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September 15, 2008

Prospectus Today

Justice in Milwaukee

by Joe Sheehan

Ned Yost has been fired by the Milwaukee Brewers, a near-unprecedented move by a team that currently is tied for the lead in the wild card. At that, it may well be justified; Yost's decision making, particularly his administration of the bullpen, has been questionable all season long, and it reached a nadir yesterday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The players take much of the blame for the Brewers' being swept, of course. Manny Parra and Jeff Suppan got hammered, and the bullpen coughed up the other two games, just as it coughed up two games against the Reds last week. The offense no-showed, scoring just ten runs in four games, no more than three in any contest. In fact, the Brewers have not scored more than four runs in a game since putting up five against the Mets on September 2. They've nearly been doubled up, outscored 75-40 in September, on their way to a 3-11 mark this month.

Yost has to take a big part of the blame as well, after making some of the worst tactical decisions you'll see. In the eighth inning of yesterday's first game, the Brewers were tied 3-3. Guillermo Mota allowed a leadoff single to Jayson Werth, and was lifted for Brian Shouse so that Shouse could face Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. (Charlie Manuel's refusal to always put a right-handed batter between those two is a big reason why the Phillies will have trouble winning a short series.) Utley sacrificed Werth to second, setting up Shouse versus Howard.

Yost elected to walk Howard to face Pat Burrell. This was... well, it strains my vocabulary to find the right word for it. Howard cannot hit left-handers, and would be a platoon player if performance mattered anywhere near as much as reputation does. Or if he had a competent manager. Howard is at .228/.313/.458 against lefties in his career, .212/.287/.410 this year. Howard. Can't. Hit. Lefties. Shouse, on the other hand, is in the major leagues for exactly one reason: lefties can't hit him, to the tune of .175/.192/.289 this year, and .211/.263/.325 for his career, which includes a bunch of years when he was barely a major leaguer. Manuel sending Howard up against Shouse was a continuation of a theme for the Phillies: not hitting for Howard when he has little chance of doing something good. He was giving Yost an out, and Yost gave it right back.

That set up Shouse versus Pat Burrell, which cried out for a right-handed reliever. After all, Shouse is a pure specialist (.307/.390/.455 vs. RHB career; .293/.371/.446 this year). The only way walking Howard even might make sense is if Yost were to bring in a righty to try and get a double play out of Burrell. Burrell doesn't have the big platoon splits he showed earlier in his career-he's a dangerous hitter against both kinds of hurlers-but leaving Shouse in to face him was asking for trouble.

Think about this for a second. Yost had a 481 OPS pitcher facing a 697 OPS hitter. He elected to issue an intentional walk in that situation to allow an 817 OPS pitcher to face a 905 OPS hitter with an additional runner on base. That's when you start looking around the roof of the stadium for snipers, because gunpoint is the only place where that kind of decision makes sense.

So it was no surprise that four pitches later, the Phillies were up 7-3. Burrell singled in one run, and Shane Victorino cleared the bases with a three-run homer to left.

If you're not going to let your left-handed specialist face Howard in that situation, when exactly should you be pitching to Howard? Moreover, if you'd rather have Shouse pitching to two good right-handed batters instead of bringing in one of your righty relievers, why not just release them all, because they're obviously not doing you any good. Eric Gagne, Seth McClung... none of these guys are very good, but all would have been better ideas than letting Shouse face Burrell. Heck, Todd Coffey is made for this situation, getting a right-handed batter out. For that matter, Salomon Torres could have been on the mound, but for the ridiculous idea of saving him for a save situation. Torres, the best righty the Brewers have, hasn't pitched since Wednesday, while Brian Shouse was facing righties with the game on the line.

No, the players didn't play well in Philadelphia, but Ned Yost gift-wrapped that first game, a game the Brewers could well have won with some better decisionmaking. He earned his firing, and short of replacing him with Dakota Fanning or something, the Brewers will be better off for his absence.

With all this in mind... are you still panicking, Cubs fans?

It was just a few days ago that long-suffering supporters of the North Siders were staking out windowsills and rooftops, looking for a hard place to land. The team was playing poorly, their lead in the NL Central was dwindling, and the top two starters in their rotation were nursing owies. In my chat last week, I received a number of requests for reassurance from Chicagoans who couldn't accept the fact that their team was a post-season lock.

Then the Brewers started losing... and losing... and losing.... Then last Thursday, Rich Harden returned from a two-week respite to post six solid innings against the Cardinals in a 3-2 win, alleviating concerns about his health. And last night, Carlos Zambrano came back from his own break to throw his first career no-hitter against the Astros in Milwaukee. Zambrano, using mostly fastballs with his trademark good movement, struck out 10 and walked only one. He threw just 110 pitches on a night when he probably wasn't going to throw many more than that, and allowed just two balls out of the infield. It was an exceptional performance, made moreso by his poor performance and admitted shoulder issues in the weeks leading up to it. There's still no guarantee that Zambrano is ready for another seven starts, but his effectiveness is no longer in question, only his health.

The last five days should put an end to Cubs fans angst. Their magic number is seven over the Brewers and six over the Astros. Their chance of missing the postseason is right in line with the chance that Bristol Palin's baby grows up to be the president. Of Lehman Brothers. The next two weeks are about sorting out the last few roster spots (Dear Lou: no one needs 11 pitchers for a best-of-anything with multiple off days), making sure Zambrano and Harden are rested and healthy, and abandoning the idea that Micah Hoffpauir is a major league right fielder. Hey, I didn't say there weren't still concerns.

The Astros ran into a buzz saw last night, but since the Brewers have collapsed, they're not in bad shape, just two games behind both the Brewers and Phillies in the wild-card race. Heck, the Cardinals have lost five in a row and they're still just 4 back with 13 to play. Not being able to take advantage of three games against the Pirates while the Brewers and Astros were taking on, or scheduled to take on tough competition, is the kind of thing that will haunt a team until pitchers and catchers report. The Cardinals should be right in this thing today, but their pitching staff collapsed at the wrong time.

There has been a lot of criticism of the fact that these games were moved to Miller Park, just an hour or so outside of Chicago, in the wake of Hurricane Ike. As someone who recognizes that the home-field advantage in MLB isn't very large, it's not a big deal to me. Most of the home-field advantage stems from the tactical advantage of batting last, and the Astros still had that. Far too much was made of the crowd makeup and the travel difference; these things are terribly minor concerns in the outcome of baseball games. No one was crossing time zones or playing in front of 55,000 hostiles.

There was no plan in place to harm the Astros, and the solution is the best one available under the circumstances. Had Drayton McLane and the Astros players elected to play the series beginning Friday, perhaps Tampa's Tropicana Field would have been an option. (With the wet weather across the country, a covered field would be something of a priority.) McLane held out the absurd hope that Houston would be a suitable location for baseball come Sunday, and when that was revealed to be ridiculous, he lost the right to complain about the solution handed down. The Astros players are a bit more sympathetic, as staying in Houston with their families during the storm was one reason they didn't want to play elsewhere, but again, that's the choice they made, and by making it, they lost Tampa as an option. I completely agree with how MLB handled it, and the only thing I might disagree with was that they were too accommodating. If Astros fans, the media, management, or the players themselves end up using this arrangement as an excuse, ignore them; the location of last night's game was a nonfactor in its outcome.

That it was played in Milwaukee, though, did provide some absurdity. On a day when the Brewers completed a rapid fall from the top of the wild-card standings-the first time since July they haven't been in sole possession of a postseason berth-more than 23,000 people in their home ballpark ended the evening cheering wildly. The contrast between the scene in the Brewers' stadium and the one you picture in their clubhouse, as they prepared to leave Philadelphia winless for the trip, is striking.

I suppose we should thank the Brewers; without them, the last two weeks of the season wouldn't have been nearly so entertaining. Now we have four teams-the Mets, Phillies, Brewers, and Astros-fighting for two spots, with a chance the Cardinals could get back in this thing as well. Ned Yost may not be the best thing for the Brewers, but he sure is good for the races.

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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