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October 5, 2007

Prospectus Today

Division Series, Day Two

by Joe Sheehan

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Wednesday: three games, 14 runs, seven hours and 53 minutes of baseball, one network. Thursday: three games, 42 runs, 11 hours of baseball on the nose, and TNT called on to relieve twice. At this pace, the Division Series will end around Halloween with a 76-75 game that partially airs on the Family Channel.

We expected more runs yesterday, and all six teams delivered. The NL now features two teams up 2-0, and not the ones I predicted to win, while in the AL, the Indians obliterated the Yankees to go up 1-0. All bullets today; to hear me speak in complete paragraphs, check out the Baseball Channel today at noon, on which I'll join Mike Siano and Cory Schwartz for two hours of playoff talk.

Rockies/Phillies

  • Three first-inning homers signaled that this was going to be a more typical Citizens Bank Park game. The Rockies went up 2-1 in the first, gave up that lead in the second on a two-run triple by Jimmy Rollins, then got it back for good in the fourth when Kyle Kendrick loaded the bases and left in favor of Kyle Lohse, who immediately served up a grand slam to Kazuo Matsui. The Rockies were never challenged after that on their way to a 10-5 win.

  • I know Kendrick had all those quality starts this year, and I wasn't completely unimpressed by him when I saw him last Thursday, but really, he's a marginal major-league pitcher. The stuff to get hitters out just isn't there, and if he's not getting the low strike early in the count or a groundball on those pitches, he's in deep trouble. He got three swing-and-misses out of non-pitchers yesterday; by comparison, he gave up four extra-base hits. Kendrick strikes me as somebody a lot like Mike Dunne in 1987 or Aaron Small in 2005, someone who's going to go from a story to out of the majors in the blink of an eye.

  • It was nice to see Matsui have a moment. I was completely wrong about what kind of player he'd be in the major leagues, going so far as to call him "the better Matsui" and compare him favorably to Barry Larkin. He's barely been Gene Larkin, losing ground in all facets of his offensive game and washing out of New York in a hail of boos. This year, in and around some injury problems, he better approximated the player I envisioned him as, and while his .342 OBP and 88% success rate on the bases helped the Rockies, he's still something of a disappointment as a whole. Hopefully a postseason grand slam will replace failing with the Mets as how he's remembered.

  • Both managers went to starting pitchers out of the bullpen early in the game, with Charlie Manuel reaching for Lohse, and Clint Hurdle putting in Josh Fogg in the fifth. It used to be that we'd have to get deep into the postseason to see these machinations, which always have a tinge of desperation to them. We recall Bobby Cox using John Smoltz and Greg Maddux late in the NLCS, or Derek Lowe coming out of the pen to get three ninth-inning outs in Game Five of the ALDS. To see starters coming in out of the pen in the fourth inning of the second postseason game may be an extreme application of the notion that every game is high-leverage in the playoffs.

    Or maybe it just signals weak bullpens. Hurdle is carrying 12 pitchers, but one of them is Mark Redman, who doesn't count. The Phillies, though…hey, I got as caught up as anyone in their story, with Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, and J.C. Romero throwing lights-out baseball down the stretch. When you get past those three, though, it gets unbelievably ugly. The Phillies are carrying Clay Condrey, staff filler with a career 4.84 ERA, 5.04 in 2007; Antonio Alfonseca, who had more walks than strikeouts in each of the past two seasons, and whose last three seasonal ERAs are 5.44, 5.63 and 4.94; and Jose Mesa, who was released by the Tigers four months ago and threw 39 innings for the Phillies, with 19 walks, 20 whiffs, and six home runs allowed. Geoff Geary's elbow strain forced him off the roster for the NLDS, and that's left the Phillies with just three viable relief pitchers.

    This all became relevant yesterday. Lohse replaced Kendrick and gave up the slam, putting the Phillies down 6-3. Because they were trailing, Manuel was obligated to hit for Lohse leading off the fifth, losing the benefit of using the starting pitcher relieving, middle-innings workload, and setting up an impossible choice in the sixth. Down 6-3, Manuel didn't really want to use one of his high-leverage guys, which left him choosing from the other pile. And the problem with having Jose Mesa on the roster is that you might actually be tempted to use him. Manuel picked Mesa, who gave up two walks and a double to effectively end the game. Condrey relieved him and finished the job by giving up two more hits.

    I don't know where to lay the blame here. Manuel correctly went with ten pitchers, but the last few of those are just horrible. With Geary hurt, the only other viable options might have been Francisco Rosario-who I would have picked ahead of Mesa-or maybe J.D. Durbin, who's just as bad as the guys we're talking about here. The Phillies' lack of pitching depth hurt them yesterday, and is the main reason they're down 2-0 heading back to Denver.

Yankees/Indians

  • The Indians hammered Chien-Ming Wang for eight runs in 4 2/3 innings, roping two homers and a double off of him while waiting out his hard stuff down to draw four walks. It was an impressive display of discipline and power by the Tribe, who may be the most underrated team of the eight still playing.

    Jay Jaffe pointed out Wang's home/road splits in his Playoff Prospectus, and with Wang pitching so poorly last night, Jay's looking prophetic. I'm not as convinced; home/road splits for players take a long time to achieve meaning, and while Wang's have been persistent in his three seasons, I'm still not sure they represent more than statistical noise, the kind of thing you'll find if you carve up any player's career into the right slices. There are no obvious reasons for Wang to have the splits he does, and no characteristics of Yankee Stadium that would favor him to the extent that his stats indicate they do.

    Wang's splits came up a lot over the last couple of weeks of the season, as Yankee fans pointed out that starting the Division Series at home would enable them to pitch Wang at home, which justified pushing hard for the AL East title. My argument to them was the same as the one above; the home/road splits seem more random to me than anything else, and Wang couldn't be expected to pitch poorly just because he was wearing gray rather than white.

    It will be interesting to see if Joe Torre adjusts his rotation after last night's debacle, sliding Wang up to start a potential Game Four on three days' rest so that he can start at Yankee Stadium. I suspect the deleterious effects of short rest for a pitcher not used to it will dwarf any benefit Wang gets from the Stadium, but last night's game is going to loom large in everyone's memory, and the thought of a similar performance in a Game Five may drive the decision.

  • C.C. Sabathia was not the Cy Young candidate he spent the regular season as last night. He had all kinds of problems with his command, missing high a lot, and barely escaped five innings having allowed three runs and stranded six, including leaving the bases loaded in the fifth. The Indians' five-run fifth allowed Eric Wedge to get his ace out of the game with little risk after 114 pitches, not all of them good. This was 2003 Sabathia, a pitcher who rarely showed up in 2007. It may be a while before we see him again.

  • Wedge didn't have a good night, results notwithstanding. Up 9-3 in the sixth, with Aaron Fultz having warmed up in the fifth, Wedge instead went to Rafael Perez, one of his two best relievers. He would proceed to use Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Rafael Betancourt-his three best relievers-for 31, eight and 22 pitches, respectively, protecting leads of six, eight, and finally nine runs. It was a desperate display, and a waste of the pitchers involved. With a game the next night, why use your most valuable pitchers protecting a lead that your worst ones probably couldn't blow? Wedge brought Rafael Betancourt in to protect a nine-run lead in the ninth; Yuniesky Betancourt wouldn't be able to blow that lead. It was overmanaging, and if in the interests of getting his guys work, a waste of their energy. If there is even a one percent chance that the 53 pitches Perez and Betancourt wasted last night might affect what they can give Wedge tonight, then it wasn't worth using them. When, exactly, do Fultz and Tom Mastny pitch, if not last night?

    Down three in a hitters' park, Charlie Manuel went to his worst pitcher. Up six in a pitchers' park, Eric Wedge went to one of his best. Either I don't understand baseball, or yesterday was a very strange day in the playoffs.

  • The Yankees ended the game by using Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Veras, and Philip Hughes, which briefly caused me to wonder if the AL had kept the expanded rosters through the first week of October. They haven't; the Yankees, with their bajillion-dollar payroll, just have a bizarre postseason roster. Even if you can justify 11 pitchers, given the uncertainty over Roger Clemens' durability, consider that the Yanks are carrying three pitchers who made their major league debuts this year. Ohlendorf, Veras, Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain have a combined 59 MLB appearances. Veras wasn't even good this year, with seven walks and seven strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. That the Yankees kept him, rather than Ron Villone, against an Indians lineup that cries out for a lefty reliever, is one hell of an indictment of Villone's place in the world.

    The lefty thing aside, there's a lot of this weirdness on playoff rosters. We've covered the Phillies and Mesa, but the Rockies retained Mark Redman, who made five appearances for them and was released earlier this season by the Braves. The Cubs made room for Kevin Hart after eight appearances. Had the Padres reached the postseason, we probably would have seen Joe Thatcher and his 22 appearances on their roster. I understand that pitching is perceived to be thin, but that's a lot of pitchers going from nowhere to a playoff roster in zero flat.

Cubs/Diamondbacks

  • Ted Lilly learned the hard way that the Diamondbacks can hit fastballs up in the zone, serving up a three-run bomb to Chris Young in the second that turned the game around. Lilly would allow that homer and two triples on his way to a disastrous 3 1/3 innings that put the Cubs behind 2-0 in the series. In case it comes up again in Game Five, Lilly would do well to note that with a 3-2 count, a base open and a left-handed hitter on deck, he's probably better off missing low and away to Young, rather than up and out over the plate.

  • There wasn't much more to the game. Doug Davis kept the Cubs lunging for 5 2/3 innings, and if he wasn't dominant, he didn't really have to be. The Cubs were willing to give him a ton of swinging strikes on balls well out of the zone, or whatever the zone happened to be at a given moment in time. The random strike zone, which hasn't been too big a issue so far, was in play last night, as Sam Holbrook shifted it vertically throughout the early innings.

  • Dick Stockton and Ron Darling couldn't help themselves. After Young's home run, Stockton said, "A key at-bat in this inning was Doug Davis, laying down a sacrifice bunt." Darling followed with more praise for Davis, whose bunt did absolutely nothing to add runs to the inning. I'm used to a certain level of denial about the relative values of big ball and small ball, but when a sacrifice bunt in front of a three-run homer is called a "key play," I start to wonder if someone's playing a practical joke.

  • Beat up on Lou Piniella all you want, but the guy keeps writing the name "Geovany Soto" in the lineup. It takes a certain amount of confidence in your own decision making to sit the expensive veteran that your GM picked up in favor of the guy with a month's worth of experience. Soto is simply the better player, though, and Piniella's decision to play him is indicative of his acumen.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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