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October 26, 2008

Prospectus Today

Speedy Endings?

by Joe Sheehan

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You can understand, after last night's game, the way speed takes primacy in people's minds. Carl Crawford steals third so that he can score on a fly ball to right, and later beats out an infield single to key a seventh-inning rally. B.J. Upton sprints to deep center field to turn a Chase Utley double into an out, then creates the tying run all by himself with an infield hit and two stolen bases. Because speed shows up in so many different ways, and its effects are immediate and apparent, you can see how speed would become overrated as compared to other skills.

Speed is a skill that affects a game on the micro level. You use it to get a base, avoid a double play, turn two bases into one out. The benefits are clear-the guy was on first base, and now he's on second. We admire speed on a visceral level as well, admiring the acceleration as a burner cuts the bag at second to head for third, or staring open-mouthed as an outfielder covers ground with long, loping strides. We are conditioned to appreciate athleticism, and the most basic of athletic feats is running.

Over the long haul in baseball, on a macro level, other skills are more valuable than speed is. The ability to not make outs, the ability to hit the ball a long way, the ability-more about quickness and skills than raw speed-to make as many defensive plays as you can. The conflict between these two ideas plays out throughout the industry, as the people evaluating baseball players based on what they've seen, those displays of raw speed, come into contact with the people evaluating players based on the things both seen and unseen, their whole body of work.

So much of what we call "scouts versus statheads" is an outgrowth of the way each group values speed, one gauging its application while watching players play games every single day, the other looking at speed's effect on runs scored and allowed, wins and losses. Players and managers look at it the same way; the fast guy might help you win that day's game, and that day's game is what matters. This is why you have a general manager, charged with winning over the longer haul, to balance that instinct.

Last night, speed almost won a baseball game pretty much by itself. That it fell short doesn't mean anything-nothing in baseball is any good all by itself-but it did remind us why baseball players who can run fast will always be a little more enticing than perhaps they should be.

One reason speed came up short was power. The Phillies, not a slow team themselves, hit three homers in their 5-4 win, including back-to-back shots by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the sixth. That the winning run scored on a mad scramble home by Eric Bruntlett, who was hit by a pitch, advanced on a wild pitch, went to third on an error, and scored on a ball hit 45 feet doesn't change that-the Phillies won last night because they brought out the big sticks.

They needed to. Now 2-for-32 with runners in scoring position, that dribbler down the line by Ruiz is what amounts to clutch hitting for the Phillies now, the only time in this series they've driven a runner home from second or third base with a hit. Nevertheless, they're up two games to one, and in reality, in an even better position than that.

See, the Rays, down 2-1 and staring at Cole Hamels in Game Five, are in a position similar to where the 1986 Mets were heading into Game Six of the NLCS. In that series, Mike Scott, who won the NL Cy Young Award that year, beat the Mets in Games One and Four, throwing two complete games, one a shutout, striking out 19, walking one, and allowing one run, total. With Scott lurking for Game Seven, the Mets essentially had to win Game Six, so small were their chances of beating Scott.

Hamels is the 2008 version of Mike Scott. He hasn't been quite as dominant, but in four starts he's allowed just five runs, pitched at least seven innings in each one, and struck out 27 while walking just eight. The Phillies have won every one of his post-season starts, and no opponent has scored more than three runs against the Phillies when he starts in more than six weeks. When you consider that the Rays don't hit lefties all that well, and have been just a .500 team on the road, beating Hamels in Citizens Bank Park Monday would be a tall order. That makes tonight's game critical for them; win it, and it's a best-of-three in which they're guaranteed at least one more home game. Lose it, and they have to beat the postseason's MVP to save their season.

The Rays are down just 2-1, but losing the Matt Garza/Jamie Moyer matchup completely changes the series for them. They had the better starter on the mound, but early wildness-Garza seemed to be overthrowing in the first two innings, and having mechanical issues on his offspeed stuff-cost him a run, and two homers in the sixth cost him a quality start. Moyer pitched well, he had the Rays jumping at his offspeed stuff, getting into pitchers' counts, and often hitting off of their front feet. Both pitchers benefited from the biggest strike zone of the series, especially on the high side, but Moyer, with less stuff than Garza, needed that zone more than his counterpart did. He pitched to the outside edges of it, and provided an outing not many people thought he had in him after two shaky post-season starts.

His line might have been better had Charlie Manuel not insisted on looking a gift horse in the mouth. Six good innings of Moyer, with a three-run lead, should have been seen as a godsend. Despite a well-rested bullpen, though, Manuel sent Moyer to the mound for the seventh, and left him in after Moyer made a high-effort play on the leadoff man, diving to the ground in a failed attempt to retire Carl Crawford. At that point, Moyer could have been excused. Manuel let him go one more batter, and Dioner Navarro (Bandwagon!) doubled, setting up two runs for the Rays.

Joe Maddon wasn't without fault himself. I had written coming in that Maddon wouldn't let Howard see a right-handed pitcher after the fifth inning of this series' games, except perhaps James Shields, if a run mattered. Well, Maddon deviated from that in Game Three, and Howard punished him with a home run. I can understand leaving Garza, who settled down nicely after the second, in to face Chase Utley to start the inning, but after he touches Garza for the homer to make it 3-1, you have to go after Howard with a southpaw. Maddon didn't, and in the first PA of the series that violated my original prediction, Howard homered. We won't see that again, especially since Manuel absolutely refuses to adjust his lineup accordingly.

John Perrotto covered the wacky ending to the wacky night. I'll just add that I think both managers did exactly what they needed to do, from five-man infields to pinch-hitters. I thought Carlos Ruiz's dribbler might have gone foul, and that because of how he had to field the ball, Evan Longoria's only play was to pass it by and hope that it would, but you can hardly fault him for trying to make the play in that situation. That's a split-second decision with highly imperfect information.

Wednesday night's win put the Phillies up 1-0, but didn't change the outlook for the Series at all. Last night's win did. It flipped the Series, putting the Phillies in the driver's seat and giving them a real chance at their first World Championship in 28 years. Tonight's game, like Game Six of the 1986 NLCS did for the Mets, has the feel of an elimination game for the Rays despite their only having two losses.

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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