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July 26, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Boston Red Sox @ Chicago White Sox, 7/24/05

by Jonah Keri

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"I don't need any motivation from some guy who sits behind a desk and probably doesn't know a thing about how to steal bases or play the game." - Scott Podsednik, referring to the authors of Baseball Prospectus.

Sure, Podsednik was merely responding to a softball question from Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter Dennis Manoloff when he threw down the gauntlet. No doubt facing deadline on a slow news day, Manoloff served up the speedy left fielder's player comment from BP 2005, knowing it would elicit a reaction. We'll save you the trouble of flipping to the page: "If utilized properly, he could be a nice bench player, but as the White Sox starting left fielder, he's going to do quite well in helping Minnesota win another AL Central crown." With the Sox sporting the best record in the game, it's fair to say we whiffed, big time.

On the White Sox, that is. For all the acclaim he has received, though--including a ridiculous Final Man vote-in over Derek Jeter and other far more qualified candidates--Podsednik ranks just 9th among the American League's 14 starting left fielders in VORP. In other words, while Podsednik's 50 steals in 60 tries heading into Sunday's game looked shiny, his .293/.344/.362 line (with zero homers) to that stage didn't. To his credit, Podsednik's been the best defensive left fielder in the AL, saving 9 runs above a league-average LF. Still, that adds up to a middle-of-the-pack player, and not the supposed catalyst that's turned the White Sox into runaway winners. Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and a surprisingly dominant bullpen deserve a far greater share of the credit.

All this was the backdrop to Sunday's contest between the White Sox and the Red Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Clay Davenport, Chris Kahrl, Nate Silver and I were on hand to take in the game. Alas, we forgot to bring desks to sit behind. Les jeux sont fait, Scott, let's see what you can do.


Red Sox
CF Johnny Damon
3B Bill Mueller
DH David Ortiz
LF Manny Ramirez
RF Trot Nixon
1B Kevin Millar
C Jason Varitek
SS Alex Cora
2B Tony Graffanino

The buzz around U.S. Cellular Field revolves around the rumored possible deal for A.J. Burnett. Burnett would figure to replace Jose Contreras, Sunday's starter, in the rotation. With the AL Central looking like a lock and Buehrle, Garland and Freddy Garcia a strong trio for a short playoff series, it's hard to see how Burnett helps much other than on the margins as well as beyond 2005--assuming the Sox ink him to a contract. Leaving aside the utility of the deal and how the Sox will score runs if Frank Thomas stays on the DL for several weeks with a bum ankle, Contreras has started to unravel after a hot start. After a strong performance June 7 at Colorado dropped his ERA down to 3.13, Contreras has added more than a run to that mark, throwing only three quality starts in the seven outings since.

The 1st inning of Sunday's game starts on an equally inauspicious note, as David Ortiz takes Contreras deep for a quick 1-0 lead. It's over 100 degrees at the Cell, and the ball seems to be hopping off hitters' bats. Throw in Contreras needing 24 pitches to get through the first despite allowing only Ortiz's homer, and we may see 37,000 roasted fans by the 5th.


White Sox
LF Scott Podsednik
2B Tadahito Iguchi
RF Carl Everett
DH Paul Konerko
C A.J. Pierzynski
CF Aaron Rowand
1B Ross Gload
3B Joe Crede
SS Pablo Ozuna

The stultifying heat is already bearing down on us, and it becomes clear the only way to avoid getting loopy is to taunt Podsednik's every at-bat. After taking a strike looking, Podsednik taps a ball to short. Having demonstrated how superior his speed and baserunning skills are, it seems clear he should beat the play to first. Instead a strong throw by Cora gets Podsednik by a half-step. Taunts rain down from Section 542.

Tadahito Iguchi then kicks off what'll be a big day for him, lacing a single to left. A Carl Everett single and Paul Konerko double gives the White Sox a 2-1 lead. Bronson Arroyo may not last long either.

Yup, the ball is flying. Trot Nixon leads off the 2nd with a sharp single. Jason Varitek follows two batters later with a line drive to center that carries and carries for a long double. After an Alex Cora sacrifice fly puts the Bosox back up, Tony Graffanino nearly hits an improbable opposite-field jack, the heat propelling an apparent medium-deep fly ball all the way to the warning track. It'll be interesting to see what kind of park factor U.S. Cellular gets by year's end; the White Sox rank 4th in the AL in home runs, with unlikely boppers such as Everett and A.J. Pierzynski hitting well above their recent career levels.

With two outs in the bottom of 2nd, Podsednik comes up again. Aside from being homerless on the year, Podsednik has also yet to bang out a triple all year, a surprise for a hitter with his speed and more fodder for our crazed jeering section. When Podsednik yanks a ball to the right-field corner, then stops at second on what looked like a sure triple, the taunting heats up some more. Iguchi, who nearly sat for this game due to the heat, works a seven-pitch full count, then hits a liner to right that scoots over the wall for a heat-aided two-run homer. White Sox lead 4-2. The Red Sox fail to score in the top of the 3rd, the first scoreless half-inning of the day.

The home squad comes right back with another run in the bottom of the 3rd. A Ross Gload flyball that would be an out on most other days carries for an RBI double. White Sox lefty hitters would go 5-for-12 with a walk for the game, exploiting Arroyo's weakness. For the year, the corn-rowed righty's ceded a huge .288/.338/.492 line vs. lefties, just .209/.266/.325 vs. righties. That follows a .768 OPS allowed vs. LH in 2004 (vs. .656 vs. RH). Though Arroyo has shown flashes of excellence, he's not the front-line starter the team needs with the departure of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling's taking hold. For all the South Side buzz, it's the Red Sox--armed with a deeper, more dangerous offense but shorter on pitching--that could really use Burnett.

The game wears on with little in the way of subtlety or clever strategies on display. A two-out Varitek homer in the 6th cuts the margin to two, the ball rocketing out on an improbably far opposite-field journey. After falling behind 6-3, the Red Sox come back to score another in the 9th before Dustin Hermanson gets back on his Mariano Rivera-like pace, setting down potential tying runs Nixon and John Olerud to lower his ERA to 1.91 despite his ugly 19:12 K-to-BB rate over 37.2 innings. Final score: 6-4 White Sox.

How long Hermanson and Cliff Politte squirm out of trouble and avoid reverting to their formerly hittable selves could decide the White Sox's season down the road; the club would do well to think twice about trading away Damaso Marte. For today, there's no doubting the victors. The White Sox woke up this morning with a 65-33 record and a 12-game lead on the Twins.

And what of our hero Podsednik? The scrappy one had a banner day at the plate, going 3-for-4 to raise his average to .299 (another three-hit game Monday landed him at .302/.368/.361 for the year). He should continue to be a useful player on a team filled with several brighter stars. Ah, but what did he do on the bases, the place where he supposedly sets himself apart from the propeller-wearing, slide-rule holders of the sabermetric realm? In the 7th, Podsednik rapped another shot to the gap, saw Johnny Damon fall down, yet again refused to break for third.

The worst insult of all happened in the 4th. After Podsednik singled with two outs, Arroyo became fixated on Iguchi, in the midst of his big 3-for-4, three-RBI day. Allowed a big lead and not even a glance over to first, Podsednik got a huge jump as he took off for second. The steal seemingly in the bag, Varitek made a rushed, desperate attempt to nail Podsednik at second--and gunned him out handily. With no Red Sox or White Sox fans among our group, the BP four had no strong allegiances that day. Still, as Podsednik looked up in disbelief after the play, a lone, lanky lunatic shouted mercilessly at the Sox spark plug. And why not? Davenport would've beaten the play by a mile.

--

The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Sunday, July 31 at 4 p.m. ET, as the Cincinnati Reds visit the San Diego Padres (Channel 740 on DirecTV's MLB Extra Innings). Eric Milton goes for home run allowed #97 of the season, while Woody Williams pitches in front of family man Phil Nevin and the rest of the first-place Pads.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

Related Content:  A.J. Burnett,  Scott Podsednik,  White Sox

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