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October 11, 2003

Prospectus Today

All the Right Moves

by Joe Sheehan

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Cubs/Marlins

In a game that could have been lost many times, Dusty Baker did all the right things to win.

That line may not ring true, given how strenuously I criticized Baker in Thursday's column and in a number of others this year. All of those criticisms still hold, which doesn't change the fact that Baker made the right decisions Friday to help the Cubs take a 2-1 lead in the NLCS.

The biggest thing Baker did was use his best pitchers in the biggest situations. In the 11th inning, nursing a one-run lead, Baker rode Mike Remlinger through a series of Marlin hitters who hammer left-handers rather than go to the inferior right-handers left in his pen. Baker not only correctly overrode platoon considerations, but left the closer myth behind as well, choosing the guy with one save in three years ahead of former closers Antonio Alfonseca and Dave Veres.

Prior to that, Baker had made the unusual move of stretching current closer Joe Borowski out for 2 1/3 innings, the last two in a tie game. Borowski didn't throw a ton of pitches and was fairly effective, especially in the last inning of his appearance, a 1-2-3 frame.

The pitching usage in last night's game was weird all around. Both teams used just three pitchers through 10 innings, highly unusual for 21st-century baseball. That reflects the overwhelming right-handedness of both team's lineups. Without much in the way of left-handed hitting in this series, there's little call for playing matchups out of the bullpen, clearing the way for good right-handed relievers to get six or more outs at a clip.

Knowing he won't have to play a lot of matchup baseball, Baker has made liberal use of the double-switch in this series. That puts his pitchers far enough from batting to enable them to go two and even three innings without running into a pinch-hitter. You could argue that a weakness in Baker's team--relatively poor players in the bottom three lineup spots--becomes a positive because he doesn't feel like he has to keep any of them in the game. Randall Simon or Eric Karros? Alex Gonzalez or Ramon Martinez? Damian Miller or Paul Bako? It doesn't really matter, so use the interchangeable parts to get extra outs from the good pitchers.

Another notch in Baker's belt was the night had by the players we can loosely group as "Cubs BP Doesn't Like," as Simon, Tom Goodwin and Doug Glanville had two triples and a home run, creating the last three Cub runs among them. It's a reminder that while players may have flaws that make them inadequate contributors in the aggregate, even the worst players on playoff rosters, or in MLB for that matter, are capable of doing damage sometimes.

All in all, it was a good night for Baker, who saw so many of his decisions go right and was rewarded with a win, one that puts him one step closer to the World Series, and quite possibly, being anointed king of Illinois.

Notes

  • It was forgotten well before midnight, but Moises Alou made a big play in the second inning to save a run. On Alex Gonzalez's two-out double off the left-field wall, Alou playd the ball cleanly and got it back to the infield in time to hold Jeff Conine at third base. Conine isn't fast, but with Mark Redman and his .016 batting average coming to the plate, you have to figure he was getting sent home if Alou had so much as taken an extra half-second. Considering the Marlins' tied the game in the eighth in part because Alou didn't get rid a of ball quickly, the importance of his second-inning play is clear.

  • After Redman drew a walk in the fifth, Thom Brennaman and Steve Lyons spent a lot of time talking about the possible effects running the bases could have on his performance in the following inning. This comes up a lot when a pitcher reaches base, particularly in hot or humid weather.

    I think it's a non-issue, and I say that because if it was a problem that was leaving marks on the scoreboard, teams would tell their pitchers to make outs in many low-run-expectation situations, such as two outs and no one on. I supposed you could study the issue, but properly accounting for the variable of which hitters face a pitcher coming off some time on the bases is going to be a major problem. Until I see some evidence that running the bases detracts from pitcher performance, I'm going to work under the assumption that it's a piece of received wisdom I can return.

    In a similar vein, the controversy over the Yankees' long seventh-inning ceremonies is silly. While I think the whole thing is overdone, looking for causation between the pomp and the visiting pitcher's performance in the seventh is fishing. Pitchers sit through long innings all the time; whether 20 minutes is 18 of hitting and two between frames, or 13 of hitting and seven of flag-waving, shouldn't matter.

  • With first and second and no one out in the seventh, Jack McKeon had Juan Pierre lay down a sacrifice bunt that moved the tying run to third base. It seemed like the obvious decision--play for the tie at home, take the double play out of order, move the lead run into scoring position--but I have to wonder if it was really the right move.

    The biggest reasons to bunt are to advance the runners and stay out of the inning-killing double play. The latter is virtually a non-factor. Pierre is very difficult to double up, and would be moreso against an overshifted Cubs' defense. The former is a probable outcome even if Pierre swings away; because he hits so many ground balls, never strikes out, and is so tough to double, the worst-case scenario is probably first and third with one out. That's pretty good with the also-tough-to-double Luis Castillo on deck.

    Even if you wanted to bunt, why not give Pierre one strike to try and line a ball through an out-of-position infield? Pierre is a very good bunter and not someone you worry about getting the sacrifice down with one or even two strikes.

    I wouldn't say that the bunt was the wrong decision; I think it was the lesser of the available options, and that the risks associated with the other options were minimal. The big benefit would have been the chance at a very big inning.

  • When do you think the Cubs will stop throwing Ivan Rodriguez fastballs on the outer half of the plate? What's he hit, 37 singles to right field in the last two weeks? He put the Fish ahead last night on just such a pitch.

  • Todd Hollandsworth's pinch-hit single will be remembered, but how he got there shouldn't be forgotten. Hollandsworth fouled off three 2-2 pitches, forced the count full, and lined his single to left on the ninth pitch of the at-bat.

    It's not just that we've had great feats in this postseason. We've had great confrontations, great hitter/pitcher battles. That was one of them.

  • The final play of the game was a bit strange. I can't blame Castillo for breaking towards third base on the play; no infielder in his right mind is going to look anywhere but towards first base in that situation. Once Aramis Ramirez bobbled the ball, though, he had a little trouble locating it. I thought that delay gave Castillo enough time to get back to second base, and it was his hesitation in doing so, not his original break from the bag, that was his error.

  • Today, the Marlins find themselves in what approaches a must-win situation, facing Matt Clement at home with the Cubs' big three lined up to pitch on full rest in the last three games of the series. If they can get back to even today, they'll have a a chance. If they can't, they'll need a miracle.

    I haven't done a real good job of making calls in this series, but I'm stubborn enough to keep trying. I like the Marlins in a bit of a slugfest, 7-6.

Yankees/Red Sox

This is a huge game for the Red Sox, less so for the Yankees. See, the Sox are supposed to win when Pedro Martinez pitches, so all the pressure is on them. If they lose this game, they'll have to pull out one of the next two behind their #3 and #4 starters, just to have a chance to get the series back in the hands of Derek Lowe and Martinez.

The problem for the Sox is that the Yankees have done as well against Martinez as any team in baseball. The strategy of making him throw a lot of pitches early in games works for them; Martinez has seen the eighth inning against the Yankees just once in eight starts over the last two seasons, and his 3.80 ERA this year against the Bombers is what passes for success against one of the game's greatest pitchers.

You can expect more of the same this afternoon. The Yankees will try and stretch Martinez out by taking pitches early, trying to get him over 20 throws an inning to wear him down by the sixth. Most pitchers show some decline as they reach 100 pitches and beyond, and Martinez is no exception (in limited exposure over 105 pitches, he's been wild and hittable). The sooner you get him there, the sooner he slips from immortal to merely great, and the sooner you're hitting off of Scott Sauerbeck. As good as the Red Sox' pen has been the last two weeks, there's no way that the Yankees don't want to get Martinez out and the relievers into this one very early. Martinez's pitch count in the early innings is the key to this game.

Much will be made of this being Roger Clemens' final game in Boston, and I think that factor will be an issue for one reason. Clemens, despite his long list of accomplishments and status as a 20-year veteran, is still prone to carrying too much exuberance with him to the mound. If that is a problem today--and I think it will be to some extent, given the circumstances--Clemens will likely be wild high, which would give the Red Sox extra baserunners and make Clemens homer-prone. With their ace on the mound, just one three-run homer could put this game away. Clemens will have to throw strikes, especially in the early going when he'll be fighting his own adrenaline.

So despite this appearing to be a great pitchers' duel in the making, there are reasons to suspect that it will turn out otherwise, and that's before considering the quality of these teams' lineups and that Fenway Park has played as a great hitters' park this year.

Throw it all together, and I'll fall back on my original idea that this series would be won by the Yankees in five games. Look for a 5-3 Yankee win today, with both starters putting up decent, but not great, performances, leaving somewhat early, and the bullpens determining the winner.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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