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October 17, 2003

Prospectus Today

Simply Amazing

by Joe Sheehan

It's 2:32 a.m. PDT.

Let me check again.

Wow. It really happened.

It still doesn't seem real. Game Seven of the American League Championship Series, even now, feels more like a weird morphing of Game Six of the NLCS and Game Four of the 2001 World Series.

Three runs down... five outs left... best pitcher in the league... tiring suddenly... manager riding him... extra innings... solo home run... Yankee Stadium bedlam.

It's like a playoff edition of Mad Libs.

I gave up. I carried hope through the seventh inning, but when Alfonso Soriano was allowed to face Pedro Martinez as the tying run--I was begging for Ruben Sierra, to give you an idea of the desperation--with as much chance of hitting Martinez as he did of spontaneously combusting, I packed it in. The Sox had outplayed the Yankees, they had the best pitcher in the game pitching well, and for the umpteenth straight game, the Yanks hadn't looked good at the plate. Jason Giambi's two home runs only served to taunt Yankee fans with the thought of how either of those blasts, in one of his many high-leverage at-bats, could have made all this unnecessary.

In the bottom of the eighth, I sent this e-mail to the internal BP list:

Time: 7:58 p.m.
Subject: OK...

Three runs down... five outs left... right where we want them...
I was kidding, of course, making a reference to Tuesday night's events in Chicago primarily as a way to keep my hands occupied. Sophia wasn't pleased with Wednesday's damage to the office, and I'd promised to behave.

Sixteen pitches later, the whole world had been turned upside down. In 16 pitches, the game was tied. In 16 pitches, 80 years of history came crashing into the ballpark, making a racket so loud you had to scream to be heard over it.

In 16 pitches, Grady Little lost his job.

Pedro Martinez is a truly great pitcher... for the first 100 pitches he throws in a game. That's the number he threw through seven innings--seven beautiful innings of six-hit, two-run baseball. Opening the eighth, he fell behind Nick Johnson 3-1, but battled back to get a pop-up. Derek Jeter swung through pitch 108 and fouled off pitch 109. On pitch 110--an 0-2 pitch--Jeter drove a ball to the right-field warning track for a double.

That was the first sign.

Pitch 111 was taken for a strike by Bernie Williams. Pitches 112 and 113 were balls. Pitch 114 was fouled off, and pitch 115 was hit hard to center field, landing in front of Johnny Damon for an RBI single.

ESPN.com, using data from Stats, Inc., breaks down pitcher performance by 15-pitch chunks. Martinez falls off a cliff once you get him into triple digits:


                    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG
Pitches 61-75:     107   .215  .234  .355
Pitches 76-90:      93   .215  .276  .290
Pitches 91-105:     65   .231  .306  .354
Pitches 106-120:    27   .370  .419  .407
Pitches 120-135:     6   .333  .429  .500

It's not just this season. From 2000-2002:

                    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG
Pitches 61-75:     281   .199  .243  .310
Pitches 76-90:     257   .195  .247  .268
Pitches 91-105:    180   .183  .236  .300
Pitches 106-120:    74   .297  .391  .338
Pitches 120-135:    12   .250  .400  .333
More                 1   .000  .000  .000

Small sample sizes? Damn straight, because Little knows that Martinez can't handle much more than 100 pitches and gets him the hell out of Dodge. Martinez has been removed from a game with a shutout intact 20 times in the last three seasons, not counting a few three-inning starts that were injury- or playoff-related. His performance record is studded with eight-inning shutouts that most pitchers get to finish; Martinez has no shutouts in those seasons. Little knows how to manage Martinez, and he knows what the limits of his ace are. Or he did until last night.

Pitches 116 and 117 were absolutely beautiful. Hideki Matsui took both of them for strikes. On pitch 118, Matsui pulled a fastball into the right-field corner for a double, the second 0-2 double that Martinez had allowed in three batters.

That was the second sign.

We'd already seen this with Martinez. Think about he labored to get through the seventh inning against the A's in his first playoff start. That was all post-105, and he barely survived. He's an amazing pitcher who has this one flaw that you have to find a way to handle. Little knew this, and he handled it all season long. Having seen this act just two weeks earlier, and with relievers in the bullpen who had been just killing the Yankees, Little stayed in the dugout.

Pitch 119 was a ball up and away. Pitch 120 was a breaking ball over for a strike. Pitch 121 was ball two. Pitch 122 was another great breaking pitch that Jorge Posada swung over for strike two.

On pitch 123, Posada fisted a blooper that landed in short center field, well out of the reach of three Red Sox. Jeter and Matsui scored, the ballgame was tied, and Jillian's was oddly silent.

There is no way to get around this. Dusty Baker, who made almost the exact same error with Mark Prior, can at least point at Alex Gonzalez and Kyle Farnsworth, both of whom failed to do their jobs. All Grady Little can do is look in the mirror. He chose the wrong path, and he had absolutely no reason to do so. Every bit of information he had at his disposal pointed to taking out Martinez, and he chose to stay with a pitcher who was tired, and who had a history of declining rapidly when pushed too far.

What makes it most galling is that Little's bullpen has been completely untouchable in the postseason. You know who the best reliever in the ALCS was? Not the guy who got the big trophy; it was Mike Timlin, who'd thrown 5 1/3 completely ridiculous innings. He allowed a single and two walks, one intentional. Alan Embree threw fastballs by almost everyone. Scott Williamson was lights-out every time he pitched. Little had at least three better options than an obviously gassed Martinez.

The Red Sox players did a hell of a lot to win this series. They needed their manager to, in the vernacular, "Cowboy Up." Little didn't, in what was one of the greatest instances of a manager failing the players in baseball history.

I can't imagine you'll find many Red Sox fans who'll say they didn't know it was over at that point. Embree and Timlin escaped the eighth inning, and Timlin continued to embarrass the Yankees in the ninth, giving his team every chance to do something. The Sox even threw a scare into New Yorkers in the ninth, as Todd Walker hit a jam shot off of Mariano Rivera that bore far too much resemblance to Luis Gonzalez's World Series-winning hit in 2001. The ball settled into Soriano's glove, and a city--and its expatriates--exhaled.

When Aaron Boone etched his name into baseball history two innings later, there was joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, but I don't think there was any surprise. The Red Sox didn't deserve to be in a tie game in the 11th inning, but once there, there wasn't much sense that they were going to find the escape hatch to the World Series.

It's just a shame, because it didn't have to be this way.

Notes

  • I was very wrong about Roger Clemens, who got some pitches up and was knocked out in the fourth inning. Serves me right for getting away from what I do and trying to guess at intangibles.

    We know now that Clemens' career isn't over, but when he was walking off the field in the fourth, it was very, very strange. That's not how it should be, but there's no way a crowd can be expected to pull it together and cheer when they've been slapped down 4-0 in the fourth inning.

  • Mike Mussina, who has a hell of postseason performance record for a guy people don't think of as a big-game pitcher, set up the eighth-inning heroics by pitching out of a fourth-inning jam and then throwing two more shutout frames. It was the first relief appearance of his career.

    David Wells wasn't as successful, hanging a breaking ball to David Ortiz that became the Sox fifth and final run. The two pitchers, though, represent a real change for Torre. In his seven previous trips to the postseason with the Yankees, he had used a pitcher as both a starter and a reliever in the same series just twice. Given his bullpens, he'd only had to do so on rare occasion.

    With the season hanging in the balance, Torre went to a move he had almost never used before, which to me shows a level of flexibility and adaptability almost unheard of in the game of baseball.

  • Can we stop making an issue of the seventh-inning stretch? I'm in the camp that thinks it's gratuitous to keep the "God Bless America" thing going, but that's not the point. The point is that there's no difference between waiting out a seven-minute break between half-innings and waiting out a rally and some pitching changes in the top of the seventh. It's a non-factor in a baseball game, unless we're going to start tracking the length of every half-inning and seeing how pitchers do with N minutes of rest.

    The time between the last out in the top of the seventh and the first pitch in the bottom isn't special. It's just an extension of the time the pitcher's been sitting down since getting the last out of the sixth.

  • I count four batted balls that have hit bases in this postseason, with all going for hits. That's just weird, no?

  • Dayn Perry is a scary man. Before Matsui batted in the eighth, he sent an e-mail that read, "Just a gut feeling. If Matsui faces Pedro, he'll do something big."

    But wait, there's more. Two innings later comes this gem, with the subject line, "baseless prediction": "Boone will drive in the winning run."

    You can't make this stuff up.

  • It can't be repeated enough. The Red Sox outplayed the Yankees in this series. There was little they didn't do as well or better than their rivals. It just came down to a poor decision by a man who won't get the opportunity to make the same mistake a third time.

No World Series prevew in this space. I've got the main slot on the front page. Check it out, and I'll be back Sunday with a look at Game One.

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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