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October 8, 2005

Prospectus Today

Swapping Sox

by Joe Sheehan

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One of the things I keep seeing in the postseason, and really, on back into the last weeks of the regular season, is that every single game seems to have one key sequence or plate appearance orr even one pitch on which the decision rests. There's one identifiable moment where the game shifts and a decision is rendered. Sometimes, you can tell at the time what's happening, others, you can only know in retrospect, but in games that run hours, the outcome is being decided in seconds.

Yesterday fit that pattern, with a couple of critical moments in which you knew the winner was being decided even with innings yet to be played.

White Sox vs. Red Sox

David Ortiz is a choker.

(Oh, my god.)

Jason Varitek can't produce when it counts.

(What did he say?!?)

That's the story, isn't it? Yesterday in Boston, Ortiz had chances to break up the game in the first and fifth innings, and a chance to tie it in the seventh, and he failed each time. Varitek…well, Varitek wasted about the best situation you can be in as a hitter: bases loaded, nobody out and a 2-0 count. He was even facing a pitcher who lefties have been pounding for years.

He struck out. His team didn't score. It lost. It's all his fault.

Of course, this is silliness. You can't evaluate a player based on a couple of at-bats, no matter how important they may be. Then again, it's not my storyline, and I can guarantee you that had it been a player less beloved by the media failing in those situations, the story today would be about how so-and-so isn't capable of coming through, but is perfectly fine hitting fourth-inning solo homers with his team down two runs. The big failures yesterday were by anointed clutch gods, so the story goes elsewhere.

The truth is this: clutch is a myth. You can't will hits, because baseball is so much harder than that. Baseball doesn't know that you're in the ninth inning, or in Boston, or in October. It just knows baseball. The acts of playing the game aren't different enough in the situations we choose to mark with a yellow highlighter than it is in the ones on the pages we choose to skip. Clutch is a story that gets told because it's fun to create heroes, more fun than it is to acknowledge the randomness of events in our game.

It's dishonest, though, because there's no true evaluation. You either have the good label or the bad one, and once you get yours, it takes a papal decree to switch. So even if there were actually a skill related to performing in the yellow-highlighter moments, no one is out there trying to evaluate players that way. It's about moments and memories, and while those are beautiful things, they're not substantial enough to use for drawing conclusions about people.

That the Red Sox didn't score in the sixth inning was an astounding turn of events. When Damaso Marte loaded the bases, the real question seemed to be whether the Red Sox would score enough to put the game away right then and there. But Varitek, pinch-hitting for Doug Mirabelli, swung through a 2-0 get-me-over fastball, then popped up a 2-1 pitch that was up around his neck. The 90 seconds it took to get Varitek from 2-0 to the dugout were the deciding moments of the game, the point at which the ride that began with an Ortiz home run late on a Sunday night nearly one year ago came to a quiet, perhaps unnoticed end.

That's not to let Tony Graffanino--who popped out after Varitek--and Johnny Damon--who struck out to end the rally--off the hook. They failed as well. The critical juncture, though, was Varitek's failure to convert bases loaded, no outs, 2-0 count, big positive platoon differential.

Of course, Orlando Hernandez's escape was just the latest in a series filled with strong pitching performances by the White Sox, especially their bullpen. They allowed the Red Sox, the only MLB team to score 900 runs this year just nine runs in three games, and there's no way the Red Sox were going to win this series putting up three runs a game.They allowed the Sox just three homers, all solo shots in yesterday's game, and gave them just eight walks in the three games. As they did all season long, they minimized the damage from walks and homers and put the game in the hands of their stellar defense. This triumph, like the Sox' season, is about run prevention, what they did better than almost anyone else in the game.

Yesterday's shutdown job by the pen was remarkable. Once Marte left, Sox relievers retired 12 of 13, the only baserunner a two-out single by John Olerud in the eighth. In the ninth, the Sox needed just one runner to give Ortiz a chance, but not only did they not do it, they didn't come close; two weak groundballs and a strikeout off of Bobby Jenks ended the game.

It's no secret that I've been skeptical about the White Sox all season long, and I think some of that skepticism is justified, Their record does exceed their underlying performance, they were fortunate in one-run contests and they did play a weak schedule. Their offense is mediocre. Pointing those things out isn't bias; it's acknowledging facts. On the other hand, I've been shouting from the rooftops that they have terrific pitching and defense, and that Ozzie Guillen is getting credit for his work on one side of the ball when he really deserves it on the other.

What the White Sox are about is stopping the other team from scoring and hitting just enough two-run homers to win. It's a fairly high-risk strategy, as their team OBP is so marginal they can score--and have scored--nine runs in a week. They're a nightmare to watch when that happens. It didn't happen against the Red Sox, and how far they advance this month depends almost entirely on it not happening at all. The pitching and the defense are going to be there, just as they've been all season long.

Ask Jason Varitek.

Angels/Yankees

In the top of the sixth inning last night, with the game tied 6-6, Adam Kennedy blooped a single to center field that pushed Darin Erstad to third base. The ball, skied high in the air, fell between Bernie Williams and Robinson Cano in short center field.

The play was remarkably similar to a ball Erstad hit in Game Four of the 2002 Division Series, one that fell in a similar spot, one that also came in the middle of a game-changing rally. That hit is burned in my memory as the moment I gave up on Williams as a center fielder.

Just as in '02, the Angels capitalized on the hit, scoring the go-ahead run one batter later and going to to an 11-7 victory that put them one win from eliminating the Yankees for the second time in four seasons.

I think there's a pretty good case to be made that this game had no business being played. In June, it may never have gotten started. It's October, though, and the pressures of television and travel--not to mention forecasts for more unpleasant weather Saturday--bore down hard on the decision-makers. No doubt Joe Torre had memories of what a rainout did to the 2004 ALCS schedule, and subsequently, to his pitching staff.

This was the most entertaining game of the postseason to date, with two lead changes, a number of big innings and an assortment of interesting plays. It would be a stretch to call it the best game, but it did keep your attention. That the Angels were able to blow a 5-0 lead and still win, to me, is testament to the depth of their pitching staff relative to that of the Yankees. Consider the pitchers who threw in middle relief last night:


             2005 ERA      Career ERA
Donnelly       3.72           2.57
Shields        2.75           2.80
Escobar        3.02           4.38

Small          3.20           4.90
Sturtze        4.73           5.18
Gordon         2.57           3.93
Leiter         5.49           3.80
Proctor        6.04           5.81
The Yankees simply don't go as deep as the Angels do, so they run a greater risk of bring exposed when a starter fails. Even in his miracle season, would you really rather have Aaron Small pitching than Brendan Donnelly? The setup/closer pairings are basically a dead heat, and the Angels are vastly superior to the Yankees in the rest of the pen.

I guess I shouldn't dismiss Small. After all, it looked like he was going to be responsible for yet another surprising Yankee win. He relieved Randy Johnson in the fourth inning with the Yankees down 5-0, inheriting a first-and-third, none-out situation and inducing a strikeout followed by a double play. The Yankees picked up four runs in the bottom of the fourth, Small dispatched the Halos in the fifth on five pitches, and the Yankees took the lead in the bottom of the inning.

In the sixth, though, the Angels started taking advantage of the Yankee defense. A single past Robinson Cano scored Juan Rivera when Gary Sheffield made a poor throw home, one influenced by the conditions. Kennedy hit his single, and Chone Figgins followed with an RBI single to give the Angels a lead they would not relinquish.

Maybe Bubba Crosby doesn't make the play on Kennedy's ball--it was pretty shallow, and Cano was closer to it than Williams was--but isn't it worth asking why he's not in the game? Tino Martinez isn't so impressive a hitter that you can't sacrifice his bat for Crosby's, given that both bat ninth and Crosby is a much better center fielder than Williams is. When Torre did this in down the stretch and in Game One of the Division Series, I thought he was on to something, but he's abandoned that alignment. He should go back to it; it was the right one.

The Yankees' bullpen and defense let them down the rest of the way, but not without some help from Ken Kaiser. With first and third and no one out in the seventh, Juan Rivera bounced a grounder to Alex Rodriguez, who waited for Cano to get to the second-base bag and threw the ball over. Cano caught the throw and came off the bag a heartbeat early, and Kaiser elected to make this one of the five times a season that a second baseman gets nailed for it, calling the runner safe.

[Ed. Note: The umpire on the call was Joe West, not Ken Kaiser. I'm forever mistaking one for the other.--JSS]

This play wasn't the reason the Yankees lost, and Kaiser did get the call technically correct. With that said, it was an utterly ridiculous call. You can't play 2,400 games a year under one set of rules, and decide every now and then that you're going to become a stickler for detail. The phantom double play is a part of the game, and it's a part of the game because the umpires have set it up that way. To change the rules randomly in a fairly key spot is a terrible way to arbitrate, comparable to forcing the shortstop and second baseman to wear blindfolds on alternate plays, just because.

You see this a few times a year, usually on specific types of plays. This is one of them. There's also the home-plate umpire who decides to allow a runner from first to score on a fan-interference double into the corner, or deny a batter hit by a pitch first base because he didn't make an effort to get out of the way. These wouldn't be a problem if they were enforced fairly across the entire baseball season; they're not, though. They pop up randomly, when an umpire, for reasons passing understanding, decided to interject himself into the game.

It was the right call. It was a bad call.

--

Today's game in New York has been rained out, postponed until Sunday evening. This might allow the Yankees to bring Mike Mussina back for the elimination game, but I understand that Mussina never left California, which complicates matters. If he doesn't pitch, the Yankees lose the biggest benefit of the rainout, and in fact, yield a lot of ground to the Angels, who get a critical day of rest for a bullpen they worked hard last night.

The real problem, however, is the start time for the postponed game. The game is currently scheduled for 7:55 ET Sunday night. Mind you, this is Game Four, and if the Yankees win, there's a Game Five in Anaheim on Monday night (and Game One of the ALCS in Chicago on Tuesday night).

Yankee playoff games run well past three hours, they have for most of this run. Some of that is their style of play, some of that is the increased commercial inventory that needs to be shown. The earliest a game would reasonably end is 11 p.m., and it's possible the game wouldn't end until close to midnight. Even rushing through showering and post-game media, I can't see either of these teams taking off for the West Coast until 2 a.m. at the absolute earliest, and 3 a.m. at the latest. That puts them on the ground in Los Angeles of Anaheim at, what, 5-6 a.m. local time? They'd get to the hotel and into a bed at maybe 7 a.m. Even if you skip BP on Monday, you're looking at being at the park at 3:30 local time for a 5:15 or so first pitch.

Mind you, that's with fairly conservative estimates. If tomorrow's game runs long, if I'm too conservative on how long it takes from final pitch to takeoff, if there are weather or other delays, you're looking at two teams playing a decisive game as little as seven or eight hours after landing back in California, and 20 hours and three times zones removed from the last pitch on Sunday.

There's no way in hell this game should be an 8 p.m. start. The only reason it is is that Fox needs a prime-time game for that slot, and I guess they don't want to change the start time of the Braves/Astros game (which, it should be noted, would face similar challenges, albeit with a much shorter flight involved). You shouldn't run a championship this way, and if the sequence of events above occurs, you're going to be watching too very tired teams playing the biggest game of their season on Monday night.

All because Fox needs a game in prime time.

It gets better, though. After Monday's contest, the winner of that game would have to immediately fly to Chicago for Game One of the AL Championship Series. Let's see…figure a game that ends around 8:30 p.m. in Anaheim, mix in a longer post-game because it's a clincher, so no one gets off the ground until midnight at the earliest. That puts you in Chicago at 6 a.m., in a hotel at 7:30, and needing to be at the park at 5:00 for a 7:15 start.

Which might not be so bad if you hadn't just done all of that the day before.

Let's just say I like the White Sox in the first game under these circumstances, unless they decide to open with Ken Kravec or something.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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