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May 9, 2006

Prospectus Today

Lost: One Clipboard

by Joe Sheehan

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During last Friday's chat session, I answered a question about "the fiercest division in baseball," the NL Central. I downplayed the records in the division, pointing out that the non-Cardinals in the group have been playing weak schedules, larded with the Nationals, Marlins and Pirates, three of the four worst teams in baseball.

Well, over the weekend the five non-Cardinals teams went 2-13, the wins being one-run victories by the Pirates over the Nationals and the Reds over the Diamondbacks. Now, all five teams were on the road, and one weekend of baseball isn't conclusive. It's indicative, though, of how much things can change in just a few days in May. It's also a better answer to the question of the division's "fierceness" than the one I keyed in a few days ago.

I caught one of those 13 losses Sunday, taking in the Brewers' 10-2 shellacking at the hands of the Dodgers on a gorgeous spring afternoon in L.A., the kind of day they write songs about, the kind I grew up watching in John Hughes movies. Despite the eight-run margin, though, the game was really an example of how thin the edges are in baseball, of how tiny thing can quickly snowball into the event that decides the game.

Take it back to the third inning. The Dodgers had a 2-1 lead, far from insurmountable with Aaron Sele making his debut for the team in place of Odalis Perez. Sele hasn't had a seasonal ERA below 5.00 since 2002, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio the last three years is 157/150. Two runs didn't seem like it would be enough. The Dodgers had a runner on first and no one out against David Bush, himself a substitute starter for Ben Sheets, who had shingles or malaria or something else moving him along his path from ace starter to the new Steve Ontiveros. ("Some tightness in his shoulder" according to Will Carroll. Malaria might sound better to Brewers fans.)

In the fateful third, after Kenny Lofton's leadoff single, Bush induced a double-play ball back to the box from Nomar Garciaparra. On the turn, Rickie Weeks' throw to first was up, but not enough to even be deemed "high." Nevertheless, it popped out of Prince Fielder's glove for an error. Instead of two out and nobody on, Bush had to pitch from the stretch to the middle of the Dodger order. A Jeff Kent double and an Olmedo Saenz homer later, the Brewers were down 5-1; if you looked closely, you could see Ned Yost licking a stamp in the corner of the dugout.

There's no telling what might have happened had Fielder caught the ball, and he absolutely should have caught the ball. Maybe Kent and Saenz hit the same double and the same homer. Maybe Kent hits the same ball, but because Corey Koskie is playing deeper, he snares it for the third out. Maybe, pitching from the windup, Bush doesn't fall behind Kent 3-1, setting up the hard-hit liner down the third-base line. Maybe it's an entirely different game. It's tiny plays like that--very rare events that swing the outcome of a single ballgame--that feed analysts' insistence that you need to draw conclusions only after enough evidence is available.

In the game that was played, Sele took advantage of the lead and, it appeared, the Brewers' awareness of their travel schedule, to pound the strike zone in a manner unlike him. He retired 13 in a row from the second through the sixth innings, and allowed just five hits and a walk in 6 2/3 overall. He was wild early, and while I was in no position to gauge the caliber of his stuff, I never got the sense he was overpowering the hitters. There's little in his track record to indicate that he's capable of helping the Dodgers--who look to me like the best team in the NL West--make the playoffs.

Here are some more assorted notes from what was, score notwithstanding, a perfect Sunday afternoon:

  • Russell Martin caught the game, one of about four rookies who were in Triple-A a week ago who now start for the two L.A. teams. Martin was very impressive, hitting an opposite-field homer in the second inning and an opposite field single in the fourth. From my vantage point, high behind the plate, he seemed to move well while defending Sele's big breaking stuff, and the homer was testment to his bat. He's a much better player than Sandy Alomar Jr., not least because he has knees, and deserves a roster spot when Dioner Navarro comes off of the DL. He's arguably a better player than Navarro.

  • I mentioned my angle…I was directly behind the plate in Dodger Stadium's third deck, which is merely called "reserve." Somewhere along the line, the people who decided these things started excising the word "upper" from ballpark seating. The third deck is now "tier" or "reserve" or "view" in a bunch of parks, as if that's going to fool people into thinking they're not 70 feet in the air and that they have pretty good seats. Particularly in the newer parks, seats in the upper deck are brutal, set back so far from the field that you're barely at the game.

    Dodger Stadium, 43 years old, doesn't suffer from this problem. The upper deck isn't quite as close as Yankee Stadium, but the seats are good ones. As someone who grew up with easy access to fairly good seats--in the 1980s at Yankee Stadium, you could sit on the lower level either in the infield or down the lines for a reasonable price, and the tickets weren't sold out in February--I have a distinct preference for lower deck between the bases, so you could definitely call me spoiled. If those are unavailable, though, I've come to appreciate the benefits of going up rather than out, particularly in parks where the seats down the lines aren't angled correctly. Sitting behind the plate offers no blind spots, an excellent take on defensive alignments and even a pretty good view of pitches. The downside is some difficulty in gauging flyballs. All in all, though, I'd take these seats (Sec. 1NS, Row N) for 20 games a year.

    It helped that they were far enough back to be covered by the park's "top deck," since I can get sunburned while heating soup.

  • I've written this piece without the benefit of my scorecard from the game. I apparently left it at the ballpark, after setting it aside for the last couple of innings. I'm probably more upset about losing the clipboard it was attached to, as well as the non-game-related notes and All-Star ballots--more on those next week--it held.

    I used to be an obsessive scorer at games. I scored every game I attended, and I never wanted to get up from my seat and miss action, particularly since I was meticulous about scoring pitch-by-pitch (CBSFFB 1B-7) and that's a bit too much to ask of a friend or date. (Like you had many ballpark dates, Joseph…)

    In the modern era, though, I find it's pretty easy to let it go. I can get complete pitch-by-pitch results with a couple of mouse clicks, so I don't need a record of the game. Scoring enhances the experience for me, so I certainly prefer to do so, but if the game is more of a social event I sometimes don't even keep score. That would have been blasphemy just a few years ago. Sunday afternoon, I basically dropped the scorecard after the seventh inning, losing a half-inning while making a large ticket purchase for Sophia's school, and it didn't bother me at all. I can't decide if this makes me less of a fan, or just lucky to live in the 21st century.

    It is frustrating to lose the notes. Nothing generates column ideas like sitting and watching a game at the park.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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