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September 25, 2007

Prospectus Today

Notes on a Monitor

by Joe Sheehan

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Cleaning out some of the notes populating a Word file titled, "September 25"…

  • I caught the Yankees' last regular-season home game Monday on a ridiculously beautiful fall day at the Stadium. Weather aside, I'm astounded at how the Yankees can open the doors on a Monday in September for a makeup game and get about 30,000 people to show up. It makes me wonder if they could do just about anything and fill the park, start a game at 2 a.m. or require people to stand for the entire game, or uglify the ballpark and jack ticket prices through the roof. I guess we'll find out about the last one soon enough…

    The game itself was fairly nondescript. Andy Pettitte pitched much better than his final line showed. With two on and one out in the second, Curtis Thigpen grounded a ball down the third-base line that Alex Rodriguez probably should have been able to knock down, although he would have had no play. The ball became a run-scoring double that left matters at second and third with one out. The next batter, Hector Luna, hit a ground ball that would have been a double play had the bases been loaded, but instead drove in the second run. Rodriguez's inability to make the play was directly responsible for the three runs scored in the inning. A fourth run later scored on a Derek Jeter error.

    Jesse Litsch, in for A.J. Burnett, was as effective as I've seen him, keeping the ball down all game long and throwing strikes, and showing off a very good breaking ball. Litsch looks like a tweener to me, someone who's main value to a team will be in not being a replacement-level pitcher. On Monday, helped along by a Yankee team that may have been looking ahead to its road trip, he was well above that.

    Burnett wasn't hurt, just taking the day off to deal with a family situation. It may be for the best. Despite Burnett's persistent inability to make 30 starts in a season, John Gibbons has been riding him since the right-hander came off of the DL: 110 pitches a start over eight starts, 118 a start over the last four. The Blue Jays' rotation has been a great story down the stretch, as Burnett, Dustin McGowan, and Roy Halladay have all pitched well, but to what end? Given that Burnett has no track record of durability, why push the envelope in a lost season, when you can pull back on the reins and hope to get a full season from him next year, when the Jays might make a run at contention? You can even ride the hell out of Burnett, because his five-year deal includes an opt-out after 2008, one that he will certainly exercise. The extra innings and pitches at the end of this season just don't have any value, but next year, they might. Why waste them?

    Speaking of risk/reward scenarios, the Yankees had their A-team on the field yesterday, more or less. In the fourth inning, Robinson Cano had an ill-advised meeting with the tarp down the right field line, and spent a couple of minutes on the ground, having banged his knee. He walked back to his position and completed the game, but it was a scary moment for the Yankees, and a reminder of what's at stake this last week. No, not the AL East title, which isn't very important, but the health of the players who will be playing in the Division Series and beyond.

    No one will remember, ten years from now, who won the AL East. They might remember, however, if one of the two teams loses the Division Series because a key player got hurt in the last week of the season while chasing an improvement in seeding an a "home field advantage" that is little more than statistical noise.

  • I feel like I'm supposed to write about Milton Bradley. I'm not sure what I can add here. Bradley made a fool of himself, losing his temper in such an over-the-top fashion that he created a situation that led to his getting injured. There's no defending his loss of control in that situation, and while I've defended Bradley in the past-the incident at Dodger Stadium in which he confronted people who'd thrown a bottle at him comes to mind-I'm not inclined to do so here. He let his anger drive the situation, and for that, he'll now be sidelined into the middle of next season, and his teammates will play on without their best hitter for no good reason. I can't reasonably release Bradley from his responsibility in this mess.

    With that said, I'm genuinely curious as to where the story goes from here. First base umpire Mike Winters was clearly being vocal with Bradley, and by some accounts, he was being insulting and baiting the player. If the worst-case scenario is true-Winters used racial invective-the umpire should be fired in the most public manner possible. If he simply escalated the situation by not maintaining his composure and pursuing inciteful dialogue with Bradley, then he should be suspended and reprimanded. The baiting of players by umpires, whether an inability to shut up, or following players as they're walking away, or long, meaningful stares, has gotten well out of control this season. Umpires, however difficult the job, have a duty to the game to defuse conflicts, not entice them. The Winters/Bradley incident was, sad to say, inevitable given the standard stance of the current crop of umpires.

    I fear that because the player involved was Bradley, with his long history of problems containing his anger, the actions of Winters will be lost in shuffle. It is important that MLB address Winters' behavior without regard to the player involved, without allowing the presence of a lightning rod who acted a fool to distract them from finding out what happened and acting accordingly.

    It would also behoove them to do so quickly. Given the aggressive stance of umpires towards players coupled with their absolutely abysmal performances across both leagues this year, I fear that we're headed for at least one nightmare in the postseason. I fully expect to see at least one high-profile incident, whether a Doug Eddings mistake in the moment, an Eric Gregg strike zone that ruins a game, or something even uglier that shifts focus from the men playing the game to the ones judging it. I hope I'm wrong, but nothing I've seen from the men in blue this year leads me to optimism.

  • I've lost count of the number of times I've written off the Atlanta Braves, but with six games to go, they almost control their own destiny in the Wild Card race. Three games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres, they get to take on the Phillies this week at Citizens Bank Park (I'll be there for Thursday's game). If they run the table, they'll still need to get help from the teams playing the Padres and Rockies.

    The Braves are still alive because they kept playing even after their season looked done. They were 9 ˝ games behind the Mets after dropping two of three to them two weeks ago, and were 5 ˝ gams behind San Diego in the Wild Card chase on September 15. They've won seven of eight since then, buoyed by some excellent pitching-just 22 runs allowed in the eight games-to put themselves in position to make a late run. Remember, this was the consensus favorite for the Wild Card at the trade deadline, after they added Mark Teixeira and some relief help. The back end of the rotation weighed them down for almost the entire second half, and Andruw Jones never had the bounceback that many people, myself included, expected.

    In spite of all that, the Braves are still alive. They have their three best starters going this week in Philly, and may have the best starting pitcher in five of their remaining six games. They have a chance, and after 156 games, that's about all you can hope for.

    I think it's worth mentioning the importance of geography here. The Braves actually have a better record than both the Cubs and Brewers, who are fighting for first place in the NL Central. Were the NL organized strictly along geographic lines-rather then with a nod towards history and rivalry-the Braves might well be in the Central, displacing the Cincinnati Reds. It's not terribly important, but it does demonstrate just how much of our perception of a team's fortune is shaped by context. The Braves are better than the Brewers, and arguably better than the Cubs, but that doesn't do them a whit of good when they have to beat out the Phillies, Padres and Rockies. The three-division, four-playoff-team format is really no more fair than the one that came before it. The lines are just drawn in different places.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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