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October 11, 2004

Prospectus Today

Then There Were Five...

by Joe Sheehan

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Two teams moved forward into their respective League Championship Series, while two others will play today for the privilege.

Twins vs. Yankees

Down 2-1 in the series, Ron Gardenhire turned back to the best pitcher in the league to help get the Twins to a decisive fifth game. Johan Santana became the latest starting pitcher to work on three days' rest in the postseason, a group which has--Josh Beckett notwithstanding--met with mediocre results.

Santana wasn't close to his Cy Young self, with no 1-2-3 innings and a pedestrian 53-34 strike/ball count. He did get through five innings and allow just one run, though. With the Twins holding a 5-1 lead heading into the sixth, Gardenhire made the move that he hadn't made on Wednesday night, lifting a starter who might not have made it through the inning before the frame started, allowing his reliever to begin the inning with no one on base.

The decision was a good one, and not just because Grant Balfour pitched lights-out for two innings. When he left, though. Gardenhire showed that he'd only learned one lesson in New York. Juan Rincon, not Joe Nathan, came in to face the middle of the Yankee lineup and allowed two hits and a walk to the first three batters he faced. After striking out Jorge Posada, Rincon effectively ended the Twins' season by giving up a game-tying three-run homer to Ruben Sierra.

Once again, Gardenhire selected his relievers based not on their skills and those of the opposition, but on the inning. That's managing by statistics, allowing the save rule to dictate strategy. Even if Rincon has pitched well, as he did last Tuesday, you've still matched up your second-best reliever (forget the defenses of Rincon, who is very good; I'm talking about Gardenhire's viewpoint here) with the meat of the opponent's lineup, saving your best for the bottom of the order. It doesn't make sense.

It looked even more silly when, after a double by John Olerud, Gardenhire went to Nathan to get out of the eighth. If you can bring him into a 5-5 game, why can't you use him in the 5-2 game?

You can blame Jerome Holtzman for this one, Twins fans. Eventually, managers will stop constructing their bullpens based on a poorly-designed statistic. It won't get the Twins into the 2004 ALCS, but it'll make for better baseball.

Gardenhire then compunded the situation by going to Kyle Lohse, rather than Jesse Crain, to start the 10th inning. Look, if you're going to use both an exhausted Joe Nathan--as Gardenhire did on Tuesday--and any version of Kyle Lohse instead of Crain, why even have the rookie of the roster? Lohse was awful all year long, and would have lost his rotation spot had there been anyone worth giving it to. It was the Twins' equivalent of the Yankees putting Jeff Weaver into the 2003 World Series, except that the Yankees had no viable right-handed relievers left, while the Twins did.

Lohse managed a perfect 10th, but handed the Yankees the game-winning run in the 11th by allowing a double to Alex Rodriguez, letting Rodriguez steal third--completely on him--and throwing a wild pitch that allowed Rodriguez to score.

Gardenhire even managed to screw up this sequence. With Rodriguez on third and one out, why not walk Gary Sheffield and bring in J.C. Romero to face Hideki Matsui? Your best routes out of the inning are a double play or a strikeout, but of which are much more likely with first and third and Matsui facing Romero.

While the Twins' bullpen was badly mismanaged by Gardenhire, the Yankee bullpen was the story. Esteban Loaiza(!), Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera combined for six shutout innings, allowing five hits and no walks. Loaiza was helped along by the Twins, who wasted two of their four singles off of him by getting caught trying to steal.

The Twins probably should have won this series. They led three of these games in the eighth or later, but only won one of them, getting let down by Gardenhire's mismanagement of his pitching staff. A little more faith in Jesse Crain, and a little less reliance on the closer mindset, would have made a huge difference in the outcome.

By the way, I didn't see most of the last two innings of the game. See, I live in Los Angeles, where Fox cut away from the game in the ninth inning for the start of the Dodger/Cardinal game.

Actually, that's no entirely accurate. They cut away for:

  • 90 seconds of a pre-packaged intro, basically value-free
  • 120 seconds of commercials
  • Value-free studio analysis
  • An interstitial: "You're watching the Division Series on Fox"; no, I'm not, now I'm watching an American Express commerical
  • 120 more seconds of commercials
  • On-site value-free analysis
There was basically 10 minutes of crap between the cutaway and the start of the Dodger game, and unless you work for Advertising Age or are stalking Jeannie Zelasko, none of it was as interesting as say, the bottom of the ninth of the tied playoff game.

I jumped around, looking for the game on one of the other Fox channels. FX had baseball!...the same interrupted Dodgers/Cardinals feed that was also on the local affiliate. That's useful. Fox Sports Net had some Division II football game, and I can understand how you wouldn't be able to mess with that. Fox Sports 2 had a taped high-school football game. How, exactly, could they not blow out that bandwidth for a half-hour and make sure that the people who'd been watching a tense baseball game for 3 hours got to see its exciting conclusion?

That Fox would treat their customer base this way is a great argument for taking the airwaves away from all of their current owners. It's not just my being a displaced Yankee fan; I cannot imagine a more actively hostile move towards your viewership than promoting the hell out of something, showing the first 90% of it, and then taking it away before the conclusion.

That MLB would allow their customers to be treated this way is, I suppose, typical. MLB hasn't taken any kind of active role in making sure that its broadcasts do anything but generate revenue. The quality of the postseason on television, or at least broadcast television, has been declining for two decades, and will probably only get worse. Pitches will be missed so that ads can be shown, between-innings breaks will stretch towards three minutes, and the game will serve largely as background for the incessant promotion of mediocre entertainment television.

In the immediate aftermath of the Yankees win, Zelasko, promoting the start of the Yankees/Red Sox ALCS, said, "You asked for it, you got it, America." While people in television may have asked for it, and the overwrought, overexposed fan bases of both teams will enjoy it, I know very few people who are actually that excited about the idea. Many baseball fans wanted to see at least one of those teams lose, so that we could see new teams in the spotlight. (Not that the Twins and Angels haven't made their share of ALCSs lately, but they don't have near the Q ratings of the other two.)

This is a great matchup if you own the broadcast rights to it, and it should be a good series on the field. It is not, however, what America asked for, at least not as far as I can tell.

Cardinals vs. Dodgers

The better team won.

I thought the Dodgers, with their improved offense and their power from the left side, would be able to spring an upset here. Two things prevented that from happening: Odalis Perez threw five innings and allowed eight runs in his two starts, while the Cards' starters were largely effective. The Cards' got three good starts and one clunker in the four games, capped by last night's seven-inning, two-hit performance from Jeff Suppan.

The Dodgers simply didn't hit, posting a .198 BA and a .287 OBP in the four games. They popped seven home runs, every one of them a solo shot. Adrian Beltre, so great for the team all year long, had four hits, all singles, and no walks in 16 plate appearances.

That's the thing about the postseason. If you go 4-for-16 with no power in four games in July, and your team drops three of four, no one really notices. Do it in October, and it becomes the reason your team failed. It's the same actions, just with more people watching and ready to pass judgment.

Beltre wasn't the only Dodger who didn't hit. The guys up the middle--Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora and Steve Finley--were awful: 7-for-48 with two doubles, a triple, and just two walks. With Izturis, Finley and Beltre almost never on base, the great hitting by Jayson Werth, Shawn Green and Milton Bradley went for naught.

The lack of offense was most noticeable after the Dodgers fell behind. They resembled the 2003 edition, for which a two-run deficit was insurmountable. All year long, this team had ridden its improved OBP to late-inning rallies, and never seemed to be out of game. In this series, there were no comebacks.

The one decision I think you can look at from last night's game is the choice of Wilson Alvarez as the long man. Tracy used a quick hook last night, removing Perez with one out in the third and runners on first and second, the Dodgers trailing 2-1. Alvarez escaped that jam, but gave up a three-run homer to Albert Pujols in the fourth that was the difference in the game.

Why not have Perez face Jim Edmonds, then use Elmer Dessens in the long role? The Cardinals have great hitters on both sides of the plate, but Pujols and Scott Rolen were the two best hitters in baseball against lefties this year, while Edgar Renteria has had a massive platoon split for two years now. His 2004 perfomance aside, Sanders has historically crushed lefties.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, as the difference in ability between Alvarez and Dessens would have overwhelmed any platoon issues. I just thought the decision to use Alvarez was curious given the situation.

Heck, maybe Jim Tracy could have brought in Eric Gagne. The Dodgers didn't have one save situation in the series, nor one game that was even within four runs after the seventh inning. Gagne's only work was in mop-up duty in Games Two and Four.

Short relievers aren't as valuable as the mainstream media would have you believe. As good as someone like Gagne or Mariano Rivera is, they don't have anywhere near the impact on a season as a position player or a starting pitcher does. The idea that a closer can be the league MVP, or even the team MVP, is ridiculous. The best middle relievers and set-up men in the league have stronger arguments, because they're the ones who are asked to do more than get three outs with a lead.

When the top relievers in baseball start being used as firemen again--the way we've been seeing them used in the postseason--that's when they'll begin to approach the value of their peers. Until then, it's just going to be too easy to completely take them out of the equation. Their value is entirely dependent on their team setting up situations for them. The Dodgers never gave Gagne a chance to have an impact on the series, and you can't say that about any other player.

Astros vs. Braves

The three-day rest issues are live again, as Phil Garner committed not only to having one of his starters do so, but two.

Just as Santana did for the Twins, Roger Clemens gave the Astros five innings, allowing two runs and, if not pitching well, pitching well enough. He also left with a lead, only to see his teammates cough it up and lose late.

The difference between Gardenhire's decision and Garner's is that the Twins were in a must-win situation, while the Astros were in a must-win-one situation. Given the ugly history of guys pitching on three days' rest, and the possibility of only getting five innings from your ace, why not roll the dice with the seven guys who haven't started a game yet?

The comparison isn't simple, for one. You're not just swapping in Clemens for Peter Munro. It's more like:

Munro + Clemens(fullrest) vs. Clemens(shortrest) + Oswalt(shortrest)

If you use Clemens on short rest, you're opening yourself to the possibility of lowered effectiveness and fewer innings, which means a greater reliance on the bullpen, and you have to do it again in Roy Oswalt's start if you don't win. The alternative is relying on the bullpen anyway, but being able to blow it out and then put a potential Game Five in Clemens' shoulders reducing that game to Clemens and Brad Lidge.

Even if the Astros win tonight--and as much as I love Oswalt, I'm not optimistic--they'll then be faced with starting Munro and Brandon Backe in the first two games of the NLCS.

Going with a starter on three days' rest when you're ahead in the series strikes me, just as it did last October, as a tactic born of fear. You don't want to play a deciding game, so you put everything on winning the one that you can lose. I think what you end up doing is lowering your chances of winning the series--and certainly, a championship--out of that fear.

I will say that if I was going to do it, if would be with veteran like Clemens, but it's a marginal decision. Plus, if you're not going to get innings from him, you're giving back some of the value you're looking to grab, anyway.

The Astros caught a big break in that Russ Ortiz had command issues, which helped them to five runs in the second inning. Thanks to John Thomson's two-batter outing Saturday, Bobby Cox had no choice but to try and get innings from Ortiz. In fairness to the right-hander, he should have been out of the second inning with a 2-1 lead, but a goofy ground rule at Minute Maid Park cost him a run after he made a great play on a pop-up that hit the rafters. I have no idea why the ball would be dead, rather than merely a foul pop-up.

Garner lifted Clemens after five innings with a 5-2 lead, and for perhaps the first time since the middle of August, his middle relief failed him. The Braves scored three runs in the sixth on Adam LaRoche's bomb off of Chad Qualls. The Braves' bullpen, meanwhile, was in the process of throwing six shutout innings, including one key frame by Mike Hampton.

Garner caught a bad break in the eighth inning. After using Lidge to get out of the top of the inning tied, he watched as the Astros mounted a rally in the bottom of the eighth, reaching's Lidge's spot in the order with two outs and runners on the corners. He made the right decision in sending up Orlando Palmeiro; you have to try and win the game there, and trust that the rest of your bullpen will hold on. There's been some second-guessing of the decision to not double-switch Lidge into the game, but which of Jeff Kent, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell or Carlos Beltran would you have taken out?

Sometimes, bad things happen. The only bright side for the Astros is that Lidge, who also pitched Saturday, threw just seven pitches and can probably provide at least an inning, maybe more, tonight.

It didn't help that Garner was down to Russ Springer, whose presence on a playoff roster is one of the more unlikely highlights of this October. Springer got two outs, but made a huge mistake, hitting Rafael Furcal with a 2-2 fastball. Furcal stole second and scored the decisive run on J.D. Drew's single.

Garner is taking a lot of grief for his work yesterday, but the only mistake I see is starting Clemens. That did drive a lot of what followed--the early departure, the need to hit for Lidge in a tie game, ending up with Russ Springer on the mound in a critical situation--but it was the only truly erroneous decision he made. Comparing his body of work to the train wreck we saw in the Twins' dugout is unfair.

Tonight, the Braves get to play a Division Series game at night, something they only ever get to do when no one else is left. They'll send Jaret Wright, ineffective in Game One, out against Oswalt. I expect we'll see some runs scored, what with Oswalt on short rest and Wright a bit of a mystery. I don't expect Oswalt to be on form; at best, he'll provding a short start and allow a couple of runs. At worst, he'll put the Astros in an early hole from which they can't emerge. Either way, I expect the Braves to take advantage and advance to the NLCS.

--

Regardless of who wins, I think the one thing we can all agree on is that the performance of the umpires needs to improve. From the bizarre strike zones in the Red Sox/Angels series to some of the most egregious missed calls you'll ever see in Minnesota (a "tag" play on Saturday afternoon) and Los Angeles (an important blown call at first base), the Division Series umpiring was terrible. If this continues, MLB runs the risk of having the story in the LCSs or World Series not be great players making great plays, but an Eric Gregg/Don Denkinger-level disaster.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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