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September 28, 2004

Prospectus Today

Three for the Road

by Joe Sheehan

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With races going down to the wire, last night we were treated to three games that fit that same theme:

  • Angels 5, Rangers 3. This may have been the final nail in the Rangers' coffin. Three games behind the A's with six to play--even running the table might leave them on the outside looking in.

    If so, they'll spend the winter remembering a lost opportunity. Down by two in the ninth, they opened the frame with three straight singles to load the bases. The last of those, a single to right by Mark Teixeira, was the last ball they would hit out of the infield. David Dellucci and Kevin Mench popped out to each infield corner--the latter on a 2-0 pitch--and Brian Jordan struck out to end the game.

    The end of that paragraph is indicative of the challenges the Rangers face right now. When you have to let Brian Jordan make the last out against a power right-hander, it's clear you don't have the horses. It is, of course, Buck Showalter's and John Hart's fault for having Jordan around in the first place; he's not a very good baseball player any longer, and his vaunted intangibles lose a lot of value when he can't be platooned with someone who can hit righties. Jordan has hit .207/.260/.298 against northpaws in '04, and has basically been a platoon player for five years now.

    The Rangers just didn't have another option. They have four hitters better than Jordan on the DL, and Gary Matthews Jr., nursing an injured calf, probably would be on the DL if this weren't September. For all the focus on the Rangers' pitching staff, their real deficit is on the outfield corners and at DH, where they give ground on offense to their AL West rivals.

    His overemphasis on personal qualities aside, Showalter is the AL Manager of the Year, and he would be even if there was a decent #2 candidate (seriously, who's been the second-best manager in the AL this year? Alan Trammell, maybe? Mike Scioscia?). I'm inclined to vote for Orel Hershiser, actually. We need to see more, but given the type of player he was and what the Rangers' staff has done this year--check the improvements in command and home-run rate--we may be seeing the next Leo Mazzone or Ray Miller, a pitching coach who really does make a difference.

    The key play in this game came in the eighth inning. Chone Figgins had tied the game with an RBI triple off of Kenny Rogers, and stood on third base with one out. Darin Erstad hit a ground ball to first base, Teixeira came home with the ball, and Figgins made a great slide to the outside of home plate to avoid Ken Huckaby's tag and score the go-ahead run. Huckaby did a poor job of blocking the plate, but that shouldn't detract from the play by Figgins.

    Plays like that are why performance analysis breaks down on a micro level. We don't have a metric for that, and it's the kind of play that won't happen very often. The numbers can tell us that the situation is more likely to come up for the Angels--Figgins has good power against left-handers, enabling him to triple off Rogers, a southpaw, while Erstad, like many of his teammates, puts the ball in play frequently. But there's no way to know, when a ball and a baserunner are both coming towards home plate, which of the players involved is going to make an inspired baseball play. This is why that no matter how good we get at performance projections, baseball is still going to be able to surprise and entertain us.

    The slide was just the latest way in which Figgins has helped the Angels. Playing six positions, and getting at least 10 starts at three infield spots and center field, he's been a critical part for a team that always has at least two key players on the DL. His defense isn't great anywhere--which is what you'd expect from a player who's been moved around so much the past few years--but he's adequate in the infield and improving in the outfield.

    The real surprise has been his bat. Figgins has hit .292/.347/.414 with a .272 EqA. He's outperformed his 75th-percentile PECOTA projection, showing real development as a hitter, mostly for power.

    A small guy who hasn't played this much in a while, Figgins has worn down considerably in the second half, but remains an important part of this team. While calling him the game's most valuable player is unnecessarily hyperbolic, acknowledging him as a key element in the Angels' success, with value in his versatility, isn't.

    As noted in today's Prospectus Matchups, if Chan Ho Park wants to take a step in the direction of redemption, tonight's a good place to start. He'll go up against Kelvim Escobar, one of the hottest pitchers in baseball in the second half.

  • A's 6, Mariners 5. The A's can't look a gift win in the mouth these days, but this was another game that showed off just how many problems they have heading into October. Barry Zito, staked to a 5-1 lead after five innings, gave it back in a half-hour, coughing up a three-run homer to Willie Bloomquist--go back and read that again--that tied the game in the seventh.

    The A's won because they took advantage of playing a bad team. Erubiel Durazo reached on a two-base error by Raul Ibanez that was labeled a double in one of those scoring decisions that makes you want to throw official scoring out the window. Four batters later, Bobby Crosby roped a ball to deep right that scored the winning run.

    The A's still have work to do, protecting a one-game lead with six to play. They are in the best situation, though, with three games against the M's and a home series against the Angels. For the first time in a few years, though, they're going to be a pretty big underdog in the first round to either the Yankees or Red Sox. Given the condition of both teams' rotations, a Yankees/A's Division Series could look a lot different than their pitching-dominated matchups of 2000 and 2001.

  • Dodgers 8, Rockies 7. Stay with a bad team long enough, and they'll give you the game.

    I think Clint Hurdle made one of the worst managerial decisions I've seen in a long time at the end of last night's game. Cut to the ninth inning. Steve Reed, sidearmer, is on the mound in a 7-7 game, having given up back-to-back one-out singles to Jayson Werth and Steve Finley. Adrian Beltre is at the plate, with switch-hitter Milton Bradley due behind him.

    There are a number of options available to Hurdle in this situation, and he managed to select the one that gave him the greatest chance of getting back to the hotel before room service closed. He had Reed intentionally walk Beltre, then stay in to face Bradley.

    It's as if he'd just met Steve Reed or something. Reed has been one of the most effective pitchers against right-handed batters over the course of his career. He's also been one of the least effective pitchers against lefties in that time. His splits this season are actually quite mild (.287/.385/.396 vs. LHB, .280/.307/.413 vs. RHB), and not indicative of his skill set. From 2001 through 2003, he gave up a .338/.432/.547 line to lefties, or more or less Bobby Abreu. Righties batted .192/.253/.268, and there's no good comp for that because guys who hit like that don't stick around.

    I appreciate that Adrian Beltre is having a season that would make him the NL MVP in a "normal" year, one in which there wasn't a guy with 120 intentional walks in the mix. However, as good as he's been, there's no way you don't give Reed a crack at him with a left-handed batter on deck. Reed exists to face good right-handed hitters with the double play in order. And if you really don't think you can face Beltre, you don't load the bases and then let Reed stay in the game to face Bradley, when the expected OBP in that situation is .430 or so.

    It was an inexplicable decision given who Steve Reed is and what he's done for more than a decade. I'll bet you dollars to donuts this was the first time in his life he's ever been asked to intentionally walk a right-handed batter to load the bases so that he could face a lefty. It was a terrible decision by Hurdle, the kind of thing that had to make Giants fans grit their teeth and throw things.

    Bradley singled to center to end the game, by the way. The Dodgers have a three-game lead with six to play, and need only to keep beating this bad team to make it all but impossible for the Giants to catch them.

    Worth mentioning: The Dodger bullpen threw 5 2/3 innings in this game, allowing one run on three hits, none in the last five innings. Eric Gagne didn't pitch in this game, either. Despite the hand-wringing of critics who've equated the loss of Guillermo Mota (and Paul Lo Duca) to a tragedy, the Dodger bullpen is fine, and will be an asset in the playoffs.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Steve Reed

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