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October 14, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Looking Back

by Jim Baker

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If we've learned nothing else from recent history it is this: most systems cannot withstand extraordinary events. During the 2000 Presidential elections we discovered just how frail the mechanics of our voting process can be when confronted with a situation that demanded pinpoint accuracy. Last month, we learned that a serious catastrophe exposes all manner of systemic frailties.

What we saw at the end of Wednesday night's Angels-White Sox game was similar to these situations, only writ small. A routine play became pivotal and a number of behaviors are now called into question. By now, you've read about The Call from every possible interpretation, so I won't rehash the events or give my interpretation of what happened other than to say this:

The Call shows that baseball is, ultimately, a game without honor. It is an endeavor that celebrates deception and getting away with as much as possible. Baseball lives by the code of Bill McCartney, who may well be the greatest hypocrite American sport has perhaps ever known. So entrenched is this code of deception that if any manager ever tried to refuse a gift bad call (as did Cornell coach Carl Snavely in a game against Dartmouth in 1940), he would be locked away in a Bedlam-style asylum and chained to a stone wall.

--

I thought I'd go back a year and look at what I was writing about during the 2004 League Championship Series to see if any of it was relevant to what's happening now. A few items were/are:

  • During last year's NLCS, I wrote this: It's about time for my semi-annual Free Jason Lane plea. Somebody give this guy a full-time job, please! He turns 28 in December and it sure would be nice if got the shot he very much deserves before he wakes up one morning in his early thirties with 500 career at bats and a .900 OPS.

    Lane finally got his break in 2005, getting 561 plate appearances in which to prove I wasn't crazy. The result? I have probably been a tad over-enthusiastic about Lane over the years--although I don't think I ever stated he would be a star. I simply thought he deserved to have a starting job in the major leagues. His 2005 season justified my semi-outrage at his continued use as a Triple-A yo-yo. PECOTA had his batting average pegged pretty well but he hit for more power than predicted. Where he took a step backwards was in the getting-on-base department. Based on the number of walks he had drawn in his previous major league experience, he should have had around 60 this year. Instead, he only strolled 32 times making for a pretty unimpressive OBP of .316.

    Still, though, there are worse players out there making a lot more money and I still believe that Lane deserved a better fate in life than to be playing at age 28 at the major league minimum. One thing that could help him extend his career would be for him to do something spectacular in the next couple of days. He could propel the Astros into the World Series and call attention to himself at the same time. A good weekend in Houston could literally buy him a couple of extra years in the majors.

  • Which brings us to this note about a player who capitalized (with an emphasis on the capital) on the playoffs for self-betterment: That "ploinking" sound you heard during the Divisional Series was Scott Boras' drool hitting the floor after every at bat by his client, Carlos Beltran.

    2005 has yet to produce an IPS (Insane Postseason) like the one Beltran had last year, but then, that is not guaranteed to happen every year. The drool was gathering in buckets around the majors, too with the Mets turning out to be the team most willing to put their money where their drool was. Unfortunately, Beltran '05 turned out to be a semi-replay of George Foster '82. Beltran was better (.263 historically-adjusted EqA to .254 for Foster), but Beltran was five years younger than Foster. The age difference will save this deal, though. Unlike, say, the Jim Thome signing by Philadelphia where they can only watch him get older and older, Beltran still has a number of prime years left on his contract.

  • I also wrote this: Here's a plea for the Braves to return John Smoltz to the starting rotation in 2005 as well.

    I think the lesson here is that if a team has a pitcher who can excel as either a closer or a starter, he's more valuable to the team as a starter. Smoltz returned to starting in 2005 and his VORP exceeded that of the two previous seasons as a closer combined, 60.0 to 57.9. It's like the Braves got twice the value for the same salary.

  • And, finally, this: I speculated that Mazzone/Bobby Cox's use of Smoltz and Phil Garner's use of Brad Lidge in firemen (as opposed to traditional closer roles) in Game Two might be the start of a revolution.

    Happily, this trend is continuing in the 2005 playoffs. The Yankees, White Sox, and Astros have all had their closers start the eighth inning and the other teams have used theirs in the middle of the eighth. Is this truly the signal that things are changing? Not necessarily. It is, after all, the playoffs, and managers are much more willing to pull out the stops to win. This includes giving extra work to men more accustomed to throwing just one inning or less. We will know the revolution has truly arrived when we start seeing this more frequently in the regular season. For instance, Brad Lidge made 70 appearances in the 2005 regular season and only nine of them were for more than one inning. Mariano Rivera made 71 appearances, 14 of which were in excess of an inning.

    Another sign that a monumental change has taken place is when we begin to see the closer brought in specifically to face the opposition's heart of the order on their last time up, whether that takes place in the eighth or even the seventh inning. If we start seeing the ace reliever used to ace the opposition's stars and then get yanked to fight another day while someone else finishes--then we'll know the save-obsessed era is coming to an end. Of course, a new slang will have to be developed to describe the pitcher who finishes against the bottom third of the order. Mop-up man describes it perfectly, except that term is already part of baseball's lexicon and is applied to a late-come to a blow-out. How about swabber?

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