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October 12, 2005

Prospectus Today

ALCS Game One

by Joe Sheehan

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Is everyone in Chicago OK?

I checked this morning, and I can't find any news about the meteor that hit. I was pretty surprised at how calm the crowd was given the imminent disaster.

I mean, that had to be what was happening, right? A large hunk of space rock was going to hit U.S. Cellular Field around 10:30 Central time, and so the Angels and White Sox had to play their game as quickly as possible so that the field would be empty at that time. That's the only possible explanation for the hackfest the two teams descended into last night.

The White Sox would have been better off taking their chances with the meteor. They did a terrible job of playing baseball last night, not only not taking advantage of their opponent's situation, but actively making the game easier for them. If you're going up against a team forced to go with its #4 starter, that had played games in two nights on opposite ends of the country, and that got into Chicago early on the morning of the game, don't you have to slow the game down, leverage the fatigue factor, make the Angels have a long, slow night at the end of a long, long journey? At the least, isn't it a good idea not to play as if there's an expiration date on the city?

The White Sox gave the Angels exactly what they needed: quick at-bats, extra outs and a 3-2 win. From the first pitch, they were acting as if it was a getaway day in August in Detroit, as opposed to the first game of the American League Championship Series. They made three outs on eight pitches in the first, three on nine pitches in the second and, my personal favorite, three on five pitches in the sixth. Paul Byrd throws strikes and is usually tough on right-handers, and deserves a big chunk of the credit. However, the White Sox made it easy on him and two relievers.

Last night's game should have stripped the emperor. The White Sox are not a "small ball" team despite the pronouncements of their manager and the preferences of the media. The White Sox are a low-OBP team that scores when it hits home runs, and wins when it hits them with men on base. They waste a lot of outs on one-run strategies in opposition to the abilities of the players on their roster, not in concert with them.

It's watching them play the Angels--a real small-ball team--that makes this point clear. The Angels have average or above-average speed at seven lineup spots. The White Sox get it from three, maybe four, and only Scott Podsednik is actually fast. The Sox don't pick up extra bases through baserunning the way the Angels do. The Angels strike out less than almost every team in baseball, putting the ball in play as part of their overall strategy. The White Sox were sixth in the AL in strikeouts, with 150 more than LAAOA. The Angels steal bases at a 74% clip, and because of their contact rate, they can use the hit-and-run, rather than the sacrifice or straight steal, as their primary one-run strategy. The White Sox steal at a 67% clip, well below any reasonable break-even point in today's game, and swing and miss often enough to make hit-and-runs an adventure.

The White Sox threw away four outs and two baserunners last night trying to play small ball. Podsednik and A.J. Pierzynski were gunned down stealing, while Podsednik and Aaron Rowand each failed in a sacrifice-bunt attempt. Despite getting leadoff men on in the seventh, eighth and ninth, the Sox were unable to score, in no small part because of those wasted plate appearances.

The reflexive bunting--not trying to to let one of your best OBP guys (Podsednik) get on base, not allowing one of your few doubles threats (Rowand) to yank one into a gap--is Ozzie Guillen's biggest flaw as a manager, and it points to the larger problem: Guillen is running his offense in almost complete opposition to its talent.

The White Sox' main offensive skill is hitting home runs. It's not even that they have good team power overall--they were 13th in the league in non-HR extra-base hits, seventh in slugging, sixth in Isolated Power--it's just that they hit home runs. They don't have the batting average or the contact rate to be the Angels, and they don't have the OBP or speed to be the blessed 1980s Cardinals (or even the 2001 Mariners). When playing a team like the Angels, one with a defense that makes it that much harder to hit singles, they becomes that much more reliant not just on the longball, but on converting the few baserunners they get.

I've been harping on this stat all season long, but it warrants mentioning again: the White Sox scored 42.4% of their runs this season on home runs. That's fourth in MLB, third in the AL. The league average was 36.8%. The Angels, just to provide some context, were at 34.7%.

The White Sox are not a small-ball team. They're a team with a poor, one-dimensional offense that won 99 games because it kept runs off the board like few others in the league. They will play low-scoring games thanks to their pitching and defense, and to win them, they have to hit home runs. They don't get enough baserunners to be wasting them--someone, please, put up a stop sign for Podsednik, who's been caught on 17 of his last 27 steal attempts--and they make enough outs without giving them up voluntarily.

If Ozzie Guillen won't notice, maybe everyone else will.

  • The Sox are in trouble not just because they can't score in general, but because they match up horribly against the Angels' bullpen. There's a chance the ALCS MVP could be Scot Shields, because the White Sox are going to be hard-pressed to hit a ball out of the infield against him, much less score. Shields came in with one on and no one out in the seventh last night and got out of the inning on five pitches, then threw a shutout eighth in which he allowed two weak singles. In seven batters, he struck out one, jammed five and got another to pop out. He can come in to face Joe Crede each game and see five right-handed batters and a lefty with no power before giving way to Francisco Rodriguez (a brutal matchup himself).

  • Look for this series to receive glowing, fawning coverage in the mainstream media, as beat writers fall all over themselves to praise the style of play. In truth, what you'll be seeing is the joy of people whose workdays are going to be that much shorter and who will get back to their hotels in time for a late room-service meal. That may seem unfair, but it's true that the issue of game length is almost entirely a media thing, driven by the people who can't finish their job until the guys on the field finish theirs.

    A night like last night really shows the downside of the "swing at everything" approach of these two teams: an endless parade of weak ground balls and pop-ups. Throw in the outs that are going to be wasted, and these games should all come in well under 3:15, and some, like last night, under three hours. These teams both have marginal offenses, and no amount of motion or balls in play can change that.

--

Christina Kahrl did a terrific write-up on the NLCS, so there's not a whole lot I can add to it.

A week ago, I pegged the Angels and Astros as my World Series teams, a prediction that was pegged to the Padres beating the Cardinals in the Division Series. The Friars fell just short of that, however, leaving the Astros to face the Cardinals in the NLCS.

And I'm on the bandwagon. The Cardinals are the best team standing, and as good as the Astros' top three starters are, there's little behind that on the roster. A dominant reliever and his set-up man, two legitimate hitters and a lot of OBP sinks. The Cardinals are a decent approximation of the team that beat the 'Stros a year ago, missing a few parts but with a legitimate #1 starter now in place. The Astros are also up a starting pitcher, but their lineup is down considerably from last year. This is a rematch, but only one of these teams is nearly as good as it was a year ago.

"Doing the little things" tends to be a code, a crutch for teams or players that don't do the big things, but who nevertheless are popular in the media. The Cardinals, however, do the little things and the big things. They they get on base and hit for power, they throw strikes and limit walks and home runs, they make plays on balls in play. When you watch them, however, you see that the proverbial "things that don't show up in the boxscore" show up in Cardinals' games. That these things are exaggerated in the coverage of baseball doesn't mean they don't have value, and when you see Albert Pujols and his bajillion OPS execute a hit-and-run single, or David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek consistenly convert double-play grounders into double plays, it's easy to be impressed.

It's the big things, though, that will be the difference in this series. The Astros' low-OBP, righty-heavy lineup doesn't match up well with the Cardinals' rotation or the back end of its bullpen. (There are parallels of type, if not of scale, between the difficulties the Astros and White Sox face in these series.) The Cardinals' offense is capable of scoring even against the trio of Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens, and as they did against the Padres, will feast when presented with pitchers below the level of All-Star.

I'm on the bandwagon. Cardinals are the best team left in this dance, and as good as the Astros' front three are, everything else in the matchup points to St. Louis. Cardinals in five.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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