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October 3, 2000
Seattle Mariners vs. Chicago White Sox
My initial predisposition is to pick the Mariners. They've got baseball's best player and Edgar Martinez, and both of them outhit Frank Thomas to the point that the Big Hurt's MVP campaign should be DOA. On top of the two great ones, the Mariners have got a starting rotation that is, if nothing else, physically ready to pitch (with one exception). So why can't I shake the feeling that it isn't quite that simple?
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)
(Ed. Note: For players who played for multiple teams, their EqA only reflects their performance with their current team.)
LF Rickey Henderson (.238/.362/.327/.259*)
2B Ray Durham (.280/.361/.450/.266)
The White Sox offense has Frank Thomas for marquee value, but this lineup's strength is that it features eight hitters who can hit the ball often and hard. That's different from the A's or Yankees or Indians, who work pitchers for a lot of walks. None of Chicago's hitters are wildly undisciplined, but nobody has Frank's patience. It's less of an Earl Weaver team than a team that can crank out a few frenzied innings highlighted by a shower of extra-base hits. Because playoff strike zones tend to get big, it will be interesting to see if the White Sox adapt better to the changed circumstances than the A's, Mariners or Yankees, because they're not as reliant on exhausting the opposing starter with a relentless barrage of walks.
None of the Sox hitters had an extraordinarily fluky season, other than, arguably, Jose Valentin. It would be nice to see Charles Johnson take on a more important offensive role than batting eighth and ninth, and now that there's no tomorrow to rest him for, perhaps Jerry Manuel will bump him up a couple of slots.
While the White Sox led the American League in scoring, the Mariners were hardly slouches. Lou Piniella has done some creative work with his lineups this season. What's listed above is almost entirely speculative, and based on what the lineup against left-handed starters will probably look like. Against right-handed starters, Rickey Henderson will probably get dropped for Al Martin, who would bat seventh with Mike Cameron leading off, Mark McLemore batting second and David Bell and Joe Oliver dropping to the eighth and ninth slots. Maybe. Piniella has used more than 130 lineups this season, so each lineup will probably be tailored for each game.
The Mariners' offense functions very simply: get on base and let either of the team's minor deities drive you in. It isn't quite that simple, but the Mariners have two of the best hitters in baseball, better than anyone the Sox will use. As long as Cameron, Henderson and McLemore do a good job of attacking their on-base responsibilities, everything will depend on Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez not pulling a Biggio-and-Bagwell-sized disappearing act. John Olerud will be hard-pressed to do much damage with the left-handed pitching the Sox have at their disposal. He'll have plenty of opportunities to try to top the indignities Paul O'Neill forced on Rheal Cormier last season, but I doubt he's going to capitalize on them nearly as well. With Olerud likely to be a non-factor, the Mariners' problems with their third basemen, their catchers and their left fielders become a little more problematic, creating an even greater reliance on Edgar and A-Rod.
C Dan Wilson (.235/.291/.336/.215)
DH Harold Baines (.254/.338/.417/.257*)
For the Mariners, the bench is not a major asset, but it does feature the most important non-regular on either team. Al Martin should start one or both games against right-handers James Baldwin and Sean Lowe, but in the first two games in the series he'll be a good pinch-hitter to use for McLemore, Bell or Oliver. With Martin having hit .310/.364/.506 on the year against right-handed pitching, Piniella will have to pick his spots to use him to best advantage against Chicago's deep pen.
Stan Javier will probably get a spot start, but mostly represents insurance for Martin and Henderson's shortcomings and Jay Buhner's decrepitude. Carlos Guillen will spend the series as the utility infielder, while Raul Ibanez's excuse for not going home early is his notional value as an emergency catcher.
It's a mixed blessing that Charles Gipson isn't on the roster. While Gipson is an outstanding utility man, Piniella would use him to pinch-run for Edgar Martinez before the ninth inning, a major tactical mistake that wasted Gipson's core skill (glovework) while discarding a key hitter for a minor gain.
The White Sox bench is a relative asset, although how often it will come into play is in doubt. Harold Baines is really only dangerous enough to pinch-hit for Chris Singleton, who also bats left-handed. Jeff Abbott is a good hitter to have lying around on the bench, but again, only Singleton requires being pulled. Tony Graffanino is a useful hitter for a utility infielder, but his defense at both third base and shortstop is questionable.
For that reason and because of Herb Perry's tight hamstring, there's some doubt about who will get the last spot on the bench: a pinch-runner and defensive replacement in the outfield like McKay Christensen, or Craig Wilson, who can definitely handle shortstop and third base. If they don't keep Christensen, Manuel may feel reluctant to pull Singleton for a pinch-hitter, but if they don't keep Wilson, they could be forced, if Perry breaks down, to use Graffanino at a position where he won't be at his best. Not a fun choice, and one where the obvious solution (don't keep Harold Baines on the roster for this round of the playoffs) is out of the question.
Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA)
Freddy Garcia (0.9, 3.91)
Jim Parque (0.4, 4.28)
We'll go with the Mariners first, because they only have one or two issues, whereas the White Sox are paging Billy Pierce and trying to find out if Britt Burns is healthy yet.
The latest thunderings from Mt. Piniella seem to indicate that Paul Abbott is the choice to start Game Two, but Jamie Moyer is in the wings if Piniella is still irritated with the White Sox for failing to name starters for games back in August in a timely fashion. Game Four could go to either Moyer or John Halama. Against the White Sox, Aaron Sele had one quality start in three games. Freddy Garcia had one of his best starts and one of his worst against them. Moyer had his worst start of the year against the White Sox, but he's also been pitching hurt since June. Abbott shut the Sox down in his lone start against them, while Halama has one quality start to his name since the end of July. How Halama and Abbott do in the first two games will be critical, because the Mariners lack the bullpen depth to survive a couple of bad outings.
A potentially critical miscalculation by Piniella is his simplistic observations about platoons and platooning. He believes that platoon splits are some kind of immutable quality, where right-handed hitters are automatically worse off against right-handed pitching, while noting that the Sox should feature a lineup with six right-handed hitters. Garcia, in particular, has been dynamite against right-handed hitters (limiting them to hitting .205/.293/.311).
But it takes two to tango, and if you review how the White Sox hitters have performed against right-handed pitchers, it doesn't seem to make that much sense to worry about platoon advantages. Ray Durham has a .375 OBP against right-handed pitchers, .305 against lefties. Charles Johnson's OBP against righties is .398. Paul Konerko's slugging average and OBP are both higher against right-handers. Herb Perry is slugging a hundred points better against right-handers. Most importantly, Jose Valentin goes from being almost worthless (.215/.319/.354) against lefties to the guy who hit 24 of his 25 home runs against right-handers while hitting .282/.348/.513 against them. If I'm Jerry Reinsdorf, I'm adding Lou to my Christmas card list.
The White Sox rotation is an obvious weak spot because of the current concerns about the health of James Baldwin and Mike Sirotka. These aren't minor, nagging injuries. While there's a lot of brave talk about how Baldwin is throwing over 90 mph again and has his curve working, it isn't hard to spot an element of wishcasting. He's given up 16 runs in the 9 2/3 innings he's been healthy enough to throw in the last month. Expect an early hook.
Sirotka is the best starter on either team, logging 20 quality starts in 32 total, but if he isn't good for more than five innings the Sox are going to rely very heavily on the seven-man pen Manuel and Ron Schueler have tailored for this series. Jim Parque is probably the starter who best symbolizes the rotation and its relationship to the team's defense: he doesn't give up a lot of extra-base hits among his many baserunners, he kills the running game and he relies heavily on the double play. Facing a Mariners lineup with major problems at the bottom of the order and carrying John Olerud's slender contributions against lefties, it isn't hard to see how he'll continue to flirt with danger and survive.
The plan to start Sean Lowe is the ugly result of Cal Eldred's elbow problems and a hesitance to call on either Kip Wells or Jon Garland. It's also easy to interpret: Lowe, Mark Buehrle and Lorenzo Barcelo will basically have to suck up seven innings in that game. That's fine, but problematic if only because Game Four comes after Baldwin's start, and the Sox will probably need a three-inning relief outing there as well.
Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)
Kazuhiro Sasaki (14.2, 3.16)
Keith Foulke (22.6, 2.97)
Here is the critical difference in the series. If the White Sox are going to survive their starting pitching, it won't be because James Baldwin magically gets better or because Sean Lowe decides to phone in a lifeline from Don Larsen. It will be because Jerry Manuel has one of the best bullpens of any team in baseball.
The question is whether or not Manuel will exercise a little bit of tactical flexibility, and elect to use Keith Foulke earlier than the seventh inning if a game-critical situation demands the use of his best reliever. He's got a good group to use later on if need be, so for entertainment's sake I hope he maximizes his use of Foulke while counting on everyone else to be effective when asked. Bill Simas and Bobby Howry both have experience finishing games, and the Sox's margin of error is too slender for them to shunt Foulke off to the closer's role.
Lorenzo Barcelo and Mark Buehrle are good pitchers to go two or three innings at a stretch, while Chad Bradford and Kelly Wunsch give the Sox a pair of sidearmers, one left-handed and one right-handed, just as I've been hoping to see all season. Both of them are platoon killers. Bradford may not be asked to get Edgar Martinez, but Wunsch can count on getting John Olerud in any at-bat after the fourth inning with a man aboard. Having limited left-handed hitters to .160/.235/.236, that's an advantage for the Sox.
My pet theory is Jerry Manuel would love to be credited for a bit of genius, and going early and often to the pen to try to win this series will be as good an opportunity to draw attention to himself as he's ever going to get. Because of the rotation's problems, it's also absolutely essential.
The Mariners' pen is shallow, but the trio of Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua is a solid group to call on to pitch the last three innings of any game. Piniella has had to work each of them relatively hard down the stretch. You might credit Piniella for being aware of the problem, because he's no longer limiting Sasaki to just ninth-inning closer chores, trying to get as much out of all three by extending Sasaki into the eighth inning.
A hunch I'm currently kicking around is that because Sasaki is a first-pitch fastball pitcher with a fastball with little movement, and because the Sox feature several hitters who will jump on that pitch, we might get treated to some late-inning heroics. But if Sasaki gets ahead in the count, he'll hammer the Sox with his forkball.
Just as it's important for the Sox to get to the pen as soon as possible, it's just as important for them to get to the Mariners' pen as soon as possible. If they force the Mariners to use the trio heavily in the first two games while managing a split or better, they may get to feed off of some quality time with the always flammable Jose Mesa. Because Piniella is as orthodox in his platoon preferences in his bullpen use as he is with his rotation, he may lose the opportunity to use Rhodes to his advantage, instead doing something silly like bringing in Mesa because the batter happens to be right-handed.
The White Sox get called a bad defensive team, but the Mariners look like the weaker team defensively. The Sox attract attention for their errors, but between their pitchers and the Johnson and Johnson catching duo, they kill the running game. Jose Valentin and Ray Durham are probably the best middle-infield combo the Sox have had since Chico Carrasquel and Nellie Fox, and because the running game disappears, their ability to turn the double play well becomes all the more important. Singleton and Magglio Ordonez can field their positions and throw, while Carlos Lee is not an asset. All three Sox outfielders throw well, and usually to the right place. Herb Perry is a cut above average, which is nothing less than a miracle of modern surgery.
The Mariners have both major strengths and some major weaknesses. Mike Cameron, Alex Rodriguez and John Olerud all have legitimate cases for being the best or among the best defensive players at their positions in the league. Mark McLemore plays deep and still ends up having to leave his feet to make diving stops. At best, he's competent. David Bell's perceived consistency is what has him playing third base after Carlos Guillen managed 17 errors in less than half a season there. Joe Oliver gets good marks for his receiving skills, but he's also going to be taken advantage of by Sox runners, especially late in the game.
The Mariners' real problems come in the outfield corners. Jay Buhner hasn't been an effective corner outfielder in years, and now that he can't throw like he used to, has almost no defensive value. Rickey Henderson doesn't cover as much ground as he used to, and can't throw. Al Martin is one of the worst corner outfielders in baseball. There is no other team in baseball where Raul Ibanez would get used as a defensive replacement in the outfield. Bad corner outfield defense isn't a death knell, but on balls hit to the gaps, the Sox can count on getting an extra base between the poor mobility and weak arms they'll be challenging.
I've been highly critical of Jerry Manuel over the past few years, but the man has several strengths. He's willing to turn a blind eye to a player's limitations and focus on a player's strengths. He's willing to use a bullpen aggressively and well. He'll play for one run once in a while, but he's not that stubborn about it. He'll let the guys who can run steal in high percentage situations; between some indifferent Mariners pitchers and Joe Oliver's noodle arm, that should translate into some steals.
Lou Piniella has definitely impressed me this season as far as his willingness to delegate responsibilities for the pitching staff to people who know pitching, like Bryan Price. He's been able to accept players like Rickey Henderson and Mark McLemore for their only major offensive virtue, OBP, where other managers might have worried over their shortcomings and created a problem.
But as much as Lou has improved to the point that he's no longer the man who runs his rotations and his bullpens into the ground, he's still a relatively unimaginative field manager. I'm willing to bet that Manuel will outmaneuver him a couple of times in the series, above and beyond turning Olerud into a non-factor during the series with his left-handed pitching.
Like a lot of people, I like simple, neat answers. I'd like to think that the team with the top talent has an easy advantage that should translate into a straightforward victory. But this series is so fraught with possibilities, accidents and interesting combinations of incompatible strengths and weaknesses that I think we can expect a tremendous series that goes five games.
Whereas the Sox will have to use their pen to make it this close, the Mariners will have the luxury of a two-pitcher game, one in which Brett Tomko tosses three or four innings after Halama or Abbott, allowing Piniella to use the relievers he does have late in the series to better advantage. Mariners in five.
Chris Kahrl can be reached at email@example.com.