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October 7, 2005

Prospectus Today

Blown Opportunities

by Joe Sheehan

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Padres/Cardinals

Thursday's action in St. Louis, in a nutshell:

Padres: 10 hits, two walks, three HBPs

Two runs.

Cardinals: six hits, five walks, one ROE

Six runs.

There's your season, folks. The Padres couldn't have blown more opportunities if they'd been given two kegs of Rohypnol and a guest spot on "Taradise." Here's the middle seven innings of the game:

  • Second: Bases loaded, one out, a dinged Mark Mulder goes 2-0 on Ben Johnson. Swinging strike, swinging strike, swinging strike, and then a Pedro Astacio groundball.
  • Third: Nothing of note.
  • Fourth: Single, no-out double play. Five-pitch inning.
  • Fifth: One-out single, double play.
  • Sixth: One-out single, double play
  • Seventh: Three straight hits to start the inning and cut the lead to 4-1…and then Miguel Olivo grounds into a double play, the team's fourth in four innings.
  • Eighth: Bases loaded, two outs, and Mark Sweeney has to bat against a lefty. Five-pitch strikeout.

This is why performance analysis breaks down when used to predict short series or individual games. Over time, the sacred "little things" wash out, leaving the big things as the best measure of quality. In a game, though, you have to cash in your baserunners. Not doing so doesn't say anything about your human qualities--character, clutch, claptrap like that--but it does mean you're playing poor baseball. At what point does a team that's hitting into double plays every inning take a different approach to the plate, maybe wait a bit for Mulder to get pitches up in the zone, give them a chance to drive the ball? The Padres just kept going after the fastball down, and making two, two, two outs in one.

Tactically, there wasn't much to talk about, although I do think Bochy's decision to send up Olivo in the seventh for Johnson was a questionable call. Olivo has hit very well as a Padre and against soutpaws, and Johnson hasn't done either. However, Bochy didn't have a surfeit of right-handed bats on the bench, and using one of them to hit for a position player in a situation that wasn't game-critical may have been overmanaging. In an inning where the Padres had begun driving the ball, Olivo pulled the plug with a double-play grounder, then wasn't available an inning later when Bochy needed his righty bat. The former isn't something you can blame Bochy for, but the latter may be. The difference between Johnson and Olivo against Mulder in the seventh is certainly less than the difference between Olivo and Sweeney against Randy Flores in the eighth.

It's possible that having a Weaveresque platoon of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke on the bench wouldn't have saved the Padres, because the Cardinals played a terrific game of baseball. As I say, the "little things" are overrated by a factor of 100, but you look at the Cards' win yesterday and you see four double plays turned, a successful squeeze play, a pretty hit-and-run executed by the game's best hitter, two key strikeouts with the bases loaded…they were just the better team. I'm no fan of Mark Mulder, but his core skill is getting those DPs, and he did that yesterday.

Just because the little things are overrated doesn't mean being good at them is worthless. It just means that you have to be good at the big things as well. The Cardinals are good at both.

Braves/Astros

I'm pretty sure I didn't expect to see 23 runs scored in this entire series. Once again, we see that teams' characteristics don't always dictate what will happen in the next game.

Like Tim Hudson on Wednesday, Roger Clemens didn't have much last night, working up in the zone and having problems with location. Like the Astros on Wednesday, the Braves punished the starter for this by drawing walks and hitting baseballs hard and far. Symmetrical, no?

There isn't much to say about these two games. The only interesting note from last night is Adam LaRoche's sacrifice bunt in the second inning, which even in a postseason environment that worships small ball seemed out of place. We're bunting with our #5 hitter in the second inning now? That reeks of panic, and while Brian McCann made the move irrelevant, it's the one sour note sounded by the Braves on a night when they absolutely needed a win.

John Smoltz added to his legend on Thursday, throwing strike after strike on his way to a seven-inning, one-run performance. I'm fascinated by Smoltz, 230-odd innings into his year, his first full season as a starter since 1999, managing shoulder pain but still taking the mound. I didn't see any way a guy with a history of elbow problems and with 226 innings pitched all told from 2002 through 2004 could handle a rotation job all year.

Sometimes, it feels good to be wrong.

--

The American League comes back on stage tonight in New York and Boston, with Fox executives holding their collective breath in anticipation. (I understand Dick Bavetta is working the plate tonight in Fenway Park.) Despite their being down 2-0, I think the Sox are in good shape. They'll be facing right-handed starters in Fenway Park, which is the best possble situation for their offense. Their de facto ace, Tim Wakefield starts tonight, and their nominal ace, Curt Schilling, goes on Saturday. Memories of glory are nice; getting outs is nicer, and Schilling hasn't been doing that. His ERA since re-entering the rotation in August is 5.08, and he's been alternating good and bad outings for a month.

I don't think Schilling is even 60% healthy, and the kid-gloves way in which he gets handled makes his outing a dangerous one for the Sox. If he's down 2-0 in the second with runners on, and showing little aside from his fastball, will Terry Francona have it in him to pull the right-hander? The Sox' season could come down to that decision.

The Yankees send Randy Johnson to the mound against the Angels. That looks pretty good for them, given the Angels' problems against pitchers who aren't all-time greats. With that said, the Halos are running a pretty good arm out themselves in Paul Byrd. Byrd walked just 28 men in 204 1/3 innings this year; his command takes away one of the key Yankees strengths, their ability to draw bases on balls. Reputations aside, Johnson wasn't that much better than Byrd this year, making this matchup a lot closer than it appears on paper. An Angels win would be far from a surprise.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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