What Philly Is Overreacting To: The Sixers

What Philly Is Overreacting To: The Sixers

Until recently, there have been basically two camps of Sixers fans.

We have a peaceful village of people who enjoy this surprisingly competittive basketball team. They understand Rome was not built in a day, and consider stockpiles of young talent their chief form of currency. Let's call these people Ed Stefanski.

The rival tribe consists of sinister, warmongering hockey fans who want to slash and burn all of the club's resources. They've been reading from the book of Chuck, and pray one day the Liberty Ballers will be rebuilt in the likeness of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

My friends, you don't have to choose between these two ridiculous factions any longer. Dissatisfied with the core philosophies that guide both sides, I decided to break away and start my own group, and you are all welcome to join.

Our principal belief: the Sixers could play in the NBA Finals this year.

While the opposing coalitions squabble with each other over blueprints, we are focused on the bigger picture. Right now, that's the Eastern Conference standings.

The Sixers are positioned comfortably in seventh place, and are poised to strike at the higher seeds. A win last night along with a Knicks loss would have elevated them to sixth. Of course, neither of those things actually happened... but with 18 games to play, there is plenty of time.

Atlanta might not want to get too cozy in the fifth spot either. The Sixers are only four games back of the Hawks, who are just 3-7 in their last 10. Nobody seems to be talking about this, but even if Philly is unable to pass New York, the Hawks are very much in their sights.

So the Sixers could rise as high as fifth in the East, which would establish them as what? The best of the medicore teams?

There is some truth to that. We are not an idealistic people, and must concede there is a higher order of competition in the NBA. We also believe the Sixers soon could join their ranks.

First, eliminate that awful 3-13 start from the record book. That might as well have been a completely different team, and had it not been for that horrid stretch, the Sixers would be on pace to easily eclipse 50 wins. It's not an arbitrary total either, as it's usually the minimum number of victories a franchise representing the East in the Finals will reach.

The Sixers have come even further since then though. Just as the team is better now than they were at Game 1, they're better now than they were at Game 41. In fact, in the last 22 contests, they are 16-6. A .727 win percentage spread across an entire season would put them in the hunt for 60 W's, and the best record in the conference.

Obviously, that deserves some context. They haven't beaten a lot elite clubs during that span, have been home more often than away, pissed a few of them away, etc. If nothing else at least, it suggests they still may be on the rise. 

And while it's true the Sixers are only 2-7 against the top four seeds in the East this season, would you consider any of them unbeatable? Take away a highly unusual 45-point fail at Chicago, and the average margin of losing to these teams is by less than five points.

That Bulls game is clearly an outlier, and they responded with a revenge win a few weeks later. Philly has gone the distance with Boston and Orlando every time they stepped on the court, falling by no more than four in any meeting so far. Miami looks like they are imploding.

Is that crazy cult leader really suggesting the Sixers can match up with anybody in the East?

Well, sort of. All things being equal, I have to admit any one of those teams is still in a better position to make a Finals run in 2011. Key components from the Celtics, Heat, and Magic have all been there before, and the Bulls are incredibly talented. Chances are Philadelphia can't outlast three out of four of them in seven game sets.

Why is everybody so quick to count the Sixers out though? Because they don't have a superstar? Yeah, there's a revelation.

With the recent emergence of Evan Turner as a respectable NBA player, what the Sixers do have is a dynamic team that is eight or nine players deep, several of whom the sky is the limit for their potential. Maybe somebody will finally realize theirs at the end of one of these close games they keep losing.

And maybe this Finals talk is only a pipe dream. Maybe I should go back on my medication.

Maybe the fact that the Sixers are good—and fun to watch—yet incomplete isn't a bad thing either. Maybe, when the time is right, they will take the next step, and this is simply all part of that process.

AP Photo

Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

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Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

A piece of modern baseball history will be on display in Philadelphia for the next couple of weeks.

The original contract Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 that allowed him to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball will be featured at the National Constitution Center from May 26 until June 5.

Mikalai Kontilia, CEO of Collectors Cafe, the company loaning the contract to the Constitution Center, brought both the Dodgers document and the contract Robinson signed with the minor league Montreal Royals in October 1945 to The Comcast Network's Breakfast on Broad show on Tuesday morning.

"What's amazing is, these contracts, finally, after 60-some odd years, have been unearthed, discovered and the American people can finally see the Jackie Robinson contracts," Kontilia said.

The Dodgers contract plays an important role in American history, and not just in terms of sport. Many people point to then-Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signing Robinson as a starting point in the American civil rights movement.

Kontilia said a historic documentarian appraised the contracts at a value of $36 million.

For more on the contracts, check out the video above.

Photo credit of Robinson signing contract: DodgersNation.com.

Jim Schwartz on missing Fletcher Cox: 'He’ll catch up'

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Jim Schwartz on missing Fletcher Cox: 'He’ll catch up'

As the Eagles kicked off their second round of voluntary OTAs on Tuesday morning at the NovaCare Complex, the team’s best player was still MIA.
 
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is staying away from the team as he awaits a long-term contract extension for big money. He hasn’t been at any of the team’s voluntary workouts this spring and the first mandatory date isn’t until June 7.
 
As the Eagles install a new defense, how much is Cox missing?
 
“It’s voluntary, so you can only do so much,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday afternoon in a near-30-minute press conference. “Fletch was drafted in a scheme similar to this. He’ll catch up. But I’m sure there will be some carryover for him. I assume he’s a fast learner and I assume he’ll pick things up quickly.”
 
Without Cox on Tuesday, veteran free agent pickup Mike Martin worked with the first-team defense at tackle next to Bennie Logan. Last week, at the first open OTA practice, Taylor Hart filled in for Cox.
 
When asked if he has spoken with Cox since taking the job, Schwartz declined to comment, saying he prefers to keep private conversations with players private.
 
And by the third consecutive Cox question – this one about how Cox will eventually fit into his defense – the veteran NFL coach was ready to move on.
 
“Why don’t we do this: that’s probably enough Fletcher Cox speak,” Schwartz said. “Let’s just talk about the guys that are here. I really can’t comment on the guys that aren’t here. I haven’t had any experience with those guys. So anything I’d say would really be hypothetical, to tell you the truth.
 
“I did look, as the whole defensive staff did, we evaluated last year, what guys did. And he certainly had an impressive year last year. And we think that scheme-wise and technique-wise, what we’re going to do is going to fit him very well.”

Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

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Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

Phillies (25-20) at Tigers (22-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies actually lost a one-run game. 

Their six-game road trip started off with a 5-4 loss Monday night — which makes them 14-4 in one-run games — against a Tigers lineup that showed just how much power it has. Miguel Cabrera homered twice, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos added solo shots of their own. It was an all-around rough night for Phillies pitchers, but they have a chance to even the series tonight at Comerica Park.

Let's take a look at the matchup:

1. Keep 'em in the park
Comerica Park favors pitchers more than hitters, but the Tigers and Phillies made it look small on Monday, hitting a combined six home runs. Oddly enough, all were solo shots.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes tonight for more success than Vince Velasquez had Monday. Hellickson struggled with the home run ball earlier in the year, allowing nine in his first seven starts. He didn't allow one in either of his last two starts, but the Marlins and Reds aren't as loaded offensively as the Tigers.

Detroit has clicked at the plate over the last week, belting 17 home runs over its last six games. J.D. Martinez has three of them and Cabrera has five. With those two batting second and third, Hellickson needs to be sharp in the first inning. 

The opening frame has been a problem for Hellickson all season — his opponents have hit .289 with an .883 OPS, six doubles and a homer. His first-inning ERA is 7.00 this season and 5.75 over the last two.

2. Changes from Hellickson
He enters 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. Over his last two starts, Hellickson's given up just two earned runs in 13 innings, putting 11 men on base and striking out 13. He's faced 57 batters since last allowing a home run for his longest homerless streak of the season.

What's been the biggest difference for Hellickson in his last two starts? He's turned to his changeup, his best pitch, more often with two strikes. In his first seven outings, Hellickson threw the changeup 18 percent of the time with two strikes. His last two starts, he's thrown it 48 percent of the time with two strikes. It's completely fooled the opposition, which is 0 for 17 with 11 strikeouts against Hellickson's changeup over that span.

Hellickson has by far the highest swing-and-miss rate of changeups in all of baseball with 57 in 184 pitches (31 percent).

Look for Hellickson to continue utilizing that pitch tonight. Here are some of the Tigers' numbers this season against right-handed changeups:

Cabrera: 1 for 11
Castellanos: 1 for 10
Justin Upton: 1 for 7
J.D. Martinez: 0 for 7

Current Tigers are 30 for 95 (.316) lifetime against Hellickson. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has done the most damage, going 8 for 25 with three doubles, three homers and five walks. Cabrera is 4 for 11 with a homer. Upton is 5 for 13 with two doubles and two homers.

3. Not the same Verlander
Now 33, Justin Verlander is not the same fireballer he was in his prime. In 2011, the year he won AL Cy Young and MVP, his fastball averaged 95 mph. This season, the pitch has averaged a career-low 92.1. 

Here's a look at the difference for Verlander's pitches the last three seasons compared to his peak of 2009 to 2012:

2009-12
Fastball: .254 opponents' batting average
Curveball: .152
Changeup: .196
Slider: .209

2014-present
Fastball: .263
Curveball: .248
Changeup: .275
Slider: .227

His pitches just haven't had the same life and bite as they once did. We've seen this happen to a number of former aces over the last few seasons: Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay. When the decline happens, it happens fast, especially for guys who pitch so many innings every year. It's not as drastic for some as it is for others. King Felix has been able to remain effective despite diminished velocity by mastering his offspeed pitches. That's something Lincecum, Cain and Sabathia have been unable to do.

Verlander is sort of in between. Since the start of 2014, he's 23-24 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 61 starts. He hasn't been horrible but hasn't been great either.

This season, Verlander is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA. He's struck out 60 and walked 20 in 57 innings. He's on a roll entering tonight's game, having allowed just four runs over his last 22⅓ innings with 27 strikeouts.

Current Phillies have only 34 career at-bats against Verlander and 18 belong to David Lough. Ryan Howard and Andres Blanco are 0 for 3, Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 2 and Peter Bourjos is 1 for 8.

4. Franco breaking out?
Maikel Franco has had back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time since April 22-23, when he hit three home runs and drove in seven in the first two games of a series in Milwaukee.

Is he finally breaking out of his lengthy slump? Every time over the last few weeks that it's looked like it, he's followed with a few hitless games. 

Franco does appear to be seeing the ball better, though. He's walked just 11 times all season but four have come in his last seven games. In his last five, he's reached base nine times in 19 plate appearances with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• Odubel Herrera, who was pulled from Monday's game for not hustling out a groundball, has followed an 0-for-11 skid by going 5 for 7 in his last two games. He's batting .335, and his .901 OPS is 10th among all NL outfielders, ahead of guys like Starling Marte, Hunter Pence, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Gonzalez.

• Herrera's five errors lead all MLB centerfielders. Nobody else has more than two.

• Colton Murray's soaking up three innings last night allowed David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez to rest despite Velasquez's recording just 12 outs. Hernandez has had two full days off. Getting these guys some rest will be crucial moving forward. Neris is on pace for 86 appearances, Gomez 83 and Hernandez 72. Last season, only one reliever in the majors (St. Louis' Kevin Siegrist) had 80-plus appearances.

• Tommy Joseph entered Monday 0 for 7 with four strikeouts against right-handed pitching, but he had a double and a homer off Mike Pelfrey. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 52 (.077) with 22 strikeouts over his last 18 games. His .156 batting average ranks last among 180 qualifying major-leaguers and his .226 OBP is 177th.