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Bernie Bits: Surging Blues, Charitable Pujols, Hungry Luke Voit and Raising a Glass To The Bambino

Bernie Bits …

It’s Feb. 6,  2019

The Blues stand among the NHL’s best teams over the last eight weeks, surging for a 14-8-1 record in their last 23 games to creep within one point of a playoff spot as of Wednesday morning. And this is nothing to sneer about. After a dreadful start to their season the Blues are tied with Boston for the NHL’s seventh-best winning percentage (.680) since Dec. 11. And in the Western Conference only Calgary (.750), San Jose (.727) and Winnipeg (.688) had outperformed the Blues over that time.

And I don’t think this a fluke. Not at all.

Here’s why:

1. Before the new season got underway, the Blues were praised by nationally (and in Canada) by hockey analysts for upgrading the roster during the offseason. Playoff-caliber talent was here at the beginning of 2018-2019, but the Blues underachieved during a 10-14-4 start.

2. The Blues weren’t short on talent; they were running low on effort, energy, confidence and resolve. This group came out flat or sluggish way too often. This group couldn’t handle the mental-test part of the game, deflating or imploding at the first moment of adversity. This wasn’t a weak roster when measuring ability; it was a weak roster when measuring heart.

3. The goaltending was, in a word, horrific. No team can overcome frequent breaches in the net. Giving up soft goals kill the morale. Not that Jake Allen was the devil — but flaky, unreliable, goaltending pretty much dumps a team on the floor of hockey hell.

4. Blues players –in observance of the sacred franchise tradition — turned on coach Mike Yeo, who had no chance to recover from the bloody, jagged mess of shark bites that ended his time behind the bench. Shame on the players, but the chances of a turnaround were impossible unless a new coach was placed in charge. And interim coach Craig Berube is doing a heck of a job. There’s more cohesion and focus. An attitude adjustment has raised the compete level. In recent weeks, when the Blues have lost games under Berube, it was because of laziness or ambivalence. They lost because of avoidable mistakes, inadequate special teams … or just getting outplayed by a better team.

5. Early on the Blues were lagging in the possession metrics. That’s always a tell-tale sign. If don’t have control of the puck and consistently trigger more shots at the net than your opponents, the probability of winning a game decreases. When you’re at a significant disadvantage in the number of scoring chances in a game, you’re in trouble. And yes, a lot of this was the result of key players producing below a reasonable level of their expected performance.

5a. Just a footnote on the importance of possession: under  Yeo, the Blues had an offensive-zone start rate of 47.7 percent. Under Berube, that oZS rate is 55.5 percent. That’s a big deal, especially considering the Blues’ excellent record in winning faceoffs. How many more scoring chances are created when a team’s possession originates in the offensive end, within striking distance of the enemy goal? There’s nothing minor about that stat. Having more frequent offensive zone start-ups than your opponent is often a pivot point in a competition.

OK, now I’ll throw in some “Before” and “After” numbers. I don’t know how to do charts online, so you’ll have to forgive me for my old-school, primitive-man ways. But for those who like the numbers, I’ll show you the “Before” stats covering the Blues first 28 games … followed by the “After” stats from the last 23 games.

All numbers culled from NaturalStatTrick.com.

All stats are based on five-on-five play.

Points percentage and league ranking:

First 28: 10-14-4 for a .429 points percentage; 29th among 31 team …

Last 23: 14-8-1 for a .630 points percentage; tied for 7th overall.

Shots-for percentage:

First 28: ranked 24th at 48.6%

Last 23: Ranked No. 1 overall 56.8%

Goals scored, and allowed:

First 28: Minus 21 with 42 scored and 63 allowed.

Last 23: Plus 21 with 54 scored, 33 allowed.

Goals-for percentage:

First 28: ranked last (31st) at 41.8%

Last 23: ranked No. 2 overall, at 65.3%

Scoring-chances-for percentage:

First 28: ranked 23rd at 47.5%

Last 23: No. 1 overall at 56.5%

Goal-scored percentage on scoring chances:

First 28: Ranked last (31st) at 40%.

Last 23: Ranked No. 2 overall at 62.5%

High-danger scoring chances for:

First 28: ranked 20th at 48.6%

Last 23: Ranked No. 1 overall at 63%

High-danger goals scored, and allowed:

First 28: Minus 12 with 29 goals scored and 41 allowed.

Last 23: Plus 16 with 34 scored, 18 allowed.

Shooting percentage:

First 28: ranked 21st at 7.75%

Last 23: ranked 10th at 8.72%

Goaltender save percentage:

First 28: Tied for 31st at .898.

Last 23: Ranked 6th overall at .929

More on the goaltending and a reversal in fortune centered around the appearance and performance of Jordan Billington …

In the first 28 games of the season the Blues ranked 29th with a save percentage of .838 on even-strength scoring chances. But over the last 23 games, that save percentage in scoring-chance opportunities is .897. And that ranks No. 2 overall.

Same with high-danger save percentage. In the first 28, Blues’ goalies had a HD save rate of .781, which ranked 29th. In the last 23 games, that HD save percentage is 11th best in the league at .839.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Fred Miller is 46 today. He was the starting right tackle for the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who defeated Tennessee in Super Bowl 34. Miller, drafted by the Rams in 1996, started for two seasons (1998, ‘99) before signing with Tennessee as a free agent before the 2000 season. Miller played five seasons for the Titans and four years in Chicago during his 13-year NFL career.

BORN ON THIS DAY

On this day in 1895, the greatest player in baseball history entered this world in a row home in Baltimore — with perhaps with a cigar clenched between his teeth. And of course I’m referring to George Herman Ruth. The Babe. Ravaged by throat cancer, Ruth died in 1948 at the age of 53.

Why was Babe the greatest to ever play the game of baseball? During a 22-season career that ended in 1935, Ruth set the career home-run record of 714, which stood until Henry Aaron swatted No. 715 early in the 1974 season. To this day Ruth is baseball’s all-time slugging leader (.690) ranks second in career onbase percentage (.474), first in OPS (1.164), second in RBIs (2,214), third in homers, fourth in extra-base hits and fourth in runs. Ruth homered every 11.8 at bats during his career. And his career adjusted OPS was 109 percent above league average.

Oh yeah … and The Babe was one helluva left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before turning into the “Sultan of Swat” as a Yankee. From 1915 through 1919, Ruth led AL starting pitchers in winning percentage (.671), was fourth in ERA (2.16), fourth in wins (87), third in shutouts (17), fifth in complete games (104), fifth in strikeouts. Over the five-season stretch Ruth was fourth among AL starters with 20.9 WAR, trailing only Walter Johnson, Eddie Cicotte and Stan Coveleski.

Ruth’s two best seasons as a pitcher were delivered in 1916 and 1917. Over the two-year period he ranked second to Walter Johnson among AL starters in strikeouts, complete game (58), wins (47) and innings (650.) His 1916-17 ERA (1.88) was second in the AL to Eddie Cicotte. And Ruth led the league with 15 shutouts over the two years. On the AL side, only Johnson had more WAR as a starting pitcher (16.6) than Ruth (5.3) … In three World Series starts for the Red Sox, Ruth was 3-0 with an 0.87 ERA. He allowed three earned runs in 31 innings.

One of a kind, The Babe.

THIS DAY IN SPORTS HISTORY

* 1990: St. Louis Blues sniper Brett Hull becomes first son of an NHL 50-goal scorer (Bobby Hull) to score 50 himself.

* 1990: Groundbreaking begins on the Baltimore Orioles’ new $102 million stadium, Camden Yards.

* 1958: Ted Williams signs a new contract with the Red Sox, agreeing to play the ‘58 season for $135,000. That made him the highest-paid player in the majors.

* 1971: Astronaut Alan Shepard became the first person to hit a golf ball on the Moon.

TRENDING UP

Illinois basketball, which upset visiting Michigan State 79-74 on Tuesday night. The Spartans came in ranked No. 4 in the nation by KenPom. Illinois flustered Michigan State by forcing 24 turnovers — 11 coming on steals — that were converted into 28 points. After a slow start, the Illini have won three of their last four Big Ten games under coach Brad Underwood. Based on the KenPom rankings, the three victories came over teams quality, nationally ranked teams: No. 20 (Maryland), No. 27 (Nebraska) and No. 4 (Michigan State.)

TRENDING DOWN

Mizzou’s close-range shooting. The visiting Tigers tussled with No. 1 Tennessee for a good while on Tuesday before getting booted 72-60. Once again it was a poor performance by the Tigers on high-percentage shots; they missed multiple layups on the way to making only 15 of 38 of their two-point field-goal attempts. This has been an issue for MU all season; the Tigers rank No. 278 nationally with a two-point shooting percentage of 47%.

READING TIME, SEVEN MINUTES:

Kudos to former Cardinals’ first baseman Albert Pujols and his wife Deidre. They’ll be honored by the United Nations Women for Peace Association on March 1 in New York, in recognition of their devoted mission to combat human trafficking. The Family Pujols initiated their campaign against human trafficking two years ago and raise money by paying the cost to hold concerts at baseball stadiums.

This past season Team Pujols covered the expenses for two concerts at Angel Stadium in Anaheim (Albert’s home base) and at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. During the 2019 season “Strike Out Slavery” concerts are planned for Anaheim, Nationals Park, Citi Field in New York and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

More positive news: earlier this week Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association joined the Pujols effort by teaming to donate $500,000 to charities devoted to bringing an end to human trafficking…

Moving on …

Pro Football Focus analyst Mike Renner is out with his first NFL mock draft for 2019. His picks aren’t based on his own evaluations of the players. Renner is filling in the first round by going with best-guess shot at where players will land. Renner has Missouri QB Drew Lock going 6th overall, to the New York Giants.

“We saw Lock grade out better every single season of his college career and this past season, he led all of college football in big-time throws,” Renner wrote. “Even if Eli Manning is still in the fold, there’s no telling when the Giants will be in a position to draft a quarterback this high again.”

Moving on …

Berube’s overall record is 17-13-2 since taking over for Yeo; that .563 points percentage (since Nov. 21) is tied for 13th overall … and tied for fifth in the West … during the Blues’ 14-8-1 upturn, defenseman Vince Dunn has the best Corsi For rating (62.4%) among Blues’ regulars. When Dunn has been on the ice in 5-on-5 situations over the last 23 games, the Blues have had 88 more scoring chances than their opponents, with a plus eight in goals scored (18-10.)

Binnington has a .931 save percentage (all situations) for the Blues this season. But among the 63 goaltenders that have logged at least 500 minutes in the NHL this season, Binnington ranks second in 5-on-5 save percentage (.949) and is 7th in high-danger save percentage (.878) … the Blues have to sharpen their special teams. Even now, at a time they’ve been moving to within one point of a playoff spot, the Blues are only 7 for 57 on the power play (12.2%) over the last 23 games. And they’ve allowed opponents to score on 16 of 66 power plays (28.7%.) Not good. At all …

Moving on…

The Athletic reports that our town’s Jayson Tatum could be the No. 1 target in a trade that would deliver disgruntled New Orleans center Anthony Davis to the Boston Celtics. Writer Sam Amick: “A source with knowledge of the talks said the potential centerpiece in a Pelicans package, 20-year-old Celtics small forward Jayson Tatum, has been discussed extensively by the two teams and is expected to be a major part of the talks when June rolls around.”

Tatum is a potential franchise player — a star to build around — for New Orleans. If the Celtics can convince tall guard Kyrie Irving to re-sign this summer, Tatum would be more expendable. At least in theory.

Moving on …

St. Louisan Luke Voit reported to the New York Yankees’ spring training camp early to get a jump on the competition for the Bombers’ starting job at first base for 2019. Voit was traded by the Cardinals to the Yankees late last July for relievers Chasen Shreve, Giovanny Gallegos and international signing pool money.

After a slow start for the Yankees — 3-f0r-16 with five strikeouts — Voit was sent down to Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Promoted back to the big club on Aug. 21, Voit went on a hitting rampage. Over 34 games and 131 plate appearances he batted .353 with five doubles, 14 homers, 31 RBIs and an OPS of 1.186.

The fun stopped in the postseason when Voit had one extra-base hit in 21 plate appearances for the Yankees. Voit knows he’ll have to earn the starting job by beating out Greg Bird, the once-golden prospect who has faded a bit in the Bronx. Injuries have derailed Bird’s career, and now Voit is in a position to move ahead of Bird.

“I know Greg is eager to win the job, too,” Voit told the New York Post. “That’s gonna make both of us better, that competition. We have a good relationship and competition is part of baseball, part of life.”

Voit, who turns 28 this month, got married in the offseason and lost 15 pounds. He’s been working hard with Yankees infield coach Carlos Mendoza to improve his defense.

“I’ve got to stay within myself and be the Luke Voit I was, especially since that’s what it seemed like New York wanted,’’ Voit said. “I was able to get everyone energized and I want to do that over a full season. I can hit, man, and now I’ve got my foot in the door and want to prove it again and help us win (World Series) No. 28.’’

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie