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October 19, 2004

Prospectus Today

Wow!

by Joe Sheehan

I thought about just running, in unedited form, all the e-mails I sent and all the notes I took during the Yankees/Red Sox game. There's analysis in there, but it's suffused with the emotion of the moment, and quite raw.

While I watched Sunday night's 12-inning game with a bemused detachment, able to appreciate the great story that was the Red Sox comeback and eventual win, that was gone by the time Tom Gordon entered Monday's contest. In short order, I was reduced to the 16-year-old kid in the #23 jersey, posters on the walls, lucky bat in hand, pacing the halls while screaming about the 1-1 pitch that should have been called a strike.

Any game that can do that to you has to be great.

Regardless, I elected to go in a different direction. I don't think anyone needs that kind of view into my psyche.

Yankees vs. Red Sox

The Yankees deserved to lose, and the Red Sox deserved to win.

What's most interesting about the last two nights is how the events don't fit the storyline. Were it the Red Sox--or the A's or Twins--who had blown two late leads and lost games in extra innings to the Yankees, it would be easy for the media: use the words "clutch," "experience" and "veteran leadership" as many times as possible. After all, it's the Yankees who have the reputation of being the team that wins these types of games, getting there on heart and desire and all the other October clichés.

The fact is, the Yankees have played their worst in the most critical parts of the past two games. After taking a lead in the sixth innings both nights, they haven't scored a run in any of the frames that followed. Last night, they didn't even hit a ball hard after the sixth, save perhaps the Miguel Cairo double in the eighth. Their relievers, not good outside of Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon anyway, have been shaky, and the defense has been exposed as rangeless. There's been little talk of the Yankees' poor performance, though, and less of the 18 runners they left on base last night.

As it usually does, this is manifested most clearly in the case of Derek Jeter. Jeter has had a terrible series, batting .182/.357/.227 and making a couple of errors in the field. When he booted a ground ball last night, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver nearly hurt themselves in the rush to point out the bad hop that caused the miscue. In every plate appearance, Buck referenced waiting for Jeter "to put his stamp on the series," as if his batting in the .100s wasn't having any impact.

Jeter failed to do anything leading off the first and third innings, and had a poor at-bat with first and second and two outs in the fifth. (Note: the game log doesn't even list this AB; perhaps the whole world is in cahoots to make Jeter look good.) In the sixth inning, the self-fulfilling prophecy came through, as Jeter poked a ball into right field that scored all three runners on the bases, giving the Yankees a 4-2 lead. The previous failures didn't matter, as Captain Clutch had done something.

After that, however, Jeter had many more opportunities to help the Yankees, and didn't. His sacrifice bunt in the eighth with Cairo on second base and no one out was a terrible play, whether called by him or by Joe Torre. Why it's a good play for the contact hitter who goes to right field a lot to sacrifice there is beyond me; letting Jeter swing is likely to produce the same result with a much better chance of something even better happening.

Jeter then led off the 10th with a strikeout and flied to center in the 12th with the potential winning run on second base, before making the last out of the 14th. His approach in these at-bats, especially the latter two, was terrible.

That Jeter had bad at-bats in important moments doesn't make him a bad person or player. The point is that he's the same player in big situations that he is at other times. He doesn't have the ability to "will" his way into hits; no player in baseball does, because the game isn't designed that way. Were the myth of Jeter a reality, he would have been on base in the 10th, he would have gotten a hit to drive home Miguel Cairo in the 12th. It's not, though; Jeter is a very good baseball player who doesn't possess special October skills, because those skills don't exist.

The way in which Jeter is treated is symptomatic of the entire situation. Put any other team into the story, and the "choking" references would be running hot and heavy. The Yankees had leads with three outs and six outs to play the last two nights, and the Cyborg Reliever, Mariano Rivera, "blew" both of them. (I use the quotes because giving the guy who comes in with first and third, no one out, and a one-run lead a "blown save" for getting three outs on 11 pitches is a bit ridiculous.)

For the second straight night, the Yankees played their worst baseball after the Sox had tied the game. The Yankee plate approach went completely to hell in extra innings, with almost every player going up hacking.


              PA   Pitches   P/PA   Strikeouts  Walks
Regulation    45     153     3.4        7         7
Extras        19      63     3.3        9         1
It's actually worse than the raw numbers indicate. The three Sox pitchers who worked in the first nine innings walked 2.3 men a game this year. The four who worked in extra innings walked 2.8 men a game. The Yankees, at a point in the game when their normal approach should have yielded considerable benefits, fell apart. The second P/PA figure is actually inflated because the Yankees swung and missed a lot more after the ninth than they did beforehand. Basically, they turned into the Angels, but without all those pesky hard-hit balls in play.

The players didn't get much help from the bench. In fact, I would argue that Joe Torre was outmanaged as badly by Terry Francona the past two nights as anyone in LCS play since Dick Howser beat down Bobby Cox in 1985.

Seriously, when are they going to announce the death of Kenny Lofton? The Yankees don't have a deep or effective bench, but Lofton has value as a left-handed bat and pinch-runner. Over the past two nights, there have been countless points at which he should have been inserted into the game for Jorge Posada, for the execrable Tony Clark, or for Ruben Sierra. Torre hasn't taken advantage of any of these, and it's cost the Yankees dearly.

Consider that last night, Sierra reached first with two outs in the ninth inning and Keith Foulke pitching. Foulke isn't great with baserunners, and getting the go-ahead run to second base has a lot of value with two outs in the ninth. Had Lofton been deployed as a pinch-runner, as Dave Roberts had been used, to steal second, he could have scored on Clark's ground-rule double and this column would be much, much shorter.

Later, Gary Sheffield reached on a strikeout while leading off the 13th inning, this time with Tim Wakefield on the mound. Wakefield, like most knuckleball pitchers, is pretty easy to steal on. Had Lofton been given an opportunity to do so, the Yankees could have taken advantage of the passed balls yielded by Jason Varitek in the inning and perhaps scored. As it was, the Varitek let three balls get past him--he catches Wakefield as often as Torre pinch-hits--but the Yankees couldn't score.

Sierra struck out to end that inning, his second straight ugly strikeout. (He'd gone down in the 10th while swinging and missing pitches at ankle level and forehead level, which is some kind of achievement in GuillenLand.) With runners on base, you don't need a deep drive, just a line drive, preferably one that finds grass. Lofton isn't Juan Pierre, but he's certainly a better choice than Sierra if what you need is a single.

I've concluded that Lofton is actually dead, and that the Yankees are withholding this information so as to keep the Red Sox having to think about him, as well as to abide my MLB's edict about making announcements that take attention from the playoffs. It's awfully mean to Kenny's friends, family and fans, though.

Torre's apparent belief that if you take a player out of the game you lose him for the series stands in stark contrast to Terry Francona's adept use of Roberts. On consecutive nights, Francona used Roberts to pinch-run, and on consecutive nights, his speed led to a run. How Torre can neglect opportunities to create one run in so many contexts, and yet have Jeter bunt with a runner on second and no one out in the eighth inning, is mind-boggling.

I've wavered on whether a performance analyst could do a good job as a major-league manager. A team's backlash against bringing in an outsider--someone who "never played the game"--to run the show would probably overwhelm any of the competitive advantages gained in the move. That's less a reflection on the importance of playing experience and more about the shallow mindset within clubhouses.

Maybe the role of manager, like the role of president, has outgrown one man. Perhaps a team needs a Joe Torre or Dusty Baker to handle the leader-of-men stuff, and a bright guy or gal to handle the actual baseball. It works in football, where some head coaches, particularly in college, could spend the game in the parking lot tailgating without affecting their team's play.

Would the Yankees have won last night's game with an analyst as their offensive coordinator? I don't know. I think they'd have had a better chance, though, and that's all a manager can do: give his team the best chance to win.

All of this focus on the Yankees isn't meant to obscure what the Red Sox have done. Just two teams have ever reached a Game Six after being down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, and none have ever done so in such a dramatic fashion.

Do you realize how many "Davids" are going to be born in Boston over the next year or so? In the past 11 days, Ortiz has had three walkoff hits, two of them homers, to account for all the Red Sox wins in that span. Add in his big home run to cut yesterday's game to 4-3, his RBI single that opened the scoring, and what I'm sure will soon be his laying on of hands to heal Curt Schilling's ankle, and you have a player who is never again going to pay a bar tab north of New Haven.

Ortiz was in position to be a hero because the Red Sox bullpen, worked to the nub the previous two nights, came up with a performance for the ages: eight shutout innings, five hits, three walks and 10 strikeouts. (As a start, it was a game score of 79.) Timlin and Foulke, who combined for 87 pitches on Sunday, came back with 42 more Monday. Alan Embree pitched in his sixth consecutive game. Bronson Arroyo, Saturday's starter, helped with a 1-2-3 10th. And Wakefield, running on fumes, threw three shutout frames to set up Ortiz's big hit.

No matter what happens in the rest of this series, these two teams have given us two days that we'll be able to remember for a long time. Fans in Boston will no doubt be disappointed if their team once again falls short of the World Series, but the memories of two long, cold evenings at Fenway Park that ended in pandemonium will serve as a balm to that wound.

What happens now? The most likely result of tonight's action is a rainout, which will take some of the fun out of the proceedings. Part of the entertainment value of the last few days was the wear and tear put on the bullpens, knowing that Friday's rainout had created a five-games-in-five-days sceanrio. A day off will give everyone a chance to reset, and take away some of the drama of Schilling going to the mound on a bum ankle with only Ramiro Mendoza and Bob Stanley behind him.

If they do play tonight, the beginning and end of everything is what the Sox get from Schilling. They have no reasonable plan for a short outing akin to his Game One start; Mendoza would pitch for a while, I'd imagine, although Arroyo might have something left. Foulke, Timlin and Wakefield have to be done except for very short appearances. Regardless of what Lieber does, the Yankees at least have Vazquez and, god help them, Tanyon Sturtze. (I guess I never worked in a rant about choosing Sturtze over Mike Mussina in the seventh inning, a terrible decision by Torre.)

I don't know if the Sox can get through the game if Schilling goes four or something. If the work-the-count Yankees show up, it's over. If the version that played the second half of the last two games does...

It probably doesn't matter. The Red Sox will be down 6-3 in the eighth, and David Ortiz will hit homers in the eighth and ninth to tie. He'll then throw two innings of shutout relief, striking out four and walking none, then win the game in the 11th, stealing second and third after being intentionally walked, and scoring on a blooper that falls in front of Bernie Williams.

  • The Pedro Martinez/100 pitches thing is getting weird. Fox kept showing the stat with Martinez's split after pitch 99, and on pitch 100, Jeter hit his double. It wasn't smacked, but it was a big hit and it fell at just the right time.

    Martinez is a dangerous investment as a free agent. While he's not likely to become an ineffective pitcher any time soon, any team that signs him is going to sweat throughout the duration of the contract, praying he stays healthy.

  • Did anyone else find themselves wishing for K-Zone? I thought Dick Bavetta...er, Jeff Kellogg's strike zone was horribly inconsistent, and--take this with a grain of salt--in a manner which had a greater impact on the chances of one of the two teams.

    In general, the umpiring was horrible. At first base, Joe West blew a call--big shock--on a swing by Manny Ramirez, while second-base umpire Randy Marsh became the second ump in two series to credit Derek Jeter with an out on a play where he didn't tag the runner.

    Maybe not having to make tags to get outs is an actual skill that Jeter possesses, and therefore something we need to add into our defensive metrics.

  • The difference in the quality of the two teams' outfielders was in evidence all game long. The Yankees kept giving up hits in front of them, while the Red Sox caught those balls. Some of that is positioning, but most of it is legs and jumps. Bernie Williams appeared to be playing in Copley Square on Ortiz's game-winning hit. It's an edge the Yankees give away, and have given away for years.

    Maybe they can get a center fielder in the free-agent market. Is there a good one?

Cardinals vs. Astros

Like most of America, I missed the vast majority of this game. (Being wrapped up in the Red Sox/Yankees game, I never reset my TiVo to record FX. It might have rejected the notion, anyway.) This is very disappointing, as it featured one of the greatest pitching duels, one of the most surprising ones, in postseason history. It also makes it difficult to expound on the game.

Early in the game, around the fourth inning, I threw out an e-mail taking odds on which game would end first, this one or the Yankees/Red Sox. It was actually pretty close; had the game started anywhere close to its listed time (7:30 Eastern, per ESPN.com, 8:15 by other sources; actual start time was around 8:53), it would have done so easily. Woody Williams and Brandon Backe threw the kind of baseball game--lots of strikes, working quickly--that would have been a joy to watch after three days of Yankees and Red Sox. There were enough great defensive plays to fill a highlight reel, the best of which was a diving catch by Carlos Beltran, who didn't let his terrible slump at the plate affect his glovework.

Backe's tremendous work enabled Phil Garner to skip over the questionable pitchers on his staff and go right to Brad Lidge in the ninth inning. Garner finally used Lidge in a tie game, and was rewarded with an insanely dominant outing. Lidge pitched in all three games in Houston, throwing five innings, allowing one hit and two walks, and striking out nine. He threw 56 strikes in 77 pitches, going after every hitter he faced.

There's no better pitcher in baseball right now than Brad Lidge, and I say that with apologies to Johan Santana.

With a 3-2 lead, the same position the Astros were in against the Braves, Garner should avoid making the mistake he did in that series, holding back Roger Clemens to pitch a potential Game Seven.

Rather than use Peter Munro in a conventional starting role, though, I think Garner should commit to a bullpen-game approach, using Munro, Chad Harville, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler each one time through the lineup, with Mike Gallo taking an inning if the pitcher's spot or Tony Womack is due to lead off. If it works, you go to Lidge with a lead in the seventh or eighth. If it doesn't, you have a rested Clemens and a rested Lidge pitching in Game Seven, and Roy Oswalt set for Game One of the World Series, if they win one of the next two against the Cards.

I have another page of notes that aren't going to make this column. I really should do an "outtakes" column after all this is over, although I have tossed a lot of the material.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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