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October 1, 2003

Prospectus Today

Bury the Corpse

by Joe Sheehan

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Yankees/Twins

I'm wondering what I would have given for the Twins' chances if you'd told me yesterday morning that Rick Reed would be pitching the fifth inning. Johan Santana's pre-game bout of vomiting dehydrated him and left him unable to go more than four innings. Reed managed to get two outs, however, and he and J.C. Romero combined for the six most important outs of the Twins' year to date, bridging the gap to LaTroy Hawkins in the seventh.

If something like this was going to happen, best that it happen when the teams would be playing just one game in the next 3 1/2 days. I actually was pressing for Ron Gardenhire to start the sixth with Hawkins, but in retrospect, his decision to get through the leftycentric part of the Yankee lineup with Romero was the better one. Gardenhire handled an awful situation well and got good performance from pitchers he probably doesn't want to be leaning too heavily on. Now, he has a one-game lead and the certainty that he can bring back Santana in Game Four.

It helped that Bernie Williams' Corpse was on display. While much of the post-mortem seems to be focusing on Alfonso Soriano's throw to the Fulton Fish Market on the same play, it was Corpse's brutal misplay of a Torii Hunter single that changed the game.

We go through this every year with the Yankees. Maybe it's time to issue a public challenge of some sort, because the naked-emperor thing is getting out of hand. To hear Joe Morgan and Jon Miller--a combination I enjoy--go all Claude Rains when the Yankees display the defensive ability of Kuwait is ridiculous. It's as if they expect service time or postseason appearances to make plays, disregarding the fact that Williams hasn't been even an adequate center fielder in two years. He can't throw--as evidenced on the first run of the game, when he just missed gunning down Cristian Guzman at the pitcher's mound--and his diminished lateral range no longer makes up for a first step measured in geologic time.

Bernie Williams' Corpse can't play center field any longer. It actually kills me to write things like this, because Williams was my favorite Yankee in the post-Don Mattingly era, a classy, complete ballplayer who did everything on the field and nothing off it to embarrass anyone. I still firmly believe that if you get him to left field, he'll have a renaissance at the plate and go on to make the Hall of Fame. In center field, though, he's a liability who costs the Yankees two-to-three wins a year with his glove.

I recently read Alan Schwarz's piece on Barry Bonds, in which Schwarz makes reference to how Willie Mays ended his career in 1973. I was two at the time, so I can't say I remember, but could Mays really have looked any worse than Corpse does now? If Mays' play in the field had people cringing and looking away, how is it that there's not a similar groundswell over Corpse? Is this something I can get on the ballot in California, a recall petition for the Yankee center-field job? "Vote Matsui: Because Some American Real Estate Really Should Belong to the Japanese"

The Yankees may yet advance past the Twins, but whenever their season ends, they have to get serious about realigning an outfield defense that no longer can just be dismissed as a weakness. It's a massive problem.

Giants/Marlins

As expected, this one was a pitchers' duel, as two power right-handers locked up against teams that don't handle the type very well, in a place that is very favorable to the breed. Jason Schmidt was a little bit better than Josh Beckett and didn't get hosed by his third baseman on a bunt play, so the Giants are up 1-0 today. I don't mean to be cliché, but today's game is something of a must-win for the Marlins, who will be feeding left-handers to a team that eats them alive in Games Three and Four.

True to Jack McKeon's stated intentions, the Marlins walked Barry Bonds three times in his four plate appearances. I know there has been a lot of study that indicates pitching to Bonds is superior to walking him, but I think I agree with all three bases on balls yesterday:

  • First inning, Bonds comes up with two outs and Ray Durham on second base in a scoreless game. I don't think there's any argument here that the intentional walk was the right play.

  • Fourth inning, with no one out and Rich Aurilia on first after a walk, Bonds walked on six pitches. Beckett was actually going after him in this situation. It was this walk that set up the Cabrera throwing error on which the Giants scored their first run.

  • Ninth inning, with two outs and no one on, McKeon intentionally walked Bonds. Bonds subsequently stole second base and scored on an Edgardo Alfonzo fly ball to center that Juan Pierre played into a double.

    This is the one that everyone will focus on, because it was a clear avoidance of Bonds in a non-standard walk situation, and the Giants got a run out of it. I can see an argument both ways, but the fact is, Alfonzo hit .258/.333/.385 this year. I'd rather take my chances with that, especially with the slow Bonds running the bases, than with Bonds at the plate.

Getting caught up in the outcome of decisions is bad. The Giants scored after two of Bonds' walks, but that's going to happen sometimes, and it's not like they pounded the Marlins into submission. The way to analyze the decision is to look at the information available at the time of the decision. In both cases where the walk was intentional, the four balls were defensible and even a good idea.

I'm with McKeon on this one. I'll keep taking my chances with Edgardo Alfonzo, and if Alfonzo beats me, he beats me.

Braves/Cubs

Last fall, when I launched the e-mail newsletter that got me writing about baseball again, I provided a prediction for each game of the World Series. I actually did fairly well until Dusty Baker decided to give Russ Ortiz a game ball for a game that still needed a ball.

I meant to do the same for the playoffs this year, but forgot to include the picks in yesterday's piece. I really wish I had, because I got all three winning teams, and the type of games that were played, right. I'm most proud of calling the Cubs' win over the Braves, because things happened almost exactly as I expected them to: Kerry Wood was electric, and Ortiz, now a Brave, showed why his Cy Young candidacy is a joke.

It almost didn't work out this way. The Cubs had rallies in four of the first five innings, hitting into double plays twice and getting nothing from a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the fourth. When they got themselves into the exact same situation in the sixth, it again looked like they would be denied.

The Cubs were helped considerably by Ortiz. For some reason, he decided that he had to nibble against the grand parade of lifeless right-handed bats, which created rallies where there didn't need to be any. Why you would work the outside corner with breaking stuff against people like Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek is unclear, but Ortiz did so and kept putting guys on base, only to be rescued time and again.

Finally, with the Cubs having tied the game on a Paul Bako groundout that probably should have been an inning-ending double play (people who think players today can't play defense can't even see around the piles of exhibits they collected yesterday), Wood had one of those moments where you'd just love to have been inside his head before it happened. All but saying to his impotent teammates, "Screw you guys, I'll do it myself," Wood crushed a 1-0 fastball into the left-center gap, plating two runs with a double and putting the Cubs ahead for good.

The aftermath of that double was pretty funny. Kenny Lofton singled Wood home on a blooper to center off Ray King, after which Fox's Steve Lyons went crazy praising the pitcher for getting a good jump from second base on the play. It might have been a cogent bit of analysis, except for one thing: there were two outs at the time...

Now, I know Lyons didn't get to second base very often in his playing days, but you'd like to think that a broadcaster, titularly an analyst, would know how many outs there are in every game situation. Wood didn't get a good break because he's an instinctive baserunner; he got a good break because he's got the whole "counting to two" thing down.

Wood was awesome last night, allowing two hits and striking out 11 men in 7 1/3 innings. Baker might have gotten him a batter or two sooner, but he did get him in time for his underrated bullpen to close out the game.

I said before the series that the Cubs' pitching could take over this matchup the same way the Braves' pitchers used to take over Division Series matchups against great offenses. I saw nothing last night to dissuade me of that notion.

Notes

  • There were a total of 12 runs scored in the three games yesterday, a far cry from last year's first-day total of 39 tallies. Many people argue that the playoffs require a different brand of baseball because the games are lower-scoring. I think it's the other way around; the playoffs are lower-scoring because teams that have gone the whole season playing solid offensive baseball suddenly act like it's 1903, not 2003.

    We saw that a few times yesterday. The Twins opened their game with a Shannon Stewart double, only to bunt him to third and not score. The play on which the Giants got their first run was a first-and-second, no-out bunt with the #5 hitter. Corey Koskie was thrown out trying to steal third base with one out and a left-handed hitter at the plate.

    I want to make special mention of a play that highlights how ballplayers often substitute hustle for judgment. In the fifth inning in New York, Alfonso Soriano stole third base with two outs and a 3-0 count on Nick Johnson, quite possibly the worst steal of third ever. Soriano is a fast runner and the Twins' have two rag arms in the outfield, so he's likely to score from second on any outfield single. Johnson runs like Amtrak, so there's very little chance of an infield single that would score Soriano from third but not second. I guess, with J.C. Romero on the mound, a wild pitch is a possibility (he had nine in both 2002 and 2003), but what the hell are you doing running on the 3-0 pitch?

    The whole incident reminded me that as great as these guys are, they're often prone to doing things that make little sense. Stealing third base on a two-out 3-0 pitch to Nick Johnson adds very little to the Yankees' bottom line and exposes them to a risk that could have wiped out a game-tying rally. Hustle has to be tempered by judgment.

    More important, these teams are all being far too conservative. Lose the first-inning bunts and the steals of third base and start hitting line drives. The playoff run environment may be slightly different than the regular-season one due to the concentration of innings among the best pitchers, but that's certainly not enough of a factor to warrant trading in the Earl Weaver manual for a Gene Mauch one. Getting guys on and moving them around with long hits wins in any month.

  • I have no place else to put this, so I'll throw it in here. My friend was asking about my fantasy-football team, which had to scramble to field a lineup last week and did so in a flurry of transactions, some of which even worked well.

    Him: "So the next Tom Cruise movie modeled after your life will instead be titled 'Most of the Right Moves'."

    Me: "If they wait another few years, they can probably call it 'The Not-So Firm'."

  • This doesn't happen very often, so pay attention: I thought Dusty Baker's decision to bat for Alex Gonzalez with the bases loaded in the sixth inning yesterday was a great move. Most managers are loath to hit for their position players that early. Baker recognized that not only was the situation critical, but that he had the perfect player, Randall Simon, for a situation in which the Cubs had to put a ball in play with authority. Not doing so in the fourth inning had caused them to waste a huge opportunity.

    The move failed miserably, as Simon struck out and not having Gonzalez in the game was costly in both the eighth and ninth innings, but it was the kind of non-standard, risk-positive decision that deserves to be noticed and praised.

  • One of the reasons the Cubs couldn't score last night is that they are an incredibly slow team. They hit into two double plays and took no extra bases on hits the entire night.

    I hadn't thought about it going into the series, but watching them, you realize that they have absolutely no team speed. Kenny Lofton still runs pretty well, and Alex Gonzalez isn't slow. The third-fastest guy in the lineup last night was probably Wood, and in Moises Alou, Aramis Ramirez and whoever plays first base and catches, the Cubs have some of the slowest players in the postseason.

    Baserunning is generally overrated by the mainstream and underrated by statheads, but when you have a team that is so horribly slow through seven lineup spots, that's going to have an impact on run scoring. You need to be able to get from first to third and from second to home, as well as stay out of double plays. The Cubs can't really do any of that, which is how they nearly ended up wasting opportunities in every one of the first six innings last night. Look for this to continue to be a factor throughout the series.

    It's almost enough to justify carrying two pinch-runners in Tom Goodwin and Tony Womack. Baker will have to be aggressive about getting those two into games, because they're about the only two guys he has who can score from second on a single without a police escort.

  • I might as well start with these now. I think the Giants and Marlins will score a few more runs today, with the bullpens getting involved a little. Same outcome, though: Giants, 4-2. The Braves need a win tonight, and I think they'll get it in a fairly high-scoring game, 7-4. (Baker may wish to sniff Carlos Zambrano when he opens him today, because his expiration date appears to have begun with "Sept.") Pedro Martinez is player of the day in a 3-0 Red Sox win.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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