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October 17, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Last Doubleheader

by Joe Sheehan

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It really is a strange game. How does it happen that two contests, played a thousand miles apart from each other, involving very different teams, both turn on a pitcher's error?

Yesterday's games also gave us our first lead changes of the League Championship Series.

With that, I'm going to slide into a notes format to cover all that happened on the last two-game day of 2005:

Astros/Cardinals

  • Phil Cuzzi was absolutely wrong. Unless you're nursing a gunshot wound, you can't eject a player in that situation. It's putting yourself into the game in a way that a umpire never should do. Jim Edmonds didn't lay hands on Cuzzi, he didn't bump him, he didn't delay the game in an untoward fashion. He was profane for 10 seconds, and that was all. Cuzzi has to appreciate the situation and show restraint.

    This doesn't even consider the merits of the matter. Cuzzi's strike call on the 3-1 pitch to Edmonds was obscene, just the most blatant in a long series of bad ball/strike calls he made during his day. He'd been hearing about his zone all day from both teams, and had even ejected Tony La Russa an inning before. At some point, if everyone thinks you're wrong, don't you have to consider the possibility that you are?

    Phil Cuzzi embarrassed the game yesterday, and we're all the worse for it.

  • Cuzzi's strike zone--someone want to check for me if "Cuzzi" is Italian for "Gregg"?--played a big part in the 2-1 game, helping the two fourth starters work from ahead in the count and putting hitters on the defensive all day.

  • It's rare that you can't point to one clear goat in a game, but the difference in this one was almost entirely Jason Marquis. The Astros put the winning run across on two walks and a Marquis error, made on a sacrifice bunt by Craig Biggio, in the seventh inning. The Cardinals' offense didn't help, of course, but when you look at the game-winning run, the only person you can blame is Marquis.

    Marquis' day got worse in the eighth, when he popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt with a runner on first and no one out. I thought it was La Russa's biggest mistake of the day; you shouldn't play for a tie on the road against a team with a better bullpen than yours. I think you have to get John Rodriguez up in that situation, see if you can't make sure Edmonds and Albert Pujols bat in the eighth with a chance to put you way ahead. Bunting with Marquis was overthinking the situation.

  • La Russa's decision might have been influenced by his team's struggles at the plate. Right now, the 2005 NLCS looks a lot like the 2004 World Series, with the Cards' offense having a bad week at the wrong time. They're hitting .215/.279/.298 in the four games, and have scored just 10 runs, going 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position in their three losses. Their last five runs have come on three sacrifice flies, a solo home run, and John Mabry's pop-fly double in the ninth inning on Saturday.

    This came to a head in the ninth inning last night. Pujols and Larry Walker opened the inning with singles off of Brad Lidge, creating a first-and-third, no-out situation. At worst, the Cards figured to escape with a tie game and a chance to face someone other than Lidge if the game went to the 10th. With Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler already having been used, even tying the game would give the Cardinals a good shot at tying the series in extras.

    What actually happened, though, was that Reggie Sanders and Mabry had two terrible at-bats, falling behind and not hitting the ball out of the infield. Five pitches, a fielder's choice and a double play later, the Astros had a commanding 3-1 series lead.

  • The Sanders play generated some criticism of Pujols, who was thrown out at the plate on the one-hop grounder to Morgan Ensberg, on a play that wasn't close. With no one out and a runner on first, there's an argument that Pujols should use discretion on whether to try and score, perhaps not going on contact. The ball would not likely have been a double play, and had Pujols held, it's possible the Cardinals would have picked up a base, with Ensberg taking the out at first.

    As with the criticism of Mark Bellhorn's passive baserunning at the end of the ALCS, I think taking Pujols to task is underestimating the difficulty of the decision. This isn't Strat-O-Matic, where I know for certain that a runner going home has a 70% chance of being safe, and more importantly, where I can take the time to calculate that figure. Pujols has less than a second to decide, based on his read of the ball, whether he can get home in time. It happens that in this case, he got a lousy jump off of third base and was an easy mark. He may tell you that it was a mistake. Even if it was, I don't think it's one he can be chastised too heavily for. It was a very close decision as to whether to go, and as Chone Figgins can attest, that's not an automatic out for any third baseman.

    The Cardinals didn't lose because Pujols ran home. They lost because they couldn't get the ball out of the infield when they absolutely needed to do so.

  • The game-ending double play came out of nowhere. Mabry's ground ball to second base looked far too slow to get two outs on, but Eric Bruntlett made an amazing turn, with Adam Everett coming hard across the bag and firing a missile to first base. The play at first was close enough that it could have gone either way--after watching the replays a million times, all I can say is that no call would have been wrong--which means that Bruntlett's effort was the difference between safe and out.

    Then again, perhaps the difference was Mabry's running to the bag instead of through it, a pet peeve of mine just below the "sliding into first base" one. When plays are being decided by tenths of a second, why not do things that put those tenths on your side?

    You pay $80 million for a roster, and a game gets decided by a fifth starter coming out of the bullpen and a utility man. How can you not love this game?

  • Almost forgotten after the Edmonds ejection was the bomb John Rodriguez hit pinch-hitting for him. In an incredibly difficult situation--"Season on the line, John, go bat for our second-best player and save us. By the way, you have two strikes and a pissed-off umpire"--Rodriguez got a great swing and hit a ball that would have been a home run in at least 28 other ballparks, pushing Willy Taveras up Tal's Hill to make the play, 430-odd feet away.

    Speaking of Tal's Hill, can we get a pool started on what center fielder is going to have his career irreparably ruined by the thing? Obstacles in the outfield, espcially in an area where players are almost always running full tilt, are a bad idea, and why this one is considered "cute" is beyond me. Somebody is going to hurt themselves on it and have a tidy little lawsuit on their hands, and I will happily testify for the plaintiff when it happens.

  • This series is largely being conceded to the Astros, who have to get one win from three games started by Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens to advance to their first-ever World Series. I don't think it's quite that simple. They have to beat Chris Carpenter tonight or they'll be in the same spot they were a year ago: up 3-2 and heading back to St. Louis. Carpenter remains a brutal matchup for this team, as we saw in Game One, and if the Cardinals can just get back home, where they play better than .600 ball, they'll be in reasonably good shape.

    I don't think this series is over. I think the Astros have a decent chance to win tonight, but there's a lot more pressure on them than is being indicated.

White Sox/Angels

  • The history books will record this as "White Sox 4, Angels 1," but it was much, much closer than that. The two biggest plays in the series were an umpire's miscall and a ball that was hit about 55 feet, and they swung two games the Sox's way.

    You could understand if Mike Scioscia and the Angels felt a little snakebit after the game, although Scioscia was the picture of class in the postgame interview session. Had the umpires not gotten together to make the right call on Kelvim Escobar's missed tag in the eighth inning, his Angels would have gone into the bottom of the inning tied. It was just the kind of group effort Scioscia needed on Wednesday night in Chicago. The umpires got one call right and one call wrong, the White Sox scored after both, and that's just one reason why this became the shortest ALCS since 2002.

  • The Angels were hurt by the umpiring in this series. They were hurt worse by their pathetic display at the plate. Unlike in 2002, when a team that was merely good offensively went nuts in October thanks to poor opposition defense and an over-their-heads slugging month, this Angels team saw two of its better hitters disappear, and no one pick up the slack. When not being asked to bunt, Chone Figgins hit .118/.167/.176, while Vladimir Guerrero went 1-for-20. The Angels, with little offensive depth and virtually no power aside from Guerrero, simply weren't equipped to handle that, and went down meekly. After Figgins' double in the fifth inning tied last night's game, the Angels made 15 straight outs on 51 pitches. That's horrible.

    Will this performance illustrate for people the flaws in the Angels' approach on offense? I doubt it, but as I've argued in the past, for all the good things the Angels do on the basepaths, their offense breaks down if they don't hit .280. They hit .175 in this series. They walked four times in five games. I lost count of the number of at-bats they simply threw away on mindless hacking.

  • The White Sox famously got four straight complete games to close out this series, the first team do that in the postseason since the 1928 Yankees. Their starting pitching has to get much of the credit for the win, although it can be hard to differentiate between good pitching and brutal hitting, this series being a good example of that.

    The White Sox have quietly become scorching hot. Consider that they woke up on September 28 with a two-game lead in the AL Central, a do-or-die series in Cleveland--and missing the playoffs--a very real possibility. Jose Contreras beat the Tigers that night, though, kicking off a five-game winning streak to end the season. The Sox have gone 12-1 in their last 13 games, and this is what their starters have done in that time:

    
                 GS    W-L    ERA     IP    H   BB   SO   HR
    Contreras     4    3-1   2.73   33.0   27    2   21    2
    Buehrle       3    2-0   2.08   21.2   16    4   12    1
    Garcia        3    3-0   3.00   21.0   19    5   11    3
    Garland       2    2-0   2.30   15.2    8    2   12    1
    McCarthy      1    1-0   1.80    5.0    6    2    5    0
    
    Starters     13   11-1   2.15   96.1   76   15   61    7
    
    Again, I point out that the reasons the White Sox have had such a great season are their pitching and their defense. Their offense isn't good, and it isn't some shining example of how to win with bunts and stolen bases and the like. The pitching staff is driving this bus, and it's four games from driving it into a very big party.

  • By the way, when I pick on the wild-card system, I usually offer the alternative of a world where three division winners make the playoffs, with the team with the best record of the three getting a week off. This is often derided as bad for that team, as they wouldn't play competitive games for a week and they would get rusty.

    The White Sox will go into the World Series having not used a reliever other than Neal Cotts for 15 days. This is by choice, mind you. I have to think that if a team is willing to let its relievers sit for that long, it's a data point in the argument that rest isn't such a terrible thing.

  • The bunting in this series got increasingly out of hand, and the coverage of it meandered into looking-glass territory. When Figgins bunted Adam Kennedy to second base in the third inning of a tie game, the Fox crew fell over themselves praising the fundamental baseball on display.

    That bunt was an absolutely horrible play. The Angels had just gotten back-to-back hits for the first time since Gene Autry owned the team, they had a runner on first, no one out, a tied game and the top of the lineup up. The crowd was into it in a way they hadn't had a chance to be on Friday and Saturday. This was a golden opportunity to put together an inning, to put some distance between them and the Sox, to maybe make Ozzie Guillen think about his first substitution since Wednesday.

    Scioscia immediately killed all of that by having Figgins lay down a sacrifice. Two quick outs later, the inning was over.

    You can't know what might have happened had Figgins swung away. I suppose, and this is just a wild guess, he might have possibly, say, roped a double into the right-field corner, driving Kennedy home and the crowd even louder, giving the Angels a lead and putting another runner in scoring position for, again I say, the middle of the lineup.

    That is, of course, exactly what happened when Scioscia eschewed the bunt in favor of a hit-and-run in the fifth. The Angels took the lead in that inning, although Figgins' double would be their last hit of 2005. You have to wonder what might have happened had Scioscia let the .313 hitter from the left side who almost never grounds into double plays swing away in the third. For a team making plenty of outs on its own, making one intentionally was a decision that cannot be supported.

    The Angels didn't lose this series because of their bunting. The bunting, however, pushed them further from, and not closer to, victory.

  • When did Francisco Rodriguez become a one-pitch pitcher? The guy who came up in 2002 and tore the AL up in 2003 and 2004 was a fastball/slider guy whose breaking ball was unhittable because the fastball set it up. Now, all Rodriguez does is throw the slider, often for strikes, and while he's still somewhat effective, the problem with his approach was exploited by the Sox in the eighth and ninth innings, when they simply laid off a lot of the sliders and let him walk his way into trouble.

    If he's not hurt right now--consensus among people I talked to on our staff is that he could well be--he's going to be hurt in the very near future.

  • I got an e-mail last week from a reader who's been giving me great feedback for years.
    Loving the analysis, as always. No one gets into the details as well as you. But please just do one more thing: Quit hitting us over the head with the myth-busting about clutch/character/heart/etc. Your point has been made many times and we understand. Move on.

    --Casey Coneway

    I gave that a lot of thought last week, because I know that it's a point I hammer on a lot, and I'm prone to getting something in my teeth and not letting go.

    Then I watched some of the post-game last night, and there was Joe Crede telling Chris Myers, "Heart, character, this team is full of it."

    Tell you what, Casey. You get the other side to stop mythologizing, and I'll stop arguing against it.

    Teams win series because they play better baseball and they get more of the breaks over a week's time, not because they're better people than the other guys. The differences between winning and losing--and my god, if people can't see how thin the line is after this series, when will they ever--are so small that trying to attribute the difference to some kind of personality traits is just ridiculous. If Escobar makes the tag, or if Eddings gets the call right, or if Rodriguez gets the call on his 1-2 pitch to Crede in the eighth, are the White Sox somehow less and the Angels somehow more?

--

Three postseason series are down, and we have two left to complete. We've seen some terrific performances so far, but the baseball has been marred by the worst umpiring in years. Nearly every single game in the LCS saw some kind of controversy, from the stuff we covered in this space to things I haven't even discussed, such as the return of the randomly-generated strike zone. There's nothing that will spoil a game faster than hitters having no idea of what is being called a strike, and I have more than a dozen notations of "???" next to some combination of a batter and a count, where the call made on a pitch was completely inexplicable.

It is my sincere hope that MLB will address this issue immediately with its umpires, and work to ensure that the World Series is not defiled by the kind of decisions that will forever be part of the 2005 league championship series.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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