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October 23, 2003

Prospectus Today

Game Four

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm sorry, but the better angels of my nature have been locked in the closet. Maybe they'll be back tomorrow.

Maybe not.

Dear Aaron Boone:

It was a home run, not diplomatic immunity.

Love,
Joe

Boone, whose Game Seven home run won the ALCS and sent the Yankees to the World Series, has been swinging at pitches he has no hope of hitting ever since then.

I looked it up, expecting to see that Boone has taken about four pitches in the World Series. It turns out that he'd actually let 25 baseballs go by in the first three games, just shy of half of the 51 pitches he'd seen. He's pushed counts to 3-2 in a number of at-bats, so it's hard to make the argument that he's not being patient enough.

That said, he was horrific last night. The Yankees' three biggest chances to win the game landed in his lap, and he approached his at-bats as if it were fifth-grade gym class or a co-ed softball league with some goofy rules like "swing or you're out." Against Carl Pavano in the second inning, with the bases loaded, one out and the Yankees down 3-0, Boone swung at the only two pitches he saw and flied to center field on the second one. Sacrifice flies down three runs with the pitcher coming up aren't team baseball, they're a lifeline for the opposition.

Boone got another chance in the ninth, after Ruben Sierra's triple tied the game. Boone again went up hacking, fouling off the first and third pitches he saw to fall behind 1-2, then grounding out weakly to shortstop after two more foul balls.

Finally, in the 11th inning, Boone again batted with the bases loaded and one out. And just as he had against Pavano and Ugueth Urbina, he made Braden Looper's job easy by hacking at fastballs up and in, pitches he doesn't have the bat speed to hit. Boone swung at six of the seven pitches he saw, looked completely overmatched, and struck out.

Three at-bats, two pitches taken out of 15 seen, three times falling behind in the count, three outs. Boone needed to have a solid approach last night, and his mental effort was completely lacking, leading to wild swings that gave the pitchers all the leverage they needed to get out of jail.

As bad as Boone was, he shares the blame for last night's loss. It's not with Roger Clemens, who threw seven innings worthy of a win, or with Jeff Weaver, who hadn't thrown a pitch in anger since September 24.

No, the big goat in South Florida last night was Joe Torre. Torre, who I've lauded as being one of the best postseason managers ever, made a number of tactical errors that contributed to the Yankee loss. At the same time, Torre's major strategic error this fall--roster assembly--cost him repeatedly in the late innings.

We'll start in the ninth inning. After the Yankees tied the game and Boone grounded out to end the inning, Torre removed Jeff Nelson, inserted Jose Contreras into the game in the #7 slot, and put John Flaherty in the #9 slot. David Dellucci, who had run for Jorge Posada, stayed in the #6 slot to play right field.

It's two hours later, and I still don't know where to begin with this. The idea is that you don't want the pitcher leading off the 10th inning, because you might have to pinch-hit for him. But the easy way around that is by leaving Nelson in the game. He's the single biggest weapon you have in a tie game against the Marlins, and he'd only thrown one inning, using 16 pitches. Yes, you'll have to hit for him to start the 10th, but so what? Pinch-hitting Juan Rivera or Enrique Wilson is actually a better option than having the non-hitter you can't bat for, Flaherty, leading off the inning, and two innings is as far as you want Nelson going, anyway.

Torre focused on the concept of getting the pitcher out of the #9 spot, knowing that he had to get Flaherty into the lineup anyway. But by doing so, he cost himself an inning of Nelson in a tie game with a thin bullpen and had the worst of his three options leading off the 10th inning. The double-switch was overmanaging.

All of this could have been avoided by having Erick Almonte around. Just as he did Tuesday, Torre used Dellucci as a pinch-runner in a situation where he was going to need him as a right fielder after the Yankees were retired. Both times, that cost him a useful pinch-hitting bat and a double-switch option. Had Almonte been around last night, he could have pinch-run for Posada, and Dellucci--a better hitter against right-handers than the other three guys--would have been available to lead off the ninth, whether as a pinch-hitter or placed there in a double-switch.

Almonte, of course, was dropped from the roster in favor of Chris Hammond just before the World Series. More on that decision in a minute.

Tie game, ninth inning, World Series, you have the Cyborg Reliever. Who ya gonna call?

Jose Contreras.

What?

Torre had Jeff Nelson in the game, who the Marlins can't hit, and took him out. He had Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, who the Marlins can't hit, and didn't bring him in. Instead, he went to a starting pitcher who has been erratic out of the bullpen and who is very prone to bouncing pitches past the catcher.

The decision to use Contreras in the ninth was ludicrous, another case of using the third choice on a list of three. I know why Torre did it: because he wanted to use Rivera for only one inning, and he wanted that inning to be a save situation. That's not defensible, not in Game Four of the World Series. Rivera should have been brought in to start the 10th (you know, after Nelson pitched the ninth). Depending on how that went, and whether the Yankees scored in the top of the next inning, you could debate using him for a second inning. Losing an extra-inning World Series game without getting Rivera into it shows an allegiance to the closer mentality that is completely at odds with winning baseball, and for that matter, at odds with how Joe Torre has managed this team in the postseason.

In fairness to Contreras, he pitched well in his two innings, allowing just a walk in the 10th. The Yankees' loss had nothing to do with his performance.

The game remained tied into the 11th, in no small part because Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi have been replaced by extras from a touring production of "Bugsy Malone". Bernie Williams, who has really found his stroke from the left side, opened the inning with a double to right field. Hideki Matsui walked, and honestly, alarm bells started going nuts in my head before Ivan Rodriguez caught ball four.

Sure enough, Torre had Dellucci lay down a sacrifice bunt in front of the pitchers' slot, then sent up Juan Rivera to hit for Contreras. Jack McKeon had Chad Fox walk Rivera to load the bases--a borderline decision in itself--and brought in Braden Looper to face Boone.

The Yankees had a decent matchup and the potential for a big inning. Torre threw away an out and created worse matchups. Dellucci is coming off a lousy year, but he's a decent line-drive hitter who doesn't hit into a ton of double plays. Besides, why would you do anything that would give Fox, who hasn't looked good yet in this series, an out? Why would you make moves that pushed Fox out of the game? If you're the Yankees, you want Fox in the game until he proves he can get ahead of even one hitter.

Dellucci vs. Fox with no one out and two men on was the absolute peak of that inning for the Yankees; once Dellucci bunted, there was no way it was going to get better. McKeon tried to help--I don't know if you want to load the bases for a guy like Looper, who can be wild--but the Yankees had seen their best chance at a run go by. Looper against Boone just isn't fair. Boone can't hit good hard stuff, and Looper has been consistently tough on righties throughout his career. All that applies to Looper vs. Flaherty as well. It was no surprise that the Yankees didn't score; the course of the inning was entirely predictable once Torre ordered the bunt.

Frankly, Torre should have sent up Enrique Wilson for Boone. You really want a baserunner or a ball in play in that situation, and Wilson has a much better chance of getting either against Looper. Additionally, you play to Looper's weakness, his inability to throw strikes to left-handed hitters.

All of the above decisions, every one of them, are a failure of the imagination. The book says you double-switch the reliever in to avoid having him bat soon. The book says you save your closer for a closer situation. The book says you bunt with two on and no one out in extra innings. (In and of itself, not a bad play, just not with the personnel involved here.) The book says you don't use your last position player to hit for another position player, certainly not for a Certified Postseason Hero.

Torre won't take a lot of criticism for mismanaging this game because he did everything by the book.

The book is wrong.

After the 11th-inning shenanigans, Torre called on Jeff Weaver, mostly because he had to. He'd established that he wasn't going to use Rivera unless the Yankees took a lead, and he had no one else who threw with the appropriate hand.

Remember Chris Hammond? I know I've been a broken record on this point, but Torre's decision to go with three left-handed relievers in this World Series is a huge strategic error, and you can trace last night's loss to that decision.

Go back to the ninth inning, after Posada reached on a fielder's choice. If Almonte is available, he runs for Posada, leaving Dellucci on the bench. After Sierra's triple and Boone's groundout, you can insert Flaherty into Posada's spot, Dellucci into Sierra's spot as the right fielder, and leave Nelson in the game for one more inning. Juan Rivera or Enrique Wilson leads off the 10th inning, Contreras comes in to pitch the bottom, and you've bought yourself one more inning of good relief pitching. (Alternatively, Dellucci gets double-switched into the game in the #9 spot, which costs you an inning of Nelson but yields a much better leadoff hitter in the 10th.)

It's all tied together, and it all comes back to the decision to go with Hammond instead of Almonte. It's not about Hammond--the Yankees' three lefties are more or less interchangeable--but about having three left-handed relievers around against the Marlins. It's a waste of at least one roster spot, the kind of thing we expect from Bobby Cox or from the Joe Torre who used to carry four backup infielders with two skills among them.

Earlier this week, I was talking this over with an AL executive who pointed out that the short time between the ALCS and the World Series may have worked against Torre in making this decision. That's a fair point, but the fact is, Torre had to make a move to add the third lefty, which means he did spend some time thinking about the roster he wanted in the World Series. Haven't we all heard about how the Yankees' huge advantage is that they have eleventeen scouts at all the postseason games, evaluating potential opponents? It takes about four seconds to figure out that the Marlins have no one worth using a lefty specialist against, and that you're not going to be able to let any lefty chew up innings unless the game is out of hand. Torre somehow missed this.

Twice now--actually, three times if you count the ninth inning of Game One--Torre has had situations where Erick Almonte would have been useful to him. Shoehorning Dellucci into one of those spots last night forced him to give up a tactical edge in making subsequent decisions. Just a few innings later, Torre showed that he has no use for Hammond, and in fact, little use for even one left-handed reliever. The Marlins just don't allow it.

At this point, I think even Torre realizes he screwed up, because the decision to use Jeff Weaver in the 11th inning of a tied World Series game is a cry for help. Weaver has been the last man on the staff for two months, and with three fresh left-handers available to him, all of whom are above Weaver on the depth chart, Torre went to the team pariah.

The Yankees might have lost last night's game even if Torre had all the right personnel and made all the right decisions. A manager still needs players to execute, and God knows, Torre had plenty of players to execute. But if his job is to put the players in the best position to succeed, Torre failed last night.

Notes

  • Before Urbina coughed up two runs in the ninth, the biggest stories in the game were the two starting pitchers. Carl Pavano was just tremendous, allowing one run on seven hits in eight innings. He didn't walk anyone or allow a home run, which is how you beat the Yankees. The only baserunner he allowed over his final five innings was on a Roger Clemens bloop single. It was a great performance, one of the better starts we've seen this October, especially given the circumstances.

    I was torn on the decision to remove Pavano after eight innings. He had retired 14 hitters in a row and 18 of 19, with nothing even resembling a rally since the third inning. The sole run he allowed was fluky; Mike Lowell played an easy out into an infield hit, and the next batter singled off Pavano's leg, setting up the run. However, Pavano was at 115 pitches, and he hadn't gone past 117 all season. While Urbina isn't Mariano Rivera, it seemed like a good time to get the fresh pitcher into the game, and there are benefits to letting a closer start an inning rather than come in during a rally. Had McKeon left Pavano in, I don't think I would have argued with that move, either.

    One thing you can question is waiting until last night to start Pavano. McKeon chose to use Mark Redman on short rest rather than Pavano in Game Two, so Pavano will get just the one start in this World Series, despite being the Marlins' second-best pitcher in October, a far sight better than Redman or Game One (and Five) starter Brad Penny. This is one move McKeon may end up regretting.

  • The other starter had a pretty good night as well. After a terrible first inning--Clemens got ahead of both Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera 1-2, but couldn't put either way before elevating fastballs that were roped for a single and a homer--the Rocket threw six shutout innings in what is likely to be his final career start. He closed the outing by retiring the last eight men he faced, striking out Luis Castillo to cap his career (a strikeout that I'm certain he wanted very much).

    As he was walking off the field after the seventh, Clemens received a strong ovation from the Pro Player Stadium crowd, and his Yankee teammates came out of the dugout to congratulate him. The Marlins joined in the tribute from their dugout, a classy gesture by a group of players who mostly haven't competed against Clemens. During this, Ivan Rodriguez was standing at home plate, in his gear, applauding Clemens. On "Baseball Tonight," I saw a quick clip of Clemens acknowledging Pudge's gesture from just outside the Yankee dugout.

    There was something about that moment, one Hall of Famer paying public tribute to another, and the recipient showing his appreciation, that got to me. These two men have faced each other countless times over the years. That very night, Rodriguez had beaten Clemens for two hits, one a big one in the game.

    At that moment, though, it wasn't about Yankees and Marlins, but about the respect that these players, especially the truly great ones, have for each other and for the game. It's not hard to envision a scene a dozen years from now, with Clemens sitting on a dais and returning Rodriguez's long-forgotten applause as the latter joins the former in immortality.

    That scene, of two links in the baseball chain showing their admiration and respect for one another, is going to stick with me for a long time.

  • Derek Jeter had a pretty lousy night. He hit into two double plays, one of which he might have avoided had he run the ball out. Instead, he misread it as a pop-up and was easily doubled up. In between the two DPs, he missed a tag on Derrek Lee at second base on a play where Lee should have been out. Jeter's shoulder tag allowed Lee to get his hand to the bag just in time. No run scored after that, however, so the play was forgotten.

    It was the kind of night any player, even a great one such as Jeter, can have at any time. It's only worth mentioning because it shows that Jeter isn't sprinkled with October pixie dust any more than anyone else. He's always a good hitter, excellent baserunner and poor defender, and he's capable of failing in the World Series as well as succeeding. Tuesday night's performance was one side of the coin, Wednesday the other. That may not be as entertaining as the Clutch God storyline, but it's a lot more true.

  • Boone's and Torre's mistakes aside, the other key moment of the game came in the second inning. With the bases loaded and no one out, Karim Garcia worked the count to 3-1. He lined the next pitch down the left-field line, but it sliced about four feet foul. Pavano struck him out on the next pitch and went on to escape the inning with just one run scoring.

    If Garcia is thismuch faster, maybe the ball lands fair, two runs score and all hell breaks loose. The difference between a double and a foul ball is four feet in the outfield, and maybe 1/1000th of that at home plate.

    Like I said yesterday: microseconds. The line between winning and losing is so tiny in these games, and that's why using the outcomes to evaluate the people--not their performance, but their character--is wrong.

  • You know what was ridiculous? McKeon had Rick Helling warming up in the bullpen at the time of that foul ball. Pavano hadn't actually been touched--a sharp single, a misplay by Lowell and a ball that wasn't hit terribly hard off his leg loaded the bases--and there was as much reason to have someone up behind him as there was to call for a knuckleball.

  • Was anyone else getting 1997 flashbacks during the top of the ninth inning? Hideki Matsui walked on five balls, and I know that because ball five (a 3-2 pitch) was in the exact same place as ball two (a 1-1 pitch). The two were just called differently.

    Sierra's at-bat was strange as well, but he eventually hit a 5-2 pitch into right field to tie the game.

    I'm genuinely curious to hear what people thought of the outside corner in that half-inning.

  • For the third time in four games, the team with more home runs won. This continues a postseason trend that has the team with more "big things" winning most of the games.

    I'm not saying it's indicative. I am saying that if, in the postseason, the team with more steals or sacrifices or more "manufactured runs" was winning 75% of the games, we'd be hearing about the superiority of that style of play until the cows came home. That's not the way baseball works, though.

    Get on base. Hit for power. Drink champagne.

    (Billy, you can put that on a T-shirt next spring. Blue or green.)

  • This would have seemed more original before Fox closed its telecast by showing it, but did Alex Gonzalez's game-winning homer remind anyone else of Mark McGwire's 62nd in 1998? Same arc, same distance from the foul pole, same doubt that it was a homer, but not enough time to articulate that thought before it became one.

Game Five

It's a best-of-three now, and I don't think anyone is the favorite. The Marlins may have just one more home game, but they'll face lefty starters in both of the next two contests, a big edge for them. Although the Fish didn't do much against David Wells or Andy Pettitte the first time around, they still have a lineup that crushed left-handers all year long. They're a completely different offense, a dangerous one, against southpaws, and that's the biggest factor in the next two games. They only need one win to guarantee themselves a chance to win it all with Josh Beckett on the mound.

I think the most interesting thing we'll see tonight is Nick Johnson at first base. Jason Giambi had a couple of singles last night, but still looks lost at the plate. That's not the reason for the switch, however. The reason is that with David Wells starting, the Yankees won't want to leave themselves completely defenseless against Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. Wells is a lousy fielder, and Giambi doesn't move well enough to take bunt singles away.

If Giambi was hitting like he's capable of hitting, it would be hard to sit him down for defense. With anyone but Wells on the mound, you might just rely on the pitcher to make plays. But the combination of factors means that it's worth taking advantage of Johnson's superior defense to shore up a weakness. Wells probably won't walk Pierre and Castillo, and if you can take away the bunt, you force them to swing away to reach base.

A reader asked how my playoff predictions were doing. I honestly haven't kept track, but I don't think it's been a strong month as far as the game calls go (I have picked five of the six series correctly, none in the exact number of games). I thought it would be a fun exercise, continuing something I started last fall when I was writing the newsletter, but there are no guarantees of accuracy. As with the playoff previews, the analysis is much more important than the prediction.

(As two other readers pointed out, the analysis yesterday didn't even match the prediction, as I had the Yankees winning 5-4, but Roger Clemens having either an excellent or a very poor outing. Perhaps the symmetry of being wrong on all counts outweighs the internal inconsistency of the individual parts?)

Before last night, I expected the Marlins to win a high-scoring game tonight by finally breaking out against a left-hander. I saw them taking advantage of the Yankees' letting down after going up 3-1, and I had it in my mind that Rivera wouldn't be available (I thought he'd close out a win Wednesday).

Obviously, that equation has changed. The pitching matchup still favors the Marlins, especially with the Yankees starting at least two infielders who stopped hitting a month ago. The Yankees will probably have the two-inning version of Rivera available, though, and can also go to Jeff Nelson for at least an inning, which reduces their reliance on Wells. Brad Penny pitched well for the Marlins in Game One, mostly because he was throwing a bunch of strikes, especially with his breaking ball. He needs to be just as sharp tonight; as Pavano showed, if you can take away the Yankees' walks, you can beat them.

I think today could go either way. The Marlins are playing better right now, and are probably due to hammer someone, so I'll say Fish, 7-5.

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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