October 7, 2007
The NL Wraps Up Early
Last week, I predicted that the Phillies and Cubs would meet in the NLCS, which was ever so slightly off base. I'm less surprised that I got the two winners wrong than that both series were sweeps. I just keep coming back to it: you simply cannot predict what will happen in a best-of series between playoff-caliber baseball teams. That applies just as much in the AL, where my predictions look much better. We make predictions, but pay more attention to the information and analysis that precedes them. Baseball in October defies prediction. That's a feature, not a bug.
This just in: Chris Young can hit high fastballs. The Cubs' Rich Hill apparently didn't learn from Ted Lilly, and opened the last game of the Cubs' 2007 season by testing out the theory. 1-0, Diamondbacks.
That isn't why the Cubs lost, of course. Hill didn't pitch well, on the heels of Lilly's poor start in Game Two, but his start would have looked a lot better had the Cubs taken advantage of the eleventeen opportunities Livan Hernandez afforded them. They had multiple baserunners in every one of the first five innings. The Cubs grounded into double plays in the first, third, and fifth (and seventh off of Tony Pena). They went 2-for-14 with runners on base, 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. We talk about this every October: clutch isn't a skill, players and teams don't show the ability to time their actions, so we evaluate them without regard to timing. However, at the game level, timing is very important, and having a .500 OBP for five innings means nothing if you don't have some of those guys cross home plate. The Cubs had lousy timing in this series, and combined with the two poor starts and the Diamondbacks' power and bullpen, they lost in three.
The Diamondbacks did a very good job of showing how they'd played all year. They got just-good-enough starts, hit some home runs-with a team OBP of .321, they don't string together long innings very often-and turned games over to a great bullpen. The D'backs hit six bombs and slugged .532, which set up the bullpen: 8 1/3 innings, no runs allowed, five hits, two walks, seven strikeouts. In these three games, they drew 13 walks and posted a .358 OBP. That doesn't make them a good OBP team, it means they had three games with an above-average OBP. Stephen Drew hit .500/.500/1.143 in the series; does that make him the greatest player who ever lived? Carlos Marmol hadn't allowed runs in consecutive outings all season; he allowed runs in both his NLDS appearances. It happens.
There's a theme developing in the coverage of this series that the Diamondbacks are defying the "computer analyses" that say they shouldn't have been in the playoffs or shouldn't have had a chance of beating the Cubs. It would be nice if the people so quick to point to "computers" when they're wrong would embrace the thing that the guys who use the computers have been saying for years: anything can happen in a short series. It would also be nice if these by-the-numbers, let's-get-a-quote-from-Byrnesy pieces acknowledged that the guys doing analysis have explained some of the Diamondbacks' success by looking at Bob Melvin's use of the bullpen, by acknowledging how bad the dregs of their staff have been, and noting that the D'backs have had unusual success in pinch-hit and late-and-close situations.
Building storylines around three games or five games or seven games, facile tales that the players themselves desperately want to buy into, does nothing to advance our knowledge of the game. The Diamondbacks played better than the Cubs did over three games; play three more, and it could well go the other way. Put the Pirates in a best-of-five, and they'll win some of the time. That's the nature of best-of series. The Diamondbacks aren't special people; they're baseball players who played well enough to get this opportunity, and using the work of talented, hard-working people who love the game as a set-up for easy quotes demeans everyone involved.
We're all professionals here, right? Wait, I might not be. Ask me again in three months.
When players fail, there's a tendency to inflate the importance of managerial decisions. I do it myself, focusing more on a pitching change here or a sac bunt there when they happen in a 3-2 game as opposed to a 13-2 game. Decisions are important based on the leverage of the situation in which they're made, and high-leverage decisions tend to happen when some part of a team isn't getting the job done.
That's a long way around to the issue of Charlie Manuel, and his reliever selection in the last two games. A lot of people have asked why Manuel would go to Kyle Lohse instead of Tom Gordon in Game Two, with the bases loaded and two men out in the fourth inning. I can defend that decision, because Manuel is looking for 2 1/3 or 3 1/3 innings there, and Gordon can't give him that many pitches. There's a viable reason for the decision, and while using Gordon is also an option, I can't light Manuel up for what he did. If Lohse retires Kazuo Matsui, or if the Phillies score a bunch of runs, or if Jose Mesa gets lost on his way to the ballpark, that decision would loom less prominently in our minds.
The issue came up again last night, as Manuel elected to let J.C. Romero face Jeff Baker with two outs and two on in a tied game in the eighth, with Brett Myers warming up. Baker singled, and 15 minutes later, the Division Series was over. There are a lot of people who wonder why Myers wasn't brought in with the game on the line, given that he's the Phillies' closer. It's an interesting example of how the notion of leverage is creeping into the coverage of the game. That there's a clamor for using the closer in a tied game in the eighth is a good sign.
In this specific case, however, I think the criticism of Manuel is overstated. First, it's not clear to me that he didn't have the better pitcher in the game. Although Myers is the Phillies' closer, he's far from a great pitcher, although his work in relief this season-2.87 ERA in 53 1/3 innings, 64 strikeouts, 18 walks-show that he got the same bounce from being moved to the bullpen as so many pitchers have gotten. Romero, however, was comparably effective; even including his time with the Red Sox, he had a 1.92 ERA in 56 1/3 innings, albeit with a 42/40 K/BB. Both Myers and Romero were lights-out down the stretch, and Manuel's post-game defense of the move was spot-on: Romero is and has been more than a specialist, and leaving him in to face Baker wasn't that risky. Romero held righties to a .198 BA this year, and a .328 SLG. That's not someone who you have to yank at the first sign of trouble.
Tactically, bringing in Myers might have made sense for platoon reasons. With Cory Sullivan in the game and Seth Smith out of it, Clint Hurdle had no left-handed-hitting counter for a righty reliever. That's an argument for using Myers. Working against that is the idea that by bringing in Myers, Manuel would have exhausted his supply of useful pitchers with two outs in the eighth inning, and as he learned on Thursday, everything left in his pen is dead weight. I think trying to get through the eighth, and even the ninth, with Romero was the way to go. This runs counter to the standard argument we at BP make about relief usage, but it also points out up that every situation is unique, and has to be handled in context.
Let's back up a second and consider the context as well. Manuel's feet were put to the fire because a couple of his players just barely failed to make plays. With two men out in the eighth, Garrett Atkins lined a ball to left field that Jayson Werth might have had a play on, but he elected to play it on a hop. If Werth is a step faster to that ball, we're not having this discussion. The next batter, Brad Hawpe, lined a one-hopper to the left of Chase Utley that Utley knocked towards the line with his glove. If he's a step faster that ball, we're not having this discussion.
Manuel's decision was defensible, and if you go back just ten minutes in time, you see that the problem for the Phillies was that their players, like the Cubs' players, didn't play well enough. Noting the two defensive plays not played is illustrative, but the real problem came at the plate. The Phillies, with the best offense in the National League, scored eight runs in the three games. They batted .172 in the series, and while they did hit home runs-five-that's all they did. They poked nine singles, a double and a triple in the three games. That's not going to beat many teams.
For a team that had to rebuild its pitching staff at midseason, the Rockies have been a great run-prevention team during their late-season streak, and this series was no exception. They got two quaity starts, and their bullpen was terrific: one run in 11 2/3 innings, six hits, four walks and 10 strikeouts. Clint Hurdle has been riding Manny Corpas, and this series was no different: 3 1/3 innings over three appearances. As much as any player, Corpas needs the four days off that the sweep affords the Rockies.
The Rockies are the best story of this postseason. Their 13-1 run to end the schedule, their extra-inning win in the playoff game, and now their sweep of a team that looked to be their equal all make them October's darlings. Too much will be made of the "nobody believed in us" angle, because it's become de rigueur for every winning team to position themselves as dogged overachievers (thanks, NFL). In the Rockies' case, it is fair to say that no one saw them coming; with that said, the year that you see a team going 17-1 to go from 4 ½ games behind the Wild Card slot and fourth in that race to the League Championship Series in 21 days, give me a call. I'll pick up your flight to Vegas. This is a story unlike any we've seen in a long time.
I didn't write up Friday night's games. Some late impressions:
In closing, one last question: now can Mark Sanchez have the job that should have been his a year ago?