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October 9, 2007

Prospectus Today

Wrapping up the Playoffs' First Round

by Joe Sheehan

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As the Indians were closing out the final Division Series last night, Chip Caray was focused on the Yankees' loss, referring constantly to the "end of an era," which presumably meant Joe Torre's run as manager of the Yankees. It was mildly grating, as there were better storylines, for one, but more importantly, the idea that these four games would somehow mark the end of an era-an idea put out there by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who essentially said that the Yankees were playing for Torre's job this week-borders on insanity.

Perhaps I'm excessively dogmatic on this matter, but to me, the relative emphases placed on the postseason and the regular season are completely out of whack. The latter is a much stiffer test, and a much better gauge, of a baseball team than the former is. Use whatever term you like-"small sample size," "luck," "randomness," "variance,"-but the statheads have this one right. Best-of-fives and best-of-sevens don't do enough to separate comparable baseball teams, and while the winner of one is more often than not the one that played better during the series, playing better over four games is a vanishingly small test.

What the Yankees have done on Torre's watch-12 consecutive postseasons, nine consecutive division titles, six pennants, four World Championships-is impressive even when you consider the context of smaller divisions, a Wild Card, and a payroll that dwarfs almost every other competitor's. That the Yankees haven't advanced past the Division Series since 2004 isn't a failing of the manager's. It's not even a failing, to use that word, of the players. It's the way baseball is, and to throw out a good manager, to somehow make him the focal point of blame for that, is wrongheaded. If you want to blame Joe Torre for how he handles relievers, or his burying of Jason Giambi this last week, or his decline in his handling of the clubhouse, then those are all legitimate reasons. To fire him because of the Yankees' performance in three short series is poor management of an organization.

Instead, what we should be talking about is that the Yankees just got beat by what is likely a better team. The Indians hit better and pitched better than the Yankees did, and whereas the Yankees' lack of pitching depth hurt them, the Indians' lefty leanings in the lineup and shaky closer did not. The latter almost did; Joe Borowski gave up about 1.8 home runs in the ninth last night, and had either Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez been able to reach base-Jeter did manage to avoid hitting into a double play in that frame-the entire inning may have played out differently. Staked to a three-run lead, Borowski managed to be just good enough, and because of that, the Tribe plays on.

Well, not just because of that. The Indians strung together a host of good at-bats last night against Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina, from Grady Sizemore's leadoff homer to Travis Hafner's left-of-everyone single to long at-bats that ended in RBI singles by Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera. The term "professional hitter" tends to be misused on guys who hit an empty .300-or an empty .270-but the Indians kept having professional at-bats last night, and that approach put up six runs.

Paul Byrd was just good enough with the six runs to work with, at one point blowing away Alex Rodriguez on a high fastball, and working around trouble in the first three innings. It would be unfair to compare his performance with Livan Hernandez's work against the Cubs on Saturday; Byrd was much more effective than Hernandez was. However, the two outings were of a type, contact pitchers throwing just enough strikes to get by and working around the hits they would inevitably allow. Byrd did what the Indians needed him to do-get the game to the bullpen without putting it in jeopardy.

I'll have more on the Indians/Red Sox matchup later in the week. I have to say, though, that I think this has the potential to be the best ALCS we've seen in a while. As entertaining as the Red Sox/Yankees series in 2003 and 2004 were, they were drawn out and a little sloppy. These two teams this year are evenly matched, feature balance across all phases of the game, and don't have egregious flaws that can be exploited. The Red Sox bullpen will be a stiffer test for the Indians than the Yankees' pen was, and the Indians' lineup will put up more of a fight than the Angels did. This is going to be a very good week of baseball.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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