July 20, 2004
A Night at the Park, 2004
After not getting to a game for the first seven weeks of the season, I've been living at the ballpark since Memorial Day weekend. That continued on Monday night, as I took in the Angels/Indians game with some of the guys who have been kicking my butt in AL Tout Wars this season. Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal, who is actually working on a book about fantasy, was in town and dragged me, Jeff Erickson of Rotowire, and Matt Berry of Rotoworld down to Anaheim to see a classic match-up between Kaz Tadano and Aaron Sele.
Obviously, I love baseball, and enjoy watching games whenever and wherever I can. But a night like this one--or like last month, when I got to see an Angels/Dodgers game with Jonah Keri, Rich Lederer, and Brian Gunn--is hard to beat. Watching a ball game while talking baseball for three hours with people who know and love the game might not be heaven, but you get a better view and St. Peter gets a little bit jealous.
Anyway, three of us gathered by Will Call a little before the first pitch. Before we even reached our seats, Travis Hafner unloaded a two-run bomb off of Sele to give the Indians an early lead. (We learned this by getting a call from Berry, Hafner's owner in Tout, who heard the homer as he was driving to the game. So the guy on the freeway was doing updates for the guys at the ballpark. Only in L.A.)
Hafner felt bad for us, missing his show and all, so he was kind enough to reprise the performance in the 10th inning, a three-run rocket to center that gave the Indians their final margin of 8-5. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The story of the game was Eric Wedge, who went out of his way to give the Angels every opportunity to win the game. Wedge's handling of his relievers has been driving fantasy managers crazy all year, which really isn't important. What is important is that Wedge doesn't seem to know who his best relievers are, and changes their roles depending on who's been the most effective of late. He's had tactical problems all year long as well, ones that were clearly on display last night
Tadano, who was excellent for six innings, opened the seventh by walking the leadoff batter, Darin Erstad. That's usually a sign of something, and it was enough for Wedge to get Rafael Betancourt up in the bullpen. When Tim Salmon singled with one outs on Tadano's 100th pitch, it seemed like the right time to take him out; the tying run was coming to the plate against a pitcher who had lost something, and Wedge had perhaps his best reliever ready to go. Allowing Tadano to face the next batter opened him up to the chance that he would lose what had been a great start to that point. The reasons to leave Tadano in where scant.
Wedge left Tadano in, and Bengie Molina promptly singled to make it a 4-2 game. Now, Wedge lifted Tadano for Betancourt. Betancourt got out of the jam on three pitches, inducing a pop up and a one-hopper to third base.
And then took a shower. Because the next inning was the eighth, and Bob Wickman pitches the eighth inning. It's on a stone tablet somewhere. Wickman, who isn't as good a pitcher as Betancourt is, coughed up a run and pitched poorly enough to give up more, but was rescued by a double play. Wickman out, David Riske in to start the ninth.
Then it got really weird. With first base open and the tying run on third, Wedge elected to pitch to Garret Anderson rather than walk him to load the bases for Vladimir Guerrero. I understand not wanting to bring Vlad up, but against Riske, having him up with the bases loaded seems like the best chance for the Indians to get out with a win. Guerrero is a reasonable double-play candidate, and a better bet than Anderson to strike out as well.
Even stranger was Wedge's decision to play his infield back--including Ron Belliard in short right-center field--which conceded the tying run on almost any ground ball. I don't think I've ever seen a road manager play for the tie in this situation, and in this particular one, doing so made no sense. Looking forward from that point, if the Angels tie the game, their bullpen makes it difficult for the Indians to win. A tie for them was a problem, whereas it was an opportunity for the Angels. <> After watching two pitches off the plate--it looked like a Barry Bonds approach, Anderson took an awkward swing at the 2-0 pitch for no apparent reason. He then took a questionable 2-1 pitch for strike two, and then hit the only ground ball that wouldn't score the run: right back to Riske, who chased Eckstein back to third and tagged out Figgins advancing from second.
With first and third and two out, Wedge elected to pitch to Guerrero. This decision seems inconsistent with the decision to pitch to Anderson; if you're willing to face Vlad--and not wanting to seems like the only reason not to walk Anderson--why not do it in a situation where you can get out of the inning with a double play?
Vlad lined a single to right field--past Belliard, who displayed the range of a stoned Keanu Reeves on the play--to tie the game. Erstad ended the inning with an out.
At this point, Wedge had made three clear errors--leaving Tadano in too long and Betancourt not long enough, and playing his defense for the tie--and a couple of other questionable decisions. The Indians were tied in this game for that reason alone, and now they would have to face some beast from the Angels' bullpen.
Or Troy Percival, I guess. Handed the game by Wedge, Mike Scioscia--who I think is a terrific manager--handed it right back by bringing in his fourth-best reliever to close it out. Percival is pretty much done, and he hasn't been a force since '02, and the Angels have at least two guys much better than him in Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields. Percival is the only pitcher Scioscia has managed where he's allowed something other than performance to indicate usage.
In fairness to Percival, he should have had a 1-2-3 inning, but Eckstein booted an easy ground ball wth two outs. Still, walking Omar Vizquel was unnecessary and brought up Hafner again. The big guy nodded up to section 512, winked at a swooning Matt Berry, and kept the Indians alive in the Central for one more day.
After watching the game, I began to wonder: how much of the Indians' awful bullpen is the relievers, and how much is Wedge? Without citing chapter and verse, it's well known that he's been shuffling guys around all season long, unable to settle on a usage pattern with which he's comfortable. Like Grady Little in '03, Wedge seems to overreact to the most recent work by a pitcher, not allowing anyone to settle into a slot.
He certainly hasn't had great horses, so I'm not arguing that the Indians would have had a good bullpen had Wedge been more adept with it. I am saying that the performance which looks so bad on paper might not be reflective just of bad pitching.
If you're Mark Shapiro, you hope that your young manager is using the 2004 season the same was as his players are: as a learning experience. Costing your team the difference between 81 wins and 77 just improved your draft position. Costing it the difference between 91 and 87 is going to be a lot more expensive.
The big story of the night in section 512 involved an Angel who didn't play at all in this game. Wanting to consummate a deal for the sake of Sam's book, Berry, Erickson and I consummated a three-way deal that I'm eager to get feedback on.
My AL Tout Wars team is languishing in seventh place despite making two trades for starting pitchers who have saved the staff. The "Stars and Scrubs" strategy has been undermined by poor selection of scrubs, and the depth of the league has made it impossible to improve through the waiver wire. There's also the issue of chasing 950 innings, as I'm on pace to come up well short.
In the deal, I sent Eric Young and Einar Diaz to Erickson and received Bartolo Colon and $5 in FAAB money from Berry (Rondell White moved from Erickson to Berry). It's an upside play for me; I'll have another dead roster spot in the lineup--I'm already starting Jose Bautista--but Colon will get innings and has the potential to put up a dozen great starts down the stretch. The extra FAAB means that, if Randy Johnson comes over in a trade, I am guaranteed to get him, as I have $6 more FAAB than anyone else.
I'm not much of a fantasy baseball player, so when I represent BP in these leagues, I rely heavily on things like the BP Player Forecast Manager and the input of the fantasy mavens who read this column. So those of you who chimed in back in March, let me know what you think.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.