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October 23, 2008

Prospectus Today

Advantage Acquired

by Joe Sheehan

As scripted, Cole Hamels pitched another beautiful post-season game, going seven innings, mixing his fastball and changeup to keep the Rays off-balance, and pounding the strike zone. He allowed two runs, one a homer on a hanging curve to Carl Crawford, the other a double on a nice piece of hitting by Akinori Iwamura, but never surrendered an early lead. Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge were perfect out of the bullpen, and just like that, the Phillies had a measure of control of the World Series.

You can't say enough about Hamels, who even when he was giving up a couple of runs never seemed likely to lose the lead. Not to move too far from the realm of measurables, but there is a fluidity to him, to his mechanics, that makes him enjoyable to watch. The aesthetics don't get him any extra outs, but as I said last night in the Game One roundtable, I was pretty sad when he left the game after seven innings. He's probably been the MVP of October.

Hamels had an early lead because Chase Utley failed. With one on and one out in the first, the Rays used a shift on Utley, the kind that has become de rigueur for many lefty pull hitters. It seemed a strange choice given how hard it is to pull Scott Kazmir, but the Phillies went with it. With the right side of the infield unguarded, Utley tried to lay a bunt down for an easy single, but fouled it off. A few very close pitches later, he yanked a ball into the right-field grandstand. The very best player on the Phillies had the biggest hit in his first World Series game, perhaps chipping away at his status as one of baseball's most criminally underrated stars.

The 2-0 lead would later stretch to 3-0, and it held up in part because B.J. Upton didn't run. Twice. In the first, Upton checked his swing and hit a grounder to second that became a 4-6-3 double play. The ball was hit slowly, and probably should have been just a forceout, especially given Upton's speed. Upton, however, not only broke slowly from the box, but didn't speed up when he could clearly see that a double play was developing. His lack of effort, whatever the reason, cost the Rays a baserunner and an out; there's really no question that Upton would have been safe on the play had he run.

In the third, Upton came to the plate with one out and the bases loaded, Tropicana Dome's noise level reaching "ouch" for the fourth time that evening. This was one of those showdowns that makes you thrilled to be a baseball fan, a fantastic young pitcher in the midst of a great run against a fantastic young hitter who's been killing the ball. Each was the biggest reason their team had made it through two post-season series, and each would be key for their teams in the World Series. Now, they were facing off, and even though it was the third inning, it felt much later.

Hamels fell behind 2-1, then threw a changeup that Upton ripped to the left of Pedro Feliz, who made a terrific stab and began a 5-4-3 double play. Once again, though, the focus was on Upton, who loped down the line. Whether a furious charge down the line would have changed the outcome isn't quite as clear as it was on the earlier play, but the outcome isn't the issue. At the point of contact, Upton has a chance to create a run with his legs by staying out of the double play. I'll say that again: a run was on the line, in the World Series, and Upton didn't work to get it in.

I really, truly feel about 25 years older writing these things. To me, "hustle" is a meaningless word, used to prop up mediocre players who are good playing to the populist notion of visible effort, and criticize talent-laden ones who understand the concept of a long season. Upton, however, showed a lack of effort in a situation that materially affected his team's chance of winning. It's a burden, perhaps, to have so much speed that you would be criticized when a slower player's sloth would be hand-waved away, but that's the price you pay for otherworldly talent. It's the continuation of a cycle with Upton, who cost the Rays runs and outs earlier this season with his lack of effort.

This isn't about putting on a good show for the fans. This is exactly the same as criticizing a player for air-mailing a throw that allows runners to advance, or a manager for screwing up a pinch-hitting decision, or a GM for a terrible trade. There was an action, and we can quantify the impact of that action, and by doing so, determine that the action was costly. The difference in expectation between two out and no one on, and one out and a runner on first, is about four-tenths of a run, and there's little question that Upton could have beaten the throw. On the double play, his chance of being safe was less, but the payoff-a run-was definite. The Rays lost 3-2; you tell me how important it was.

---

  • Scott Kazmir threw a quality start last night. No, really. It seemed like he was pitching the Rays out of the game, but he made it through six innings and allowed just three runs, which is a perfectly good outing for him. His command was erratic and his velocity down a bit from his peak, but he kept the ball in the park after the Utley homer, which enabled him to survive.

  • Jimmy Rollins helped. After Kazmir walked two men to load the bases in the second and went 1-0 on Rollins, the shortstop hit a weak fly ball to short-center field. Better remembered as the play where Upton gunned down Shane Victorino at the plate, the at-bat showed one of Rollins' weaknesses-he doesn't have quality at-bats. In that situation, you have to let Kazmir keep digging his own hole, and if you're going to help him out, you have to make great contact. The Phillies could have, maybe should have, broken the game open in the second. That they didn't can be laid at the feet of Rollins.

  • "Folks, those cowbells sure can be a lot of fun, and you should ring them with all of your might to show your support for our Rays. However, think twice before using them in other ways, such as banging them against walls or other interior surfaces. That hurts the bell, and it certainly hurts me-I'm old! Let's hear 'clang, clang, clang' tonight, not 'bam! bam! bam!' Go Rays!

    "I'm Tropicana Dome, and I approved this message."

  • I loved Joe Maddon's aggressiveness in using his bullpen to keep the game 3-2. I disagreed with a specific decision-leaving J.P. Howell in to face Burrell and only Burrell-but the notion of going all-out to keep the deficit at one is something that should be passed on to other managers. Too often, managers eschew tactical considerations when trailing by one, and end up trailing by three. The difference between a one-run deficit and even a two-run deficit is important enough to warrant burning some bullpen to keep it at one.

  • It was a sloppy game. Kazmir was wild. Ryan Howard and Hamels repeatedly looked out of sync on grounders to first base. Carlos Pena dropped a ball and was picked off of first. The Phillies were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position. It's hard to say whether there was a reason, or whether it was just one of those games, but the sloppiness was a theme throughout. Maybe we're finally reaching the point where the time between innings is affecting focus-there was at least one inning where every player on the field was ready to go, and just waiting for permission from Fox to play, permission which came only after an awkward full minute.

    It's not unreasonable to put this out there: perhaps in the next TV contract, MLB should trade some short-term profit in exchange for getting back a measure of control over the presentation of its product. That's anathema to the current administration, but it's clear that we're about at the breaking point when it comes to TV's impact on the game, and especially the postseason. The elongated commercial breaks have been extended too far.

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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