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October 10, 2005

Prospectus Today

Inches

by Joe Sheehan

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You play 166 games, and whether or not you get to a 167th is determined by inches.

There were the three inches that were the difference between a Brad Ausmus home run and and a game-ending fly ball. Then there were the six inches between where Andruw Jones' 11th inning line drive landed and the left-field foul line. Think about the two inches between Julio Franco's foot and the first-base bag, inches that were the difference between safe and out in an inning where it all began to go wrong.

It went the other way in New York, the inches pushing the teams onto a plane and across a country for one more night of baseball. Inches separating a couple of Scot Shields pitches to Jorge Posada from being strikes. Inches that Chone Figgins' throw was short or long, short-hopping Ben Molina and allowing the go-ahead run to score.

We'll put a lot of weight on those inches, using them to make determinations and reach conclusions about baseball players and teams. What's important to remember is that those baseballs landed where they did, and not a few inches further or to the left or right, not because one player was better than the other, or because one individual or group had certain characteristics, but because these things happen.

Brad Ausmus' talent drove a ball 410 feet, but that it wasn't 409 feet, six inches is, as much as statheads have been running away from this word, luck. It's the density of a bat, or a gust of wind, or the seams of a baseball. When the difference between winning and losing is inches, it's just silly to treat those inches as if the participants had complete control over them, as if the inches were the product of heart and character and ability, and not subject to the vagaries of physics and aerodynamics. If Luke Scott's drive in the tenth is four inches to the right, we're not speculating feverishly as to whether this was the greatest game ever. If Brian McCann is an inch slower through the strike zone on a ball he roped foul in the 14th, we're previewing Game Five in this space.

You can't predict the inches, and you can't get crazy with the conclusions after them. All you can do is sit back and enjoy what they give us.

Astros/Braves

I'd like to say that there's some subtle point about this game that is going to stick with me, some little thing that maybe only I and a few other people noticed that will be the defining moment. In truth, though, I'm going with the obvious: Roger Clemens coming out of the bullpen on two days' rest, as the last available player on the roster.

The Astros used 23 guys to win yesterday's game, everyone but the previous day's starting pitcher and the next day's starting pitcher. The latter couldn't play, and the former wasn't even on site. Clemens, who not only had to pitch but had to pinch-hit and bat twice, threw three one-hit innings, striking out four. If you hadn't known the circumstances, you would have had no idea he'd started and thrown five shaky innings just 72 hours ago in Atlanta.

Chris Burke's game-winning home run was dramatic and unexpected. Ausmus' home run out-did it on both those counts, with added points for suspense as we waited to see if it was actually over the line. Lance Berkman, Dan Wheeler, Brad Lidge…all of these players provided rushes across nearly six hours of baseball. To me, none was quite as chill-inducing as the best pitcher in the National League, one of the five greatest pitchers in history, taking the ball and shutting down the Braves for three innings, giving his teammates time to finish off the comeback.

Maybe it never should have happened. Forget the inches that separated home run from double, foul from fair, safe from out. Think for a second about the 36 square inches inside Fredi Gonzales' skull. Gonzales, the Braves' third-base coach, made the incredibly silly decision to send Adam LaRoche on a ball in the left-field corner with one out in the eighth inning. LaRoche was out by the distance between oil companies and social responsibility, but step back from the outcome for a second. It's a short left field at Minute Maid Park, LaRoche doesn't run that well, and he'd loped from first to third, rather than busted it. That's a mistake on his part, but Gonzales has to recognize that and not send the runner. The decision short-circuited a rally that might well have pushed the game out of reach, and while no one really cared when the Braves were up 6-1, well, they wouldn't be up 6-1 for long.

Tim Hudson gave the Braves seven good innings, and might have deserved to stick around, given that he was knocked out of the game by an infield single having thrown just 92 pitches. If Rafael Furcal gets the ball out of his glove and makes a play on Eric Bruntlett's ground ball--Ausmus was safe at second by inches--perhaps Hudson would have remained in the game, and then Berkman could have been turned around by John Foster, and perhaps we'd have two games today.

You could argue that Bobby Cox should have forestalled going to his bullpen for as long as possible. After all, he had perhaps two relievers he would feel comfortable with, and even that's stretching it. His bullpen had failed miserably in the Braves' first two losses in the series, as the roster's one major flaw--a lack of reliable bullpen arms--was exposed. On the other hand, Farnsworth hadn't pitched in the series, and getting two innings from him would get the Braves back to home turf for a Game Five. In the playoffs, you have to win the game you're playing, and a fresh Farnsworth was the right choice as compared to a tiring Hudson on short rest.

Once Farnsworth threw his two innings, Cox was in trouble. What does it say about your bullpen that you have six relievers on the roster, and you won't use four of them in a tie game? After burning through Chris Reitsma in the 10th and 11th, Cox sent John Thomson out for the 12th. Now, this isn't like going to John Smoltz or Greg Maddux. This is choosing a mid-rotation starter who hasn't been healthy most of the year instead of your #3 reliever. It was a sign of just how badly Cox wanted to avoid a repeat of the first two losses in the series.

Jim Brower came next, and somehow threw three shutout innings despite seeming terrified about throwing a strike. Given where he was pitching, could you blame him? The short left-field porch at Minute Maid has to be terrifying for any pitcher whose stuff can be yanked by a right-handed hitter. Brower fits that description, and by this point in the game, the Astros had almost exclusively right-handed hitters in the lineup.

When ESPN came out of commercial for the bottom of the 16th, the crowd was chanting something with a three-beat cadence. The game being in Houston, I thought for a second they were chanting "Let Them Play!" It would have been appropriate, as I thought Amanda Wurlitzer was going to be Cox's next choice as a reliever. Instead, Cox once again went to Joey Devine in a big situation.

To the extent that Cox can be blamed for the Braves' postseason troubles, an area of legitimate criticism is in his roster construction. This morning, there are a fair number of people wondering what Joey Devine--a collegian four months ago, with five major-league innings pitched and a career ERA of 12.60--was doing on a Division Series roster, much less throwing important innings in three of the four games. The answer to that is simple: he was the best of the remaining bad options. Blaine Boyer, you'll recall, was injured late in the year, and would have had the spot Devine occupied had he been able to pitch. The other choices for the last spot were Kyle Davies, who'd been absolutely brutal as a reliever (12 IP, 9.00 ERA, 11 BB, 5 K) and Danny Kolb, against whom the league had hit .329/.403/.451.

Perhaps the decision to put Devine on the roster wasn't the correct one. I'm certain, however, that the right choice from among Davies, Devine and Kolb was far from obvious a week ago, and pounding Cox for the decision he did make is an overreaction. If Boyer is healthy, the Braves' bullpen is a much different entity.

The combination of suboptimal relievers and the short left-field porch was going to catch up to someone, and that someone happened to be Devine. He struck out four of the first five hitters he faced, but on a 2-0 pitch with one out in the 18th, he came in with a fastball, maybe three inches too high, and Chris Burke put an end to the drama.

The Astros are a popular team in some circles, loaded with veterans who "play the game right" and are always willing to talk to the media. For some, the two qualities are synonymous. They didn't win yesterday's game because of any of that, and the Braves didn't lose it because they're incapable of succeeding in the postseason. The outcome happened because two good baseball teams got together, and the inches all went one way.

Angels/Yankees

If nothing else, this weekend in New York should end the practice of leaving pitchers in one place while going to play baseball games in another. Instead of each team using Saturday's rainout to bring back their Game One starter, Game Four proceeded with the Yankees running Shawn Chacon out and the Angels countering with John Lackey on short rest. Bartolo Colon and Mike Mussina stayed in California.

I don't mean to get all old sportswriter here, but at what point does a player take some responsibility for something like this? This is aimed less at Colon, whose team was up 2-1 and had a pretty good starter scheduled to go in Jarrod Washburn, than it is at Mussina. Once the rainout was official--early Saturday afternoon--wouldn't you think Mussina would trot over to Long Beach, buy himself a one-way on JetBlue and get himself to Yankee Stadium to help keep his team from being eliminated Sunday? You can look at the stats and say that Chacon has outpitched Mussina since joining the Yankees, and you wouldn't be wrong, but there's no way you wouldn't choose a full-rest Mussina over any version of Chacon in a game you had to win.

I'm no doubt oversimplifying the problem, and will be told in just how many ways once this piece gets posted. To me, though, Mussina needed to be in New York Sunday, and that he wasn't tells me more about him than the years of media sniping have ever done. Because the Yankees won last night, this isn't going to become a thing. Outcomes drive coverage, not process, as Bobby Cox could tell you this morning.

Both teams played the first half of last night's game as if they were bound and determined to get plenty of rest for Game Five. The Angels let Chacon throw just 66 pitches through five innings, an incredibly low figure for a guy who can walk the park if you'll let him. Lackey was sharp, especially so given that he was pitching on short rest, and didn't allow a hit until Jorge Posada doubled with two outs in the fifth.

Lackey aside, the Angels played terrible baseball all night long. They went nine up, nine down in the first three innings, then got two runners on in the fourth, both of whom were wiped out immediately trying to get to second, one (Chone Figgins) on a straight caught stealing, one (Vladimir Guerrero) on an attempt to advance on a not-so-wild pitch. How you can struggle so much to get baserunners, yet be so cavalier about wasting them (and outs), is beyond me. Even more galling is how the costs of the blessed "aggressiveness" go completely unmentioned by the major media, as if doing so would violate some kind of code.

The situation got even sillier in the sixth. Juan Rivera opened the inning by drawing a four-pitch walk off of Chacon. That's a sign that a pitcher might be losing it, and may be ready to build you a rally all by his lonesome.

We never really found out, because the Angels proceeded to make outs on the next two pitches, hitting the ball a grand total of maybe 120 feet in the process. How is this smart baseball? How does it make sense to give a possibly tiring pitcher two outs on two pitches? Even if there's value in one-run strategies, isn't there also value in not making outs, in drawing walks, in developing hitters' counts so you can hit cookies?

Steve Finley's sacrifice bunt might have been the proper play, in part because Steve Finley is incredibly done, but don't you at least have to take a pitch to see if Chacon stays wild? Then for Adam Kennedy to throw away his at-bat by topping a first-pitch groundball to second base, again without giving Chacon a chance to beat himself, is just ridiculous. The Angels threw Chacon a lifeline, and no amount of handwaving about approaches can make that go away.

During this sequence, Thom Brennaman and Tim McCarver started contrasting the Angels' style of play with "Moneyball," a word that has become code for pretty much anything from take'n'rake to the moral decay of society. Brennaman (who may have been quoting Mike Scioscia, it was a bit unclear), talked about how the Angels' approach with the baserunners they get was "get 'em over, get 'em in," as if this was somehow different from that of every other team in the world (OK, maybe not the Padres), and without examining whether or not there were other, better ways of accomplishing the goal that didn't involve handing over two outs on two pitches.

Of course, any chance that there might actually be a serious discussion of the matter was ended by Figgins, who roped a double into the left-field corner to score Rivera. Orlando Cabrera followed with a double of his own, and the huzzahs continued, as if two-out doubles were somehow related to silly out-wasting.

The important plays in the inning weren't the bunt or the weak one-out ground ball. The important plays were the walk and the two doubles, and there's nothing "small ball" about a walk and two doubles. What happened between those events was awful baseball.

On a night when the inches would go their way--or perhaps just a drier one--the Angels' 2-0 lead probably would have held up. That wasn't going to happen; over the next two innings, the Yankees converted three topped balls and two bad throws into three runs.

In fact, three of the four biggest swings in this game for the Yankees were mis-hits. Jason Giambi topped a ball to second with one on and one out in the sixth, hitting it too slowly for a double play to be turned. Alex Rodriguez then scored from second on a single to left by Gary Sheffield, in part because Garret Anderson couldn't get his footing and made a terrible throw home. Any kind of good throw nails Rodriguez by 10 feet, and as Tim McCarver pointed out (to be fair, an excellent moment for him), if Figgins had cut Anderson's throw and fired home, that too would have nailed the runner.

An inning later, Robinson Cano led off by hitting a ball off the end of the bat that became an infield single. After a fly ball and a walk--Scot Shields faced six hitters and started every one with a ball--Ruben Sierra hit a solid single to right to tie the game and make it first and third with one out. Derek Jeter--who's having an awful series, by the way--then one-hopped a ball to Figgins, who returned the favor by one-hopping a throw to Bengie Molina, who just missed tagging out Posada by inches. The Yankees had built a one-run lead out of air, and when they turned the ball over to Mariano Rivera, a trip back to Anaheim was inevitable.

The Angels, with the best defense in the league, had seen that defense fail them at a critical juncture. The conditions were a factor--Anderson couldn't plant for a good throw, Figgins' throw skidded instead of bounced--but they failed to make plays that would have put them into the ALCS. Had it been the Yankee defense, or the Red Sox defense, in a similar situation, the story would have been how the behemoths couldn't do the little things that the real baseball team could. With no such storyline available, the bad defense was largely ignored, save McCarver's analysis of the one play.

I can't emphasize this enough: the Angels played terrible baseball last night. From their approach against Chacon to their relentless wasting of outs to their poor defense at critical moments, they absolutely earned this loss. They're playing guys, in Erstad and Finley, who are simply killing them. (Lackey might have taken a no-hitter into the sixth had the Angels been playing a viable center fielder. Erstad, for his part, is making Al Leiter look like he belongs on the roster.) That it wasn't worse is largely a testament to how good their pitching staff is. The Yankees did virtually nothing offensively, getting all three of their runs thanks to hitting the ball too softly and some poor Angels' defense.

They probably can't rely on that again tonight. To win, they'll have to get to Bartolo Colon again, and that's not going to be easy. Colon has become a pitcher who gets ahead and stays ahead, posting a terrific 3.65 K/BB this year. The Yankees strung together some two-strike, two-out hits against him last week, and that's a tough act to repeat.

The X factor is Mussina. As was the case for Game One, there's really no way of knowing what he'll provide tonight. He hasn't been effective across consecutive starts since the middle of August, and if he's wild in the strike zone, getting balls up, he plays right into the hands of the Angels' hackers. With Rivera coming off a 36-pitch outing and probably only available for one inning, it's critical that Mussina get the team at least into the sixth, if not longer. Worth mentioning is that if he doesn't, it will call into question the practice of giving him a weekend off in sunny California. If that wasn't to ensure a good outing in a Game Five, what good was it?

Tonight's game may not be as dramatic as the one played in Houston yesterday, but the lessons we take from that game can be applied. Both of these teams are good enough to advance, and the rosters are chock full of the best baseball players in the world. What separates them tonight isn't going to be some special qualities that some possess and other don't; what separates them will be bounces and breaks and the very tiny ways in which a baseball game can swing.

By inches.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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