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July 13, 2005
Prospectus Game of the Week
Cleveland Indians @ New York Yankees, 7/10/05
Randy Johnson has become a spectacularly ordinary pitcher, highly hittable and lacking the blow-you-away fastball that was once the hallmark of his greatness. Of course if teams let him off the hook the way the Cleveland Indians did Sunday, it may not matter.
Time and again during Sunday's tilt between the Indians and Yankees, Johnson got into trouble. The Indians started each of the first five innings with a runner on base. Johnson's fastball kept catching the middle of the plate, leading to several booming hits into the gaps. But just when the Tribe looked ready to blow the game open, they'd blow it by hacking at fastballs up and out of the zone, the only kind Johnson could throw by anyone. That impatience, along with Johnson's still-lethal slider, some Indians base-running blunders and some Yankee luck, combined to keep the Bombers in a game they should have lost early on. Here's what transpired:
We're joined by Ken Singleton--an excellent broadcaster dating back to his days working alongside Dave Van Horne in Montreal--and Dave Justice, who may be the worst baseball broadcaster in America. Justice leads off by telling us how Johnson has come into his own in his last few starts. Indeed, the numbers support Justice's claim, as Johnson struck out eight and yielded just two runs in seven innings his last time...except he yielded 18 runs in his previous 14 2/3 innings. Johnson heads into the game with an excellent 109 to 23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, albeit with a lower strikeout rate than is usual for him in 121 2/3 innings pitched. He's also proven to be far more hittable, yielding 124 knocks and an alarming 19 homers. While a .313 BABIP explains much of the hit total, the homer count, combined with watching just a few Johnson innings, seems to suggest he's catching a lot more of the plate with his pitches, while lacking the velocity he once used to overwhelm hitters. He's facing an Indians lineup that's started to hit in recent weeks after a slow start by nearly the entire team.
Indians CF Grady Sizemore LF Coco Crisp DH Travis Hafner C Victor Martinez RF Casey Blake 1B Jose Hernandez 2B Ron Belliard SS Jhonny Peralta 3B Aaron BooneTravis Hafner came in riding the majors' longest on-base streak (36 games), while Victor Martinez, Coco Crisp and Jhonny Peralta have also turned it on lately. Grady Sizemore jumps all over Johnson's first pitch--a low-90s fastball right down the middle--for a hard double to right. Sizemore, who doesn't turn 23 until next month, has racked up an impressive .285 EqA, heading an Indians order that figures to be potent for years to come. The trade of Bartolo Colon for Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips ranks as one of the best prospect bounties ever snagged at the trade deadline. While Phillips hasn't yet panned out, Sizemore and Lee have established themselves quickly and could soon develop into front-line players.
Justice wastes little time coming back with some more nails-on-a-chalkboard "analysis." First, he makes no comment about Sizemore's scorching double--jumping straight into Johnson's stats as if on auto-pilot. Then, after Crisp strikes out on a high, outside fastball out of the zone, Justice offers this: "I'm really surprised that Coco Crisp didn't do any bunting there. You want to get on the board early against Randy Johnson, you're not going to get many opportunities. When you get a chance, you want to make him pay." Really, Dave? A lefty hitter just smoked Johnson's first pitch for a double, Johnson hasn't been the Johnson of old for most of the season, the Indians have the middle of the order coming up, it's the first inning, the Yankees are one of the best run-scoring teams in the game, and this is the time to bunt? Cool, just checking.
After a nasty slider low and off the plate causes Hafner to whiff for strike one, the next slider proves flat, as Hafner whacks it off center fielder Melky Cabrera's glove for a double, with Hafner taking third on the throw home (Sizemore had stopped, thinking the ball was going to be caught, then ran through a stop sign to score). Martinez then smacks a hard shot to third on another fat fastball, but the ball goes right to Alex Rodriguez for the out. Johnson's approach to Casey Blake underlines his new strategy. He's using fastballs to set up hitters early in the count, hoping they'll offer at high ones they can't handle. Late in the count, Johnson will then go to the slider, which burrows so deep beneath right-handed hitters' hands that it's almost unhittable. Blake works the count to 3-2, only to be caught looking when a Johnson slider catches the plate instead for the strikeout.
Yankees SS Derek Jeter 2B Robinson Cano RF Gary Sheffield 3B Alex Rodriguez LF Hideki Matsui 1B Jason Giambi DH Ruben Sierra C John Flaherty CF Melky CabreraHideki Matsui's hitting .450 with five homers over a five-game hitting streak heading into Sunday. After a slow start, he's combined with Gary Sheffield and Rodriguez to form the best 3-4-5 combo in the majors:
TEAM VORP NYA 122.2 CHN 118.5 FLO 97.7 CLE 96.8 SLN 89.1 ATL 87.8 HOU 83.7 LAN 82.3 CIN 78.5 TEX 77.2 BOS 72.4 PHI 71.7 WAS 67.3 BAL 66.3 DET 64.9 PIT 63.0 MIL 62.3 SEA 61.6 ARI 61.6 NYN 58.5 MIN 57.9 ANA 56.1 KCA 51.6 COL 45.1 CHA 44.5 OAK 43.7 SFN 43.5 TOR 39.0 SDN 34.9 TBA 16.1Jake Westbrook is on the mound for the Indians. A sinkerballer who rarely strikes hitters out, Westbrook is at his best when batters pound the ball into the turf all day. He'd love this first inning: Derek Jeter 1-0 groundout back to the mound. Robinson Cano 0-2 groundout to second (it's a mystery why Cano and his .316 OBP are batting second in a loaded lineup like this one, instead of, say, Jason Giambi and his league-leading OBP--though maybe we shouldn't be surprised, given how managers too often pick their #2 hitters). Sheffield 3-2 groundout to third.
Jose Hernandez, starting at his fourth different position this year and continuing his very effective utilityman/lefty-masher act, starts the 2nd with a single to center on another unimpressive Johnson fastball--if it's not above the belt and outside, hitters are going to jump all over it at this stage. Ron Belliard hasn't gotten the memo, though, striking out on a too-high fastball as Hernandez steals second. But oh, that slider. Down 2-1 to Peralta, Johnson throws a frisbee under Peralta's hands for a big whiff. Another tough slider barely gets fouled off. A show-me fastball runs the count to 3-2, before Johnson comes back with a rare slider breaking away from a righty hitter--strike three...
...and then Boone destroys a juicy, first-pitch fastball for a long RBI double to left, 2-0 Indians. To Sizemore: slider strike, fastball ball, slider strike, slider strike three. Notice a pattern here?
The bottom of the second shows the fine line sinkerballers must walk to succeed. After Rodriguez makes it four straight weak groundouts to start the game, Matsui hits a slow hopper to Belliard, one of the worst fielders at the deuce in the game. Belliard's slow charge and inability to get off a throw allow Matsui to beat the play. Giambi then wisely lays off an array of sinkers to draw a walk. With two on, Westbrook starts nibbling, working Ruben Sierra away, away, away and running the count full in the process. Westbrook's full-count fastball misses, and suddenly what looked like another easy inning has become a big problem. First pitch to the next hitter John Flaherty is an absolute gift, a get-me-over fastball right down the middle. Flaherty hits it pretty well, but only manages a sacrifice fly to center. The overmatched Melky Cabrera then taps a groundout to first to end the threat (it's early, but it looks like the Yanks will have to trade for an outfielder, because Cabrera's either not ready, not good enough, or both). What could have been a huge inning quickly dissolves due to the Yankees offering no threats at the bottom of the order.
No scoring in the bottom of the third. Hernandez makes a great diving play, then later runs his streak to seven straight hits off Johnson.
Top of the fourth, Hernandez draws a leadoff walk, then Belliard picks on another flaccid fastball for a single to right to put men on first and second with no outs. The Indians then either miss a hit-and-run sign or Hernandez is confused, as he takes off for third and gets gunned down by Flaherty by a mile. With two outs, Belliard tries to steal second, only to see Flaherty gun him down to end the inning. The Indians do execute a hit-and-run to perfection later in the game. Justice must be loving the effort, right?
Not quite. Starting the bottom of the fourth, Justice notes how Westbrook has frequently given up two or three runs in a game this season, so why not try to get him four or five runs to take some pressure off. "Why wouldn't you try to manufacture runs with a team like the Yankees against you?" Actually they are trying to manufacture runs, and it's failing miserably.
Matsui reaches on a leadoff error. Then Giambi, who's turned what looked like a disastrous season into a great .322 EqA campaign, blasts a two-run shot to right, giving the Yankees the lead. Somehow this qualifies as an I-told-you-so for Justice, because he's harping on run manufacturing even more. Please, YES, put Goldman in the booth, or Jim Bouton, Don Zimmer, Big Daddy Kane...anyone but Justice.
The Indians tie it up in the top of the fifth, reaching base for the fifth straight inning as Boone slams another first-pitch fastball for a hard single, goes to third on a hit-and-run knock and scores on a Hafner sac fly. Johnson squirms out of the inning when Martinez's deep drive to right backs Sheffield up to the wall, where he makes the catch for the final out.
Westbrook quickly comes undone, though, through a familiar pattern. Jeter and Cano tap out harmlessly for the first two outs of the fifth. Two nibbling walks to Sheffield and Rodriguez open the door for Matsui, who puts the Yankees ahead for good with an RBI double. After a Giambi walk loads the bases, Westbrook again works Sierra away, away, away. After four straight pitches that either nip or miss the outside corner, Westbrook goes back to the well. Knowing the outside pitch is coming, Sierra leans over the plate and dumps a single to left--6-3 Yankees. The Bombers tack on three more, Wayne Franklin becomes the latest Yankee reliever to fail and draw Gotham boos, and Mariano Rivera buzzes through six straight Indians hitters for a perfect two-inning save.
This game taught us that a few things have changed. Johnson's no longer the dominant force he once was, now forced to rely more on his slider and guile. Sizemore, Crisp and other young players are maturing into strong complementary parts to help the Indians make a run at the playoffs.
But some things apparently never change. The Yankees can still mash, but have no center fielder. Rivera's still untouchable. Sinkerballers still walk a daily tightrope. And Dave Justice is an injustice to broadcasters everywhere.
The next Prospectus Game of the Week will see the Angels take on the Twins, Sunday July 17, 2 p.m. ET (Channel 738 for DirecTV subscribers). Joe Mays battles Steve Undecided as the Halos play Rotation Roulette at the break.