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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. 
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