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October 22, 2004

Prospectus Today

Down to Two

by Joe Sheehan

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As great as the two League Championship Series were, as much tension and excitement and great baseball they provided, weren't the two deciding games just a bit anticlimactic? The AL game on Wednesday night was over about an hour in, and while last night's matchup was a bit more interesting, the Astros didn't put up much of a fight after Scott Rolen's home run.

We're packing bullets today...

  • The fact that the Cardinals laid down bunts in all three of their scoring innings no doubt got the little-ball people excited. Let's not lose sight of the fact that it was three doubles and a home run that were the key blows in producing those runs.

    That said, the suicide squeeze by Jeff Suppan in third was great baseball, a one-run strategy executed well at a point where it was the best option. You rarely can say that about giving up an out down two runs, but credit Tony La Russa for the call and Suppan for laying down a perfect bunt on a pitch that was up a little, not the easiest delivery to bunt.

  • Speaking of pitches up...the entire game changed on back-to-back pitches that Clemens left up in the zone. The first, a 1-2 fastball, was roped into left field by Albert Pujols to tie the game. The next, a fastball with a Post-It reading "Hit Me!", was launched out of the park by Rolen.

    I can't say I'm a big Steve Lyons fan, but he got this one right: Clemens needed to be mixing it up at that point in the game, working more off-speed stuff and lower in the zone. His sticking with the hard stuff up the second and third times through the lineup was a huge risk, one that didn't pay off.

  • You could argue that the Astros' fate had been sealed in the fourth inning, when they failed to capitalize on a first-and-second, no-out situation that could have given them a big cushion. Garner correctly resisted the urge to bunt with Jose Vizcaino, who grounded into a fielder's choice, bringing up Brad Ausmus.

    Suppan went to 3-0 on Ausmus, but after letting a get-me-over strike go by, Ausmus took a very weak swing on 3-1 and struck out one pitch later. When Clemens also struck out, the Astros' last rally of 2004 was over. They would have no more hits and just one more baserunner, Orlando Palmeiro reaching on a hit-by-pitch in the seventh.

    The commitment this organization has made to Ausmus is well past the point of making sense. He's one of the worst-hitting starters in the game, barely scraping over a .300 OBP the last two years, and being an even worse hitter than that against right-handers. Ausmus' entire value is in his defensive reputation; he doesn't throw nearly as well as he did during his defensive peak, and as we know, the impact any catcher has on pitchers' run prevention is overstated.

    You can't carry a hitter that bad in the National League; it just kills far too many innings having him bat with the pitcher coming up next. Having Ausmus works if you have a platoon with a guy like Gregg Zaun. Making him your catcher 130 times a year is a mistake.

  • Ausmus did make one of the many good defensive plays in this game, picking off Womack on a missed bunt in the fifth inning. The game was filled with plays like this, marking one of the big differences between the NL and AL series. Jim Edmonds made a diving catch in the second that got the crowd on its feat, a triumph of althleticism over a bad jump. (I just now heard it described as "one of the greatest defensive plays ever in the postseason." Don't believe it; Edmonds blew the jump and overcame it. That's not great defense, although it is great effort.)

    I was more impressed by Edgar Renteria's eighth inning. He made plays on balls by Carlos Beltran and Jeff Bagwell about 40 feet apart. It was a demonstration not so much of his range, but of his positioning, which is a valuable defensive skill. He followed that by throwing out Lance Berkman on a ball up the middle deflected by Julian Tavarez.

  • Carlos Beltran failed to hit a home run--perhaps the first use of that clause not preceded by "Barry Bonds"--but basically created a run by himself with a walk, steal and tag-up on which he was hit by a throw, allowing him to score. Call it a dead-ball-era home run.

    Beltran is making a case for himself as the best base-stealer ever. He has the best career success rate of anyone with at least 200 attempts (192-for-215, 89%), and in his last two seasons he's been a ridiculous 83-for-90. Just eyeballing some of the great percentage guys, I can't find anyone who matches that over complete seasons. Tim Raines was 83-for-95 in 1987 and 1988, and 79-for-92 from 1992-94. Barry Larkin was 91-for-99 in his MVP-level stretch from 1993-95, 106-for-118 going back to 1992. Actually, Eric Davis was ridiculous throughout the first part of his career, going 80-for-91 in one year, 1986, and following that up for 85-for-94 in '87-'88.

    We get caught up in raw stolen-base totals more than net steals or success rates, but the latter is more important because of the high cost of failure. Guys like Raines, Larkin and Davis had enormous value not because they stole as prolifically as Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock did, but because they stole bases without running into outs.

    Beltran isn't likely to sustain that success rate, if only because most players--Raines was an exception here--find their percentage slips as they lose a step. Right now, though, it's just another piece of what makes him one of the five best players in baseball. Setting aside contracts, but considering age, the only player I'd clearly rather have is Alex Rodriguez, and yes, that includes the NLCS MVP.

  • The most disappointing aspect of the game was how easily the Astros went down. Suppan and the Cardinals' bullpen deserve a lot of credit, but when a team gets its last hit with no one out in the fourth, that's a poor display. Most notable was the ninth inning, in which Jeff Kent and Morgan Ensberg each swung and made weak outs on the first pitch they saw. In a series that had tense moment after tense moment, you'd like to see more than that.

The Cardinals were clearly the best team in the NL this year, and you can make an argument for the Red Sox having that staus in the AL. I think this is the best World Series matchup since 1996, when the Yankees played the Braves while the Braves were near their peak. Read Dayn Perry's analysis here.

I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on the Series.

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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