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October 14, 2004

Prospectus Today

Where Have You Gone, Sparky Lyle?

by Joe Sheehan

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Q: How do the 3-1 game and the 10-7 game end within two minutes of one another?

A: When one of them involves the Yankees.

With the way the Yankees play every game, the increased commercial inventory and later start times in October, and Tony La Russa's preferences for playing matchups, I'll make the early prediction now that a Yankees/Cardinals series will included multiple games running past midnight and a media-driven furor over how "the children" don't get to see the World Series any longer.

It'll be more about guys who need to meet deadline and want to get to bed, but that's another column.

Yankees vs. Red Sox

The Yankees paid Jon Lieber $2.7 million on a two-year contract that expires at the end of their postseason. He made his money last night.

Lieber, now a bit more than two years past Tommy John surgery, has recently begun to look like the pitcher who was a Cy Young candidate in 2001. Last night, he was simply amazing, pitching into the eighth inning on just 82 tosses, 57 of them for strikes. (Nearly 20% of his work for the evening came during one epic battle with Johnny Damon, in which Damon fouled off 10 two-strike pitches before flying to center on the 16th offering.) The Red Sox took to jumping on him early in the count, but couldn't make solid contact, picking up just three singles.

I think we should have seen this coming. Remember that command is the last thing to return for pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery. Lieber, who missed all of 2003, struggled for much of the year in getting back the pinpoint control he needs to succeed. He seemed to be able to choose between allowing some walks and allowing some homers, without getting both out of his game at once.

Then in September, he found his old form. He struck out 31 and walked just two for the month, allowing three home runs in his 40 1/3 innings. That's the pitcher we've seen in two playoff starts as well, a strike-throwing machine who works quickly, gets ahead in the count and doesn't allow big hits.

With a pedestrian strikeout rate, Lieber is always going to rely heavily on his defense. His bad starts are going to look very, very bad, mainly on days when the balls in play find grass, not leather. On the other hand, on nights like last night, he's going to look like one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Lieber made $2.7 million over the last two years. I think he might have added that much to his next contract last night.

Lieber was one of two Yankee heroes last night, the other being John Olerud. Olerud roped a two-run homer off Pedro Martinez to provide the final margin in a 3-1 win. He's a barely adequate player at this point, a first baseman with little power and not much ability to hit for average, getting by on plate discipline and defense. He's helped the Yankees, who talked him out of retirement after the Mariners pushed him out the door in one of the more classless releases in recent memory.

You can look at Lieber and Olerud as shrewd pickups by a team that is always looking for ways to improve. You can also look at them as manifestations of the Yankees' revenue advantage, although only Lieber really fits that description. The truth lies in between; the Yankees leveraged their bankroll to make moves that were very good risks, that most teams actually could have made if they gauged the risks and benefits just a bit differently.

With the Yankees ahead 2-0, is this series over? In the history of the seven-game LCS, just two teams have come back from 2-0 deficits: the 1985 Cardinals and Royals, in the first year of the format. That doesn't doom the Red Sox, of course; teams have come back from 2-0 deficits in the World Series and in best-of-five playoff series. The Sox will be home for the next three games, they have a tremendous offense, and if I say any more good things about Bronson Arroyo I'm going to have to deal with a restraining order.

Of course, they'll now have to start both Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe, rather than just one, as Curt Schilling looks done. It's possible that they'll have to face Orlando Hernandez, rather than Javier Vazquez, in Game Four.

I said at the start of the postseason that no outcomes would surprise me. I stand by that. The eight teams that made the playoffs weren't separated by much in talent or performance, and we know, through years of watching, that even large differences can be overwhelmed by variance in short series. And just as the Red Sox lost two to the Yankees, the Yankees can turn around and lose two to the Red Sox, throwing all of this up in the air.

As an analyst, it can be frustrating.

As a fan, it's the reason we watch.

Cardinals vs. Astros

I had a plan that involved watching the ALCS game while recording the NLCS game and then watching it later. The plan worked fine, but would have been a bit more enjoyable without the bug on the screen that gave constant score updates of the other contest. Lousy for me, but great for the vast majority of fans not planning to watch the game consecutively.

In looking at yesterday's game, I completely forgot that Brandon Backe would be starting it on three days' rest. After all the hype about the decision to go with starters on short rest in the last two days' of the Division Series, it just slipped my mind. Phil Garner could have used Peter Munro and then pitched Backe on his normal rest in Game Two, but given how Munro has struggled in recent weeks, opted against that route.

Beginning in the fifth inning of last night's game, Garner had a series of decision points with respect to his pitchers. I think he made the wrong choice at virtually every one, and that contributed to the Astros losing a game that they could have, maybe should have, won.

Let's go to the fifth inning, with the Astros up 4-2. Backe went to the mound having thrown 77 pitches through four innings, and while his line was good--three hits, one walk, six strikeouts--he hadn't been dominant. He barely escaped a fourth-inning rally thanks to a double play. His season-high workload was just 101 pitches, so he has to be near his maximum for a short-rest outing. Remember that Garner had lifted both Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt after five innings in their short-rest outings, Clemens after just 87 pitches. Backe, of course, could have been expected to provide less. Garner, correctly, got Chad Qualls and Mike Gallo up in the bullpen as the fifth inning began.

With one out, Backe surrendered a double to right field by Woody Williams, who is one of the better-hitting pitchers in the game. He'd thrown 82 pitches at that point, and the Cardinals had their only back-to-back left-handed hitters scheduled. Backe had shown a massive platoon split during the season (961 OPS against lefties, 740 against righties), so all things considered, it might have been a good time to go to the southpaw Gallo.

Garner stayed with his starter, who retired Tony Womack and went to 0-2 on Larry Walker before surrendering a broken-bat bloop double to left field that made it a 4-3 game. Backe then walked Albert Pujols and was finally relieved by Qualls, who gave up a run-scoring single to Scott Rolen--0-for-16 entering that at-bat--before retiring Jim Edmonds to end the inning.

I don't understand this sequence. You have Gallo ready, and the tying run at the plate--the guy after him, too--is left-handed. You don't bring him in, and your pitcher nearly gets out of the situation, getting unlucky on a broken-bat hit. You let him face the next guy, but when he walks him, you remove him rather than let him face the 0-for-16 guy who is 0-for-2 against him so far tonight. If Backe faces Rolen and retires him, you can start the sixth with a reliever. If he doesn't, at least you can use Gallo against Edmonds.

All of this ignores the possibility of using your best reliever in such an important spot.

Qualls opened the sixth inning, giving up two singles, each adding to the case against Jeff Kent's ability to remain a second baseman. After a sacrifice by Mike Matheny, La Russa sent Roger Cedeno up to bat for Williams.

Second and third, one out, tie game in the sixth inning. Don't you have to at least consider going to the greatest strikeout reliever in National League history? I know that no manager in the 21st century would consider doing so, but if the save rule had never existed, don't you think Brad Lidge would have been pitching there? (Or to Rolen in the fifth inning?)

Go back to 1977, and the fourth game of the ALCS. The Yankees are up 6-4 in the fourth inning, but the Royals have the tying run on first with two outs and George Brett at the plate. Does Billy Martin bring in Ken Holtzman? No, he goes to his best reliever, Sparky Lyle, who proceeded to retire Brett and throw five more shutout innings to preserve the 6-4 win. (Thanks to reader Tom Schmidt for pointing out this gem.)

Maybe you can't unscramble this particular egg. But the Astros led last night's game in the fifth, scored three runs after that point, and managed to lose by three because they let inferior pitchers give up six runs. Had they used their best pitcher to escape the toughest situations, isn't it reasonable to speculate that they might have won?

The thing is, letting Qualls face Cedeno wasn't even the worst decision Garner made at that particular moment. With power-free Cedeno at the plate and the go-ahead run at third base, Garner had his middle infield playing back. Look, I think managers worry too much about playing for one run, but I don't know how you can even think about conceding the go-ahead run in the sixth inning when the Cardinals have had one of the game's best bullpens all year long. It didn't matter--Cedeno grounded to first base, scoring Edgar Renteria--but it was a really strange call.

After the out by Cedeno, the Cardinals once again had Womack and Walker scheduled to bat, and once again, Mike Gallo stayed in the bullpen. Qualls allowed a single to Womack to make it 6-4. Jose Vizcaino took a Gateway Arch route to a one-hopper by Walker, then bounced his throw, making it 7-4 and basically burying the Astros.

You can use your best reliever, or you can play matchups. Just letting a non-entity like Chad Qualls blow up your season is wrong.

I think many of these decisions come down to allowing scoring rules to do your managing for you. You want to let Backe finish the fifth, because that's the standard for starters, they have to go five to get the win. You want to save Lidge for the later innings, because the best reliever has to be able to pitch in the ninth inning. The Astros lost without getting their best pitcher into the game, while watching the two-headed Chad allow six runs.

The first manager to come to spring training and announce that he's going to completely ignore the save rule in distributing relief innings is going to have a very trying year that ends in failure.

The second is going to win Manager of the Year. All the rest will follow.

The thing about the Cardinals is that they're a bit like the Giants, only shaped differently. With the Giants, having Barry Bonds means that they have a rally going virtually every time through the lineup, either with his being on base or his being back in the dugout getting back slaps. With the Cardinals, the Walker/Pujols/Rolen/Edmonds core means the same thing. It's hard enough getting any one of them out, much less all four. They're just never more than an inning away from having something going, and that makes them very hard to beat.

I definitely underestimated them coming into the postseason.

I mentioned at the top of this that I TiVoed this game. During my ESPNews segment yesterday, Brian Kenny asked me about the concurrent LCS games; he didn't like the idea, protesting that fewer people would get to watch and that daytime baseball was a good thing. I won't rehash all the arguments today, but suffice to say I think that the concurrent scheduling in the evening works better for the greater number of people, even if diehards like myself would rather they be scheduled apart.

The argument that wasn't made during my segment, but was in two others, has to be addressed. Kenny compared MLB's decision to play the games at the same time with the NFL's playoff scheduling. That's possibly the most slanted angle I've ever heard; on the weekends, MLB is scheduling the two series separately, with one in the late afternoon and one at night. That's exactly what the NFL does.

The difference is that the NFL doesn't play games during the week. If the NFL playoffs consisted of best-of-seven series (and why don't they, the pansies?) that necessitated mid-week games, I guarantee you that those games wouldn't be played at 4 p.m. Eastern. MLB has to play during the week, and therefore either has to put games on when people are at work or put two on at the same time. The NFL never had to make that choice, and acting as if they did...well, it's just more evidence that NFL:media::Yankees:Pedro Martinez.

(Darn, I almost made it without one reference to that.)

Comparing weekend scheduling to weekday scheduling is dishonest. You have to do things differently on Wednesday than you do on Saturday, at least until my plan of turning Wednesday into a permanent off-day finds a backer in Congress. You can criticize yesterday's schedules on a number of grounds, but don't use it as another opportunity to compare MLB's apples with the NFL's oranges.

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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