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June 8, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Milwaukee Brewers @ Los Angeles Dodgers, 6/5/05

by Jonah Keri

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The first time I went to a Dodgers game in Chavez Ravine, in 1994, my dad offered this simple description of the park. "You'll have a blast. It's a terrific place to watch a ballgame."

He was right. Though my beloved Expos lost to the Dodgers that day, I immediately fell in love with Dodger Stadium. Having been to the home ballparks of 29 of MLB's 30 teams--I'll get you some day, Minnesota Twins!--it's hard to describe exactly what makes a park too old to be a sparkling palace and too young to be a historic treasure such a special place. Maybe it's the palm trees up on the hill behind the ballpark. Maybe it's the view of the mountains you can only get on that rare crystal-clear Los Angeles afternoon. But sitting at Dodger Stadium, with neither a giant Coke bottle nor a 37-foot wall to look at, it just feels like baseball.

I mention all this because Wednesday night marked my last Dodgers game at the park before I pick up and move to Seattle to join the congregation of Temple B'Nai Ichiro!. Though this column will focus on the Dodgers-Brewers game four days later, the same pangs that hit me as I left the park earlier that week returned when I clicked on the TV and settled in for nine innings with the great Vin Scully. Between Dodger Stadium, Scully, the best French-Canadian player in the game, the Strat-O-Matic-loving manager and the GM who shares my twin passions of baseball and investing, I could have given my heart to the Dodgers. That is, if this never happened.

CF Brady Clark
3B Jeff Cirillo
RF Geoff Jenkins
LF Carlos Lee
1B Lyle Overbay
2B Bill Hall
C Damian Miller
SS J.J. Hardy
P Wes Obermueller

It's tough to like the Brewers' chances in this game. The Crew trot out one of the better--and perhaps the most underrated--trio of starters in the game in Ben Sheets, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano. Wes Obermueller, however, is just the token patch the Brewers used when Sheets hit the DL earlier in the year; he hung around after Gary Glover's predictable meltdown in the rotation's fifth slot and totes a lousy 19:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings, a better indicator than his 3.00 ERA. Meanwhile Brad Penny comes into the game riding a hot streak, having ceded just four runs in his last three starts, covering 22 2/3 innings. Though his strikeout rate is down from its 2001-02 peak, Penny's recovered his once-feared mid-90s velocity while showing off the best control of his career (just seven walks in eight starts, over 51 innings). Of course as we've learned already this season, anything can happen in one game.

Top of the first and Scully is running down the NL's top five in batting average: Derrek Lee, Miguel Cabrera, Nick Johnson, Brady Clark, Bobby Abreu. At age 32, Clark has apparently joined the Melvin Mora Club For Former Scrubeenies Who Suddenly Turn Into Top Players. Three years ago, Clark was in the Mets organization, seeing more time at Triple-A than he did with the big club, and laying a 511-OPS egg in the 78 at-bats he did scrape together in the majors. As with Mora, Clark finally got his chance mostly because he found a team so bad that it would give a 30-year-old journeyman a steady gig. No one's complaining now--the Brewers got one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball for a bargain price, and Clark's career is taking off at an age when most players have entered their decline phase.

Crowding the plate with his shoulders nearly hanging over the inside corner, Clark looks like a prime candidate for a hard fastball in on the hands. Penny throws that very pitch, Clark keeps his hands in and lines a single to left. He quickly steals second, setting up the #2 hitter's dilemma: Swing away and try for a big inning, given we're two batters into the game and this isn't 1910, or drop a bunt down and snag a round of ill-begotten high-fives from the dugout. Cirillo splits the difference, trying a push-bunt up the first-base line. He nearly beats the play, with the sacrifice more the result of a good fielding play and a not-quite-perfect bunt than anything. Scully notes how in general it's too early to sacrifice, but that the Brewers are hitting just .233 with runners in scoring position, with 113 strikeouts in that situation--most in the majors. It's an odd point, since a team that strikes out a lot and generally fails to produce with runners 90 to 180 feet from home isn't doing itself any favors by taking one of its three chances away.

When Geoff Jenkins hits a hard grounder to third with Clark running, the Brewers look to be in trouble. But Jim Tracy's Sunday lineup includes hot-hitting, ugly-fielding Olmedo Saenz at third; Saenz opts not to throw home despite Clark being less than halfway there when the ball hits his glove, settling for the out at first instead. Make it 1-0 Brewers, and what we can only hope is not an encouraging hint to manager Ned Yost to bunt more.

SS Oscar Robles
2B Antonio Perez
CF J.D. Drew
1B Jeff Kent
3B Olmedo Saenz
LF Jayson Werth
RF Jason Repko
C Mike Rose
P Brad Penny

Yup, it's a Sunday lineup all right. Tracy has benched the slumping Hee Seop Choi, having previously removed him from the #2 spot in the order, where he was hitting .326/.394/.596 in 89 at-bats. He's resting Cesar Izturis, giving the man who should be starting the All-Star Game at shortstop a day off following an 0-for-13 cold spell. Add in Tracy's penchant for resting his starting catcher on Sundays, Milton Bradley's DL stint due to a torn finger ligament and Ricky Ledee's hamstring tweak and it's a greatly diminished, oddball squad.

Not that Scully is batting an eyelash. While we heap praise on the rare announcer who can use statistics intelligently on air, Scully's strength lies in his dulcet voice, kindly demeanor and old-school cultural references. As he introduces Obermueller to viewers, Scully notes how the big righty grew up on a farm in Iowa, then immediately recalls Iowa's prominent role in the Broadway hit "The Music Man." Only Scully can work that in there, then effortlessly call Oscar Robles out looking on a sinking fastball on the inside corner.

After Antonio Perez gets hit for the third time in a week (he got tossed Saturday night when home-plate umpire Marty Foster ruled he wasn't hit by a pitch, that the ball had hit his bat handle instead), Perez steals second, then scores on a Jeff Kent RBI single to tie the game 1-1. Though J.D. Drew hasn't quite reached the elite level at which he played last year, he and Kent have combined to lead the Dodger offense. Kent leads NL second basemen in most offensive categories, while Drew's .400+ OBP at five years, $55 million at least trumps the departed Adrian Beltre's horrific .238/.271/.350 effort for five years, $65 million, at least so far.

Penny gets through the second unscathed, though he's apparently picked up a habit which helps explain his microscopic walk rate: He's catching huge chunks of the plate when way ahead in the count, even 0-2. It's a strategy that's helped Greg Maddux forge a career as one of the best pitchers in the history of the game. But his new three-year, $30 million contract aside--guess the Dodgers think he's healthy, huh?--Penny is no Greg Maddux. Saving pitches is a noble cause, but there are other ways--ones less potentially hazardous to a pitcher's ERA--to get it done.

In the second, Obermueller starts to look...well, like Wes Obermueller. Though he doesn't give up a run, Drew and Kent have to be licking their chops after watching Jayson Werth crush a fat hanging slider for a double. When Jason Repko whiffs on two straight flaccid fastballs--too-fast change-ups or more flat sliders depending on your view--you can picture the team's big bats hurdling the dugout rail to get out there. Only Oscar Robles' weak bat prevents an uprising, as the Mexican League veteran taps out to second on the first pitch with runners on second and third and two outs.

Aside from a caught stealing that on super slo-mo replay showed Carlos Lee beating the tag (go TiVo!), the top of the third is highlighted by a 13-pitch at-bat by Geoff Jenkins. It's an impressive feat that sees Jenkins foul off an assortment of nasty pitches by Penny. Though it ends in a popout, Jenkins--at least so far today--looks like he has an improved approach. The results haven't shown up in his numbers, though. What's worse, Jenkins is on pace for his second-highest games played total of his career (having sat out only five games this year) but is also on pace for his worst performance since becoming a regular in '99:

Year  Games Played  EqA
1999     135        .301
2000     135        .303
2001     105        .274
2002      67        .263
2003     124        .306
2004     157        .267
2005     148*       .257


While the popular lament has been to speculate what Jenkins might do if he ever played a full season, he did just that last year and was mediocre, and is on track to do the same this year, only worse. Turning 31 next month, having suffered through so many significant injuries to date, Jenkins may never again approach his early-career potential. The Brewers would do well to trade him and his cumbersome three-year deal, running through 2006, if they can find a taker at the deadline willing to give up a good prospect or two.

The Dodgers break the game open in the third, as Obermueller's lack of stuff comes home to roost. Perez walks on four pitches. Drew gets another hanging slider, smashing it off Lyle Overbay's glove for a single, moving Perez to third. Obermueller throws another hanging slider that Kent smokes to left for an RBI double. After a Saenz groundout, Obermueller tries to jam Werth with a fastball on the hands, but at 89 mph he doesn't have the juice: Werth loops the ball to right, Jenkins dives and misses, Dodgers cash two to go ahead 4-1. After a Repko foulout, the Brewers have a chance to get out of the inning within striking distance. Damian Miller calls for an intentional walk to Mike Rose to set up Penny with two outs....only Obermueller throws the ball five feet over Miller's head to the backstop, scoring Werth. That's the beauty of baseball: No matter how long you've been watching, eventually you'll see something you've never witnessed before.

The Brewers make a mild run at it, closing to within 9-6 while pounding Penny for five runs on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings. But Kent's 4-for-4 performance--including two doubles, a walk and four RBI--plus Werth's four hits pace the Dodgers to a 10-6 win.

Notebook time:

  • Amid the Dodgers' impressive offensive display, Carlos Lee had one of the quietest 5-for-5 days you'll ever see, with all five hits singles, four of them reach-out-and-poke-'em-to-center jobs. Doubly weird, this is the second time in five days I've seen a Lee go 5-for-5, after NL MVP front-runner Derrek Lee turned the trick Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

  • It's been interesting to watch the fruits of the Richie Sexson deal ripen. Overbay had a very good 2004 season and looks like a useful major-league starting first baseman. Capuano has emerged as a very good young pitcher--his 8.2 K/9 rate in 2004 foreshadowed a breakout season in 2005. Junior Spivey is just a part-time player for the Brewers, but he can make for decent trade bait at the deadline. Meanwhile Jorge de la Rosa is a wild (17 BB in 21 IP) but intriguing pitching prospect, with more than a strikeout an inning so far this year. He's got a big, breaking curveball that fooled several Dodger hitters during his three slightly messy, but intriguing, innings of work. Sexson's shoulder injury in '04 made the deal a bust for the D'backs, though the compensatory draft pick earned when the Mariners signed him away helped. Still, the Brewers made out like bandits in this trade.

  • At one point Scully notes that the expected outfield for Dodgers this year--Werth in left, Bradley in center, Drew in right--had played just five of the 55 games together in the same outfield heading into Sunday's game--compared to 50 of 55 for the Brewers' Lee, Clark and Jenkins. That's been an untold story of the Dodgers this year: injuries. Eric Gagne missed a month and a half with elbow problems. Brad Penny missed his first four starts with the same biceps problem which plagued him last year--and the same one, along with past shoulder rumblings, that make his new multi-year deal a puzzling one. Werth, Bradley, Odalis Perez and Wilson Alvarez are among the other key performers who've missed significant time. With Izturis maturing as an offensive player, Phillips an upgrade behind the plate and a strong core of Kent, Drew and Bradley, this is a balanced offense. When Derek Lowe, Jeff Weaver Penny and Perez are all healthy, the Dodgers also have one of the best rotations in the game. With Gagne back and Yhency Brazoban a keeper, they again sport a strong bullpen.

    The Dodgers were my pick to win the division when the season started. I still think they'll win it.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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