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October 30, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Balance

by Jay Jaffe

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Well, that didn't take long. After nearly 48 hours of second-guessing regarding the circumstances under which Game Five was played and halted, speculation as to how the Rays could sustain their stay of execution to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, and unanswered questions about travel days and the amount of rest Cole Hamels might need before taking the hill again, the Phillies brought the World Series to an abrupt end on Wednesday night. Once play resumed, they outscored the Rays over the remaining 3 innings to claim the second World Championship of their 126-year history.

Philadelphia's offense wasted no time in answering the game-tying run the Rays had scored under deteriorating conditions just prior to Game Five's unprecedented suspension. Pinch-hitter Geoff Jenkins, perhaps the lone choice among the Phillies' three lefty bats on the bench who might not have triggered a pitching change, lashed a leadoff double off of Grant Balfour. A sacrifice bunt by Jimmy Rollins moved him to third, and he was brought home on a pop-up single by Jayson Werth that would have been easily handled by either Jason Bartlett or Akinori Iwamura had they been playing at normal depth, but it went through Iwamura's hands as he tried a wide receiver-type over-the-shoulder grab.

Luckily for those who wanted this last tiny fragment of a baseball season to maintain some drama, the game continued to seesaw. Rocco Baldelli pounded a solo home run to left field off Ryan Madson in the top of the seventh, a low line drive that stayed out of the frigid wind and re-tied the score at 3-3. The Rays nearly brought home another run as well via a Bartlett single, a rather dubious one-out sacrifice bunt by pitcher J.P. Howell-batting for himself because Rays manager Joe Maddon wasn't worried about the pending matchup with Pat Burrell to start the bottom half of the inning-and then a sharp single up the middle by Iwamura. Chase Utley, who had already made a small handful of stellar plays during the postseason, made one worthy of World Series lore, pump-faking to first base as Barrett barreled around third and headed home. Utley's perfect peg beat Bartlett by enough time that viewers could have replayed Barack Obama's pre-game special and Carlos Ruiz got the tag down, preserving the tie and ending the inning.

Maddon's plan, which was based on Howell's ability to tame Burrell with sliders, backfired instantly. Burrell, 0-for-13 to that point, lashed his first hit of the World Series and the biggest one of his career with a double to deep center field, a double that might have been a triple if he'd run hard out of the box. He was pulled for pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett as Howell yielded to Chad Bradford; Bruntlett advanced to third on a Shane Victorino grounder, and then scored what was ultimately the deciding run on a Pedro Feliz (!) single.

The Rays would continue to claw nonetheless. Carl Crawford singled off of J.C. Romero to lead off the eighth, but was instantly erased when B.J. Upton slapped into a 6-4-3 double play, his 347th of the World Series; that total may be a new record, pending review by NASA computers. They would get a runner as far as second in the ninth when Dioner Navarro singled to right field against Brad Lidge and yielded to pinch-runner Fernando Perez, who stole second base but expired there as Ben Zobrist lined out and Eric Hinske went down on strikes to start the dog pile.

Maddon's choice of pitchers in Game Five's conclusion will be endlessly dissected and second-guessed, mainly because very little that he tried worked. Balfour, who had pitched a scoreless fifth in relief of Scott Kazmir two days prior, failed to retire two of the three batters he faced and got his lone out via a sacrifice. Howell handled Utley and Ryan Howard upon entering the game in the seventh, but failed when deliberately left in against Burrell. Bradford, whose specialty is generating ground balls, did get one, but it set up the series-winning run. David Price, whom many felt should have been on the hill once the game resumed-given the memory of his closeout performances in Game Two and the ALCS Game Seven, his ability to pitch multiple innings, and his dazzling stuff-didn't appear until the eighth, and he wasn't exactly sharp, throwing just nine strikes out of his 20 pitches.

Maddon was hamstrung by the fact that the pitcher's spot was due to bat fourth in the seventh, and that the five hitters above him were tough choices to replace via a double-switch. Iwamura, Crawford, Upton, Carlos Pena, and Evan Longoria are all good hitters, and not exactly defensive slouches either, despite their World Series miscues. Maddon compounded his problem by letting Howell bat and bunt, this from a manager whose team sacrificed a major league-low 23 times. As a leader and a motivator of men, he did an incredible job in turning the doormat Rays into pennant winners this year, but his tactical decisions during the World Series exacerbated the woes of a team that suddenly struggled offensively and lost three one-run games this week. Like Upton, Longoria, and the rest of the young Rays, he still has much to learn, which isn't to say he won't get the chance; as he told Fox's Ken Rosenthal after the game, this is the beginning for the Rays, not the end.

None of which should detract from the Phillies' accomplishment. Yesterday morning, on my weekly radio hit for WWZN-Boston's "The Young Guns" show, I was asked what it was that people missed about the Phillies this year, given that four teams (the Angels, Cubs, Rays, and Red Sox) won more games. Obviously, they weren't hurt by having to face only one of those teams in the postseason, but they shouldn't have been underestimated by anyone. They did have the game's third-best run differential (+119), a nascent ace who was the best pitcher of the postseason (Hamels), a bullpen tailor-made for October game-shortening, and a blend of power and speed among a strong, productive supporting cast surrounding the NL's previous two MVPs and a guy who out-WARP'd them both over the past three years:


Player         2006   2007   2008  Total
Chase Utley     8.3   10.4   10.6   29.3
Jimmy Rollins   8.2   11.2    7.4   26.8
Ryan Howard     9.7    7.7    5.4   22.8

None of those three players had a dominant series at the plate, but they did have their moments. Rollins was in a 9-for-47 post-season funk before he led off Game Three with a single and scored the first run; he collected three hits and scored three runs in the Phillies' 10-2 rout the following night. Howard, after being controlled by a steady stream of breaking pitches and unfavorable matchups (for him), took advantage of Maddon's faith in struggling Andy Sonnanstine and broke Game Four open with a three-run shot, then added another off of lefty Trever Miller later in the game. Utley only collected three hits in the series, but two were home runs, and his defensive wizardry brought to mind a combination of Graig Nettles' clutch acrobatics in the 1978 World Series and Derek Jeter's field presence in the 2001 postseason, at least as far as this writer is concerned.

The big surprise in the series was the shutdown performances of the pitchers at the back end of the Phillies' rotation. Though helped by some generous strike zones and who-knows-what on the bill of a cap, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton-both rated below the Rays' front three pitchers by most, this writer included-took advantage of the Rays hitters' willingness to expand their strike zones, and combined to whiff 12 batters in 12 1/3 innings. Pena and Longoria started the series a combined 0-for-31 and ended it just 3-for-37, and the triumvirate of those two and Upton-with a combined 23 hits, 11 homers, and 25 RBI in the ALCS-was held homer-less with just five RBI in the series. Good pitching 1, good hitting 0.

The WWZN team asked me to place these Phillies in perspective relative to other World Series winners. Among those from the Wild Card Era, they're in the lower half of the pack with regards to their regular-season performance, at least according to Hit List Factor:


Year   Team         W-L    WPCT    HLF
1998   Yankees    114-48   .704   .682
2007   Red Sox     96-66   .593   .624
2002   Angels      99-63   .611   .623
2004   Red Sox     98-64   .605   .602
1999   Yankees     98-64   .605   .598
1995   Braves      90-54   .625   .591
2001   D'backs     92-70   .568   .584
2005   White Sox   99-63   .611   .561
2008   Phillies    92-70   .568   .555
1997   Marlins     92-70   .568   .552
1996   Yankees     92-70   .568   .552
2003   Marlins     91-71   .562   .545
2000   Yankees     87-74   .540   .534
2006   Cardinals   83-78   .516   .497

Like the medical student who graduates in the bottom half of his class, they still get to wear their title despite their relative standing here. The Phillies may not have been the best team in the majors over the course of 162 games or the strongest of the past 14 years, but they went 24-6 from September 11 onward, overcoming a four-game deficit in the wild-card standings, winning the NL East by a three-game margin, and dropping just one contest in each round of the playoffs. They played their best baseball at the time that it mattered the most, and that makes them worthy champions. Congratulations to their players, their entire organization-including affable skipper Charlie Manuel and resume-capping GM Pat Gillick-and their fans.

More importantly, thanks to both the Phillies and the Rays for a compelling World Series despite obstacles both natural and man-made. Yes, it was another short one-we haven't seen a six-gamer since 2003-but with four games decided by a total of five runs, it didn't lack for drama or thrills. It was a worthy capstone to another exciting season, and it's already got me counting the days until pitchers and catchers report.

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

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