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October 9, 2003

Prospectus Today

Both Barrels Blazing

by Joe Sheehan

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Powered by Disc One of Sign O' The Times and a 1998 Pinot Noir from Benziger in Sonoma...

(Imitation is flattery.)

Judging from my Inbox, I'm supposed to be upset because Fox dictated to MLB that the two LCS games last night would be played simultaneously, with one shown on the cable channel FX. I might have ranted about it a couple of years ago, but to be honest, this is a minor, understandable move. Afternoon baseball games during the week don't draw very good ratings and are difficult for fans in broad swaths of the nation to see. Even motivated fans on the west coast who might be able to shake free from work to catch a 5 p.m. start are pretty much screwed by a game at 1 p.m.

A lot of the frustration over various scheduling decisions is justifiable, because the decisions are driven primarily by television and often run counter to logic. However, neither Fox nor MLB can do anything about the fact that the continental United States spans four time zones. None of the solutions will placate everyone, so the one that allows the widest possible audience to watch the games is acceptable. Rest assured that if a similar conflict occurs next Wednesday, Game Six of the Red Sox/Yankees series will be played at 4 p.m. Eastern, clearing the night for the Cubs/Marlins Game Seven.

As it turns out, the Cubs solved yesterday's problem by about 6:15 Pacific time, pushing ahead of the Marlins 5-0 after two innings. Brad Penny didn't have much command and Sammy Sosa punished him for it with a two-run bomb to an el station somewhere in the Loop. Everything after that, including two Alex Gonzalez home runs (see? I told you he'd be a great player some day!), was gravy.

Around the fifth inning, I realized that I was wrong about something. "Antonio Alfonseca" is the correct answer to the question, "Who should pitch the last four innings of this game?" After all, the Cubs had a huge lead, and Mark Prior had thrown 133 pitches in each of his last two starts, plus many, many more in the 29 preceding those. An easy night seemed like just the thing for his 23-year-old elbow and shoulder, especially since the Cubs' chances of ending the world rest on those joints.

Prior had completed five innings using just 73 pitches. He walked off the mound with an 8-0 lead and scheduled to bat fourth in the bottom of the frame. I really couldn't see an argument for letting him bat, although it seemed too optimistic to hope that his night would be over. Sure enough, he laid down a sacrifice bunt, and 15 minutes later, took the mound with an 11-0 lead. Ten pitches into the sixth, the score was 11-2, and Prior seemed like a lock for the showers. He got out of the inning having reached a pitch count of 94 and having shown some mortality. Due up fourth again in the sixth, I figured we'd see a pinch-hitter.

Prior batted. Up 12-2, now, after yet another Alex Rodrig...er, Gonzalez...home run. I was more than a little surprised that Prior would still be in the game. A 10-run lead with three innings to play was a gift from the gods to Dusty Baker, a chance to give his overworked right-hander a well-earned short night. Besides, Prior had just given up two home runs and had his longest inning of the game. Everything pointed to the bullpen.

This is, of course, the same Dusty Baker who sent Russ Ortiz out to the mound with an 11-run lead in the sixth inning, when Ortiz had just given up four runs in the fifth. Cowboy up, indeed.

Prior came out for the seventh, and I started drinking. Mercifully, it was a 10-pitch, 1-2-3 inning that pushed Prior's pitch count, on what should have been a light night, to 104.

(What was annoying is that I should have been focusing all of my attention on the Yankees/Red Sox game at this point. I couldn't. I had to keep going back to the Cubs game to see if Prior was still pitching. It was as if the game had morphed into "World's Dumbest Sports Decisions" sometime between Alex Gonzalez home runs.)

Baker had Troy O'Leary bat for Moises Alou in the bottom of the seventh. That's good, because it's very important to protect your immobile left fielder from overuse. I'm glad Baker read Keith Woolner's groundbreaking "Outfielder Abuse Points" piece in BP2003.

Prior came out to start the eighth, and I got an e-mail from Dallas Green:

Joe,

What the hell is Dusty doing?

P.S. Saw Bill today at the cleaners. He missed a spot.

-- DG

Finally, FINALLY, after Prior walks Mark Redman on nine pitches to start the eighth and Randall Simon makes an error behind him, Baker walks to the mound. I flipped to the other game, but came back a couple of minutes later. After all, it could have just been a pep talk. No, Dave Veres was pitching. Ish. Prior was done after 116 pitches.

Look, whatever you might think of the use of pitch counts to measure pitcher usage, or whatever you feel is an acceptable workload for a starting pitcher in the year 2003, you have to agree with certain principles. One of those is that there is some level of overuse that is dangerous for a pitcher, even one with great mechanics and the heart of a lion and the eye of the tiger and the spleen of a woolly mammoth. If you'll grant that, then I think you'd grant the idea that not using a pitcher when he can no longer have an impact on the game, to allow his body some brief respite from the rigors of pitching, is helpful.

Mark Prior has pitched more this year than he ever had in any season in his life. Over the past six weeks, he's made nearly 1,000 pitches, all of them in pressure situations. How hard would it have been to give him 40 pitches off? The Cubs had an 11-0 lead with 12 outs to go; four Lincoln Park Trixies would have closed out the game, and if you couldn't find four, well, you could still use Alfonseca and Veres until it got close. My god, if Baker isn't going to use Juan Cruz in a tie game in the 11th inning, and he isn't going to use him with a 11-run lead in the sixth inning, why the hell is Cruz on the roster? A chip in case you have to negotiate a hostage exchange? Food? Defense at first base?

I've had it with Dusty Baker and his halo. He's a mediocrity who was blessed with Barry Bonds in his first job and somehow managed to make two division titles and a Wild Card in 10 years seem like an accomplishment. He showed up in Chicago just as two excellent young pitchers were prepared to start their first full seasons, managed a 90-win team all the way to 88 wins, and had the good fortune to be up against Jimy Williams and Tony La Russa. Baker cost the Cubs maybe 60 runs on offense this year because he cared more about forcing his preferred plate approach on good young hitters than on developing them, and 30 more by showing unwarranted loyalty to the worst starting pitcher in the league. He'll cost them more going forward as the star versions of Prior and Carlos Zambrano he managed this year turn into something less pleasant as a result of his heavy hand.

Baker made major mistakes with this team, and it made the playoffs not because he's a genius, but because he inherited enough talent that even he couldn't screw it up. The Teflon coating he carries around is ridiculous, and an example of just how far the media will go to avoid doing actual analysis when given the option to tell a good story.

I've been over and over it in my head, and I can't understand why Prior pitched as long as he did last night. Maybe, and this is just playing devil's advocate, I send him out for the sixth, just so he can get a little more work. But once he gives up back-to-back homers, what's the use? Is there some intangible that you're going to reinforce in the guy who'd been a college Player of the Year, the NL's best pitcher in the pennant race, and who'd shut down the league's best offense for nine innings in his first-ever playoff start?

There was no good reason, not even a bad reason, for Mark Prior to throw 116 pitches last night. I truly hope his career doesn't go the way of Jaret Wright's, but if it does, remember last night's game. Extra effort in pursuit of a championship is justifiable. Last night was just a joke.

--

Other stuff from last night's games:

  • Sammy Sosa has fans, and many of them dropped me e-mails reminding me of the man's clutch home runs to win games in dramatic fashion. I stand corrected.

    Sosa hit his second homer in three at-bats in the second inning last night. He doesn't have to homer in every game, but a big series from him is pretty much essential to the Cubs' chances. They just don't have enough offensive depth to win without him, especially since I think we'll see at least 30 runs scored in Pro Player Park this weekend.

  • Somewhere along the way, I made it a point to stop criticizing other writers and broadcasters in my writing. Watch enough games on Fox, however...

    Somebody in the booth said, in reference to the Marlins: "Some have said that this is the best up-the-middle defense in major-league history."

    Are you kidding me? Ivan Rodriguez crushes the running game. The other three are just guys; Luis Castillo is a mediocre defender, while Alex Gonzalez might be the fourth-best shortstop in the NL East, and even that depends on what you think of Jose Reyes. Juan Pierre is fast, but that's his skill. He doesn't get good jumps or make good reads, and he throws like I imagine Mark Prior will at 45. Or maybe 25.

    Show me the people making this claim. Show me any one person not paid by the Marlins making this claim.

  • Speaking of Pierre...I guess we can dismiss the idea that center fielders need to be able to throw well. He might have the best arm of any center fielder still playing; it's him or Kenny Lofton, which is really all you need to know about the wings on Johnny Damon and Bernie Williams' Corpse.

  • Back to the Fox booth. Al Leiter, who I'd make fun of except for the fact that he's not David Justice, dropped this knowledge after Mark Grudzielanek swung at a bad pitch: "People look at that and say, 'Why would he swing at that?'" No, they don't. It's Mark Grudzielanek. Everyone knows why he'll swing at that: he swings at everything! Fastball, curve ball, Pro V-1, human head...if it's round and moving towards the plate, Grudzielanek swings.

  • They played a game in New York as well. The Red Sox got three home runs, none of them off of Ricardo Rincon, six-plus good innings from Tim Wakefield, and three shutout frames from the bullpen. They even won, 5-2.

  • The Yankees aren't playing the Twins. The Sox have some offensive issues--guys who can't hit lefties, no Johnny Damon for now--but they'll score because they hit for power. If the Yankees think they can win this thing with the poor showing they had at the plate against the Twins--basically two rallies in four games--they're nuts. They need, first and foremost, for Jason Giambi to return to form. I said it in Chat last week and I'll say it again: their offense doesn't work without him.

    Whatever happens tonight, the Red Sox have to love where they are. They didn't lose a game in which everything was going the Yankees' way: the pitching matchup, the travel schedule, the lack of a key player. They'll be no worse than tied with Pedro Martinez on the mound Saturday afternoon. The Sox changed this series last night.

  • Before the game, both teams made roster decisions that I think reflect the difference between having been in the playoffs before and not having done so.

    Joe Torre lopped off his third left-handed reliever, Chris Hammond, in favor of a pinch-runner in Erick Almonte. Torre is down to seven pitchers he's going to use in game situations, with Felix Heredia the #8 man. He knows he's going to ride his starters and he knows that he's not going to match up past about the 22nd out, not with Mariano Rivera. He also knows that with Giambi a full-time DH and a bunch of right fielders who don't run that well, he'll have chances to use Almonte, especially against someone like Scott Williamson, whose high leg kick makes him susceptible to steals.

    On the other hand, Grady Little was plus one pitcher after swapping Byung-Hyun Kim and Adrian Brown for Jeff Suppan and Todd Jones. It was a particularly strange decision in that the Sox will be without Damon for two games, leaving them shy in center field. Gabe Kapler played there last night as best he can, and with Trot Nixon's calf not 100%, Kapler and Damian Jackson are all they have. Brown isn't a great player, but he can play center and does have value as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for the hobbled Nixon or the indifferent Manny Ramirez in left field. Suppan will only pitch if someone gets bombed, and the Sox already have guys around for that. If things got weird, they'd have the benefit of a knuckleballer in Wakefield. It seems to me that carrying seven relievers when you've already shown a willingness to use your starters in relief is wasting roster spots.

  • The seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium is long. I wonder if some enterprising network might sneak in here and counterprogram it, the way that Fox did special "The Simpsons" episodes during halftime of other networks' Super Bowls.

  • David Ortiz's home run was a bomb, but what you probably didn't see in the highlights was the whole at-bat. He fell behind 0-2, took a couple of close pitches, fouled off two others, and hit the dinger on 3-2, on the eighth pitch he saw. That, as much as any walk, was plate discipline at its best.

  • Credit the umps for making the right call on Todd Walker's home run. Angel Hernandez had a tough decision to make, made the wrong one, and was rightly corrected by his partners. The ball hit the foul pole after the fan blew the catch.

    By the way, great investigative journalism by Fox, from whom we learned that a guy in the upper deck of section 33 at Yankee Stadium thought that the Red Sox home run was foul. Tonight, I imagine we'll find out the folks in the right-field bleachers sometimes say unkind things to opposing outfielders.

  • Wow, I get a lot of spam after midnight.

  • The Red Sox got past the A's in spite of Grady Little, who made what I thought was a curious move in the seventh inning last night. After Wakefield opened the inning with consecutive walks, Little brought in Alan Embree to face Jorge Posada. Granting that Little was influenced by the sudden wildness, I don't see what would have been lost by allowing Wakefield to face the Yankees' catcher. Posada has a career-long pattern of being a better hitter from the right side of the plate, and certainly hits the hard stuff Embree throws better than he hits Wakefield's knuckler.

    I'll conced that Little or pitching coach Dave Wallace might have seen something, but tactically, I thought that was a questionable decision. Posada doubled to right; the next three hitters made easy outs to end the last Yankee threat.

  • All it will take is one blown lead for it to be the story again, but notice that the Red Sox bullpen has been great in the playoffs. Williamson, Embree and Mike Timlin have thrown 17 1/3 shutout innings, with the only real blip the game-tying single Embree surrendered to Erubiel Durazo in Game One of the Division Series. The three have 19 strikeouts and have allowed three walks.

    The Red Sox's bullpen is better than the Yankees' bullpen. It's deeper, it's less prone to homers and platoon advantages, and it strikes out more guys. The edge the Yankees have with Rivera is dwarfed by the edges the Sox have #2 through #4. The Yankees improved during the season, but the Sox improved more. They'll have more nights like last night.

    Just not tonight: 6-3, Yankees.

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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