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October 7, 2008
Closing Out and Waiting Around
The four teams that advanced to the League Championship Series are probably the top two teams in the AL, and two of the top three playoff teams in the NL. We can debate the Dodgers; relative standing in the NL as a whole, complicated by the fact that their playoff lineup is nothing like anything they used during the season, but I don't think anyone would argue that they're a better team than the Brewers at the moment.
They all won their Division Series in a similar fashion: run prevention. No winning team allowed more than five runs in any DS game, or more than 13 runs in the series. On the whole, the teams advancing allowed 41 runs in 15 games, 2.7 per contest. Only the Dodgers were particularly impressive at the plate, although the Rays and Red Sox each had their moments. It was pitching and defense-I got five years older just typing that-that made the difference for the winning teams. They kept their opponents in the park, allowing just eight home runs in the 15 games. They didn't walk people, just 41, or 2.7 per game, and they had nearly a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
On offense, they played big ball. In fact, the Division Series round validated the idea that you win post-season games not by scratching out a single run using small-ball tactics, but by using short-sequence offenses-power-to score, and by putting up crooked numbers. The team hitting more home runs in a game went 12-1 in the Division Series. In all seven NLDS games, and nine of 15 overall, the winning team scored more runs in a single inning than the loser did all game long.
Prevent home runs, hit them yourselves. That may not be a sauce, but it's a pretty good dry rub.
By the way, when did the Division Series start to suck? For all the excitement we had in the early days of its existence, the round has started to leave baseball fans with way too much time on their hands in the second week of October. We had three over the minimum 12 games this season, which is a marathon compared to the 13-just one over the minimum!-we saw last year. There hasn't been a Game Five in the Division Series since 2005, and there haven't been two in one year since 2003.
This is probably just random chance. There's no structural reason for the Division Series to end up 3-0 or 3-1 so often, and it's not as if the team with the inferior regular-season performance is the team on the wrong side of that mark very much. However, given that MLB has invested a lot in the postseason, chipping away at the value of pennant races to build up October, year after year of a first round that doesn't deliver on its promise-how many "There's Only One October" ads have you seen? 200? 300?-calls into question the value of that decision. We know that September is not what it used to be because of the small-division/wild-card combination. If October is going to disappoint, and let's take a moment to remember that we haven't had a Game Six in the World Series since 2003, then that tradeoff doesn't work at all.
Some notes on the Game Fours:
Hey, the White Sox hit two home runs and scored... two runs. For the series, they scored six of their 13 runs on homers, a near-perfect match for their in-season mark. In the four games, they had 22 singles, four doubles, and 10 walks. That's not enough, not nearly enough. They got two good starts, and they needed more. The very simple formula that helped them win the Central broke down for a week.
The reaction to a team that relies on home runs the way that the Sox do is to say that they need to play more small ball, show the ability to manufacture runs, add speed, all the usual clichés. The Sox don't necessarily need that. They do, however, need to diversify, and by that, I mean find any other offensive skill. Hit some singles, doubles, triples, draw some walks, steal some bases. The Sox are one-dimensional, and not in the good way that gets criticized by people who don't understand that teams can score a lot of runs without channeling the 1909 Detroit Tigers, like, say, the early Billy Beane A's. These White Sox don't pair home runs with walks. They don't pair them with anything, and they haven't for some time. They have to diversify.
Knowing how baseball works, though, I'll make this prediction: The White Sox will score fewer runs next season, have a lower EqA, use more small-ball tactics, and be praised for having a better offense.
The Rays just played better baseball. They didn't do any one thing particularly well-although their bullpen was just a little ridiculous: 11
An e-mail sent in the eighth inning last night:
If J.D. Drew is two steps further in or takes a little better line to the ball or gets off a slightly stronger throw, that would have been prescient. Vladimir Guerrero was safe without a tag, and the Angels tied the game. They would lose in the ninth.
The play, though, encapsulated the series for me. When he first got the job in Anaheim, Mike Scioscia seemed unconcerned with experience in assigning roles, but now seems to have lost some of that edge. In the situation referenced above-down two in the eighth inning of an elimination game, tying run on second-you have to have the fastest person possible on second base. Scioscia, for the second time in the series, didn't pinch-run for Guerrero, who at this point is a below-average baserunner. It didn't bite him the way it did in Game One, but it was nonetheless a mistake.
Whether Scioscia is making these errors out of loyalty or out of an inability to evaluate his talent doesn't matter. What matters is that he has to figure out whether he's going to manage the players he has or the players he wishes he had, because "Angels baseball" didn't work with the 2008 Angels roster. It was perhaps the slowest team he'd had since 2001. It was probably the worst defensive team of his time in Anaheim. The naked aggression that has been the organization's signature hurt them in this series, on the bases and at the plate. You're welcome to point to 100 wins, but the facts are that the Angels had excellent pitching and weak competition, and only one of those applied in the Division Series. Putting the ball in play as an offensive strategy doesn't work very well when you're facing the best defensive team in the AL, and wasting the baserunners you do get is devastating when you just have no path to getting very many.
I think Scioscia is a terrific manager, but he has a real test in front of him because the 2009 Angels aren't going to be any different. They could be a little faster, depending on who plays left field, but they're going to be a year older everywhere else. There are no young position players with speed on the horizon. The approach on which he's built all of his success is going to be ill-suited to his personnel next year. How he makes this adjustment is going to be one of the more interesting stories of the 2009 season.