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October 19, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Two John Maines

by Joe Sheehan

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Ever since Billy Beane's famous comment in Moneyball-"My [expletive] doesn't work in the playoffs."-there's been a backlash against the idea that short series in the postseason are poor tools for judging the relative strength of teams. I think we were making progress in this area a few years ago, but since the notion has become so associated with the A's failures in the playoffs, it's perceived as making excuses for a nominally stathead favorite son.

The thing is, it's still true, and Beane's observation is still correct. Postseason baseball is just baseball with a slightly shorter list of contributors-the back end of the roster, especially among position players, doesn't play much-and more attention. The basics of the game are unchanged, and because baseball teams are separated by so little in terms of talent, and playoff teams by even less, the resuts we see in the postseason are not strong barometers of anything but how those teams played over the course of a week.

Think about it this way. Over the course of a season, if two teams are separated by 23 games-a 104-win team and a .500 team-that edge comes out to about one win a week. One team goes 4-3, the other goes 3-4. That difference is tiny-one game-but it adds up over the course of a season. In one week, though, those two teams are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Playoff matchups rarely occur between teams separated by that much. The NLCS, for example, features teams separated by 14 games in the standings, or about one win every two weeks. So the Mets would go 9-6, whereas the Cards would go 8-7. Over 15 games, that's nothing; a bloop here, a random good start there, an injury. Over a season, sustaining that gap is an indication that one team is better than the other. Over seven games, the gap between those two teams simply disappears, the edge that exists over 162 games vanishes, and you're left with teams that are essentially equivalent. That's what playoff baseball is: matchups between teams that become essentially equal.

This isn't about "luck," the catch-all term for this stuff that triggers an emotional reaction in people. It is, however, about understanding the things that go into winning or losing four games in your next seven. It's about the same things in October that it is in May: a bloop here, a random good start there, an injury. It's about who plays the best in a week's time, which bears little relationship to who might play the best in the next week's time, or over the course of the season.

I bring all of this up today because of John Maine. Maine has had a very interesting month: he was forced to start Game One of the Division Series because of the injury to Orlando Hernandez, and he pitched well despite being pulled before he was eligible for a win. He was matched up with Chris Carpenter in Game Two of the NLCS, but struggled with his command and left the game after four innings. Last night, he was again sent to the mound against Carpenter, and this time around was merely asked to save the Mets' season. He did, with 5 1/3 shutout innings.

Maine is the catalyst for this piece because of how he's pitched in October. The John Maine who was the Mets' best starter for much of the second half was a command pitcher, a guy with a better than 2:1 K/BB who had some trouble with the long ball (allowing a homer every six innings). The John Maine who's saved the Mets' bacon this month, the one who pitched last night, is nothing like that: he's walked 11 men in 13 1/3 innings, while allowing just one home run. Last night, Maine had a good start that was nothing like his regular season work, giving up just two hits while issuing four free passes.

The two John Maines are the exact same pitcher, of course, but you wouldn't know that from watching them or from their performance record. And the point about John Maine extends to David Wright, to Billy Wagner, to Scott Rolen and So Taguchi, to Kenny Rogers and Frank Thomas and, yes, to Alex Rodriguez: over the course of a few weeks, baseball players can perform in a manner that varies widely from their established level, and they can do so in either direction. October is no different from May in that regard, although we remember the swings in greater detail, and bestow labels like "clutch" and "choker," "hero" and "goat," based on what we see.

The Mets and Cardinals will play one game tonight to determine which team wins a pennant and gets to play for a World Championship. If one week of baseball isn't enough to differentiate two teams, one game certainly isn't. There is no way of predicting the outcome of a single game. We can examine the strengths and weaknesses of the teams as they've revealed themselves over 171 games, but as we've seen of late, what a player does over a full season doesn't tell us a whole lot about what he's going to do in his next inning, his next at-bat, on the next ball hit his way. Anything could happen tonight, and trying to analyze it in advance is largely a waste of time.

Billy shouldn't feel bad. My [expletive] doesn't work in the playoffs, either.

--

  • For me, the most notable thing about last night's game happened between innings, during an interview with Tony La Russa that aired during the top of the fifth. This is La Russa, talking about some blown opportunities against Maine:

    "We've had a couple of chances game like this you know next time we get one we gotta get a point…or more."

    A what???

    I spent, I am not kidding you, years trying to get Sophia to call the scores in a baseball game, "runs." Now she knows, and she just calls them "points" sometimes to get a rise out of me. (She'll also refer to the seventh-inning stretch as "halftime" and extra innings as "overtime" for the same reason.) Now, we have a manager who's probably going to the Hall of Fame, who possesses a law degree, who has changed the way the game has played, going on national television and saying his team needs to get some points?

  • The Cardinals have spent much of the postseason faking left field, using converted corner infielders like Chris Duncan and Scott Spiezio out there, with poor results. Duncan has repeatedly taken bad routes to balls and even dropped some in the Division Series. Spiezio looks awkward, and his misplay of a short fly ball to left with two outs in the seventh last night led to a pair of critical runs that, in the end, were the Mets' margin of victory.

    The thing is, the Cards have a good left fielder in So Taguchi who hasn't made an out since the season ended. Taguchi is four-for-four in the playoffs, adding a two-run double to his list of heroics last night. It doesn't mean anything, but given that the Cards' left fielders have been a defensive disaster, why not give him the start tonight against Oliver Perez? He's had success against lefties, he's even shown some pop, and you know he'll bring a glove out there.

  • There was another questionable decision on a send/hold call with a baserunner late in last night's game. After the Cards opened the ninth with two hits off of Billy Wagner, giving them second and third with no one out, Ronnie Belliard grounded weakly to third base. Juan Encarnacion held at third on the play, and Belliard was retired easily.

    Set aside the run-expectation table for a second and just consider the trade-offs. If you tell the runners not to move unless the ball gets through, a groundout like Belliard's is a sure out at first, leaving you second and third and one out. If you have the contact play on for both runners and Encarnacion gets thrown out at the plate, you have first and third and one out. The cost of starting the runners is one base, and one base down four runs is absolutely nothing.

    The important currency when you're down that many runs is outs. Losing an out is devastating, and you have to do all that you can to avoid doing so. If you start the runners on any ball on the ground, you create the possibility of a mistake by the fielder. Frankly, the Mets should be going to first no matter what you do, but if you can create a tag play, the chance of a mistake-the chance of saving a critical out-is high enough to warrant the risk of losing a base.

    By starting the runners, you trade a base for the chance of saving an out. When you're in the ninth inning, the only time you don't want to do that is if the base you'd be giving up is occupied by the tying run. In all other situations, you want to create a situation where you can possibly avoid the out.

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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