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October 19, 2003

Prospectus Today

Game One

by Joe Sheehan

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As you might expect from managers Joe Torre and Jack McKeon, there were plenty of decisions made in advance of Game One that provided cause for discussion.

The most significant of these was McKeon's decision to make Dontrelle Willis a reliever. This move addressed one of the Marlins' key disadvantages in facing the Yankees: the lack of a good left-handed reliever to counter the team's left-handed power late in the game. Michael Tejera is neither a specialist nor a safe bet in high-leverage situations. Willis' motion makes him tough on lefties (.216/.293/.307) and he is good enough against right-handers that he can be used for multiple innings.

The move paid immediate dividends, as Willis threw 2 1/3 shutout innings last night with the Marlins protecting a one-run lead.

With Willis in the bullpen, the Marlins' fourth-starter decision was made. Despite Brad Penny's ineffectiveness in the postseason, McKeon tabbed him to open the Series instead of Carl Pavano. I disagreed with the decision; the two pitchers had comparable seasons, but Pavano has been much more effective in October, including a good start in the NLCS that kept the Marlins in Game Six. Penny, however, pitched well in his 5 2/3 innings. In particular, he showed a nasty curveball that he was throwing for strikes and with which he was getting ahead in the count. As has usually been the case this postseason, Jack McKeon pushed the right button.

Joe Torre made some interesting choices as well, the most notable of which was leaving Jason Giambi in the #7 lineup slot. Torre had dropped the slumping Giambi for Game Seven of the ALCS, in which Giambi in two home runs. I'd assumed that Torre would elevate Giambi back to his usual #3 slot, but Torre left his Game Seven lineup intact, at least in the first seven slots.

What I don't understand is Torre's refusal to get Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot. Soriano has been just brutal in the postseason, and his .255 OBP--one walk and 17 strikeouts in his 49 playoff at-bats before the Series--is hurting the Yankee offense. As bad as Giambi has been, he's a light-years-better option than Soriano in the upper reaches of the batting order. Some combination of Derek Jeter and Nick Johnson atop the lineup is the best choice, but Giambi, even in a slump, looks better in the top half of the lineup than Soriano.

By leaving Giambi in the #7 slot and Soriano in the leadoff slot, Torre is approaching the worst of all possible options for his lineup. The Yankees need to score more runs, and getting the team's OBP guys more plate appearances is how to do that.

The story of Game One was infield defense, as the Marlins did exactly what you want to do with a team that doesn't have a good one: force the issue. They got their first run in part because Juan Pierre opened the Series with a perfect bunt past David Wells that Soriano couldn't field. Soriano spent the rest of the game playing Pierre on the infield grass, even with no runners on base. I've seen corner infielders do that, but rarely a second baseman.

The play of the game, however, was made by one of the Yankees' good defenders, Aaron Boone. With second and third and one out in the fifth, Pierre lined a single to left field. Hideki Matsui came up throwing and hit Boone, who turned and tried to catch Pierre rounding first base. Had he not cut the throw, the slightly offline throw probably would not have retired Juan Encarnacion at the plate. Had he thrown home, however, Boone would almost certainly have nailed Encarnacion, holding the game at 2-1. That run turned out to be the difference in a 3-2 game.

The Yankees' defense wasn't the only culprit, however. They continued to be an offense without doubles, hitting a solo home runs and eight singles in the game. They continued to not hit with runners in scoring position, going 1-for-12, and wasted a number of leadoff baserunners and two-on, less-than-two-out situations. They even mixed in a bizarre baserunning error, as Nick Johnson got picked off of third base by Ivan Rodriguez in the third inning. (Hey, does this mean the whole Yankee approach doesn't work, because they made a stupid mistake on the bases? Maybe if Brian Cashman wrote a book.)

Notes

  • You might want to sit down for this one... I thought Tim McCarver was all over last night's game. Like Joe Morgan, he's at his best when he's analyzing the physical aspects of the game as opposed to strategic or tactical ones. There were a number of points he made last night--on Miguel Cabrera's first step in left field, on the Boone cutoff play, on Nick Johnson's baserunning before the pickoff--that showed him at his best.

    Probably 90% of what I write about broadcsters is negative. It's on me to balance that out with praise when it's warranted. McCarver's work last night, paired with good camera work, enhanced the telecast with information I might not have gotten myself. That's the best thing you can say about an analyst.

  • Jeff Nelson is going to be huge in this series. The Fish got a rally started off of him last night, but he pitched out of it. The guy chews up right-handed hitters--even in the last two seasons, off-years for him--they hit .220 with no power and a sub-.300 OBP.

    The edge this gives the Yankees is tremendous. This is a team that has struggled all year to get from its starters to its closer. Against the Marlins, though, they can treat Nelson not as a spot righty, but as a three- to six-out setup man who takes them right up to Mariano Rivera. It's like having the 2001 edition of Nelson dropped in your lap for the World Series.

    On the other hand, the Yankees have two pitchers who amount to empty roster spots. There's just no reason to attack Juan Pierre or Lenny Harris or Todd Hollandsworth, so Gabe White and Felix Heredia lose almost all of their value. They can mop up, and you might see them brought in when holding a runner on first base takes precedence, but for the most part they're going to be spectators.

All things considered, last night's outcome wasn't terribly surprising. The Yankees were running their #4 starter--and one who makes a poor matchup against the lefty-bashing Marlins--less than 48 hours after completing one of the most draining series they'll ever play. The Marlins, frankly, aren't getting anything resembling proper credit for their accomplishments or for the danger they present to the Yankees.

I've seen in a number of places that this matchup is "a disappointment" that many purported baseball fans won't watch. That's a ridiculous idea; this World Series, from a pure baseball standpoint, is incredibly interesting, pitting a contact-hitting, extra-base taking Marlins team against the poor defensive Yankees. You have the tactical questions that I wrote about earlier in this piece, with each team having to adjust its personnel usage to account for the opponent's strengths. The fact that both teams played seven-game LCSs forced both managers to make hard choices about their pitching staffs. We're almost certainly seeing the best managerial matchup in recent memory, based on the work Torre and McKeon have done so far this October.

Maybe this series isn't as sexy as Cubs/Red Sox would have been. It doesn't provide the canned media angles or the opportunity for incessant coverage of both team's martyred fans. What it will do is give us great baseball, and if you love the game, you're going to have a lot of fun watching it.

Tonight's game features two starters pitching on short rest. Both Mark Redman and Andy Pettitte started Wednesday, although neither went deep into their game or distinguished themselves. Neither has enough of a track record of pitching on short rest to draw any conclusions, so the only safe assumption, I think, is that neither pitcher will go much past 100 pitches.

McKeon's decision is, once again, unusual. He's electing to start Redman on short rest as opposed to Pavano on full rest. There are a number of performance reasons to do this--Redman is more effective against lefties, which helps in Yankee Stadium; the Yankees will have one fewer lefty bat in the lineup when Pavano starts in Pro Player Stadium; Redman was more effective on the road than Pavano was--but it's an open question as to whether those things should carry more weight than the short-rest issue.

I think we're going to see a lot of runs scored tonight. The Marlins flat-out crush lefties, with 1000-OPS guys in the #3 through #6 spots in their lineup. Everyone other than Pierre hits lefties better than righties. Pettitte has a backwards split this year, but it's a one-year fluke; he usually is pretty even or more effective against lefties. The Yankees survived a bad matchup last night because the Marlins weren't much better at hitting doubles and converting opportunities than they were; I don't think they'll be as fortunate tonight.

Redman is a tough pitcher to predict. He walks a thin line, needing to get ahead in the count, needing to keep the ball down, and needing to get guys to chase his changeup. When he gets the ball up, he's very homer-prone. Heck, Kerry Wood hit a ball off of him that just barely stayed inside Wrigley Field Wednesday night. The Yankees have had a terrible time staying patient in the postseason, but they'll have to do so tonight or risk falling behind 2-0.

It should be a barnburner, with Nelson playing an important role and Mariano Rivera once again being a superhero. Yankees, 9-6.

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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