4,000 votes behind Altuve for the overall lead, with the Angels’ Mike Trout and Yankees’ Aaron Judge also in position to start in the All-Star Game alongside Betts. They are the only three outfielders in the AL with more than a million votes. The Indians’ Michael Brantley and the Astros’ George Springer round out the top five, but they’re both about half-a-million votes behind Judge. The three outfielders who currently lead the voting are also the three who I had on my ballot a couple weeks ago.

Starting pitchers are not on the ballot and are chosen by the all-star managers, but I’m sticking with the matchup of the Astros’ Justin Verlander and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer that I chose in the post that I revealed my ballot.

The only real issue I have is Posey over Realmuto at NL catcher and the other positions where I disagree with the voting, an argument can be made for the current leader. And the fans are getting it right at AL catcher, with Ramos taking the lead away from Sanchez.

The next voting update is scheduled for next week, with voting running through July 5.

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My 3rd annual way-too-early MLB All-Star Game ballot

Over the last couple of years, I’ve written about some things I don’t like about the balloting for the MLB All-Star Game, and the league has made some changes this year that improve the process, in my opinion. First, the ballot was released on Friday, nearly a month later than voting has started in the past, and there are fewer votes allowed per email address. My big beef the last two years was the league allowing people to vote up to 35 times per day per email address. This year, they’ve changed the voting to allow for five ballots per day per email address, with a total of 35 ballots cast per email address throughout the voting period. This change will hopefully allow for less ballot-box stuffing and increase the likelihood of deserving players getting voted into the starting slots.

Despite the later start to the voting, I’m continuing with the tradition of calling my first ballot “way-too-early” with additional updates during the voting period, which ends on July 5, which is 10 days before the game is set to be played in Washington, D.C., on July 17.

American League

1B Mitch Moreland, Red Sox: Moreland is getting a chance at regular playing time and is doing well enough that the Red Sox were willing to release DH Hanley Ramirez, who had been platooning with Moreland. With an average around .300 and nine home runs, I’m giving Moreland the nod over a guy like Jose Abreu, of the White Sox, who is putting up comparable numbers.
2B Jose Altuve, Astros: Altuve’s power numbers are down compared to last season, but he’s still near the top of the American League with a .332 batting average. The only other AL second baseman who’s hitting better than .300 is Yankees rookie Gleyber Torres. An argument can be made for either player, but the reigning MVP — who leads the AL in hits — gets my vote.
SS Manny Machado, Orioles: Machado and the Indians’ Francisco Lindor are both having great seasons, but Machado is hitting about 20 points better, with more homers and RBI on the season so he’s the choice to make here. Lindor would still make the team as a backup, but Machado is having the better season and gets my vote.
3B Jose Ramirez, Indians: A Cleveland infielder is getting my vote here as Ramirez is the only player at the hot corner in the AL who’s hitting both for average and power. He’s hitting around .300 and is leading the position in home runs and RBI, making him an easy choice for my ballot.
C Wilson Ramos, Rays: The veteran catcher is hovering around a career-high with a .301 batting average entering Sunday with seven homers. There are other catchers — including the Royals’ Salvador Perez and the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, who have more home runs but aren’t close to Ramos in average, making him the AL’s best overall catcher in terms of offensive stats.
DH J.D. Martinez, Red Sox: The biggest offensive hole the Red Sox had last season was hitting the fewest home runs in the AL. Martinez, who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in the offseason, is helping to change that with a MLB-best 19 home runs to go along with 50 RBI, which also leads the majors. He’s easily the best choice to make at DH.
OF Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Aaron Judge, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels: Betts just went on the DL this weekend, but he is having one of the best seasons of all hitters in the American League, leading the league with a .359 average, in addition to 17 home runs and 37 RBI. I expect him to be back in action in time for the All-Star Game, but even if he’s not he gets my vote. There’s no sophomore slump for Judge, who is putting up similar numbers to what he did last year, when he finished as the runner-up to Altuve in AL MVP voting. And Trout is having a typical Mike Trout season, hitting .313 with 19 home runs — tied with Martinez for the major league lead — here in early June.

My first AL all-star ballot of 2018

National League

1B Freddie Freeman, Braves: Some rookies have helped the Braves get out to a surprisingly strong start in the NL East this season, but the veteran Freeman is doing his part as well, hitting .335 with nine home runs and 40 RBI.
2B Scooter Gennett, Reds: Gennett is one of the few bright spots for a Reds team that has the second-worst record in the National League. His .340 average and 11 home runs gets my vote over the Braves’ Ozzie Albies and Cubs’ Javier Baez, who are also having good seasons thus far.
SS Brandon Crawford, Giants: There’s not a standout candidate among NL shortstops, so I’ll give it to Crawford, who is hitting over .300 with six home runs.
3B Nolan Arenado, Rockies: Arenado is always in contention to get a start in the All-Star Game, and this year is no different with a .325 average and 12 homers entering Sunday. He edges out the Cubs’ Kris Bryant to get my vote at the position.
C J.T. Realmuto, Marlins: Realmuto began the season on the DL, but he has put up good numbers since taking the field, hitting over .300 with six home runs at a position where offense isn’t easy to come by. The Giants’ Buster Posey is having a bit of a disappointing season, by his standards, giving Realmuto a chance to get a vote on my ballot.
DH With no DH in the National League, fans don’t get to vote for one.
OF Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks; Matt Kemp, Dodgers: Two of the three choices here are the same as on my way-too-early ballot last season, with the Nationals’ Bryce Harper the one who didn’t get the repeat vote. He has 18 home runs, but is hitting just .233 — a far cry from his .319 average in 2017 — which kept him off my ballot. Pollock, who is hitting .293 with 11 homers, gets my third outfield vote instead. Kemp currently has the highest average of this threesome, at .347, and Blackmon is hitting .285 with 12 home runs.

My first NL all-star ballot of 2018

Starting pitchers are not on the ballot and are chosen by the all-star managers, but I like to choose them, too. In the American League, the only choice is the Astros’ Justin Verlander, who has an impressive 1.24 ERA and 104 strikeouts through 13 starts, with the Nationals’ Max Scherzer getting my vote in the National League. Scherzer is 9-1 with a 1.92 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 12 starts.

I’ll be updating the ballot as the All-Star Game approaches, so keep checking back in for updates.

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MLB Weekly-ish: Pujols and the Dodgers make history, Harvey DFAed

Looking Back

Milestone games for Angels DH Albert Pujols and Dodgers pitchers, and the Mets designating a former ace for assignment highlight this week’s MLB Weekly.

Pujols began this season with 2,968 career hits and on Friday, in his 31st game of 2018, he recorded his 32nd hit of the season, making him the 32nd player in major league history to reach the 3,000-hit milestone. The 40-year-old singled to right field off Mariners SP Mike Leake in the fifth inning of an Angels victory for hit No. 3,000. With 620 home runs on his ledger, he joins Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only four members of the 3,000/600 club.

Pujols put up monster numbers in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals, totaling 2,073 hits and 445 home runs with a .328 average. But since signing with the Angels prior to the 2012 season, Pujols’ offensive output has slowed and he has transitioned from a two-time National League Gold Glove-winning first baseman to a designated hitter as age and injuries have caught up to him. Entering Sunday, his batting average with the Angels is .262, more than 60 points below what he hit with St. Louis. Despite the offensive downturn, Pujols still has some power, having hit 60 homers since the start of the 2016 season. The three-time NL MVP is signed with the Angels through the 2021 season.

Pujols is one of the longest-tenured active players in the majors, but it was a rookie Dodgers pitcher who had the spotlight on him Friday when the defending NL champs began a three-game series with the Padres in Monterrey, Mexico. SP Walker Buehler — making his third career MLB start — pitched the first six innings of what would be a six-pitcher combined no-hitter in a 4-0 Dodgers victory. Buehler struck out eight batters and issued three walks in his six innings of work before manager Dave Roberts took him out of the game after throwing 93 pitches. RPs Tony Cingrani, Yimi Garcia and Adam Liberatore followed up Buehler’s performance by each throwing an inning, combining for five strikeouts and two walks in the final three innings of the game. Buehler has been impressive in the first three starts of his big-league career, recording a 1.13 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 16 innings, making him one of the few positives in what has been a disappointing start to the season for the Dodgers, who are 15-17 after finishing 2017 with a MLB-best 104 wins and falling a game short of winning the World Series.

It was the 23rd no-hitter in Dodgers history — 13th since moving to Los Angeles — but the first combined no-hitter for the team. It was the 12th combined no-hitter in MLB history and the first since six Mariners pitchers no-hit the Dodgers in June 2012. And it’s the second no-hitter of 2018 after A’s SP Sean Manaea threw a no-no against the Red Sox on April 22.

The news wasn’t so good for Matt Harvey on Friday. The Mets asked him to accept a demotion to the minors, which he refused. That led the team to designate him for assignment, giving the Mets 10 days to trade the pitcher, who was recently moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, or release him. That ends Harvey’s time with the Mets after a tenure that began promising but had taken a downward turn in recent years, with injuries limiting his time on the field — including missing the entire 2014 season — and inconsistent performances when he did play.

Harvey’s ERA has steadily risen over the last three years, going from 2.71 in 2015 to 4.86 in 2016 and 6.70 last year. In eight appearances this season, including four starts, Harvey is 0-2 with a 7.00 ERA in 27 innings. That compares to ERAs of 2.73 and 2.27 in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

The big injury news this week was Dodgers SS Corey Seager suffering a season-ending UCL strain that will require him to undergo Tommy John surgery. Other notable players hitting the DL in the past week include: Padres OF Wil Myers (oblique), Dodgers OF Yasiel Puig (hip) and SP Hyun-Jin Ryu (groin), Phillies SS J.P. Crawford (forearm), Blue Jays OFs Randal Grichuk (knee) and Steve Pearce (oblique), Diamondbacks SP Robbie Ray (oblique), Rockies 2B DJ LeMahieu (hamstring), Twins 3B Miguel Sano (hamstring) and C Jason Castro (knee), Angels RP Keynan Middleton (elbow) and SP Nick Tropeano (shoulder), Giants SP Johnny Cueto (elbow), Yankees SP Jordan Montgomery (elbow), Brewers SP Zach Davies (rotator cuff), Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera (hamstring), Braves SS Dansby Swanson (wrist) and White Sox 2B Yoan Moncada (hamstring).

The Week Ahead

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The featured series this week is the return of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. They’re meeting for three games in the Bronx starting Tuesday, at a time when they have the two best records in the American League. The Indians visit the Brewers for two games starting Tuesday, and the Rockies and Angels have a two-game set in Denver in a couple of series involving playoff hopefuls. Later in the week, the White Sox head to Wrigley Field to take on the Cubs starting Friday for this season’s first installment of the annual Windy City Series. The NL West-leading Diamondbacks host the disappointing Nationals for four games starting Thursday, and the Rockies host the Brewers for a four-game start beginning Thursday.

Some pitching performances to look for this week include Twins SP Fernando Romero looking to follow up his MLB debut with another good start Monday when he takes on the Cardinals and SP John Gant. The next day, SP Carlos Martinez takes the ball for St. Louis as he looks to improve upon his 3-1 start with a strong 1.40 ERA when he opposes Twins SP Jake Odorizzi. Mariners SP James Paxton recorded a career-high 16 strikeouts last time out, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance Tuesday against the Blue Jays and SP Marcus Stroman. Indians ace Corey Kluber also starts Tuesday, against Brewers SP Wade Miley, while Cubs SP Yu Darvish continues to look for his first win as a Cub; his next shot comes Tuesday against the Marlins, led by SP Jose Urena. Like Paxton, Astros SP Gerrit Cole is coming off a 16-strikeout performance; he’s set to get the ball again on Wednesday at the A’s. Buehler is scheduled to make his next start for the Dodgers at home Thursday, taking on the Reds.

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MLB Weekly-ish: Surprising teams, injuries mark the start of the season

Looking Back

We’re a couple weeks into the 2018 MLB season with most teams having played about 15 games thus far and there are a number of teams that are surprising people by their performances — both good and bad — and some star players are dealing with injuries in this season’s first edition of MLB Weekly.

Taking a look at the standings entering Sunday, the Mets — who are coming off a 70-92 season — are coming out of the gate strong with the best record in the National League and leading the NL East at 11-2. The Nationals, who were the favorites to win the division, sit in fourth place with a 7-8 mark. The Mets’ struggles last season were caused by injuries, with the starting rotation hit particularly hard, so they were expected to have a better season this year assuming health. Through two weeks, their pitchers haven’t dealt with injuries, but C Travis d’Arnaud will undergo Tommy John surgery, which will end his season, and backup C Kevin Plawecki is also on the DL with a broken hand that is expected to keep him out of action for a few weeks. Apart from SP Zack Wheeler, who has a 1.29 ERA in his only start, none of the Mets’ starters have a sub-3.00 ERA but only SP Matt Harvey, who has the worst injury history of the group, has posted an ERA above 4.00 with a 3.60 ERA in his first two starts, but that should get better if he can stay healthy for the first time since 2015.

There’s also an unexpected team at the top of the standings in the NL Central, with the 10-4 Pirates 2.5 games ahead of the second-place Cardinals and the improved Brewers. The Cubs — who have won the division each of the last two seasons — are in fourth place at 7-7. After trading their best pitcher (SP Gerrit Cole) and hitter (OF Andrew McCutchen), the Pirates were thought to be in rebuilding mode and not expected to be competitive in the division in 2018. They are getting production, though, from two of the hitters they added this winter: OF Corey Dickerson, who they acquired in a trade with the Rays, is hitting .347 with 10 RBI and a couple of steals while 3B Colin Moran, who came over from the Astros in the Cole trade, is hitting .316 with 8 RBI in his first 11 games with the team. A couple of young pitchers have had terrific starts to their seasons, with SP Jameson Taillon posting a 0.890ERA with 18 strikeouts in his first three starts and SP Trevor Williams with a 1.56 ERA and 10 strikeouts in three starts.

In the American League, the Angels and Red Sox were both expected to be in the playoff picture this season but not many people expected them to get off to the kinds of starts they they have. The 12-2 Red Sox have been getting it done on the mound, with the second-lowest ERA in the American League. They’ve also been getting offensive production out of SS Xander Bogaerts — who is currently on the DL — and OFs Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez, who are all hitting .353 or better. For the Angels, the much-hyped Shohei Ohtani has shown his subpar spring training performance was a fluke and has gotten off to a hot start both at the plate and on the mound. He’s hitting .367 with 3 home runs and 11 games in eight games as a DH and has posted a 2.08 ERA with 18 strikeouts over 13 innings in his first two starts of the season. OF Mike Trout, a perennial MVP candidate, is having the type of season people have come to expect from him with 6 home runs in his first 16 games.

It’s not good news for every team, though. The Cubs are one of the bigger disappointments early in the season at .500. That is due in large part to their pitching. Of their five starters, only SP Kyle Hendricks has a sub-4.00 ERA, and it’s not overly impressive at 3.71. SP Yu Darvish, who the Cubs signed to a big contract this winter despite his struggles in the postseason, has a 6.00 ERA in three starts. The Yankees, who were a game away from making the World Series in 2017, are also 7-7 as they sit in third place in the AL East, but the biggest disappointment early in 2018 is the Dodgers. Coming off their first World Series appearance since 1988, the Dodgers are just 4-9 and 6.5 games out of first in the NL West. Part of that is because 3B Justin Turner started the season on the DL and has yet to play in a game, but they’re not getting much out of SS Corey Seager, who hit .293 last season but is at .196 entering Sunday. The starting pitching is a mixed bag, with Clayton Kershaw sitting at a 1.89 ERA but SP Alex Wood posting a 5.09 ERA and SP Rich Hill at a 6.00 ERA. Closer Kenley Jansen is 0-1 with a 6.35 ERA and a couple of saves in his first six appearances of the season.

The first couple weeks of the season haven’t been kind to teams in terms of injuries, with the list of players currently on the DL including: Angels SP Matt Shoemaker; Rangers OF Delino Deshields, SS Elvis Andrus and 2B Rougned Odor; Phillies SP Jerad Eickhoff; Blue Jays SS Troy Tulowitzki and 3B Josh Donaldson; Giants SPs Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and RP Mark Melancon; Indians SP Danny Salazar; Royals C Salvador Perez; Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia; Marlins C J.T. Realmuto; Yankees 1B Greg Bird, SP CC Sabathia and 3B Brandon Drury; White Sox SP Carlos Rodon; Nationals 2B Daniel Murphy and OF Adam Eaton; Pirates SP Joe Musgrove; Mariners DH Nelson Cruz; Diamondbacks 3B Jake Lamb; Padres OFs Wil Myers and Manuel Margot; Brewers SP Jimmy Nelson, RP Corey Knebel and OF Christian Yelich; and Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo.

The Week Ahead

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The Angels and Red Sox are the best teams in the American League right now, and they begin a three-game series in Anaheim on Tuesday after the Red Sox host the Orioles Monday in their traditional 11am start on Patriots’ Day. The Astros begin a weeklong road trip on Monday with the first of four at the division-rival Mariners in Seattle. The classic Cubs-Cardinals rivalry gets going for three games at Wrigley starting Monday, and longtime Yankee SS Derek Jeter brings the team he now co-owns, the Marlins, to Yankee Stadium for a two-game interleague series Monday and Tuesday. Over in Queens, the Mets look to keep their hot start going with a three-game series against the Nationals starting Monday. Later in the week, the Cubs visit the Rockies starting Friday in a series between two teams that made the playoffs last season but haven’t begun 2018 the way they would have liked. And the Dodgers look to get things going when they host the Nationals over the weekend.

In some pitching performances to look out for this week, Astros SP Dallas Keuchel looks to lock down his first win of the season Monday when he faces SP James Paxton and the Mariners. Sabathia is scheduled to come off the DL to get the start Tuesday in the Yankees’ second game against the Marlins. Wednesday sees Cole take the mound for his fourth start for the Astros as he looks to continue his streak of double-digit strikeout performances against Mariners SP Mike Leake. And there are aces scheduled to be dueling in Southern California Saturday night with Ohtani scheduled to start for the Angels and a pitching matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Kershaw on the docket for the Nationals-Dodgers game Saturday.

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