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October 12, 2008

Prospectus Today

ALCS Game Two

by Joe Sheehan

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Someone's ruined.

There were 34,904 tickets sold to last night's ALCS Game Two in Tampa Bay, and you just know that somewhere among that throng, someone was seeing their first baseball game. Perhaps someone took a first date, unfamiliar with baseball, because the Rays are the big story in town. A big brother gets sick, so a little brother invites his best friend from school. A client stays an extra day and gets invited to the firm's box, even though he's more a theatre guy.

That person is ruined. They can't go back, because nothing will ever match that first experience. It's the baseball equivalent of losing your virginity to twin cheerleaders. From Sweden.

Someone showed up at the Tropicana Dome last night around 7:30, and was handed a cowbell, and ate a hot dog, and looked around at a stadium that had rarely looked like it did last night, filled with people excited to be there, anticipating, nervous, passionate, loud... maybe more than anything else, loud. They saw history made, as the teams combined for seven home runs, tying a post-season record. They saw a pitcher whose job it is to get three outs do three times that much work. They saw the very best prospect in baseball, someone who's been a major leaguer since about Tuesday, play a critical role for the home team. They saw that most thrilling of baseball moments, a runner scrambling home from third base, a baseball coming from the other direction, a season determined by who wins the race.

The Red Sox and Rays didn't put on the most impressive display of baseball last night. All they did was play one of the most entertaining games of the young century. Back and forth, back and forth over five and a half hours, the two teams packed more thrills into one game than the entire 2007 postseason provided. Whether you wear red or green, you went to bed last night exhausted, having ridden a horsehide roller coaster that epitomized the phrase, "It's a shame one of them had to lose."

In contrast to Game One, the two managers were more aggressive with their personnel. Joe Maddon, in particular, pulled out all the stops. This reflects the greater importance of the game to the Rays, who with a loss last night would have been forced to win four out of five, including at least two of three in Boston, to advance to the World Series. Maddon rescued an ineffective Scott Kazmir in the fifth after the third homer Kazmir allowed, and used both of his best relievers, Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, just to bring the fifth to an end. Because of this, he would later ask Dan Wheeler, the team's nominal closer in the absence of Troy Percival, to go longer in a game than Wheeler had gone in years; by the time he left, Wheeler had thrown 3 1/3 innings and 48 pitches. He hadn't gone longer than two innings in a game since September 27, 2006, when he threw 46 pitches in three innings. The last time he threw more pitches? June 4 of that year. What Wheeler did last night was help save a season.

Terry Francona could have done with that kind of aggression. His starter, Josh Beckett, went just as long as Kazmir, 4 1/3 innings, but at no point did he look comfortable or effective. Francona's sending his injured hurler back to the mound to start the fifth with a lead was the key mistake of the game. Had he started the inning with Manny Delcarmen, it's entirely possible that the Sox' 6-5 edge would have held up, because on this night, his bullpen was outstanding. His top four relievers combined for 5 2/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits and no walks.

How much of Beckett's performance is due to his strained oblique isn't for me to say. I do know this: Beckett hasn't had a quality start in his last three, and he's given up 18 hits and five home runs in his two post-season starts. That's awful, and when combined with how he looks-he's using more breaking balls than he does when he's at his best, and he's missing velocity-it seems to me, the guy who isn't Will Carroll, that not only should he have been out earlier last night, but that it's not clear whether you want him starting a potential Game Six.

Francona's offense gave him an opportunity to get his pen into the game with a lead, and he went back to Beckett for three more outs. He got one. I get that Beckett had retired three straight to end the fourth, but Cliff Floyd's homer kicked off that inning, and again, he was being hit hard and not appearing comfortable. He should have been gone after the fourth, or at the least, after walking B.J. Upton.

What's interesting is that while we might remember this game for the home runs, all of them were hit in the first 4 innings, and after that, the bullpens took over. Healthy pitchers can do that. The Red Sox chipped away with single runs in the sixth (Jason Bay singling off of Chad Bradford, no mean feat) and the eighth (when Wheeler made his only mistake, throwing a ball to the backstop that allowed Dustin Pedroia to score the tying run). That's another reason why this game was so special-it showed such a range of what baseball is. Half the game was a slugfest, and half a pitchers' duel.

Those bullpens set up the finish, which capped the event for our new fans: a walk-off win by the home team, the winning run scoring in a cloud of dust as his teammates rush from the dugout screaming wildly. For veteran fans though, the 11th inning was more than just its last moment. You had Joe Maddon bringing in David Price, who 16 months ago was the first pick in the draft, and who made his major league debut four weeks ago, to make what were arguably the most important pitches in franchise history. The Rays' season was unquestionably on the line last night, given the difficulty of taking four of five from the Red Sox, of beating Jon Lester at least once, or of winning at least two games at Fenway Park. Maddon, poetically perhaps, called on the pitcher who is expected to be the ace of winning Rays teams to come to rescue this one, this overachieving, surprising one. Price was supposed to be in the Arizona Fall League in October of 2008, not the ALCS, but the early-arriving Rays changed that plan.

Price, perhaps nervous, perhaps just a 23-year-old pitcher, walked J.D. Drew, then got Mark Kotsay on a 2-2 pitch that was called a strike in the face of the available evidence, and retired Coco Crisp on a grounder to short.

Having exhausted his supply of reliable relievers, Francona went to Mike Timlin in the bottom of the 11th. Timlin walked Dioner Navarro on a 3-2 pitch that certainly looked like a strike, and the pitch tracker that TBS uses showed it to be, at worst, a little bit better than the pitch that sat down Kotsay. When a 1-0 pitch to Ben Zobrist was inexplicably ruled a ball, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell got himself ejected, giving our sleepy first-time fans something to wake them up-the sight of a manager and a coach coming out to fight with an umpire.

The sequence of events that led to Farrell's ejection was unfortunate, but it highlighted a weakness in our game for the new fans: the calling of balls and strikes. The more you watch, the more you realize that pitches on the margins are essentially called at random. I don't think home-plate umpires are flipping mental coins; I do, however, believe that the job of judging the specific location of a ball moving at 85-100 miles per hour is beyond the scope of human eyes. I say the same for the judgment of whether a batter committed to or didn't commit to a pitch, a call that should always be referred to a base umpire, or preferably, video. Sam Holbrook did a poor job in a key sequence last night, and while some will call that the "human element," I call it a failure that has effects in the millions of dollars.

The end result of the controversial calls put runners on first and second with no one out. Jason Bartlett failed to get a bunt down-MVPs shouldn't bunt, anyway-but another future Ray, Fernando Perez, used his speed to save the situation. With Perez trying to steal third, Bartlett grounded a ball up the third-base line; if not for Perez breaking, Kevin Youkilis might have been able to stay back and get the lead runner. With Perez nearing third, however, Youkilis had to charge and take the out at first base. Like Price, Perez was supposed to be somewhere else this fall, working on his skills in preparation for his role in the Rays' bright future. Instead, he found himself as the winning run, 90 feet from home, as B.J. Upton came to the plate.

Timlin got ahead 0-2, and given that Upton can be prone to the strikeout, it looked for the moment that the veteran hurler might get out of the jam. But Upton, who emphasized repeatedly in the aftermath that he was up there to make contact, fought off the next pitch and then, on the fourth, popped a ball down the right-field line, shallow. There was no question that it was deep enough for Perez, with great speed, to attempt to score. When Drew did a poor job of setting up for a throw, then uncorked a two-hopper up the third-base line that had no chance of getting the runner, 1:38 a.m. on October 12 felt a little bit like midnight on January 1.

Walking out of the stadium, maybe a bit confused, maybe a bit overtired, maybe with a ringing in their ears, someone who had never seen a baseball game turned to their host and asked, "So they do this every night?"

They're so ruined.

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

BP Comment Quick Links

diperna

JD Drew's throw:

1) Why don't we ever see outfielders in shallow depth hit the catcher in the air, with no hops on the throw? I understand when there are runners on, because you want to throw it low enough for the infielders to have the option to cut it off, but that didn't apply in this case. Do coaches teach against this in the majors? Are they afraid the throw will be airmailed over the catcher's head? Do they think a low, skipping throw gets there faster? Because -- as to that last point -- I'd think a true throw in the air with no hops is easier to field than a low throw that skips to the catcher, even if it perhaps arrives later.

2) If Upton's short fly had been in foul ground, it would have been interesting to see whether Drew would have decided to let it drop. I'm not sure if outfielders are wired to think that way, but it's a play I've always looked for. I can't recall an outfielder letting the ball drop.

Oct 12, 2008 13:16 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

On that specific play, letting the ball drop would have been the right decision, assuming the simple matter of the ball being clearly foul. (If there's doubt, of course, you have to catch it.) The combination of talents were such that Perez was going to score on most non-popups.

I'm not sure what Drew was trying to do, but from that distance, he should have been looking to throw home on the fly.

I don't think enough has been made of just how poor a job he did setting up for that throw. Given that he was settling under it, he should have been able to get behind it and set for a throw. He just blew that.

Oct 12, 2008 13:39 PM
 
Mike Kastellec

1)As I recall from Physics 1, on the fly should be fastest. The horizontal velocity is unrelated to the vertical rise and fall, but each bounce creates drag. Warning: IANAP

2)I've seen IFs going back for the ball on that play let it drop, and even OFs deep and down the line, but I can't recall an OF charging in and letting it drop.

Oct 12, 2008 13:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

That's a basic assumption made in low-level physics classes, but it's not true, the air exerts some pretty non-negligible (for real life applications) drag on the ball, slowing it down. I think the bigger issue is that baseballs tail and break pretty harshly, and the effect is amplified the more they're in the air. I'd think it would be much easier to get the ball to home plate *accurately* on two short, low-level throws. But in a situation like that one, I agree, the right decision is probably to throw it long and pray it lands in the right spot.

Oct 12, 2008 16:19 PM
rating: -1
 
Hyperion

Drag isn't even the issue. Outfielders can throw a baseball at some maximum straight-line speed, around 100 mph depending on whether they prepare well and can really step into the throw (Drew did not). If a fielder throws higher so as to get the ball in without a bounce, he has to take some velocity away from the horizontal component, which determines how long the throw will take to arrive. For long throws it can be better to let the ball bounce rather than putting considerable arc on the throw. It's readily calculable (see Adair's Physics of baseball for an example).

That said, as JS points out Drew was not very deep. He should have set up better for the throw given he had adequate time to do so, thus getting more on the throw and surely making a thrown in the air a better option. Moreover, even the weak throw he made would have made for a fairly close play if he hadn't thrown it up the 3rd baseline.

Oct 12, 2008 17:22 PM
rating: 1
 
Mike Kastellec

What a game. The most enjoyable baseball viewing experience of the season for me. Great work as usual, Joe.

Dan Wheeler has got to be in the top ten of slowest working active pitchers.

Does this Rays team remind anyone else of the 96 Yanks? I ask this as a Yanks fan. I'm looking over the roster on baseball-reference and I'll admit that the roster doesn't match up one-to-one (or even close to that), but I'm getting a weird deja vu'y feeling watching them take on the Sox.

Oct 12, 2008 13:37 PM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

Nice write-up Joe. What I cannot believe about Francona is that he not only let Beckett start that last inning, he let him pitch to Longoria with a runner on second. Longoria had already homered and doubled off him. I watched that non-move and literally was wondering out loud what he was thinking.

But it was clear Beckett's not right. And if there is a game 6 it would be a bad idea to send him back out there.

Oct 12, 2008 15:09 PM
rating: 0
 
alanj
(767)

I'm surprised you didn't mention Francona's curious ninth-inning sequence of relievers, bringing in Masterson to start the inning, then Papelbon. As a result of getting a combined two innings from those two pitchers, he was out of good relievers by the 11th, and had to bring in Timlin. With predictable results.

It seems like the first choice would be to bring in Papelbon to start the ninth, have him go 1-2 innings, then go to Masterson for 2-3 innings, then Timlin. Second choice would be to bring in Masterson for two innings before going to Papelbon, maybe switching early if you're in a desperate "strike this guy out or you lose" sort of situation. Tito's actual sequence just seemed... indecisive.

And yeah, after seeing Beckett's work in the first four innings, and then having him sit 25 minutes in the top of the fifth, I don't understand how anyone would want him out there for the bottom of the fifth in preference to MDC or even Byrd. As a Boston fan, the first two games of this series have been giving me Grady flashbacks.

Oct 12, 2008 15:15 PM
rating: 1
 
Tippit340

The idea that it is humanly impossible to judge balls and strikes strikes me as silly. Batters, with a significantly worse vantage point, manage to make consistent contact. I think it might be more accurate to say that judging balls and strikes is really hard, and we just need better standards for umpire vision. Perhaps no umpires over fifty when visual acuity starts to degrade, and yearly evaluation of umpires to make sure they're seeing the ball right.

Oct 12, 2008 16:07 PM
rating: 0
 
bobgale

While this is a wonderful article, I have to deeply cringe at the mention of video replay for calling balls and strikes. How can you think the mechanics of that system would not make a complete mockery of the flow of the baseball game? My feeling from watching thousands of baseball games is that most umpires do a good job. At most, they might obviously miss two or three ball and strike calls per game. You're saying we're going to potentially review every ball and strike called "on the margins" in the game!? Besides, disputes between umpires and managers are a part of the game's story line and coloring that I, for one, would hate to see cavalierly punted away in the service of automatons.

As for the point that millions is being lost...what, these people aren't making enough money already? So what?

I agree that an appeal to a base umpire on checked swings should be required. That makes perfect sense.

Oct 12, 2008 22:48 PM
rating: 1
 
ClubberLang

I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean video replay for balls and strikes, he means it should be an automated instant system. Clearly they've got something set up between what you see on MLBAM Gameday with the Pitch FX data, and you've also got that PitchTracker thingy the broadcasts are using.

Appeals on checked swings are nice and all, but I've seen a TON of blown calls on those the last few weeks on appeals. It might be better than the home plate guy calling it, but they still blow the call way too often.

Oct 13, 2008 12:08 PM
rating: 0
 
villapalomares

Joe,
I was surprised to read this:

"There was no question that it was deep enough for Perez"

I thought just the opposite when I saw how shallow the ball was. I could not believe Perez tagged up. I don't care how fast he is. A good throw would have had him and the inning would have been over.

Then I assigned "blame" for the loss. It wasn't Drew. It wasn't Timlin. It was Francona, as was mentioned.


Oct 12, 2008 16:56 PM
rating: 0
 
oldjacket

Great article.

Oct 12, 2008 22:53 PM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon

Drew's throw was on target when it left his hand. The problem was the impressive screwball action on the thing. For all the talk of JD's poor setup and whatnot, Perez is out if that ball is just thrown straight. By the time it bounces next to Kotsay, the ball clearly does not have a chance. Perhaps a more experienced 1B than Kotsay would have cut that thing off and turned for a good solid chuck.

Oct 13, 2008 00:43 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Anyone who saw Timlin this year knows he shouldn't have been on the playoff roster. Francona blew this and should be called out. Just plain threw away a game. The Jeff Weaver in extra innings call that let the Red Sox come back against the Yankees years ago. This was that bad.For God's sake, Paul Byrd would have been a better option.

Oct 13, 2008 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
jcjaxson

"Francona's sending his injured hurler back to the mound to start the fifth"

You've taken people to task for saying that Manny quit on the team based on what they observed. If you have some information that Beckett's injured, beyond your results based conclusion, divulge it.

I agree on the umps. Ball/strike calls are the central controlling aspect of the game, and humans are physiologically unequipped to accurately make the correct calls. They guess because they have to. Like Whitey said, "It's a good thing they have only have 2 choices to make."

They then compound their innate human inability with arrogant nonsense like making the pitcher 'prove' he can throw strikes, giving calls to veterans, and refusing to call a strike over the plate if the catcher set up elsewhere.

The 'human element' argument was born of necessity - there was no way to correct the problem.

There is now, and it can't happen too soon.

Oct 13, 2008 08:51 AM
rating: -1
 
Dan

I'm not sure if I'm in favor of automated ball-strike calls or not, but I'm pretty sure that if it were done it would not be some 2-minute "review" of the video.

I think it could be done in an instantaneous, automated way. Calibrate the strike zone, and the pitch comes in and -- boom -- we see the call, either ball or strike.

I think the only human input necessary would be calibrating the top and bottom of the zone for each batter.

Sure would be weird... probably more accurate... I honestly don't know how I feel about it.

But delays to review a replay are not a part of this equation (if I understand correctly).

Oct 13, 2008 09:23 AM
rating: 0
 
mistahlee

Is anyone else bothered by Holbrook's habit of raising his right hand tentatively, as if unsure deliberating with himself how to call the pitch? I didn't pay strict attention but he seemed to do it mostly on close pitches. Infuriating.

By the way, Joe, fishes play in Tampa Bay, but the Rays play in St. Petersburg. Also the team's color is blue, not green.

Oct 13, 2008 18:38 PM
rating: 0
 
Eric M. Van

I've been advocating for automated balls and strikes all my life -- there's a thread discussing it over at Sons of Sam Horn:

http://sonsofsamhorn.net/index.php?s=cc5eb70fcf3accb569c18fb461728e72&showtopic=37530

I've also been posting analyses of umpire performance in the ALCS thread. According to pitch/fx, Sam Holbrook missed as many as 35 calls Saturday night, 27 of them obviously, with the calls favoring the Rays 2 to 1. Considering how consistently Beckett was squeezed in comparison to Kazmir, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Sox would have won the game with neutral umpiring.

Oct 14, 2008 08:02 AM
rating: 1
 
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