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October 10, 2008

Prospectus Today

Notes on NLCS Game One

by Joe Sheehan

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We write a lot about how very little separates post-season teams, which is why the result of a short series between them is so unpredictable. Well, that idea stems from this one: what separates them within games is very little.

Last night, the difference between Derek Lowe throwing a shutout and losing Game One of the NLCS wasn't three feet. It might not have been two feet, and most of that was the gap between James Loney's glove and the baseball flying above it as Rafael Furcal overthrew first base in the sixth inning. That error, which put Shane Victorino on second base, kicked off a six-minute stretch that turned a dominant effort by Lowe and the Dodgers into a 3-2 deficit that would hold up as the final score.

For the better part of five innings, Lowe was keeping the ball way down and getting great results. Of the game's first 16 batters, just two managed to get the ball out of the infield. Carlos Ruiz and Cole Hamels hit back-to-back singles with two outs in the fifth, but Lowe was able to retire Jimmy Rollins on a fly to left to end the threat. However, Ruiz's at-bat, and in fact that whole sequence, might have been a red flag. Lowe got a 1-2 pitch up to Ruiz, enabling the poor-hitting catcher to single sharply to right, one of the few pitches he mislocated in the first five innings.

Location is what killed him in the sixth. Lowe still had velocity and movement, but on pitches to Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, he caught too much of the plate too high in the zone, and was burned by the long ball. The difference between where each pitch was supposed to be and where it ended up was tiny; Utley's home run, which didn't look like much off the bat, came on a ball just a few inches higher than it should have been, allowing him to square it up and yank it out to right-center. Burrell's homer came on a sinker that Lowe seemed to be trying to bury inside and that he just left too much over the plate. Combined, the pitches might have missed by 12 inches, and more likely by eight. Those eight inches, added to the foot or two by which Furcal overthrew Loney, were good for three runs and, in effect, the ballgame.

Baseball is hard, and at this level, with very good teams, pitchers, hitters, baserunners, and fielders the difference between winning and losing an at-bat or an inning or a game is just so very small. That's one reason why I have always dismissed the character arguments, the idea that teams win and lose because individuals are strong of mind or will. Baseball isn't a test of character, it's a test of ability, a test of skill, and of the thousand small movements that go into the outcome of a game.

The Dodgers played a good baseball game last night. They hit three doubles off of a tough pitcher, turning them into two runs. Manny Ramirez hit a ball about as far as you can hit one in Citizens Bank Park while still keeping it in play. Casey Blake battled back from 0-2 in the fourth, with a runner on second and no one out, to avoid a strikeout and advance the runner to third. Lowe's start, while a bit less than they needed on this night, wasn't bad. The Dodgers made a number of fine defensive plays. They just made, as a team, a small number of mistakes along the way. The Phillies made fewer, and won.

  • Charlie Manuel elected to bat Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back-to-back. It didn't hurt him yesterday because the Phillies led, but it remains a poor tactical choice, easily remedied by the simple maneuver of batting Utley second, a decision that would yield a slightly more efficient lineup anyway.

  • Blake DeWitt is an interesting defensive player. I wouldn't describe him as a good second baseman-he's impossibly awkward, largely because he's been playing the position for about as long as Joe Biden has been running for vice president-but he did make a couple of nice plays last night at the wider edges of a second baseman's range, including when he turned an awkward-looking double play in the eighth. My sense is that he'll have to hit a lot to stay at second, although following Jeff Kent, whose range had been reduced to the width of his hips, may provide him some cover.

  • Ruiz's two singles notwithstanding, the bottom of the Phillies' lineup is quite the escape hatch for pitchers. The drop-off from Jayson Werth in the sixth spot to Pedro Feliz in the seventh is large, not just in terms of statistics but in terms of approach. Greg Dobbs really should play more than he does, if for no other reason than to avoid the Feliz/Ruiz/pitcher sequence that acts as an OBP sinkhole.

  • The broadcast team seemed surprised that Manuel sent So Taguchi up to bunt in the seventh inning last night, rather than using Dobbs to hit, but I thought the move made a lot of sense. With Ruiz on first, no one out, and Greg Maddux pitching, using Dobbs would have opened up a significant chance of a double play. Don't get me wrong, Dobbs is a good hitter, but the combination of talents there-no speed, ground-ball pitcher-would have made two quick outs a real possibility. Up just 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, the Phillies had every reason to play not to maximize their run scoring, but their chance of scoring one run. Staying out of the double play was how to do that.

    What I didn't understand was burning Taguchi. Leaving Hamels in to bunt would have made little difference in expectation and saved the player. I do not like using a player just to bunt unless I have some other reason for getting him into the game. Given that Taguchi isn't even the team's defensive replacement for Burrell-that's Eric Bruntlett these days-I'm not entirely clear on what Taguchi is even doing on the roster.

I think we'll see a few more runs today. Chad Billingsley allowed a .360 OBP to lefties this season, which won't help him any while navigating the Phillies' lineup. Brett Myers had been scuffling a bit before coming across the Brewers, who don't take quite the same disciplined approach at the plate that the Dodgers do. Look for the bullpens to be more involved today, which could bring Manuel's lineup choices into question.

Later today, I'll have some notes on the ALCS.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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

BP Comment Quick Links

relliott22

"Baseball isn't a test of character, it's a test of ability, a test of skill, and of the thousand small movements that go into the outcome of a game."

Something that difficult is always in part a test of character. Maybe that's not true equally for everyone. But I'm sure KG could tell us a thousand stories of guys who had the skill and not the character and for that reason never sniffed the big leagues. *That* I think is what really comes closest to diffusing the morale, momentum, character arguments. Guys who can't cut it mentally are generally weeded out long before they sniff the bigs.

I realize I'm picking on a throw-away paragraph in a piece that's about other things. Really, I'm just trying to make sense of this for myself. The influence of morale on baseball is something I'll keep turning over in my head for a long time.

Oct 10, 2008 09:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

The ability to focus and get the job done is still an ability. That we call is character doesn't make it reflect any better or worse on the person beyond it being a baseball-relevant skill.

Oct 10, 2008 09:39 AM
rating: 1
 
pestevez

Evan,
Thanks for making that point. That ability to focus while different from a physical skill is just as necessary for a baseball player to succeed.

Oct 10, 2008 10:37 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

You're not nitpicking a throw-away paragraph. This sentence is fundamental to all of Joe's analysis. The human response to the situation in which one finds himself matters little.

Is one player more apt to give up when faced with a string of failures? Bag it on the 4th AB, after 3 K's. In my mind, certainley so. Is that character?

If one has had a run of good success, does that make the person less apt to be discouraged by a string of recent misfortune? Does confidence inspire better performance?

Jow would have you believe that you're just looking at random rolls off a Strato card but in reality you're looking at the performance of human beings.

Oct 10, 2008 11:43 AM
rating: 1
 
relliott22

I think the larger point that baseball is a game of millimeters and split-seconds is more important to the warm-up of the piece than the bit about character, which is something of an asside. There's a take it or leave it character to that paragraph and I couldn't do either, so I felt apologies were in order.

I do believe that the importance of such minute details is one of the things that makes us love and appreciate the sport, and I like how Joe uses it in his opening.

Oct 10, 2008 13:03 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

"Joe would have you believe that you're just looking at random rolls off a Strato card but in reality you're looking at the performance of human beings."

Joe would (as I interpret him) have you remember that you're looking at the performance of that tiny fraction of human beings who had so much ability, physical and mental and emotional, that they made it to the major leagues. This is NOT a random sample of the population at large, and there's no reason to think that they will show the same distribution of 'character' traits as the population at large, any more than they show a typical distribution of physical traits. You might as well argue that lots of major league players are probably women -- after all, you see women around you every day, it's perfectly natural for someone to be female.

Treating players as if they were stratomatic cards does a remarkably good job of predicting how they're going to perform in the future. That doesn't mean they're robots; it just means that they're selected in part for NOT being the kind of people who respond to that kind of pressure the way you or I might.

Oct 10, 2008 14:56 PM
rating: 3
 
sgturner65

relliot22,

Who or what is KG?

Oct 10, 2008 09:51 AM
rating: 0
 
thehotcorner

Kevin Goldstein

Oct 10, 2008 10:05 AM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon

Did anyone else feel, as I did, that Furcal's overthrow on the Victorino play was more about back pain than Victorino's speed? McCarver went on and on about SV's speed, but an accurate throw would have had him by about five steps. Same goes for the Ruiz play the next inning. Furcal, deep in the hole, a catcher running, misfired badly again, with a weak and inaccurate toss.

Oct 10, 2008 10:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

In fairness, that's a throw I've seen a healthy Furcal make. He'll overthrow at times, not so much to make him a liability...it's just an error he makes.

As far as the double goes...I'm not sure that the crowd isn't right on this one. That's a spot where the difference between being on second and being on third--one out--is valuable, and although Victorino made a solid play on the carom...man, I'm not convinced it shouldn't have been a triple.

That the noise level over stuff like this is too high, or the fact that only certain players have their actions scrutinized in this way is unfair, doesn't change the fact that on occasion, this thing has a cost. B.J. Upton's failure to run hard had a cost in specific situations, and Manny Ramirez's may have as well.

The thing is, and I suppose I should be posting this elsewhere, is that we don't evaluate 750 major-league players this way. We don't watch how every single guy breaks from the box on every ball. We have certain people we judge this way, and the rest get a pass. That's not a defense of the actions, it's a note that we have no context for their actions. I can feed you anecdotes about less-famous players doing similar things, but I can't give you data.

I'm rambling...the whole thing has layers I'm not smart enough to explore. I just think the questions are more interesting than, "Is Manny Ramirez a [noun]?"

Oct 10, 2008 11:06 AM
 
OonBoon

"Hustle Trax" should be the next FOX game enhancing innovation.

"Manny only broke from the box at 6.7 m/s^2 on that one, Tim. He's consistently in the bottom 10% of the league in the Percentage of Plays Hustled Upon. The simulation shows he's capable of a ten step acceleration of at least 24.9 m/s^2. And just look at his Hustle Percentage Per Inning Per Contract Dollar. Pathetic! Sooner or later the Dodgers will realize they should have traded for real gritsters like Eckstein and Erstad instead of Ramirez and Blake."

Oct 10, 2008 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
relliott22

Someone (if it wasn't here, then it was Joe Posnanski) wrote a great piece about how baseball loves to tear down it's superstars. The prime example was A-Rod and how the masses constantly blame him for failing in particular circumstances, even when baseball is a game that sets everyone up to fail.

Manny gets subjected to the same things. He is whatever the newspapers say he is, and you're right in that there's nothing, absolutely nohting fair in that.

Still, he did put his hands on a man that was twice his age. Sometimes you can blame the victim.

Oct 10, 2008 13:32 PM
rating: 0
 
relliott22

It was Posnanski: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2008/09/22/best-of-the-best/

really good article, well worth the time.

Oct 10, 2008 14:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Rob Moore

I was thinking the same thing. I've watched Furcal regularly throughout his Dodger tenure and he's still not 100% for sure. Normally he's got one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) SS arms in all of baseball. That Ruiz throw especially was not the rifle I was expecting. He also looks a little slower while running.

Oct 10, 2008 11:15 AM
rating: 0
 
stinkypete

"Manny Ramirez hit a ball about as far as you can hit one in Citizens Bank Park while still keeping it in play."

Predictably some of the local radio personalities were all over Manny for "showboating" out of the box on that hit and not legging it into a triple, and therefore (by their logic) costing the Dodgers another run. Nevermind that the ball hit 25 ft up on a wall 409 ft from home plate, and would have been long out of any other park in MLB (except maybe Houston, curse Tal and his hill). For once, I don't begrudge Manny for starting his trot early.

Oct 10, 2008 10:42 AM
rating: 0
 
Mountainhawk

This may be the first time some has EVER said 'that ball would have been a home run anywhere but Citizen's Bank Park.'

Oct 10, 2008 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
stinkypete

What can I say, I'm a maverick.

Oct 10, 2008 11:08 AM
rating: 2
 
bldxyz123

I had to think the same thing: no fence in Dodger Stadium, for instance is 409 feet from home plate AND 25 feet high... so it surprised me given this park's reputation!

Oct 10, 2008 12:44 PM
rating: 0
 
keef66

Couldn't Loney have caught that? He seemed too intent on staying on the base, and he looks left at Victorino even before comes back down. His left leg stays splayed out at a weird angle, and the ball seems to go in and out of his glove. If he had simply taken one step off the bag, I don't see that he misses the ball.

Victorino would still have reached, and presumably it wouldn't have mattered, given the homer(s) that followed, but you never know.

Oct 10, 2008 11:30 AM
rating: 0
 
Chin Music

I'm a little surprised to read you thought Derek Lowe was cruising through five innings, Joe. I can't remember what inning it was, but from the time he allowed consecutive singles to Ruiz and Hamels, I thought he looked pretty damn shaky. His control suddenly was off, and he looked uncomfortable on the mound.

Given that, plus the fact Lowe was set to bat second in the next inning, wouldn't you have considered going to Beimel to pitch against Utley and Howard after Victorino reached base?

It looked even worse when Torre pulled Lowe after Burrell's homer. That tells me Torre saw similar signs of shakiness from Lowe and was ready/willing to replace him in the 6th. Of course, it was too late by the time he did go to the bullpen.

I liked your take before the series about the difference between the Cubs and Phillies' offenses and how the Phillies would pose a bigger challenge to the righty-heavy Dodgers' staff. Torre's usage -- or lack thereof -- of Beimel, Kuo and Kershaw are going to be huge in this series.

Oct 10, 2008 11:55 AM
rating: 0
 
jtrichey

All you are talking about is 2 hitters there (Rollins and Victorino), both of which he got out if not for the error. You have to manage a little differently in the post season, but I don't think any manager would have truly removed Lowe after Victorino reached on an error.

Oct 10, 2008 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
EnderCN

Lowe hurt his thumb, spiked a ball into the ground on his next pitch, got the K on the next pitch and came back the next inning with control issues.

I'm still 80% sure the thumb injury was the cause of the inning.

Oct 10, 2008 13:00 PM
rating: 0
 
tterry

"Charlie Manuel elected to bat Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back-to-back. It didn't hurt him yesterday because the Phillies led, but it remains a poor tactical choice, easily remedied by the simple maneuver of batting Utley second, a decision that would yield a slightly more efficient lineup anyway."
I note ( from article in Oct 20 edit of ESPN Magazine) that Baseball Prospectus's BLOOP progam ( Baseball Lineup Order Optimization Program) concluded :

" A teams best hitters should bat sequentially. Don't break them up with average hitters for the sake of going lefty, righty, lefty"

Oct 10, 2008 13:13 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I'm 99% certain, based on talking to James Click, that that program does not consider platoon splits or tactical considerations.

I would not suggest breaking up two lefties without platoon splits, or two lefties with Pedro Feliz, or anything like that. I do think forcing a manager to pitch to Werth or Victorino or Burrell, or put one on base, in exchange for pitching to Utley and Howard with a lefty, is worth it.

Note that I suggest doing so by moving Utley up to #2, which has benefits of its own.

Oct 10, 2008 14:16 PM
 
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