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October 2, 2006

Prospectus Today

Bright Weekend, Dark Day

by Joe Sheehan

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Notes from the last weekend of the regular season, from one very depressed man, idly hitting buttons looking for some baseball…

  • The best story, to me, was the disparity among managers in the importance placed on the difference between winning the division or the wild card. In the NL West, both teams clinched playoff spots Saturday. On Sunday, Grady Little started Eric Stults and most of his bench in San Francisco, consistent with the idea that there's not that much difference between the two playoff spots. On the other hand, Bruce Bochy went with his regulars against the Diamondbacks in a strong attempt to win the division, and even used the tiring Trevor Hoffman to close the game.

    The Tigers' Jim Leyland took it one step further. Not only did he play his regular lineup, but he used ace reliever Joel Zumaya for 2 1/3 innings, closer Todd Jones for 2 2/3 innings (45 pitches) and pulled Kenny Rogers into the game in the 11th inning. This last part is notable because the left-handed Rogers would seem to be an important part of any solution against the Yankees, who are a different team against lefty starters. He won't pitch until Game 3 at least, and can make just one start in the series.

    Who's right? Given how poorly the Cardinals played down the stretch, I can understand wanting to play them with home-field rather than the Mets on the road. However, the Mets aren't in great shape themselves; they're not a juggernaut any longer, lacking a #1 starter and dealing with nagging injuries throughout the lineup. They're still a hell of a lot better than the Cardinals in the big picture, but in a short series, you're facing Chris Carpenter twice, which changes the equation. A day of rest for an old team that spent the last week of the season on the road with no off-days seems more valuable than the difference between the two matchups. Little's approach looks like a better idea.

    The situation in the AL was a bit more extreme, although the gap between the two matchups is a bit wider. A win yesterday would have given the Tigers home-field advantage against the A's, and a loss sent them to New York to play the overwhelming favorite Yankees. That might be worth toasting the bullpen for, but as we know, trying very hard to win the game doesn't guarantee anything. The Tigers lost to the Royals--having led 6-0 and 5-0 in two of the games--and enter October having lost 31 of their last 50. Unlike the 2005 White Sox, they looked terrible on the season's last weekend, and I think you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone picking them to win this week.

  • Tony La Russa had his own decision to make, and he got halfway to the right answer. He held back Chris Carpenter, hoping that his team could get a win without him or that the Astros would lose, and knowing he had two more match points if that didn't happen.

    Well, the Braves came up big for him again, so perhaps history will forget the bizarre decision he made to start rookie Anthony Reyes on three days' rest. Reyes is either the Cardinals; second- or third-best starter, depending on how you feel about Jeff Suppan. He's been erratic, but did pitch an excellent game Wednesday night to help snap the team's seven-game losing streak. Asking him to follow that up with a short-rest start with the season on the line is putting an awful lot in his lap, especially since Reyes, like the Tigers' Rogers, should be a prominent member of the postseason rotation. With so many pitchers available, you can make it a bullpen game and see how the day develops. Using Reyes was a mistake.

  • The Cards come into the postseason having dropped 10 of 12. Not to put to fine a point on this, but I heard that Alec Baldwin was in the clubhouse after the game telling the entire team to stay away from the coffee.
  • On Friday, Jim Baker wrote about the way the Brewers had played Thursday night's game against the Cards, and called for more high-effort performances by teams out of the race playing teams still in it. The Braves, Royals and White Sox did themselves and the game proud this weekend, producing competitive baseball in situations where the outcomes meant nothing to them. Each team's manager treated the contests with a seriousness that was commendable. It's all-too-common to see teams mail in their efforts down the stretch, even when the games matter. That wasn't the case this weekend, and MLB is better for it.
  • The NL Cy Young is going to be a fascinating vote. No NL pitcher reached 17 wins-first time ever in a full season-and with both Chris Carpenter and Brandon Webb spitting the bit in the last two weeks, just one starter finished with an ERA under 3.00, Roy Oswalt, who had just 15 wins. The usual signposts for BBRAA voters are unavailable this year, which usually leads to a fractured vote and an…entertaining choice. At this point, I would be surprised if anyone other than Trevor Hoffman won. Since he's not clearly the best reliever in the NL, it's an arguable choice.

    You'll have your chance to settle the issue this week, when the Internet Baseball Awards voting opens. Look for more information at BP.com tomorrow.

  • During the Yankees telecast yesterday--and on Pirates and Marlins telecasts all week, for that matter--the focus was on the batting title, as Derek Jeter tried to hold off Joe Mauer, with Robinson Cano making a run from the outside. Mauer and Freddy Sanchez took down the honors.

    Because so much of being a performance analyst is looking past the Triple Crown stats, batting average has become a bit of a non-issue for me. Watching the Yankees yesterday, though, I was thinking about 1984, before I knew what on-base percentage was, and how incredibly invested I was in the Don Mattingly/Dave Winfield battle than went down to late in the final game at the Stadium. When Mattingly locked up the crown, the crowd gave him a huge ovation, and sitting at home that day, I did, too.

    The thing is, this is an area where both the traditional and the new thinking can meet. Batting average measures a real and valuable skill, although the metric can vary widely for any player from season to season. That BA doesn't measure many things that are important to run scoring means that it shouldn't be used as a primary determinant of player value, but it is very good at measuring the ability to get hits. High achievers can and should be celebrated, because they have excelled at a fundamental baseball skill.

    So congratulations to Mauer and Sanchez, who join a long line of superstars in leading their leagues in batting average. Special nod to Mauer, who became the first catcher to lead the AL in batting average. And a reminder to us all that not every idea that existed before 1980 was necessarily a silly one.

Chat in an hour, predictions tomorrow…

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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