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October 14, 2007

Prospectus Today

Thanks, Tribe

by Joe Sheehan

The Indians saved us.

Had the Red Sox won last night, we would have been set up for a continuation of one of the least competitive postseasons in memory. Do you realize that the ALCS is the first postseason series of six to be tied after the opening games? The other five all featured teams going up 2-0, which yielded a Division Series round that was played in just one game over the minimum.

No, as ugly as last night's 11th inning was, and as long as we had to wait to determine a winner in the game, it was worth it. Now there can't be a sweep. Now the series shifts locations without one team having its back to the wall. Now we get to see drama build over the course of five or more games. When the White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series in four one-run games, there was some discussion of how it was actually a pretty good World Series, filled with tense moments and drama. With that said, you can't have a great postseason series without drawing out the tension, without both teams being at risk at some point. For the first time, we have some chance at that kind of excitement.

It was quite a slog getting there, as neither starter made it out of the fifth inning. Fausto Carmona kept the ball down well enough and allowed just four singles, but five walks, including walking in a run in the second, and 100 pitches in four-plus innings forced him out of the game. I like Eric Wedge's decision, protecting a one-run lead in the fifth inning, to go to Rafael Perez. It was appropriately aggressive given his bullpen's rest coming into the game, the off day that would follow it, and the Sox' lineup. The results weren't positive-Perez allowed two home runs and a single in four batters before being lifted, putting the Tribe down 6-5.

I actually disliked the decision to lift Perez more than I disliked the one to bring him in. If you're going to use one of your two best relievers in the fifth inning, you have to be committed to more than four batters. Despite the results, I don't think Perez was pitching that badly. He got David Ortiz to hit into a fielder's choice and got ahead 0-2 on Manny Ramirez with good pitches. Ramirez's home run wasn't off a mistake; Perez threw a breaking ball that was down and over the outside corner, and a Hall of Fame hitter got there and took him out. It was hardly an indication that Perez was scuffling. Mike Lowell's homer was on a bad pitch, however, a 1-1 breaking ball that just sat there. After J.D. Drew singled, Wedge replaced Perez with Jensen Lewis. It worked out-Lewis and Rafael Betancourt would throw 4 2/3 shutout innings-but it seemed to me that Perez was pitching better than his results, and that taking him out was a huge risk given how important he is to that bullpen.

Curt Schilling was also hooked early, in the fifth, as his particular goblin-the power he'll occasionally give up-made an appearance. Schilling allowed nine hits, four for extra bases, in 4 2/3 innings. Schilling has had a lot of success by pounding the strike zone, and deserved to be slotted in as the Sox' number two in this series. There will be an occasional night like this, though, when a good offense jumps on Schilling's declining stuff. Of the nine hits Schilling allowed, six came on two-strike pitches, and four on 0-2 pitches. That's a guy getting too much of the plate when he doesn't have to do so.

The Red Sox bullpen matched Lewis and Betancourt for a while. Manny Delcarmen allowed a quick run in the sixth to tie, then Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin, and Jonathan Papelbon cranked out 4 2/3 shutout innings of their own to push the game to the 11th. Papelbon hurled two innings and threw 36 pitches, both figures his highest since August 20, 2006 against the Yankees. He's capable of doing that-this guy was a starter two years ago and was supposed to be one as recently as mid-March-but the closer-centric bullpen locks him down to a job he's completely overqualified for.

A couple of tactical questions popped up in the late innings, and I didn't think Wedge acquitted himself all that well in the process. In the ninth, Travis Hafner singled with two outs. Wedge pinch-ran with Josh Barfield-defensible-and then had Barfield steal second base, taking the bat out of Victor Martinez's hands. The choice is essentially this: Martinez's chance of driving Barfield home from first, or Ryan Garko's chance of driving him home from second. If we reduce this question, loosely, to Martinez's chance of an extra-base hit versus Garko's chance of a single, we get this (all numbers 2007):

Martinez XBH% vs. RHP: 11.1% (46 in 414 PA)
Papelbon XBH% vs. LHB:  5.6% (7 in 126 PA)

Garko H% vs. RHP:    25.4% (96 in 378 PA)
Papelbon H% vs. RHB: 18.4% (18 in 98 PA)

This is why you run the numbers. I hated the decision to choose Garko-with-a-runner-at-second over Martinez-with-a-runner-at-first. I was clearly wrong. Even against the devastating Papelbon, Garko has a better chance of hitting a single than Martinez does of picking up an extra-base hit. It was a good move by Wedge, even though Garko popped up to end the threat.

I had a similar problem with Wedge's decision to let Trot Nixon bat against Javier Lopez in the 11th. Nixon simply cannot hit left-handers-.224 with no walks or power this year-and with two on and one out, there's no room for error. When Wedge sent up Nixon for Barfield, and Francona countered with Lopez, Wedge should have sent up Jason Michaels. The Red Sox had no right-handed relievers left at that point, reducing Nixon's value comfortably below zero. Lopez had a fluky batting-average split in 2007, but his skill set is that of a specialist, coming from three o'clock and under with breaking stuff. His K/BB against lefties (18/8) and righties (8/10) indicate what he is.

After Nixon's bloop single and a wild pitch, Wedge ran Michaels for Nixon anyway, so all he gained was a really bad matchup in a high-leverage situation. That it worked out for him doesn't change the fact that he gave up a whole lot of value for no gain.

On the tie-breaking hit by Nixon, Jason Varitek made the kind of play that drives me absolutely crazy. With the ball still well away from his glove, Varitek extended his left shin to block home plate. Grady Sizemore had to slide through Varitek's shinguard, even though Varitek didn't have the ball, risking injury on a play that should always be obstruction. Until that kind of obstruction gets called, it's hard for me to take an interference call, like the one we saw Thursday night in Arizona, seriously. What catchers are allowed to do without the baseball is dangerous, a clear violation of the rules, and an example of what happens when you have umpires unwilling to enforce the rule book.

--

I didn't write up Friday night's games, but I want to make one point about the NLCS: it's just not very good. Although the Rockies are a terrific story, the quality of baseball being played in the NL postseason is sorely lacking. Friday night's game in Phoenix featured nibbling pitchers, hitters who refused to make them throw strikes, so-so defense, awful baserunning, questionable tactics and, in the end, Jose Valverde being hung out to dry, well in violation of his warranty. Valverde walked three of the last four men he faced, and threw balls on his last six pitches, and had to make 42 tosses before leaving; he hadn't been asked to throw that many pitches in a game since August 17, 2006. His high pitch count in 2007 was 32, and he'd thrown 30 or more on just two occasions.

Unlike Papelbon, Valverde doesn't have recent starting experience on his resume, and in fact, he has some history of being a hothouse flower, someone to be protected. Moreover, he was clearly struggling throughout that inning. That Bob Melvin couldn't see the need to get anyone else in the game as Valverde walked Brad Hawpe, then went 2-0 on Yorvit Torrealba before getting rescued by a pop-up, then walked Jamey Carroll on five pitches, was disappointing and, in the end, devastating to the Diamondbacks' chances.

Those two teams will take the field again tonight in Colorado, and I think we can expect to see more of the same. One of these teams will have no worse than a 3/2 chance to win a World Series. Flags fly forever, of course, and the champion doesn't necessarily have to be the best team, certainly not in the three-round era. As you watch the NLCS, though, do you think you're watching championship-caliber baseball, or something less than that? I'm not reaching a conclusion; I'm genuinely curious as to what the readership thinks.

Off to to "Fantasy 411" with Will and…well, Mike Siano and Cory Schwartz are leaving us alone in the sandbox today. Tune in at 3 p.m. ET to see how it turns out.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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