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October 4, 2006

Prospectus Today

Division Series, Day One

by Joe Sheehan

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Athletics/Twins

The big story was the continuing tear of Frank Thomas, who hit two homers to account for the early lead and the insurance run in the ninth inning. What is most impressive about the two shots is how different the pitches were, and how they showed the broad range of Thomas' still-impressive batting skills.

Leading off the second, Thomas worked the count to 3-1 against Johan Santana and yanked a high change-up down the left-field line. This was a strength homer. He was a little out in front, the pitch was offspeed, and he used his power to drive it into the seats. His ninth-inning blast against Jesse Crain was completely different: he caught up to a 96-mph fastball in on his hands and yanked a line drive out. That was a bat-speed homer. That Thomas can succeed against both of those pitches is a sign that he's retained most of his skill at the plate. His 2006 may not be a last gasp, but the start of a last act.

The second homer might not have happened if Ken Macha had been listening to me. When Thomas singled to right to open the seventh, I thought he was going to pinch-run for the DH, especially after Michael Cuddyer tried to throw him out at first on the line-drive hit. Thomas eventually reached third, and when he was unable to score on a one-out fly ball by Marco Scutaro, the decision to leave him in looked costly.

This was one of those questions that had no right answer, something you see a lot in close playoff games. Macha doesn't have a real burner on his bench, and Thomas was almost guaranteed another plate appearance in the game. Taking Thomas out dramatically changes the A's lineup, enough so that it really should only be done in the ninth inning or later if Thomas is the tying or winning run. Macha 1, Sheehan 0.

That three runs was enough to beat the Twins is a discredit to their collective approach at the plate. With due respect to Barry Zito, the Twins played the game as if the Minnesota Golden Gophers got the gym at 3:00. Eighteen of the 34 batters they sent to the plate saw no more than two pitches. Zito averaged 16.6 pitches an inning this season; he didn't throw more than 14 in any inning Tuesday. That's hacktastic.

Want more? The Twins saw fewer than 10 pitches in three of their nine turns at bat. After Jason Bartlett's leadoff double in the eighth, the Twins went through their last seven batters, six outs, on 13 pitches, the last seven from Huston Street. The Twins lost this game because they scored just two runs, and they scored just two runs because they swung like the Saturday night crowd at Plato's Retreat.

The sequence that followed the double was critical. Ron Gardenhire has small-ball leanings; he'd already called for a first-inning steal that failed, and Nick Punto had sacrificed-while push-bunting for a hit-in the fourth. Gardenhire had Luis Castillo square to bunt Bartlett over. Castillo missed, and Bartlett was nearly picked off of second. After a ball, Castillo grounded out to third, freezing Bartlett. According to Scott Merkin at MLB.com, Gardenhire wanted Castillo to bunt, which was absolutely the right decision at that point. The sacrifice is an overused tactic, but one of the situations in which it makes sense is as the home team, down a run, tying run on second, nobody out in the eighth or later. Castillo's failure to get the bunt down or advance Bartlett was a terrible breach.

(Yeah, a BP guy just defended the sacrifice bunt. Blink already.)

The Twins should have had a runner on third, one out, and a contact hitter facing a pitcher who had posted just one strikeout on the day. Tie the game, and a host of options become available. Instead, Punto grounded to second on two pitches, Joe Mauer flied to left on one, and the rally was over. The ninth inning had its dramatics; Thomas' home run made it a two-run game, which enabled the A's to survive Milton Bradley's Terrence Long moment in the ninth, when he lost Michael Cuddyer's fly ball in the roof. The ensuing triple led to a harmless run and the 3-2 final score.

Gardenhire had the bunt on, his player failed. That decision can't be laid at his feet. The choice of Crain to pitch the ninth is something he should have to answer for. Crain is either the third- or fourth-best right-handed reliever in the Twins' pen, certainly the fourth-best against right-handers. Juan Rincon had warmed up earlier, and using him to protect a one-run deficit would have been optimal. If a tactical approach was preferred, Gardenhire could have used righty-killer Pat Neshek to get Thomas, then played out the rest of the inning matchup-style. Crain was almost certainly the worst option, and the run he allowed turned out to be critical. In a five-game series with an off day, there's just no reason to go three names deep on the list in a one-run game. Use Rincon, and if there's a tenth inning, you can go to Nathan, or Reyes, or…hey, who cares, you got to the tenth inning!

You have to win the game you're playing. That means using your very best players unless you have a damn good reason not to do so.

--

  • Bartlett was involved in two plays that looked critical at the time, but in retrospect were meaningless. His seventh-inning error on a double-play grounder turned a two-out, none-on situation into two on and no one out. To get geeky for a minute, the error improved the run expectancy of the A's that inning from a ninth of a run to 1.6 runs. How'd you like to make a mistake that makes it 17 times as likely your company will fail?

    Santana pitched around the miscue, although the extra 15 or so pitches he threw from the stretch that inning could be the difference between him being daisy-fresh for Game Four and not.

    Bartlett then roped the double down the left-field line to start the eighth, a potentially redemptive moment, but he was stranded by the hitters behind him.

  • The A's ability to make hard contact-not their strongest suit as a team-against a great pitcher was key to the game. Thomas' home runs were key, but so were the single by Jay Payton and RBI double by Marco Scutaro. Those are the hits the team struggled to get for the first third of the season.

  • Let's hear it for big ball! Five runs in this game: three solo homers, an RBI double, and a triple with no one out. Manufactured runs: zero. Discussion of this contrast: zero.

    Long-sequence offenses don't work in the postseason, because the pitchers don't allow enough baserunners. You have to hit the ball far while maximizing every plate appearance. At the extremes, a tactic designed to get one run can be valuable, but in general, you win with extra-base hits and crooked numbers. Getting a one-run lead is nice, but getting a three-run lead can end a game.

Padres/Cardinals

I'd written yesterday about how this series looked a lot like last year's. Well, it looked a lot like it in Game One, too: Chris Carpenter pitched really well, Jake Peavy didn't, the Cards played longball and some late Padres' rallies failed to close the gap. For it to be any more similar, Peavy would have to cop to a broken rib.

At any given moment in time, someone, somewhere is taking a baseball player's performance at his job and extrapolating from that performance character traits. It's like judging a book by reading one line on page 146, and about as entertaining. Clutch is a belief system, not a skill. Clutch performances, however, are very real; some plate appearances, innings, plays, games have higher leverage than others, and converting them can make the difference between a win and a loss.

That's what we saw yesterday. The Cardinals won because they did better in high-leverage situations than the Padres did. The Padres might be the better team by any number of measures, but the Cardinals were better yesterday, and they're up 1-0 in the series.

Take the bottom of the first inning. Dave Roberts opened the game with a single off of Chris Carpenter on a 3-2 pitch. Brian Giles worked a 2-2 count and fouled off a pitch. Already, you had Carpenter having long at-bats, working from the stretch and struggling with left-handed hitters, The Padres seemed to be off to a good start. On the sixth pitch he saw, though, Giles hit a ball that bounced straight down and into fair territory. Yadier Molina pounced-there really is no other word for his movement-on it and started a 2-6-3 double play that killed the inning.

In the top of the fourth of a scoreless game, Albert Pujols had the AB of the day, Down 1-2, he fouled off some tough pitches and fought to 3-2, then deposited a fastball to one of the deepest parts of Petco Park for a two-run homer. The Cards added a third run in the inning to take a 3-0 lead.

In the bottom of the frame, the Pads started up again. Roberts singled again on 3-2 and Giles followed with a bloop to left for a hit. With two on, no one out and the middle of the order up, the Padres look set to get back into the game Carpenter, however, ran the count to 3-2 on each of the next three hitters and retired them all; he struck out Adrian Gonzalez and Russell Branyan on the same 3-2 curve low and in, sandwiched around a 3-2 fastball that Mike Piazza grounded to shortstop for a forceout.

Runners on, no one out, payoff pitches, and Carpenter came out ahead every time. The entire game was like that. The Padres were 1-for-9 with runners on base, 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. They loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, but couldn't even muster a single run as Mark Bellhorn struck out and Todd Walker grounded to second. Every high-leverage moment swung the way of the guys in gray.

The Cardinals pitched better, hit better and fielded better, and suddenly, the last two weeks of the season seem like a long, long time ago.

--

  • Right before Pujols' blast, he fouled a ball off behind the plate that Mike Piazza appeared to make an error on. Upon further review-and some great camera work by ESPN-it was clear that the ball nicked the screen on the way down. That's a dead ball, no error. Piazza didn't make a misplay that led to the Pujols homer, and criticism of him for doing so is mistaken.

  • In Carpenter's last two starts, Tony La Russa rode him in situations where he might have been better off going to the bullpen. That bullpen, of late responsible for more runs than a $2.99 buffet, was considered a significant weak link for the Cardinals coming into the series. The sooner the Cards could get Carpenter off the mound, the better it would be for the chances.

    So when, in the seventh inning, Carpenter allowed a triple and a walk with one out, La Russa was once again in a bind. His ace was just over 100 pitches and showing signs of fatigue again, just as he had a week ago in St. Louis against the same Padres, just as he had the start before in Houston. Ride him, or close your eyes and open door #2?

    La Russa chose the door. He pulled Carpenter in favor of lefty Tyler Johnson, who promptly hit Josh Bard with a breaking ball to load the bases. Ruh-roh. But that was all. Johnson got out of the inning with a strikeout and a groundout. He and Adam Wainwright would combine for 2 2/3 innings of one-hit baseball, striking out four and walking none.

    Given Carpenter's significant platoon splits and recent late-game fades, La Russa made the right decision. For the first time in a while, though, his relievers came up big in a close game. Wainwright has now string together a few good outings in a row, and appears to be the closer, and one not limited by the boundaries of that particular rule. Johnson is an effective lefty specialist, which will come in handy if Bochy continues to bat three lefties atop his order.

  • Johnson was helped directly by getting to face a couple of poor hitters, and indirectly by Bruce Bochy's egregiously bad choices is forming his playoff roster. After pinch-hitter Bard was plunked to load the bases, Bochy sent up Mark Bellhorn to bat for the pitcher in the #8 slot (Bochy had double-switched Josh Barfield out of the game in the sixth, in itself a highly questionable move). Bellhorn, long a stathead favorite, has been useless for two seasons. His entire value is in his bat, and he hit .190/.285/.344 this year, after a .210/.324/.357 season in '05. He doesn't run or field or have a valuable platoon split. Geoff Blum was actually a better player this year, and at least Manny Alexander plays some defense.

    Bellhorn should have been Ben Johnson, but Johnson isn't on this roster. Bochy shoehorned Ryan Klesko, with all of four at-bats this year, on to a roster that is just teeming with left-handed batters and no one from the right side to protect them. Klesko is never going to play the field and there's absolutely no telling what kind of hitter he is. Other than that, he's pretty valuable as a bench player.

    Heck, Bellhorn could have been Khalil Greene, who came in to play defense anyway, except Greene went six weeks without seeing a competitive pitch and can't really hold a bat in his hands.

    Let's review: Bochy has two players on his playoff roster with a combined seven at-bats since August 17, one of whom has no chance of playing the field, the other may or may not be able to bat. He has two slow utility infielders who play shortstop poorly and had sub-.300 OBPs this year. He has three catchers-actually defensible, since one of them is a major defensive liability. He has a pitcher who appeared once since August 16 in Chan Ho Park. His roster consists of nearly as many long relievers (two), and just as many catchers, as it does real outfielders (three).

    That's why Tyler Johnson got to face not only Bellhorn and his fork, but Todd Walker, who batted .204 against lefties this year. Ballgame.

    Bochy's roster is set up for La Russa to absolutely drill him from the sixth inning on in any game. I fully expect Bochy to end up having to pinch-hit with Park, or put Russ Branyan at shortstop, or insert himself into the game. Had I any idea Bochy would leave himself such a worthless bench-Johnson, Sledge and Alexander all at least do things-I would have rethought my prediction. This is a horrible bench, and it could end up being the difference in the series.

Yankees/Tigers

Form finally held in the last game of the day, as the Yankees unveiled their full complement of zillionaires for just the second time. Much was made before the game of the decision to bat Alex Rodriguez sixth, with Gary Sheffield fourth. Of course, we know now, after the Sports Illustrated piece, that Joe Torre is on board with the people who feel that Rodriguez is having the worst 915 OPS, 35-homer season ever. It happens; I once believed that the graphic for a local TV station was coming to get me in my sleep.

I eventually turned five and got over it.

Torre handwaved the lineup, which might have worked if it wasn't so silly. Rodriguez out-hit Sheffield this year, and played four times as much. Batting him sixth calls attention to Rodriguez; batting him fourth wouldn't have. Which is the better way to alleviate pressure?

To a certain extent, Torre's job is just to make sure he doesn't lose the lineup card on the way to home plate, because whatever order he puts his nine in, they're going to score runs. Not only are the Yankees loaded with bats, they have amazing balance that inures them to tactical relief usage. Going L/R/L/R/L/R/L/S/L is about as close to perfect as you can get. Even against Nate Robertson, who being a southpaw was presumed to have an advantage, the Yankees put up seven runs in six innings, roping line-drive hit after double after homer, with the lefties doing much of the damage. Derek Jeter had one of the great postseason games ever, going 5-for-5 with three extra-base hits. After the game, NewsCorp renamed its U.S. broadcast television network "Jeter," and announced plans to relocate to channel 2 in all markets. "There was really nothing else left for us to do," said a spokesman.

A crowded bandwagon is a very dangerous place to be, but the early coronation of the Yankees as a decided favorite to win the World Series looks downright reasonable after last night. They're going to accidentally score five runs a night, and if they get warmed up, the sky is the limit.

The problems may come on the other side of the ball. Joe Torre has done his best work when he's had a reliable, push-button bullpen. In fact, the Yankees lack of World Championships since 2000 may be related to the breakup of the Jeff Nelson/Mike Stanton/Mariano Rivera group that turned so many postseason games into six-inning affairs. Torre has struggled with his postseason bullpens ever since, sometimes assembling them strangely (three lefty relievers against the 2003 Marlins), sometimes pushing then too hard (Tom Gordon in 2004), sometimes violating the warranty by putting spare parts in critical situations (Aaron Small and Tanyon Sturtze in 2005).

Torre is already up against it this year because of Rivera's shoulder. The Cyborg Reliever will only be used in one-inning stints for the time being, relieving Torre of his escape hatch in the eighth. When you consider how the aggressive use of Rivera has been a constant for a decade of Yankee playoff teams, this is a serious blow to Torre's game plan.

The limitations on Rivera are what made last night's decisions so strange. With a 7-3 lead and one out in the seventh inning, Torre lifted a cruising Chien-Ming Wang, who'd thrown just 93 pitches and retired six straight batters after a brief bout with elevating pitches in the fifth, to bring in Mike Myers. It was mildly peculiar, but defensible because of the timing; the Tigers had two lefties coming up in the next three hitters, the only spot in their lineup where that would happen. Myers would face Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco and Sean Casey, then give way to a righty for the parade of righty bats (and Carlos Guillen) that followed.

It didn't happen that way, though. Myers allowed a long home run to Granderson to make it 7-4, and Torre pulled him immediately for Scott Proctor, who allowed back-to-back singles before getting Magglio Ordonez to end the inning. Proctor, by the way, threw 102 1/3 innings over 83 appearances this year, and reasons passing understanding, pitched in Sunday's season finale. Maybe he needed the work.

I have been over and over this sequence, and I still don't understand it. Wang was pitching well and no where near a high pitch count, but Torre decided he wanted the platoon advantage. Like I said, bringing in Myers to face Granderson is as leveraged a spot as the Tigers' lineup allows. If it was only going to be Granderson, though, then what's the point? Why play righty/lefty games for one batter in an incredibly low-leverage situation with a 7-3 lead? Doesn't Myers have to face Casey to make the move worthwhile? Otherwise, you've gained almost nothing and burnt two pitchers.

There's a cliché attached to the use of multiple relievers in a game, something along the lines of "if you keep doing that, eventually you'll find the one who doesn't have it that day." This isn't 1999, and Torre doesn't have his life preserver if he gets in too deep. Diddling around with Myers and Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth-who was something less than solid in getting through the eighth-and is just asking for trouble.

Torre capped the night by using Rivera with a four-run lead in the ninth. If he is on restriction, then that seems like a waste of the innings he can give you. And it all goes back to the decision to remove Wang. If he completes the seventh, it's one fewer out you have to get, and perhaps the 8-4 lead would have been 8-3, and Torre would have been able to get by with a lesser pitcher in the ninth.

Like Bochy's assembly of a bench, Torre's use of relievers last night doesn't turn on one decision. It's a series of decisions, each making the situation a little worse. Bochy's mistake helped cost him a game; Torre's didn't, at least for one night, but you can see where things could go wrong on a different evening. Just because you expect to score seven runs a night doesn't mean you get a pass on the rest of the decisions.

--

  • I want to take the Tigers seriously, but Sean Casey batted third last night.

  • Jim Leyland appears to have forgotten his personnel. The Tigers stole 60 bases at a 60% success rate this year, . Because no one wrote a book about the team, though, it seems to have escaped accusations of being slow, fundamentally unsound, a "softball team," and a threat to the sanctity of competitive sports. They even had Matt Stairs around for a while, but no one took the bait.

    Despite having a team so slow that school busses brake for it, Leyland is apparently going to play the ALDS as if he had the 1985 Cardinals. He had Magglio Ordonez and his wig light out for third base with two on and no one out in the second inning. Ordonez just got there a few minutes ago, actually. The play short-circuited a start to an inning-Wang had allowed a double and a walk-and an hour later, the game was basically over.

    Playing small ball, doing silly things in the pursuit of one run, is a bad idea in almost all cases early in a game. It's especially dumb when you're playing a team that is going to score four runs if your staff has a really good night, and seven if they're just average. You need to beat a team like that with crooked numbers, not one at a time. You can't run into outs; you have to just keep swinging the bat. The Tigers scored this year by hitting homers. That's not going to suddenly change because its October. If Leyland continues to force the issue, he's going to make it harder, not easier, to pull the upset.

  • Alex Belth had a nice piece on Wang for SI.com. There's a pretty broad range of opinions on his future, with mine included in there.

    We saw the good and bad of Wang last night. For most of the game, he worked down in the zone, got ground balls and a lot of early-count balls in play. In spurts, though, he'd lose location; when he does that, he doesn't walk guys, he just leaves fastballs up in the zone, and they get hammered. Wang allowed some fly balls in the fourth, and then a few more in the fifth that led to a homer, two doubles and three runs in total. Just as quickly, he pulled it together and didn't allow another ball out of the infield until he left the game.

    Ball down, outs. Ball up, runs.

--

Today, I think we'll see more runs in at least two games, maybe all three. Esteban Loaiza has no history of success in Minnesota, and the Twins should bring a different approach after giving away so many at-bats yesterday. The NL swaps out Padres/Cards for Mets/Dodgers, and the Mets might be down to their third, fourth or even fifth starter after the news that Orlando Hernandez has a calf problem. It looks like Endy Chavez and his insane range will ride the pine as well. The Dodgers look a little bit better every day.

The Yankees have to face Justin Verlander, a terrific right-hander whose arm may have checked out for the year. If it hasn't, you're still looking at a rough matchup. The Tigers may fare better against Mike Mussina, a flyball righty who occasionally leaves a lot of breaking balls up in the zone, manna from heaven for the Tigers right-handed power. 8-4 could be the score at the end of six innings.

I have to do an ESPNews hit in Anaheim a little after noon, but will hustle back and catch up on the games, posting updates throughout the day.

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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