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October 2, 2008

Prospectus Today

First-Day LDS Action

by Joe Sheehan

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First-day wrap-up, bullet-point style:

Brewers/Phillies

  • Cole Hamels, America. America, Cole Hamels. Look, maybe it came a year too late for Phillies fans, who would have liked to see this version of Hamels take on the Rockies in last year’s Division Series, but when a lefty starter puts down the Brewers the way Hamels did, you have to take notice. His outing was dominant, not in a Nolan Ryan way, but in a way that leaves you watching a 3-0 game with absolutely no sense that it might get to 3-3.

    What struck me, watching Hamels' post-game presser, was how much he reminded me of Mike Mussina. As a pitcher, you get Johan Santana—fastball/changeup, fly balls, command—but listening to his answers, there was definitely a "smarter than the room" feeling. I don't mean that critically—I like pitchers to have a mind at work, and arrogance isn't a trait that bothers me at all. I came away from the combination of his pitching and his talking about his pitching with a sense that Hamels is going to take another step forward at some point and become a Cy Young winner. Or maybe he'll just end up in a park that doesn’t punish fly balls. In any case, I was impressed.

  • When they weren't being owned by Hamels, the Brewers were gift-wrapping runs for the Phillies. The three-run third was entirely about their bad defense. Bill Hall fumbled a bunt that could have become a fielder's choice or double play. Rickie Weeks flat-out dropped Hall's throw to first on the same play. Mike Cameron misjudged a fly ball by Chase Utley. In a five-minute span, the Brewers made three key misplays that put two runs on the board on a day when they would score just one.

    The third inning was an extreme example, but you can take from it that the Brewers still have a ways to go in building their defense, They're better now than they were a year ago, but it's time to try Weeks in center field, to get a major league second baseman, and to make defense the priority that successful teams like the Red Sox, Rays, and Cubs have.

  • Brad Lidge's adventurous ninth inning may affect his availability today. He threw 35 pitches, struggling mightily with command of his slider. The Brewers didn't hit him very hard, but the deep counts they ran up added to concern over Lidge, who threw more than 30 pitches just once all season, and got the day off after. I imagine he's available, but if he comes in, he'll be as vulnerable as he's been all year long, and a long outing could be very dangerous to his effectiveness.

    I’m less concerned about Lidge's specific struggles of late than I am about the type of pitcher he is in general. As a fastball/slider pitcher who worked up in the zone, Lidge was homer-prone, even at his best. The unusual element of his 2008 season isn't his strikeout rate, ERA, or even his success at converting save opportunities. No, it's his home-run rate. Lidge allowed just two homers all season, three below his career best of five in 2005. This is on the heels of allowing 19 homers in 2006 and 2007 combined.

    This didn't coincide with some change in his fly-ball rate. Lidge still puts balls in the air. It didn't coincide with a trade to San Diego, but rather, a move from one good home-run park to another. No, Lidge's home-run rate, which drives the rest of his good numbers, is a statistical outlier. There's nothing in him that's changed to make him less likely to allow longballs; the 70 percent drop in his HR/FB rate is what's caused it, and that's just a fluke. Just seven pitchers with at least 30 innings in the NL had a lower HR/FB rate than Lidge's 4.3 percent (thanks, Hardball Times).

    That, and not his pitch count or command, is why Phillies fans should be worried about Lidge. It would be unfortunate for his run to end with a key homer allowed to blow a post-season save, but that possibility lingers because he's a hard-throwing fly-ball pitcher who usually gives up 5-10 homers a year.

Dodgers/Cubs

  • Homers by Manny Ramirez, James Loney, and Russell Martin stole the show, but the tone for this game was set by the first batter. Rafael Furcal, essentially on the DL since May 8, stepped to the plate against Ryan Dempster and struck out on six pitches. Doesn't sound like much, but Furcal's working a 3-2 count was the kind of work the Dodgers have been missing from the top spot in the lineup. Furcal would see 29 pitches in five plate appearances, drawing two walks and scoring a run, giving the Dodgers a huge upgrade in the leadoff spot and at shortstop. The return of Furcal cuts the difference between these two teams to almost nothing.

  • Ryan Dempster, the Cubs' third-best starter, was pegged to start Game One because of his home-road split this season. That's a pretty bad reason to pick a starting pitcher when we know that single-season home/road splits are more noise than signal. Dempster struggled desperately with his command, walking seven of the first 21 batters he faced before Loney changed the game with a grand slam in the fifth.

    Nate Silver raised a good point: why was Dempster facing Loney in a situation where he clearly was struggling? That he had a two-hit shutout was clearly misleading, and the importance of any given game, inning, and batter is magnified in a best-of-five series. Dempster walked three of the four batters in front of Loney, including the last two, throwing seven of his last eight pitches before Loney for balls. His command had deserted him, and that loss of command cost him when, on a 1-2 pitch to Loney, he grooved a thigh-high fastball. (People watching the game at home learned that thigh-high fastballs are "up in the zone." Indeed.) Perhaps some aggressiveness by Lou Piniella—some imagination—would have saved the Cubs’ bacon on a night when his handpicked #1 starter was channeling the mediocre Marlin of his younger days.

  • Derek Lowe had his command, walking one and striking out six in six innings. He benefited from a Cubs' lineup featuring seven right-handed batters (counting Dempster), just as Chad Billingsley will tonight. The Cubs do hit righties well, but having to face tough northpaws who hold right-handed batters in check—Billingsley held them to a 621 OPS this year—makes their job that much more difficult. Some Mike Fontenot might be in order this evening.

    By the way, if anyone has any idea what version of Carlos Zambrano we'll see tonight, drop me a line. This is a guy who since September 3 has skipped a start, thrown a no-hitter, then been crushed in his next two outings. I'm not sure there's any good way of predicting what pitcher will show up in what is the most important game the Cubs have played in a long time.

Red Sox/Angels

  • This series changed in the sixth inning of Game One, when Jason Bay turned around a John Lackey fastball like he knew it was coming, giving the Red Sox a 2-1 lead they would eventually stretch to a 4-1 final. Beating Lackey puts the Red Sox in the catbird seat, not because of home-field advantage, but because last night's matchup was the one in the series where they were taking the worst of it. Now, they'll have the better starter in each of the next two games, and yes, be home for two of the next three.

    It was good to see Bay be part of the story, because it allows me to reiterate the point I’ve been making since the afternoon of July 31: the Red Sox got a little better by trading Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay. Bay matched Ramirez’s production for the Sox, and he’s a much better defensive outfielder than Ramirez is. Forget all the off-field concerns, even forget that Bay comes in at half the price of Ramirez; just know that Jason Bay is just as good a player, all things considered, as Ramirez is at this stage of their careers.

  • In my preview of this series, I noted that Mike Scioscia might keep playing Angels baseball with something shy of Angels players. This team has much less speed, top to bottom, than it did earlier in the decade, so the aggressive baserunning comes with more cost. Scioscia's inability or unwillingness to see the limitations of his personnel is perhaps the one thing about his management style that hurts the team.

  • Think about the eighth inning last night, with Vladimir Guerrero on first base with one out. There was a time when Guerrero was a five-tool player capable of running the bases well and quickly. Knee and back problems have ended that time, leaving Guerrero a dangerous right-handed bat with a strong arm in right field, but little to no speed or range. Scioscia acknowledged this, in part, by using Guerrero at DH and Gary Matthews Jr. in right field (a problem in and of itself). In the eighth inning last night, though, he needed to go further by pinch-running for Guerrero. I don't know who is faster, Reggie Willits or Sean Rodriguez, but one of them needed to be on first base when Torii Hunter's bloop landed in right field.

    The focus, after the play, was on Kevin Youkilis' excellent recovery and Guerrero's decision to even attempt to go to third base. Youkilis did make a nice play, although his throw (labeled a good one on air) was terrible, arcing and 20 feet from the third-base bag. It got the job done, however, because Guerrero and his piano were even further away from third base when it arrived. Guerrero took criticism on the broadcast for making the decision to go, but the fact is, it was the right one—he was running on a guy face down in short right field facing away from the play, and with one out, you go for third base—but he shouldn't have been the one making it. It should have been Willits.

I really do love these two days, with the three-game marathons. It's not quite the first two days of the NCAA tournament, but it has a similar feel. Today's games, with the Cubs and Brewers in must-win or close to it situations, and the first post-season game in Rays history, should be a lot of fun.

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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21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

johnpark99

Beckett > Saunders? According to pre-2008 history, clearly yes. But according to 2008 performance, is it that clear-cut an advantage for Beckett, especially given his very recent injury concerns? We're not using a "clutch/playoff performer" type of argument, are we?

Oct 02, 2008 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

Absolutely. Beckett put up a tRA 3.64 (tRA+ of 129) to Saunders's 4.46 (tRA+ of 106). Beckett, even this season, is a considerably better pitcher.

The difference isn't as stark as it was in 2007 (tRA+ of 151 vs. 89), but it's still there.

Oct 02, 2008 10:00 AM
rating: 1
 
johnpark99

Thanks Evan. Had just quickly looked at VORP, but figured someone would come up with a better stat to look at.

Oct 02, 2008 10:07 AM
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Matt Kory

I don't think theres much question Beckett, if able to go, is a better pitcher than Saunders. That's not to say that Saunders is a bad pitcher. Clearly he isn't and Mr. Sheehan is not, by my reading, saying anything of the sort.

I do have to disagree with Mr. Sheehan about the Guerrero to third play. Youkilis' throw wasn't "20 feet from the bag" at all. It might have been 10 feet, but probably not even, and in any case he got Guerrero by more than the distance between where Lowell caught his throw and third base.

More importantly, it was a bad play by Vlad to try to run there. Had Wilits been on first, then it might have been a good gamble to try to reach third, but with Guererro, I don't think you can make that argument. Youkilis didn't miss catching Hunter's pop up by much, and I'm pretty sure theres no way that Vlad could have known whether or not the ball was going to be caught. Vlad should have been half way between first and second, not at second when the ball fell in. If Youkilis makes that catch its a double play. The way I saw it, it was a bad play on Vlad on multiple levels.

Oct 02, 2008 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

There's probably room to disagree on this, but I think the balance of strategies makes trying to get to third there with one out a good play given the things we can know.

Where I don't think there's room for disagreement is that it shouldn't have been Vlad carrying the water. You have to pinch-run for the tying run in that situation. Throw in a rookie righthander who's not quick to the plate, and Willits absolutely should have pinch-run and tried to steal. At the least, he makes third.

Oct 02, 2008 10:30 AM
 
Brian24

I agree theoretically that trying to get to third with one out there is a good play.

However, Guerrero ran through a stop sign from his coach, who had a much better vantage point. Watch the play again in slow-mo (I did, several times). At the point at which Guerrero was on second base, Youkilis is already up and throwing; the third-base coach raises the "stop" signal a half-second later, with Guerrero clearly looking in his direction. Buck Martinez' claim that he had "committed" to running to third notwithstanding, he could easily have stopped and returned to second base at that point. It was a boneheaded decision to ignore the signal.

Oct 02, 2008 10:37 AM
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tballgame

Baserunning rule of thumb - If you get thrown out easily by a terrible, high arcing throw 20 feet off the mark, you shouldn't have gone.

We've seen the real speedsters come home from second on a sacrifice fly or wild pitch, but that doesn't make it a good play for everyone to try to come home from second on a sac fly. A player needs to know their limitations and run station to station if that is all they can do. After the bloop, Scioscia could have been reminded of Vlad's limitations and pinch run with a player who would have scored from second on any type of single, but Vlad took that possibility out of his coach's hands.

You don't want to get too down on a guy trying to make a hustle play for a team that emphasizes hustle plays, but it was a critical mistake.

Oct 02, 2008 13:34 PM
rating: 0
 
gregorybfoley

Joe states, "the Red Sox got a little better by trading Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay. Bay matched Ramirez’s production for the Sox, and he’s a much better defensive outfielder than Ramirez is. Forget all the off-field concerns, even forget that Bay comes in at half the price of Ramirez; just know that Jason Bay is just as good a player, all things considered, as Ramirez is at this stage of their careers."

But what I can't forget is that Manny's season line of .332/.430/.601 dwarfs Bay's line of .286/.373/.522. Joe is engaging in cherry picking by comparing Bay's Red Sox stats to Manny's Red Sox stats and ignoring the rest of the season when the players performed vastly differently from each other. Let's also not forget that the Red Sox are still paying Manny's salary when evaluating the value of Bay's lower salary. Lastly, Joe's closing caveat, at this stage of their careers" seems to indicate that Manny is in decline. A quick check of his OPS per season indicates that this is not so. Except for last year, Manny's OPS has been right around 1.000 since he came to the Red Sox in 2001 and this year is no different as he finished at 1.031. Bay however may be in decline as his OPS has fallen from .961 in his first full season in 2005 to .928 in 2006 to .746 in 2007 to .895 in 2008.


Oct 02, 2008 10:21 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I'll buy the "cherry-picking" criticism, although it isn't intended as such. It's just looking at what the Sox got from left field before and after the deal, which was identical offense and better defense. (Note: the latter is more in dispute, as Bay's knee injury may have taken away more of his range than I'm allowing for. His full-season stats, probably affected a bit by 25-30 games in Fenway, are again poor). You couldn't predict, on July 31, that Ramirez was about to revisit 2002.

The two players' raw lines post-trade are considerably different, although I have to say that level of competition issues make me think the gap isn't quite so wide. I'll bet Will's house that Bay faced a much tougher slate of pitchers and defenses in those two months. The league gap is just that big.

Bay's decline is actually a four-year peak with a knee injury in the middle, one he never should have played through. Given where offense went this year and the variability of these stats, there's not much difference between a 928 OPS in 2006 and an 895 one in 2008. It's about seven points of EqA or so.

Oct 02, 2008 10:40 AM
 
gregorybfoley

OK, these are all fair points, but my bottom line is that there is a big difference between Manny's 1.031 OPS this year and Bay's .895 OPS. Even the Sox acknowledge this by batting Bay sixth whereas they used to bat Manny fourth. I'm not sure how good Bay's defense would need to be to make up the gap. I guess I'm a little sensitive to criticism of Manny being that I hear so much of it on all the Sox-owned media outlets in Boston though I know you're not part of all that.

Oct 02, 2008 13:12 PM
rating: 0
 
tballgame

Not sure Manny deserved to be batting fourth. Youklis was outhitting Manny from April 1 through July 31. And the decision to bat Bay sixth may have also reflected management's desire to defuse the Manny/Bay comparisons.

For those fans of Bill Simmons, he revisits the Manny deal in an article posted on ESPN today. He may have a 'Boston media' angle more to your liking.

Oct 02, 2008 14:16 PM
rating: 0
 
AndyWright
(483)

I am mildly surprised that JS didn't utilize bragging rights today, as he called out the differences in team defenses before the series. Beyond the Youkilis-Guerrero thing, it seemed to me that two critical plays were made on defense that amounted to having the same impact as Bay's homer, both in favor of the Red Sox.

Oct 02, 2008 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
mayeryoung

Joe, I don't see how Guerrero could have made a good decision and Youkilis a terrible throw, if Guerrero can't beat a terrible throw than he made a bad decision to go.

Oct 02, 2008 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
bldxyz123

Not speaking for Joe, but it seemed his point was that, in general, you need to go from first to third in the situation, and had Willits been in there, it wouldn't have been close. So Vlad was making the right decision, except that he's not fast enough to execute on said decision.

But you do point to a less-than-clear phrasing.

Oct 02, 2008 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
SoxOsPhils

Re: Lidge - it seems that this year Citizens Bank Park as a whole was less of a home run park this year than it has been in the past. Do you think this combined with some other adjustment could account for this?

In fact as a Phillies fan, although I don't have the numbers to back it up, it seems like HRs allowed were down throughout the staff this year.

Oct 02, 2008 11:57 AM
rating: 0
 
rbrianc

Joe - good call on using Willits in lieu of Vlad late - that was a thought i hadn't seen elsewhere.

Vlad made a bad move, but i'm also just as frustrated when the Angels failed to run. GA should have made it to third not stop at second, on a hit early in the game. Then as the announcers said, Hunter should have tried to steal 2nd in the 8th. Worst case would have been HK leading off the next inning if Hunter had been thrown out.

Vlad got two hits, but perhaps even worse than that was his swinging at the first pitch in the first inning with two on .... and popping up to right.

This is far from a done deal though. It's a new day.

Oct 02, 2008 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
JoshT

I don't think that Dempster was chosen to start Game One based on home/road splits. That's more of a media creation. I think he was chosen because Zambrano looked terrible in his past two starts and Piniella wanted to get him an extra day of rest. Dempster had been the Cubs best pitcher down the stretch with the possible exception of Ted Lilly, whom I don't think any of us would say would be a good pick for Game One. Lilly's big weakness is the HR ball anyway, so I'd think you'd want him pitching Game Three at night in Dodger Stadium rather than Game One in Wrigley.

Now maybe it was a bad call to go with Dempster over Zambrano or Harden, but you have to think it was based on who was pitching better in September rather than his home/road splits.

Oct 02, 2008 13:07 PM
rating: 0
 
mglick0718

JS should have written "Cole Hamels, cable-subscribing America." Am I the only one who thinks it's a travesty that only 3 of 8 post-season series are available to those of us Luddites who still get their TV signals over the air?

Oct 02, 2008 13:32 PM
rating: 0
 
leez34

Wow do I feel your pain. With MLB.TV I was fine all season, but now they're all blacked out and I have to either listen to the games on the radio (which I did yesterday) or go to a bar for nine hours a day.

It is a travesty.

Oct 02, 2008 13:45 PM
rating: 0
 
mongrel

Calling Youkilis' throw a terrible one is pretty unfair. When he snapped up to his feet his eyes needed to pick up the third baseman and throw the ball. Lowell was well off the bag, likely backing up a potential throw from RF to 2B. Absolutely agree with the pinch-running point, but that was a fine play.

Oct 02, 2008 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
jconnaughton

There was one other defensive play that may or may not have been important. (I only noticed it because I was sitting in the upper deck behind home plate.)

In the top of the 9th, with one out and the score 2-1, Ellsbury was at the plate and Lowrie on 2b. Anderson played in shallow left, Hunter played in shallow center. Matthews, however, was way deep in right, at "no doubles" depth -- seemingly far too deep for that situation (even though Ellsbury had hit a ball to deep right center in the 1st). When Ellsbury ground one through right side of the infield, Matthews was way too deep to have a shot at Lowrie.

Oct 02, 2008 14:31 PM
rating: 0
 
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