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October 19, 2007

Prospectus Today

Incompetence, Excellence, and Disgrace

by Joe Sheehan

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I've come to the conclusion that I should never, ever, ever turn the sound on when watching a baseball game on television. In the third inning of last night's game, with a runner on first and two men out, Manny Ramirez hit a two-run homer to right-center field, continuing his efforts to single-handedly carry the Red Sox to the World Series. The ball didn't even look like much when he hit it, but it carried and carried, until it cleared the fence.

Make no mistake-the ball cleared the fence. In real time, on replays and in a super-close-up shot, it was evident that the ball cleared the fence and rebounded onto the field. Had the ball hit the padded yellow portion of the fence, it would have bounced differently, not sharply back up the way it did. The umpires blew this call, once again raising the question of why we have six umpires in postseason games, if not to get plays like this correct.

What was embarrassing was the reaction of announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver to the play. Ramirez didn't run out of the batter's box, didn't hustle, and ended up on first base when he should have been on second. Criticism of that is warranted, but the criticism we heard was shrill, overwrought, and ignored the fact that Ramirez actually wasn't supposed to be on second base; he was supposed to be back in the dugout performing complicated handshakes and drinking Gatorade.

I'll simply ask this question: which is worse, that Manny Ramirez cost his team a base through poor judgment, or that six umpires cost the Red Sox a run through their incompetence? The relative cost of the two mistakes made is clear to anyone with a passing knowledge of baseball, but to the two men in the booth, it was as if one of the errors didn't happen, while the other was a devastating lapse.

The ongoing "analysis" of the Ramirez film was laughable, with Buck and McCarver refusing to acknowledge what was clear from the film-that the ball had cleared the fence, bounced on that gray tarpaulin-looking stuff, and bounced back. They openly mistook the impact of Grady Sizemore's glove hitting the wall, and the indentation it caused, for the impact of a ball, when a ball hitting that spot could not have possibly bounced the way it did. Having committed to the "Manny is lazy" storyline, they refused to allow the evidence to shift their criticism to the umpiring crew that took away a home run.

Thanks to Josh Beckett, the missing run never mattered. Beckett had a terrific breaking ball last night, which made his 95 mph fastball that much more effective and helped him to 11 strikeouts in eight innings. After allowing the first two batters of the game to pick up hits, he got Travis Hafner to hit into a double play. Only a two-out rally in the fifth threatened him after that. C.C. Sabathia was better than he was in the first game of this series-in fact, this was his best start of the postseason-but he left enough balls out over the plate that the Red Sox were able to score. The Sox' four runs off of him were all on extra-base hits, and I include Ramirez's ball, technically a single, in that category. The Red Sox might have done more damage; Sabathia retired just five batters in one 12-hitter stretch from the third through the fifth, but the Sox couldn't put him away.

Regardless, we finally have a little bit of drama, a little bit of sweat in this October. The Sox and Indians, exhausted from having to play three games in five days, head back to Boston for Game Six Saturday night, with Curt Schilling facing Fausto Carmona again. Hmmm…Curt Schilling pitching a Game Six with the Red Sox down 3-2. We've seen this before. Anybody got a Magic Marker?

Some leftover notes on the game…

  • One of the few interesting tactical decisions in this game was Eric Wedge's pick of Rafael Betancourt to face David Ortiz in the seventh inning, with two on and no one out. I can't imagine there are too many times in Sabathia's career when he's been removed with a lefty at the plate so that a righty could come in. It speaks to Wedge's confidence in Betancourt, who allowed a sacrifice fly among his three straight outs. I'm not entirely sure it was the right call-Big Papi had a big platoon split this year, and in most years has a noticeable one-but I liked the approach of getting Betancourt into the game when he might make a difference.

    As much as I like Betancourt, the complete silence on his being a player who tested positive for steroids and served a suspension for doing so is interesting to me. As much as the steroid story has followed players who haven't tested positive, you would think that the opportunity to stand on a soapbox about a guilty player would be snatched up by the sanctimony twins in the booth. Betancourt's arrival on the mound, however, was greeted only with a discussion of how amazing he's been in the postseason.

    Like I said before, the contrast is interesting.

  • The Beckett/Kenny Lofton flareup in the fifth seemed more random than it actually was. Give credit to the Fox staff for uncovering video of the 2005 incident in which Lofton pulled the dropped-bat-on-ball-four move, and Beckett took offense. I've no real opinion on what Lofton does, but he sure doesn't seem to get the grief for what could be seen as a showing-up move than other, taller, more-dreadlocked players seem to get.

  • Lots of talk on the off-day-and my god, can we never again give 300 media members a day in Cleveland with no game?-about the Red Sox's "energy." I think it's a ridiculous notion; the Red Sox's "energy" was fine. They wanted to win just as much as any other team does. Their problem was that they weren't hitting; it's hard to look energetic on right turns when you get to first base. Some extra-base hits last night solved the "energy" problem.

--

I wouldn't say that Game Five was overshadowed by it, but the news that Joe Torre had turned down the Yankees' one-year contract offer, and would not be returning to manage the team, was a huge story for most of the day.

As I read it, everyone played their parts. The Yankees seemed ambivalent about having Torre back, and elected to make an offer that was designed to be refused. Torre, I suspect, would have returned had the offer not been such, but a one-year deal, a pay cut, and an absurd bonus structure tied to playoff advancement made it an easy call for him. The Yankees may think they saved face here-the base salary of $5 million would have still made Torre the highest-paid manager in the game-but the process was so transparent that there's no actual face-saving involved with the fall-out after the offer's rejection.

The bonuses were simply irrational. Torre would have been paid an additional $1 million for each round the Yankees advanced through the postseason, and an option for 2009 would have vested had the team won the ALCS. Randy Levine referred to this structure as "performance-based," which tells me that Randy Levine-or whoever was pulling his strings-has absolutely no idea what he's doing. All of the available evidence points to the postseason as being, like it or not, a crapshoot. Take eight similar teams, throw them into brackets and see what happens. If the Yankees want to operate as if 1996-2000 was the standard, and not some egregious anomaly, they're welcome to do so, but it's going to put them well behind the thought curve. If it causes them to make offers like the one they did yesterday, it will put them well behind the sanity curve.

So who's next? Mike Siano made a terrific point on the Baseball Channel yesterday, saying that unless the next manager is Don Mattingly-who will come in with the affections of millions of Yankee fans and get a healthy honeymoon period-the new guy is going to be in a tough spot. Not only has the organization indicated that it doesn't care about regular-season success, but they've forced out a popular, if flawed, manager. I'm not sure that this is going to be a good seat for anyone, but at least Mattingly would be granted more leeway than anyone else.

I wonder if we're all not overly focused on the manager's seat, let alone who's in it. Especially if the new guy was a hitter in his playing days, the most important role on the staff will probably be the pitching coach. The Yankees' future success is almost exactly correlated with the success of their stable of young pitchers, starting with guys like Chien-Ming Wang through Joba Chamberlain and on down to guys we haven't really seen yet, like Alan Horne. The Yankees need most of these pitchers-if not all of them-to be healthy and effective, because the price of pitching in the market and the relative quality of what's there will no longer allow them to build staffs from the outside. It's the next Yankees' pitching coach, rather than the next Yankees' manager, who may hold the team's future in his hands.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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