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October 4, 2007

Prospectus Today

Division Series, Day One

by Joe Sheehan

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Three baseball games, five good to great starts, and just 14 runs scored, with the high mark being six. When you get this much starting pitching, it limits the amount of tactics displayed, and subsequently, the topics to write about. Let's go to the videotape…

Rockies/Phillies

One bad inning is all it takes when you have two evenly matched teams, and these two teams are as evenly matched as you'll find. Cole Hamels, who was effective in the first and terrific from the third inning forward, struggled with his command, especially command of his fastball, in the second. Hamels made 40 of his 115 pitches in the second, going to two-ball counts on six of the nine hitters he faced. The end result was three runs on three hits and three walks, the last of which came with the bases loaded and gave the Rockies a 3-0 lead. Hamels would subsequently blame his choice of a long-sleeved shirt, which he said made him too warm, created sweat, and prevented him from gripping his pitches correctly.

We should give special mention to the last two batters of the inning. Kaz Matsui had a nice plate appearance, fouling off a 3-2 pitch and taking ball four low to load the bases. Troy Tulowitzki then fell behind 0-2 before drawing his own walk, taking a couple of close pitches-there's an argument that Hamels was squeezed here-to force in a run. That was a critical walk for the Rockies, who thanks to that run were never caught by the Phillies.

Jeff Francis never struggled the way Hamels did. Facing a very tough Phillies lineup, he allowed two solo homers and little else, pitching six solid innings. Where Hamels had command issues, Francis was completely in control, striking out eight and walking just two, allowing just one baserunner to get as far as second base in his appearance. The two runs the Phillies got on solo homers…let's just say they weren't crushed. Aaron Rowand seemed to stick out the bat and connect on an outside fastball for an opposite-field shot, while Pat Burrell's homer was a lazy fly ball that just carried; I watched him hit one of those in person last week. Both homers were as much a function of the park as anything else. Francis pitched very well yesterday, giving the Rockies exactly what they needed to open a series that will not often be decided by the starters.

  • Jimmy Rollins grounded into just 11 double plays this season in 778 PA. Rollins has good speed, bats leadoff (behind the bottom of the lineup), and hits the ball in air, so he's not a candidate to hit into a ton. So doubling him up to get out of the third inning was a neat trick by Francis.
  • Once again, Clint Hurdle made the head-scratcher of the day, letting Francis bat in the top of the seventh, sending him to the mound between innings, then pulling him for LaTroy Hawkins. With a one-run lead, you have to try and a runner on first, you have to try to pick up an insurance run by sending a better hitter up there, especially if you've decided that your pitcher is done for the day. Letting Francis hit and then pulling him is the worst of all decisions there, suffering the pitcher's AB for no benefit at all.

    Perhaps Hurdle would have hit for Francis if he wasn't carrying 12 freaking pitchers. The Rockies have to play a maximum of five games over seven days, and just two of those games will come without a day of rest before them. How in heaven's name do you put 12 pitchers on the roster to play five games? Even conceding that we're dealing with Coors Field and Citizens Bank Park here, is there any justification at all for carrying Mark Redman, who's just awful, rather than a hitter like Ian Stewart? Even 11 pitchers is stretching it, although the hitters' parks involved here justify that to some extent.

    It worked out last night, but I'm telling you that the ghosts of Lance Painter and Don Baylor are hanging around this series, just aching for a chance to make themselves heard. Hurdle's roster construction is just nuts for a Division Series.

  • On the other hand, the Phillies' roster is assembled logically, with 10 pitchers and 15 batsmen. The Phillies' bench is ridiculously strong; everyone does something, down to Abraham Nunez (d-reps for the lousy-glove platoon at third) and Chris Coste (third catcher who makes for an excellent bat off the bench).

    I've watched a lot of Phillies' games over the last month, and I have to say that I don't recognize this version of Charlie Manuel. He's become a fairly strong tactical manager-I loved seeing him send Carlos Ruiz on a steal attempt with two outs in the fifth yesterday and Jimmy Rollins batting with two strikes; the breakeven there is around 15 percent--and he's assembled, with Pat Gillick, a very nice roster.

  • I suspect we'll see a few more runs scored today, but keep in mind two things-Franklin Morales is a tough lefty, and the Phillies can be susceptible to tough lefties. Also, Citizens Bank Park's hitting background is a light brick color. ESPN.com's Keith Law pointed out that in the afternoon, with the sun catching it a certain way, the visibility for hitters is pretty lousy. That may keep scoring down.

Angels/Red Sox

Josh Beckett simply owned this game, pounding the strike zone against an Angels team that was all too willing to give him outs early in the count. Beckett, who made dramatic improvements across the board this season to become one of the two best starters in the AL, was never threatened in the course of throwing a 108-pitch shutout. He struck out eight, walked no one, retired 19 in a row at one point, and allowed just two runners past first base all night.

John Lackey, on the other hand, got smacked around, allowing a double and two homers, the second a David Ortiz two-run job that essentially put the game away in the fourth inning. On another day, his six-inning, four-run effort might have been enough for a win. Last night, against Beckett, it wasn't going to be close to enough.

This game was played in a snappy 2:27, which is about the bare minimum for a postseason game nowadays given the extra nine to ten minutes of commercials we get (I'm not complaining, just pointing it out), and the way the games seem to drag a bit. The Angels averaged 12 pitches an inning and 3.5 pitches/PA, the latter not far from their regular-season mark. They just couldn't make any kind of hard contact off of Beckett, rendering their put-it-in-play approach useless. We actually saw this two years ago in the ALCS, when the White Sox starters beat the Angels by throwing good strikes; those games were low-scoring and quick as well. Because they don't walk or hit homers, the Angels need nine or ten hits to score four runs. They got four last night, and no more than one in any inning. They were simply beaten by Beckett

  • Both teams have a 15/10 roster split, mercifully. The Red Sox put third catcher Kevin Cash on the roster, which should allow them to run Jacoby Ellsbury or Alex Cora for a catcher if the situation dictates it. The Sox may be wasting a roster spot on Doug Mirabelli, given that his primary value is as Tim Wakefield's catcher, and Wakefield isn't on the roster due to a back problem. This may be a case of wanting to avoid clubhouse problems, and in fairness, there's no obvious position-player replacement for Mirabelli. (It's interesting when teams that usually use a 13/12 split find themselves needing to fill out the roster differently.)

    The Angels went with Nathan Haynes in the final spot. That gives them an extra outfielder to pinch-run and d-rep for Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero, both of whom need the help.

  • Much is being made of Gary Matthews Jr.'s absence, but I don't see it as a big deal. Matthews reverted to form this year, dropping the 50 points of batting average that earned him $50 million, and going back to being a fourth outfielder, with a .252/.323/.419 line that is indistinguishable from his .261/.334/.419 career marks. The loss of Matthews gets Maicer Izturis (.289/.349/.405) into the lineup, upgrading the defense at third base at a cost of some arm in the outfield (Chone Figgins to right field, Reggie Willits to center).

    Matthews Jr. simply isn't that good a player. He's a fourth outfielder who perfectly timed his career year, and even then, it was really just a batting-average spike, because nothing else changed in 2006.

  • I was a bit puzzled by some of Mike Scioscia's moves late in the game. In the eighth inning, with the Angels down 4-0, a runner on first and one out, Scioscia sent Erick Aybar up for Mike Napoli. Down four you need baserunners; Napoli had a .351 OBP this year, Aybar .304. Platoon issue? Napoli was .344 against righties, Aybar .259. Beckett was about 40 points tougher on righties, which would be something to exploit with a good hitter. Erick Aybar isn't that guy.

    One batter later, one Aybar out later, Scioscia sent up Kendry Morales for Reggie Willits, again trading away OBP, this time for pop. The argument here, I guess, is that with two outs you want to play for the long ball. I would argue that the Angels' chance of winning the game was almost identical to their chance of getting to Vladimir Guerrero with runners on base. Willits and his near-.400 OBP would have helped that effort.

  • It's possible that Scioscia just wanted to get two of his young players into a postseason game in case he needed them in a higher-leverage situation at some point, but I think in doing so, he reduced his team's already slim chance of winning the game they were playing. I think the world of Mike Scioscia, so I'm probably bending over backwards to find a reason for his decisions. Commence firing.

  • One last Scioscia note. There's no amount of "second leadoff hitter" synergy by which it makes sense to bat Orlando Cabrera second and Reggie Willits ninth. He's been doing it for a while, and it doesn't make sense. Even aside from the 50 points' difference in OBP, there's Willits being a left-handed batter with good speed, making him less of a double-play threat, and a player who takes pitches as a matter of course, giving Chone Figgins a chance to run. Maybe lineups don't matter much, but that doesn't mean crafting the wrong one makes sense, either.

Cubs/Diamondbacks

Ah, the fun of analysis. At 4:50 p.m. yesterday, I went on ESPNews and argued that the Cubs' bullpen was better than the Diamondbacks' bullpen because the Cubs had Carlos Marmol and the Diamondbacks didn't, and Carlos Marmol was an amazing pitcher. At 11:57 p.m., Marmol entered a tied game in the seventh, and at 11:59 p.m., the game was untied. Marmol put a fastbal lin the middle of the plate, and Mark Reynolds flat-out crushed it. Marmol would allow another run on a walk and a double, and take the loss in a 3-1 game.

Obviously, I'll stand by my analysis. Marmol treated the NL this year like a hot girl treats a nerd, posting a 1.43 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. He just made a bad pitch at the wrong time, and paid for it. He's still the best reliever in this series, capable of going two innings without giving up any contact, much less any hits, and I expect him to be a key cog for the Cubs over the next few games.

Lou Piniella took some criticism for removing Carlos Zambrano, who was pitching well, after six innings to bring in Marmol. Piniella has designs on bringing Zambrano back for Game Four on Sunday, and wanted to avoid having his ace work too deep into last night's game. Beating up Piniella for this is ridiculous. It's results-based analysis. On a per-inning basis, Marmol pitched circles around Zambrano this season, and the difference between a fresh Marmol and a six-innings-in Zambrano is greater than their statistics indicate. By making the switch, Piniella was upgrading the pitcher on the mound and setting up the back of the series. That it didn't work out is just one of those things, but the decision was not only defensible, it was optimal.

Piniella, frankly, had a great night, from starting Geovany Soto behind the plate to using Jacque Jones in the two hole to letting Zambrano swing away in the fifth. Soto is better than Jason Kendall at batting and throwing, and whatever game-management or defensive edges Kendall may have over the rookie, those edges don't mean much compared to what Soto provides.

Letting Zambrano swing was one of those decisions that probably goes unnoticed. After Mark Reynolds' throwing error gave the Cubs a runner on second and no one out, down a run, Zambrano stepped up. For probably 75 percent of the managers around baseball, this would be a bunting situation; get the tying run to third with less than two outs. Even a good hitter for a pitcher, like Zambrano, would normally be asked to lay one down.

In this case, however, swinging away was a terrific play. The Cubs were going to need at least two runs to win the game, making a one-run strategy limiting. Zambrano, a left-handed batter against the right-handed groundballer, was a better than good bet to hit a ground ball to the right side that would advance the runner anyway. If Zambrano found his way on base, the Cubs would have a rally underway with the top of their lineup up. Finally, the cost-the possible loss of a base if Zambrano didn't advance the runner-would be tiny when measured against all of the benefit.

See, what never gets discussed is that the knee-jerk pitcher sacrifice isn't a one-run strategy, and isn't a positive attempt to generate a run. It's a one-out strategy, designed to minimize the damage a pitcher can do at the plate. When a pitcher comes up with a runner on first and less than two outs, the reason he bunts is simple: to stay out of the double play. A typical pitcher will strike out often, and when he doesn't, he'll hit a weak ground ball somewhere. It's the double-play threat that drives the reflexive bunting. This is, in fact, the correct approach to minimize the damage a pitcher will do.

In non-DP situations-runner on second, less than two out-pitchers should almost never bunt unless the runner at second is the tying run, the game is in the sixth or later, and the likelihood of a strikeout is high. Trading even a 20 percent chance of a baserunner for the benefit of moving up a runner from second to third is a bad trade-off. Better to let the pitcher swing away, risking a strikeout while potentially getting a baserunner, with the runner possibly advancing anyway on a weak grounder to first or second.

Piniella's decision was made easier by having Zambrano at the plate, but it would have been sensible with Ted Lilly up there was well. It didn't work out-Zambrano lined out to Stephen Drew at shortstop, and the Cubs went on to not score-but it was the right decision. As a manager, all you can do is keep making the right decisions. The rest is out of your control.

Brandon Webb was just terrific. Even the run he allowed in the sixth, one set up by two walks, happened because his stuff was just so nasty he couldn't keep it in the strike zone. He pitched out of a couple of jams, once by striking out the top of the Cubs' lineup in order, and allowed just four fly balls in his seven innings. The Cubs, a free-swinging, heavily right-handed bunch, are a good matchup for Webb, who eats righties alive and persists in working down and away. The surprise wasn't that he won last night; the surprise was that he allowed a run in doing so.

Here's hoping he gets another start. Even up 1-0 in the series, the Diamondbacks aren't a great bet to stretch the series to five games, in part because Bob Melvin has set up his rotation oddly. Today, the D'backs will start Doug Davis, who's the opposite of Webb in that he's a command-challenged lefty without great stuff. If there's a pitcher the Cubs are set up to crush, it's the southpaw who goes 2-0 on half the batters he faces. Saturday, the Diamondbacks run Livan Hernandez to the mound. Hernandez has a big-game, high-quality reputation that belies his pedestrian stuff and unimpressive performance record-247 hits, 34 homers, 79 walks, and 90 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings, and 85 runs allowed in his last 131 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, Micah Owings isn't scheduled to pitch until Game Four. Owings is much better than Hernandez, and no worse than the equal of Davis, and a better matchup than Davis against the Cubs. Holding him back until Game Four is inexplicable; if the Diamondbacks had lost last night, they'd be looking at exiting the Division Series in three games without ever having used their second-best starting pitcher. I understand that people within the game value experience highly, but when doing so causes you to slot Livan Hernandez ahead of Micah Owings, it's time to re-evaluate your processes.

--

Look for more runs today, as the dropoff in the caliber of starting pitching is stark in the two Game Twos, and both are being played in good to great hitters' parks. Also, look for C.C. Sabathia to have a start that would have fit in comfortably with what we saw yesterday. Chien-Ming Wang will also pitch well, but not quite well enough.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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