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September 27, 2004

Prospectus Today

A Ridiculous Game

by Joe Sheehan

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Sometimes, baseball is ridiculous.

The Texas Rangers had a golden opportunity to make up ground in the AL West over the weekend. After getting three runs in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday to move to within two games of first place, the Rangers hosted the Mariners while the A's and Angels squared off in Anaheim. Just winning the series would guarantee some positive result, while a sweep had the potential to elevate the Rangers into first place with a week to go.

Let me reiterate: the Rangers were playing the last-place, .380-ball playing, 21-52 on the road Mariners. Their three scheduled starters included two rookies and Ryan Franklin, whose ERA on the road coming into the weekend was 5.98. Jolbert Cabrera had been batting fifth at times. The bullpen featured more unfamiliar names than the Billboard top ten.

Naturally, the Mariners took two of three games, winning the last of those 9-0 behind Cha Seung Baek, who came into the game with an ERA of 7.43. The Rangers are still in the AL West hunt--they have to go at least 6-1 this week and get help from the Mariners and Angels--but an extra win or two over the weekend would have given them more control over their fate.

Similarly, the Chicago Cubs blew their chance to take a chokehold on the NL wild card. Playing the Mets--23-43 since the All-Star break and making a run at last place in the NL East--they won Friday night and had a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday. It wasn't enough. Victor Diaz hit a three-run homer to tie the game and Craig Brazell won it in the 11th with a homer of his own. On Sunday, Kerry Wood allowed three runs in the first, one more than the Cubs would score on the day. Instead of a 2 -game lead in the wild card, their edge was just a half-game over the Giants and one-and-a-half over the Astros.

In a time of year when all that matters is winning, it's imperative to take advantage of weak competition. A win in April means just as much as one in September, but you can't go back and re-win those games, so all you have is today's. When today's is against a team who started playing for 2005 months ago, well, that's an opportunity. The Rangers and Cubs blew opportunities over the weekend, and they'll spend the next seven days trying to make up for that.

Bear with me for a second. Think about some series, not between teams disparate in the standings but between ones close, that will be played beginning next week. In those games, very good baseball teams will advance or go home based on their performance in five or seven games against other good teams.

We learned over the weekend that when two teams from opposite ends of the performance spectrum meet in a three-game series, the lesser of those teams is capable of winning two games. That's in a case where the better of the teams has every reason in the world to go all-out to win, while the lesser of the teams is concerned more with sorting out who can contribute to next year's squad. In baseball, bad teams can win series from good ones, no matter the motivation and talent gaps between the two. Those gaps show up over 162 games, not over three.

They don't show up over five or seven games, either. And if the Mets can take two of three from the Cubs, then it stands to reason that teams with much less separating them can see nearly any outcome when they play short series.

In October, you'll read a lot of after-the-fact rationales about why things happened. There will be "analysis" that is little more than fitting events to established storylines and the application of dime-store psychology. In reality, teams will win and lose playoff series for the same reasons they win and lose them in the regular season: they'll pitch or hit well, or their opponents will. They'll be a little lucky, or their opponents will. Whether they get to three or four wins before their opponents do won't have anything to with their qualities as people. It's just baseball.

And sometimes it's ridiculous.

Where do the weekend's games leave us in determining the remaining playoff spots in the each league?

The Dodgers won a critical game Sunday to set themselves up in the NL West. With a 2 -game lead and four games at home against the Rockies, they might be able to clinch a tie before the Giants arrive on Friday. (However, as we've seen, home games against bad teams aren't certain wins.) Given that their lead was down to a half-game on Thursday, they have to be happy with their position. That the Marlins have been eliminated while the Dodgers are likely to win their division has to be disappointing to the legions who predicted doom for the Blue Crew following the trade of Paul Lo Duca and Guillermo Mota.

The Giants and Padres will play an elimination series this week in San Diego. Only a sweep will keep either team in the division race, and even that might not be enough for the Padres, who need a sweep just to stay in the wild-card hunt. The Giants can lose one game and still stay in the wild-card chase.

The wild-card hunt is going to go down to next weekend. The Giants are a half-game behind the Cubs and a full game ahead of the Astros. There'll be a lot of scoreboard watching, as the Giants/Padres series is the only one that matches any of these four teams this week. Watch how the Cardinals, Braves and, if they've clinched by the weekend, Dodger play their series against this pool. The conflict between obligation to self and obligation to others will be in evidence as these playoff teams balance the need to be ready on October 5 with the need to not unduly affect the competition among the stragglers.

The A's were in the same spot as the Dodgers on Saturday morning, but instead of splitting their two games over the weekend, they lost both. Thanks to that, the AL West will go down to the wire. The A's hold a one-game lead over the Angels and a two-game lead over the Rangers. The latter two play four games in Arlington beginning tonight, each needing to win at least three games to maximize their chances. The possibility of a three-way tie for the division title--something that has never happened in baseball history--is strong.

Meanwhile the A's host the Mariners for four games. The A's have a clear advantage, but haven't been playing well in September. It would be a surprise if they put away the division before the Angels arrived for the final series. For a team that has been known for its great second halves, this is as tense a final week as they've had in a while.

--

I was at Angels Stadium last night for the rubber game of the A's/Angels series. Here are some notes:

  • Mark Mulder looked terrible. It wasn't just his lousy line. His command, particularly of his breaking stuff, was way off. Moreover, he did a lot of fidgeting and walking around between pitches, a sign of someone who doesn't want to throw the next pitch.

    There was no outward sign of injury--none of the stretching and arm-shaking that we often see from pitchers who are trying to work through pain and discomfort. Whether he's hurt or not, though, he's clearly not himself. He is, at best, the team's #4 starter right now, and someone who might be better off sitting out the Division Series if it might mean coming back stronger in a future playoff round. Right now, the difference between Mulder and Mark Redman is nil.

  • Mark Kotsay led off the game with a double. Mark McLemore then sacrificed him to third base, an absolutely brutal application of the sacrifice bunt. There are situations in which you want to give up an out to pick up a base. The first inning, on the road, with the middle of the lineup coming up, isn't within a time zone of that situation. Kotsay scored on an Eric Chavez sacrifice fly, which may have satisfied the more results-oriented analysts, but didn't change the fact that the bunt was a negative-expectation play.

  • Contrast that with the Angels' execution of a suicide squeeze in the eighth inning. They had Vladimir Guerrero on third base with one out, and Bengie Molina at the plate against Arthur Rhodes, a strikeout pitcher. With a 4-2 lead and three outs to get, an additional run had considerable value. With the bottom of the lineup coming up, the Angels weren't giving up a lot of potential value with the bunt.

    The play was absolutely beautiful. From where I was sitting (with Los Angeles SABR chapter head Stephen Roney), I had a perfect view of Guerrero's break down the line. He didn't even have to slide, as Molina caught the ball perfectly with his bat and forced catcher Adam Melhuse to make the play on the ball.

    Bunts aren't bad. They're just a tool, one tactic in a collection of things an offense can do to create runs. However, in almost all cases, using a bunt is less likely to put runs on the board than the other options available to a team. The A's misused the bunt last night, while the Angels picked the right spot for one. Edge: Mike Scioscia.

  • It won't be long before Dallas MacPherson is one of my favorite players. He made a couple of deft plays in the field last night, and I love the way he looks at the plate. He won't stay at third base for more than a few seasons, if that, but he's going to hit like an All-Star even as a corner outfielder.

  • Francisco Rodriguez pitched the eighth inning, and Troy Percival the ninth. While it wasn't a save situation, Percival would have pitched had it been one, too.

    It didn't happen last night, but I think it's coming: there will be a game this week in which Rodriguez pitches well, uses few pitches, yet is pulled for the inferior pitcher--Percival--in the ninth inning, only to have Percival blow the game. The Angels have two better pitchers than Percival in Rodriguez and Scot Shields, but persist in structuring their bullpen to funnel games to the least effective of the group.

  • The big story, which made the rounds in the middle of the game, was that Jose Guillen had been suspended without pay for the remainder of the season and any postseason action, following his tantrum upon being removed from Saturday's game.

    I can't think of a precedent for this, where a team discards a starting outfielder with a week to go. I do know that the punishment doesn't fit the crime it followed, and it seems disproportionate even if it capped a series of unpublicized incidents, as was implied by Bill Stoneman in this story. This being the media era it is, I'm sure we'll learn more about whatever Guillen's offense was; secrets don't keep these days.

    On the field, this creates another opportunity for the Angels to show off their depth. Adam Riggs started in left field last night and got two hits before coming out for defense. His replacement, Jeff DaVanon, will get the bulk of the playing time in left field, starting against right-handers.

    What this decision really does is cement the Angels' position that chemistry, attitude, whatever you care to call it, matters as much or more to the team's management than performance does. It's a bold decision to suspend a major player at this stage, but consistent with the philosophy of a franchise that has spent a decade choosing personality over talent.

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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