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October 9, 2009

Prospectus Today

Second Day Roundup

by Joe Sheehan

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Jim Tracy is going to win the NL Manager of the Year Award, because when you take over a team in May and that team plays .600 baseball under you and makes the playoffs, that's just the way it goes. When I wrote about the Rockies in July, I noted that their success seemed in part to be due to personnel decisions Tracy had made, largely in improving the defense.

So let me say now that if we were to find out that Tracy had a large bet on the Phillies yesterday, it wouldn't surprise me at all. Tracy made questionable decisions from start to finish, and was bailed out by some good work by his players and some silly mistakes by the Phillies. The Rockies head back to Denver with my pick of "Rockies in four" still intact, but I would be hard-pressed to say that I have any confidence in that call based on what I saw yesterday.

Start with the second batter of the game. Carlos Gonzalez opened with a single and was picked off, only to reach second base safely when Ryan Howard double-clutched before throwing to second. Tracy then had Dexter Fowler lay down a sacrifice bunt. It was a terrible call, a wasted out; you can't expect one run to be decisive when playing the Phillies, and if you have enough confidence in Fowler that you're batting him second, you should be letting him swing away. Bunting with a runner on second and nobody out in the first inning is one of the few tactical decisions that is so obviously wrong as to make me want to fire a manager on the spot. There's no upside-you're cutting off a potential big inning at the knees. If you don't think Dexter Fowler can beat Cole Hamels, then don't play him. Don't make him bunt in the first inning.

The Rockies got a run out of the deal, as Todd Helton hit a ball about 25 feet to score the run. Perhaps because someone yelled "home"-Joe Simpson insisted this was the case-Hamels threw home with no shot at the runner instead of taking the easy out at first. The mistake didn't end up costing anything, as Troy Tulowitzki grounded into a double play, but the decision was a poor one that could have blown up the inning.

Hamels was very much in control for the first 3 2/3 innings, despite the run he allowed. As they did Wednesday against Cliff Lee, the Rockies looked overmatched at the plate, working deeper into at-bats but not hitting balls hard. In the fourth, Hamels hung a 1-1 curve right over the middle of the plate, and Yorvit Torrealba did the only thing he could with it: hit a two-run homer. It was a terrible pitch, the worst of the day for Hamels. Sometimes you get away with a mistake; yesterday wasn't that day for Hamels. The Rockies tacked on a run in the fifth and Hamels was lifted, heading off for the birth of his child.

The Phillies started their half of the sixth with Shane Victorino, who hit a grounder up the middle that Clint Barmes rushed, turning it into a single plus an error. Victorino can run, but Barmes still had time to set himself and make the play rather than making an off-balance throw. Chase Utley followed with a reasonably well-hit single to right-center, and Ryan Howard roped a double down the right-field line. Tracy replaced Cook with Jose Contreras at that point.

Here's the problem I have with that sequence. If Cook was on such a short leash that reach-on-error/line-drive single/hard-hit double was going to knock him out of the game, then why wouldn't you have taken him out sooner? I think the world of Aaron Cook, but you can't evaluate any pitcher based on not being able to retire Utley and Howard, who can hit a little bit. The reason to let Cook face those guys is that you want him to keep pitching to the rest of the order. Letting Cook face those two only to remove him based on the outcomes is silly. Tracy should have just brought in Franklin Morales or Joe Beimel to face Utley if Cook had the potential to be knocked out of the game by giving up hits to those two batters.

The Phillies gifted the Rockies another run in the seventh. With Ryan Spilborghs on at second after a leadoff double, Clint Barmes laid down a sacrifice attempt. Joe Blanton fielded the ball and went to third, another bad decision that, once again, Simpson indicated came off of a teammate's direction. Regardless of who was to blame, it was a mistake. When they're trying to give you an out, take it. Manuel would replace Blanton with J.A. Happ, which he might have done even with a runner on third and one out against Seth Smith, but bringing in Happ led to Happ's being injured by a line drive, so the sequence was costly in any number of ways. The Rockies would get just one run out of a bases-loaded, no-outs situation, but that run would turn out to be the game-winning one.

Not that Tracy didn't try to change that. To protect a 5-3 lead in the seventh inning, a reasonably critical spot, Tracy went to the worst pitcher on his staff, long man Matt Belisle. Belisle had a 5.52 ERA this year, hasn't been below 5.00 since 2006. Naturally, he threw a one-two-three inning, which not only beat the oddsmakers but set up the game beautifully for Tracy, who could now bring in a lefty to start the inning with Utley, Howard, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibañez due up. After the Rockies blew yet another opportunity for a big inning in the top of the eighth, Tracy put the hammer down by using…

Rafael Betancourt?

It was at this point that I began to question my own sanity. Sure, Chase Utley can hit lefties a little, but the guy behind him can't, and famously so. Moreover you employ people like Morales and Beimel specifically for this situation, to pitch to a run of three-of-four for left-handed batters when protecting a lead. The decision to use Betancourt-and I'm sorry, I have no other word for it-was stupid. It made the Rockies less likely to win the game. It gave the Phillies a golden opportunity to win. If you can't figure out that letting Ryan Howard face a right-handed pitcher in a key moment in the game is a bad idea, then just let someone else have the job.

It all worked out, of course. It worked out even though had the game gotten to Howard again, with perhaps the bases loaded and two outs in a tied ninth inning, Howard probably would have faced Huston Street, another right-hander. The Rockies won, and I guess that means I'm a little right, but it seems to me that if Tracy continues in this vein, he's going to walk into a situation where the wasted outs and the bad matchups come back to haunt him. You can't give away innings in the postseason, and you can't keep making your team win in spite of your work.

  • Game Three should be quite an adventure. The Rockies don't have Jorge De La Rosa in a series where you'd really like to have a quality left-handed starter. The Phillies used 80 percent of their starting rotation by the seventh inning of Game Two, although both Blanton and Happ could certainly come back and pitch if called upon. Oh, and it's going to be about 30 degrees out when everyone takes the field on Saturday night. I'm not sure what the cutoff is for calling a game because of cold if there's no precipitation involved. I do know that 30 degrees is too cold for baseball, a game that requires the use of hands, and that it would be in the best interests of the game for playoff games to not be played in those conditions-your call, Mr. Selig. The conditions are why the Phillies may not just fire Pedro Martinez out there; it's just not clear how well his high-maintenance body will respond to getting up and down in sub-freezing temperatures. Frankly, he shouldn't have to, but I imagine that unless there's snow accumulating on the field, we're going to have baseball Saturday night. They played the sixth inning of the deciding game of the 2008 World Series on a lake rather then mess with the broadcast schedule, so why change now?

  • Hamels allowed four runs in five innings without pitching that badly. The first run happened in part because Howard double-clutched, the next two came on one bad pitch. I'm the last guy to make a non-performance argument, but the guy's wife was heading into labor at any moment; it was pretty impressive that he was even on the mound, much less pitching as well as he did.

  • How badly have you failed in your roster construction if, when the tying run reaches base in the ninth inning, you have to use your number-one starter as a pinch-runner? The Phillies are carrying 12 pitchers, including seven relievers, most of whom Manuel doesn't want to use, as evidence by his choices in yesterday's game. So by the time Matt Stairs walked with one out in the ninth, Manuel was down to Paul Bako on his bench. This is unbelievably bad, and dangerous; how would you like to be Sam Perlozzo, having to decide whether to send Lee home, carrying the tying run, for a potential collision with a heavily padded Yorvit Torrealba? There's no way that John Mayberry Jr. wouldn't have more value to this team than Kyle Kendrick or Brad Lidge will.

Cardinals/Dodgers

Lakes O'Killarney 8, Seaman North Block Association 7

That happened in the summer of 1984 largely because I-playing shortstop for Seaman North-booted two grounders in the seventh inning, which allowed Lakes to build a rally that won the championship game. So if you're looking for someone to write mean things about Matt Holliday, look elsewhere, I can't do it. I can still remember the pain of that day, a quarter-century later, remember the looks on my teammates' faces, the awful emptiness in the pit of my stomach. You're going to win! And then you lose, and you lose because you, the individual you, failed.

Physical errors happen, and Holliday made a play that you're going to make every now and then, getting caught between palm-up and fingers-up, overrunning a ball a little, losing it in the towels a little. Do it in the sixth inning of a 7-1 win over the Pirates in June, and no one cares. Do it yesterday, and the world does. I'm not going to kill the guy, because 25 years ago, no one killed me.

In the aftermath of the rally, it might be worth pointing out that what followed Holliday's error was an example of why you really want a closer-or any pitcher-to be able to get strikeouts. Ryan Franklin relies on balls in play to get out of innings, and sometimes, balls in play don't get caught, or they find holes, and you end up walking off the field rather than taking high-fives in the middle of it. The Cardinals could have used a strikeout of any of the game's last four batters, and what they got was two walks and two balls in play, both of which landed for singles, the last of which ended the game, Dodgers 3, Cardinals 2.

You can't say enough about Adam Wainwright's performance. He had incredible stuff, was locating everything, and even the home run by Ethier came on a pretty decent pitch. Clayton Kershaw didn't quite match him, giving up a big homer to Matt Holliday early and a big double to Colby Rasmus late. In between, he justified my hype of him, and made a case to be slotted ahead of Randy Wolf should the Dodgers get to the NLCS.

Let's also note Joe Torre's aggressive use of his relievers, bringing in nominal closer Jonathan Broxton to face the right-handed middle of the Cardinals' lineup in the eighth inning, rather than lefty George Sherrill. Keeping a game at a one-run deficit is incredibly important, and the emphasis on using relief pitchers by the wording of the save rule has led to far too many good pitchers being saved for a ninth-inning lead that never happens because 2-1 became 4-1 and then 4-3 while they chomped sunflower seeds. Torre has now twice used Broxton in the eighth because that was the best way to win the baseball game; would that the lesson carried over not just across a winter, but to 29 other organizations.

Angels/Red Sox

Human element, baby. Human element.

John Lackey was better than Jon Lester, getting ahead of Red Sox hitters with both his fastball and curve, adding a few million dollars to the free-agent deal he's going to sign this winter. It was Lackey's return in May that started the Angels on the extended run that won them the AL West title. Shortened seasons due to injury the last couple of years have chipped away at his statistical profile, but he's retained the skills, including one of the game's best curveballs, to be one of the top 15 starters in the game. That's the pitcher who showed up last night.

Lester had excellent stuff but struggled with his command, pitching from the stretch much of the night and eventually leaving a fastball in the wrong spot and watching as Torii Hunter launched it into Mount Autry for a three-run homer in the fifth. That was all Lackey needed.

This was a big win for the Angels, who have a strong rotation but no one starter as good as Lester or Josh Beckett. To win against Lester puts them in position to win the series by beating the Sox third and fourth starters in Boston, and never having to see Lester again this season. With Mike Napoli back in the lineup tonight (he sat last night as part of this October's Tribute to Overrating Catcher Defense), the Angels are going to have their best team on the field against Josh Beckett with a chance to take complete control of this series.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Prospectus Q&A: Edwin ... (10/11)

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