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October 16, 2003

Prospectus Today

The Greatest Show on Earth

by Joe Sheehan

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If the last three weeks have taught us anything, it's that the baseball postseason is the greatest sports theatre in the world. We've seen almost every form of drama the game can provide, from game-winning home runs to stunning pitching duels to comebacks from one foot, two hands and most of a head in the grave.

Yesterday, we saw the Red Sox jump out to a 4-1 lead against a pitcher they shouldn't hit, then watched that edge disappear a half-hour later. On the road, deep into the recesses of their pitching staff, fighting wind and cold and history, the Sox could have called it a season and no one would have been surprised. They didn't, and thanks to some help from the twin weaknesses of the Yankees--defense and every non-cyborg reliever--they'll get the Game Seven they came to New York to play.

The Cubs, who could have curled up and died when Miguel Cabrera put them down 3-0 in the first inning, battled back to tie the game and then take the lead. I don't care that they lost: a team that lacks some blessed intangible doesn't even get that far, not after the events of Tuesday night.

The Marlins weren't supposed to contend, weren't supposed to win the Wild Card, weren't supposed to beat the Giants, weren't supposed to even come back to Chicago after being down 3-1 Saturday night... and their biggest problem this morning is that they'll have to wait until tonight to make their flight plans for the World Series. Well, that and finding a good hangover cure.

The resilience of the four teams that played yesterday is what impressed me most. It's games like yesterday's on which I build my argument that baseball is about performance, not some set of personal characteristics that the winning team has and the losing team doesn't. All of these guys--all of them--have overcome challenges to hold the jobs they hold, and they're all capable of succeeding or failing in high-profile situations. The outcomes are zero-sum, but the pool of whatever the catchphrase is these days that means "better people" absolutely isn't.

It's about performance, and we've seen performances the last three weeks that will stick in our minds forever. The Red Sox bullpen, derided all season as a greater fire hazard than Beavis, has been the team's MVP in the postseason, and that's after tying one Byung-Hyun Kim behind its back. Josh Beckett threw 13 of the Marlins' last 27 innings in the NLCS, allowing one run on three hits. Ivan Rodriguez may be having the greatest postseason in baseball history by a player not named Bonds, and making himself about $30 million by doing so. Somehow, I don't think he'll sign a one-year deal this winter.

The playoffs have left some fans speechless, some breathless, and some hopeless. They've showcased baseball's best, brightest, youngest and oldest, and they've served as a two-week advertisement for the greatest game in the world.

Just after Johnny Damon squeezed the final out of Game Six, my cell phone rang. It was one of my best friends, a Boston native who loves his Sox the same way I love my Yankees. He didn't call to gloat, just to talk about the amazing game and the prospect of a Game Seven in the sport's cathedral matching up two of the best pitchers ever. I don't talk to Matt enough, and a great thing about these last two weeks is that we've touched base on a regular basis to pick apart the games and talk a little trash.

I was thinking about that phone call four hours later as the image of an woman wiping tears from her eyes filled my television screen. She was in her 60s, I'd say, and she wasn't misty; she was crying, eyes reddened beneath a Cubs hat, heart breaking again, no doubt, just as it did in '89 and '84 and '69 and maybe even '45.

Baseball can bring friends back together, and it can make an old woman cry.

Damn, I'm lucky to love it.

Notes

On to the analysis. Let's start with the game I can be rational about.

  • Miguel Cabrera is good. His three-run bomb off of Kerry Wood could have buried the Cubs, and even though it didn't, it did something better: provided the winning margin.

    Think about this for a second: at the age of 20, Cabrera has undergone a position shift and been asked to assume the cleanup spot in his team's lineup, during the League Championship Series. Sure, maybe switching outfield corners isn't that big a deal--although Cabrera has been an outfielder for about five months--and not all players care about where they hit in the lineup. It's still an amazing display of confidence by Jack McKeon in what this player can do.

    Cabrera is still raw. He needs to work on his plate discipline and pitch recognition, and he'd be most valuable back at third base. Regardless, his postseason performance brands him as perhaps the best under-22 player in the National League, a hitter capable of becoming Albert Pujols before you know what happened.

  • Mark Redman didn't have it last night, and he paid the price. Honestly, though, on the list of bad baseball crimes, yielding a two-out, two-strike, game-tying homer to the opposing pitcher is a Class-A felony. Did you see Kerry Wood's reaction? I've never seen a pitcher watch his own homer before; for a second, I thought he was going to hop, a la his right fielder.

    Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised. Wood is probably the eighth- or ninth-best hitter the Cubs have.

  • Josh Beckett was the story of the night. He didn't have anything close to the stuff he had Sunday, and he gave up a handful of scary fly balls, but four one-hit innings in a Game Seven on two days' rest is amazing.

    How do you evaluate the decision to use him, though? I lost an inning tossing this around in my head, and I got no closer to an answer. Beckett, of course, is 23 and was coming off a 115-pitch start. However, it was his day to throw, so it wouldn't be that unheard of to squeeze him into the game for a bit. On the other hand, Beckett isn't used to this kind of handling, or for that matter, coming out of the bullpen at all. Then again, it's the most important game of his career, and flags fly forever.

    Throw in some profanity and a Bailey's rocks and you have a sense of what that half-hour was like for me.

    I figure that if I can't make up my own mind about someone's decision, then it's hard for me to argue with it. McKeon got four innings out of Beckett, who threw just 45 pitches, every one of them from the windup. Here's hoping that there are no repercussions, and that the Marlins make a move towards holding Beckett back for Game Three of the World Series.

    It took Jack McKeon about six minutes to figure out what some managers have never gotten. The postseason is a completely different game, and you have to treat it as such. I could go on about McKeon, but Rany Jazayerli has already done it much better than I would have.

  • I won't have Dusty Baker to kick around anymore, but he left me some parting gifts. Most notable was that he played the infield back in the fifth inning with the game tied at five, second and third and one out. Granted that it's just the fifth, but the Marlins had Beckett ready to enter, which seemed to add to the urgency of the moment. Conceding the go-ahead run says to me that you think you can get two runs, but you're afraid that you can't get the three you risk needing if a single gets through the infield. I don't understand it.

    Cabrera grounded home the go-ahead run, and the Marlins had a lead they would not relinquish.

    I know I'm dealing with the Teflon manager here, but it would really be nice to see someone, somewhere, acknowledge that Baker had an awful series, and in particular, an awful two games in Chicago. Maybe it started with leaving Mark Prior in to protect an 11-run lead, or in eschewing Hee Seop Choi in favor of Juan Cruz, a decision that haunted him in the three close games the Cubs' lost. Maybe it was his insistence on treating two distinctly non-specialist left-handed relievers like specialists all year, and not letting them grab the bigger roles they deserved. Maybe it was casting his lineup in the mold that suited him best, even if it cost the Cubs runs.

    Wherever it started, it ended last night shy of the goal. The Cubs will never get this close again with Baker as their manager.

  • Let me ask one more philosophical question. If veteran experience is so paramount, the key element to every winning team, how could a team that has so much of it pull off a two-game losing streak at home with its best pitchers on the mound and the lead in both games? If having all those mediocre veterans on the roster isn't so that you either don't blow a three-run lead in the eighth or that if you blow it, you can come back and win the next game, what the hell are they doing there?

    It couldn't be that performance matters more than service time, could it?

  • The Marlins may have to endure some sniping about the fact that they are again a wild-card team in the World Series. Ignore it; the rules are what they are, and while I dislike the wild card and what it does to the regular season, the fact that the Marlins advanced in that slot does nothing to cheapen their accomplishments since.

  • Regardless of which team comes out of the American League, I think the Marlins should open the Series with Dontrelle Willis. No Yankees or Red Sox have seen his motion, and the Sox in particular are vulnerable to lefties; the Yankees have some players who might have trouble with Willis' delivery.

    After that, I'd come back with Carl Pavano in Game Two and Beckett in Game Three on a well-deserved six days' rest. I respect his ability as well as his desire to pitch, but the Marlins have an obligation to not Jaret Wright him. Mark Redman starts Game Four ahead of Brad Penny.

Now, that other game.

It's no secret that I'm a lifelong Yankee fan. All of us at BP are open about our allegiances; we came to this as fans first, and I think it's that passion that differentiates our work from much of the baseball writing out there. Personally, I think I do a fairly good job of separating my loyalty from my analysis, at least if the e-mails I get accusing me of being a Yankee hater are any indication.

Today, however, the line between analyst and fan may blur. Indulge me, and I'll get back to being detached tomorrow.

  • I don't know if it's his eyes, his legs, his haircut, his weight, his age, his tattoos, or just the fact that he's never played this long a season before, but Jason Giambi is working my last nerve. Yes, he hit a solo home run in the first inning, but he also had three awful plate appearances in high-leverage situations, ones that were replicas of the same awful plate appearances he's been having for three months.
    
                 AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   BB   SO
    August       88  .205  .413  .432   25   19
    September    85  .235  .363  .518   15   27
    October      37  .216  .326  .351    6   11
    
    
    Giambi's fourth-inning at-bat, with two on and two out, ended when he swung at three straight pitches down and off the plate inside. His sixth-inning at-bat was worse; the Yankees had second and third with one out, and needed very little from Giambi to extend their lead to three runs. Just as he did in a similar situation Monday, he failed to get the runner home from third, striking out on the kind of good fastball he has no chance of handling right now. That same fastball, this time from Scott Williamson, buried him leading off the ninth inning and helped the Sox snuff any hopes for a Yankee rally.

    If Giambi doesn't hit, the Yankee offense doesn't work. It's already hampered by a .300-OBP guy batting leadoff, a .400-SLG guy batting cleanup, and a cipher in the #8 slot. Having Lance Blankenship in the #3 slot ends its chance to be helpful.

  • The fascination with Jose Contreras continues to elude me. I see a pitcher with a good moving fastball and a splitter, only one of which he ever has command of in a particular outing. His effectiveness is entirely dependent on getting people to chase balls down in the zone, because he generally doesn't throw strikes. His performance record this year was brutally split between patient teams and impatient ones (as measured by walk rate):
    
                    IP    ERA    BB   SO
    Patient       28.1   6.04    17   35
    Impatient     42.2   1.48    13   37
    
    
    Contreras is about the last guy I want in the game against a good hitting team that doesn't chase. He managed one good inning, but insisted on throwing his splitter--which wasn't working as well as his fastball--in the seventh. Little League homer. Wind-blown double. Wild pitch. Single. Fly out. Double pl... no, wait, single.

  • Of course, Contreras had help. Or should I say, the Red Sox had help. All Yankee opponents have help as long as they keep the ball in the middle of the field. Bernie Williams misplayed Nomar Garciaparra's fly ball into a triple. Yes, it was windy, but it wasn't suddenly windy. Williams' problems weren't the elements, they were his slow read, slow first step, and slow legs.

    (It shouldn't go without mention that nobody, and I mean nobody, is ever going to take a seat in Section 14 on the Yankees. Hideki Matsui became the second Yankee this postseason to make sure of that with a strong throw into the box seats on Garciaparra's fly ball. Alfonso Soriano, in Game One against the Twins, was the first player to warn the league that they'd better buy a ticket if they want that kind of view.)

  • I've probably reached a point of needing to turn off the sound on my television, because the misinformation coming through the speakers is staggering. Any time Derek Jeter dives and reaches the ball he's made a great play; any ball he can't reach--there are more of these--was uncatchable by anyone.

    The key play not made in this game was on the last batter Contreras faced. With David Ortiz and his piano on first base, Bill Mueller hit a three-hopper past the mound. When the ball was hit, I shouted, "Two!" anticipating a double play that would end the inning. Jeter, however, never got close to the ball, which bounded into center field for a single.

    I won't say it was a routine ground ball, but it was a ball that many shortstops get to, and not just the great ones. Jeter's inability to make those plays--every...single...day--is what makes him a liability at the position. The illusion that he has range is exacerbated by his constant diving for balls that other shortstops play standing up.

    In the eighth inning, Manny Ramirez hit a two-hopper to Soriano at second base, the very definition of a routine ground ball. Joe Buck called it, and I quote, a "tough play." Perhaps, had the ball been a live grenade, or doused in the Ebola virus. It might have been a tough play had Soriano been forced to use only his feet, or had baserunner Garciaparra just been handed nunchuks and a Dear John letter from Mia.

  • The Yankee defense might not have been the worst performer on the field, however. Home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez was an embarrassment to the profession, with a strike zone that resembled a Congressional district drawn to create a safe seat for a Martian. By the third inning, I had absolutely no idea whether a pitch, any pitch, was going to be called a ball or a strike. It was frustrating, but all too typical for this postseason. The ball-and-strike calling has been atrocious, about as consistent as the ruble and not nearly as valuable.

    Hernandez capped his night by calling David Ortiz out in the eighth inning, signaling fervently that the big DH had foul-tipped a ball for the third strike. Replays showed that Ortiz, who was trying to check his swing, not only hadn't tipped the pitch, he'd missed it by about six inches.

    MLB needs to start evaluating its umpires with the best tools available and granting playoff assignments based on merit. If the current crop of umpires doesn't like those ideas, let them quit and go hire new ones who do. Umpires aren't players; if you simply replaced every single one of them every year, people would care for about a week and then forget. Stop letting them avoid finding out who can't do their jobs, and give the game the kind of officiating it deserves.

  • One more Fox moment. In the ninth inning, Joe Buck explained that Scott Williamson was closing because of "The struggles and the failure of Byung-Hyun Kim in the Division Series."

    Are you kidding me? Here is the sum total of Kim's postseason:

    Byung-Hyun Kim pitches to Ramon Hernandez
    Pitch 1: strike 1 (looking)
    Pitch 2: strike 2 (looking)
    Pitch 3: in play
    R Hernandez flied out to center.

    Byung-Hyun Kim pitches to Billy McMillon
    Pitch 1: ball 1
    Pitch 2: ball 2
    Pitch 3: ball 3
    Pitch 4: ball 4
    B McMillon walked.
    E Byrnes ran for B McMillon.

    Byung-Hyun Kim pitches to Chris Singleton
    Pitch 1: ball 1
    Pitch 2: strike 1 (looking)
    Pitch 3: in play
    C Singleton hit by pitch, E Byrnes to second.

    Byung-Hyun Kim pitches to Mark Ellis
    Pitch 1: ball 1
    Pitch 2: strike 1 (looking)
    Pitch 3: strike 2 (swinging)
    Pitch 4: ball 2
    Pitch 5: strike 3 (swinging)
    M Ellis struck out swinging

    That's 15 pitches. Seven balls, four called strikes, two swinging strikes, one fly ball, and one hit batsman. The walk was unfortunate, but the pitch that hit Chris Singleton was so nasty that Singleton swung at the darn thing!

    The A's tied the game off of Alan Embree, not Kim, who hasn't been seen since.

    If the above performance warrants the words "struggles and failure," what, pray tell, would Joe Buck say about the performance of Dusty Baker? Kim made one minor mistake and caught one bad break, and had the chance to succeed taken from him. Baker sprayed tactical and strategic errors over the NLCS like AquaNet on Tim McCarver's head.

    I appreciate that it's difficult to speak extemporaneously in front of millions of people, and that mistakes will be made. Could we just stop the complete misrepresentation of what actually happened? That's all I'm asking. Don't make things up, and don't tell me black is white.

So what now? Tonight will be the first do-or-die game the Yankees and Red Sox have played since October 1, 1978, when Bucky Dent picked up three RBIs and a middle name with one swing. It won't be as big a story if the current Yankee shortstop hits a big three-run homer, but is that the way this one will play out?

Pedro Martinez hasn't been dominant in the postseason, and he looked either tired or injured his last time out. His excessive use of the breaking ball was unusual, and even with a full four days' rest, expectations have to be tempered.

The thing is, Martinez may not need to be at his best. The Sox pen has been tremendous, and it will be fortified tonight by Tim Wakefield, who has mesmerized the Yankees in consecutive starts. If I'm Grady Little, I tell Martinez to provide the best 65 pitches he can, and not worry about conserving his arm. I suppose--and this won't happen--I might even entertain the idea of starting Wakefield and letting him go a few innings, then using Martinez beginning in the fourth or fifth.

For the Yankees, Roger Clemens takes the mound. Very quietly, Clemens has had a string of good postseasons, erasing the memories of him imploding against the A's in 1990. Both of his October starts this year have been good, if not great.

I'm not someone who spends a lot of time worrying about mental and emotional factors. They're unknowable, no matter what you read. A man's thoughts and emotions are his own, and deciding that you can grasp them by watching his performance is a conceit in which I do not indulge. Others say they do, but it's merely ex post facto analysis; "he won, so he is clutch."

However, Clemens will take the ball knowing that he can extend his career by another week. He'll take it knowing that he can further separate himself from a franchise he disowns, and strengthen the connection between him and his adopted team, by ending the former's season. He'll take it knowing, as I think we all would, that he doesn't want his career to end on a note of disappointment, or even failure.

I honestly don't know how those things translate to performance, or if Clemens will spend any time at all with those thoughts. I really don't want to speculate, but it's hard to evaluate potential outcomes of tonight's game without wondering how that element, of an all-time great staring into the rest of his life, comes into play.

I do not expect Game Three starts from these two pitchers. Either they'll have dominant performances and give us a pitching duel for the ages, or they'll walk hitters early, yield runs by getting the ball up, and be out of the game in the fifth. Perhaps the two will each take one of these paths, reducing the drama to whether Fox will show the "Joe Millionaire" promo in which the girl gets out of the pool filled with the cold, cold water.

I have no idea.

Or maybe I do.

Yankees, 1-0. Derek F'ing Jeter goes yard in the eighth.

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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