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October 16, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Left Too Long

by Jay Jaffe

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Clayton Kershaw wasn't ready for his close-up. Tabbed to start the opening game of the National League Championship Series, the 21-year-old Dodger lefty dazzled for the first four innings, holding the Phillies to a single and a pair of walks while striking out two, at times flashing the big-bending curve that Vin Scully termed "Public Enemy Number One" before the kid even had a day of major league service. Alas, he came unraveled in the fifth inning, and it was excruciating to watch.

Joe Torre wasn't ready for his close-up either. Lauded in this space and elsewhere for his deft handling of his pitching staff during the Division Series-handling that included boldly giving struggling Game One starter Randy Wolf the hook despite a 3-2 lead with two outs in the fourth inning-the Dodger manager spit the bit on Thursday night. He fiddled while Kershaw became a deer in the headlights of the Phillies' Mack truck offense, all in an effort to prevent himself from having to use one of his three lefty relievers, and one of his six pinch-hitters. By the time he finally emerged from the dugout to pull Kerhsaw, five runs had scored.

It could have been prevented. By the time Kershaw surrendered the coup de grâce, a two-run double to Ryan Howard (yes, off of a lefty), he had already walked three hitters in the fifth, including the hacktastic Pedro Feliz and pitcher Cole Hamels. He had also surrendered two hits, a leadoff single to Raul Ibaņez and a three-run homer to Carlos Ruiz. He had additionally set an LCS record by throwing three wild pitches in the inning. As Chase Utley flung his bat away to take his base, he had thrown 31 pitches amid this meltdown, and Torre had both lefty Scott Elbert and righty Ramon Troncoso warming up in the bullpen. Beyond the numbers, the kid appeared to be rushing his tempo and hemorrhaging self-confidence, but pitching coach Rick Honeycutt had already visited to the mound prior to Ruiz's at-bat-which worked like a charm, obviously-and catcher Russell Martin was putting on a performance behind the plate that was only slightly better than this guy, so he wasn't exactly in a position to be calming his rattled batterymate's nerves. More on Martin below.

Torre stuck to the percentages, keeping his wild, flagging not-yet-ace southpaw matched up with a slugger who hit just .207/.298/.356 against lefties this year and owns just a .226/.310/.444 line against them in over 1,000 career plate appearances-the latter more than 300 points of OPS below his showing against righties. He left a 94 mph fastball over the plate, and Howard smoked it to right field, expanding a 3-1 lead to 5-1 and finally spelling the end of the night for Kershaw. The Dodgers would keep the game tight thanks to an off night by Hamels and some shakiness in the grand tradition of the Phillies bullpen, but they ultimately fell, 8-6.

Backtrack a bit. Elbert could have gotten the call to face Utley at the point when there were two outs and a man on second following Kershaw's second wild pitch. Added to the roster on Thursday morning in place of Jeff Weaver, who developed the flu-like symptoms which had also overcome a few other Dodgers, the rookie has all of 25 2/3 major league innings under his belt, with a less-than-encouraging career 6.66 ERA but a 29/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Most of that damage has been done by righties, however, and if he's not on the roster to give Torre an additional crack at matching Howard with a lefty beyond Hong-Chih Kuo and George Sherrill, the Dodgers' other southpaw relievers-and both of whom Torre wished to preserve for later innings-then he's a wasted roster space. With the pitcher due to bat second in the bottom of the inning, Torre could have even double-switched, with Orlando Hudson (who did end up pinch-hitting in that spot) entering the game for Ronnie Belliard, who had popped out to end the fourth.

Elbert wasn't even Torre's only lefty option at that point. As Joe Sheehan suggested yesterday, with Wolf not slated to start until Game Four, there's no reason to think he couldn't have provided Torre with a lefty-on-lefty cameo at some point during the first two games. Yes, he's only got four relief appearances in an 11-year major league career, and a relatively thin platoon split (90 points of OPS), but still, .222/.293/.377 career against lefties isn't to be taken lightly, not when Chavez Ravine is burning.

Coming into the series, much of the analysis, including my own, centered around the two teams' lefty hitting and lefty pitching, and how the Dodgers' southpaws might be better positioned to neutralize the same-sided Phillies to a greater extent than their opposite numbers. As it was, Howard's hit off Kershaw wasn't even the only lefty-on-lefty violence of the night. The game's first run came via a second-inning solo homer by James Loney, just his second homer of the year at Dodger Stadium and his fifth of the year against lefties. Loney would later add another single just before Hamels' departure. Andre Ethier, who endured a sufferfest against southpaws this year-hitting .194/.283/.345, after a .281/.335/.401 showing prior-singled loudly off Hamels in the first and greeted J.A. Happ with a double in the seventh.

But it was the Phillies' lefties who did the real damage, driving in five runs and scoring three. Howard worked walks of Kershaw in the fourth (aided by some extremely dubious strike-calling by home plate ump Randy Marsh) and to lead off the eighth against Sherrill. Ibaņez started the fifth-inning rally, and capped the Phillies' scoring with a three-run homer in the eighth off Sherrill, who hadn't allowed a homer to lefties since June 14, 2008, a span of 92 innings.

That Sherrill was in the game at that point-normally a typical spot for him to enter-was another story. Kuo, whose stuff is as nasty as any lefty in the game, more or less dominated the Phillies in the seventh, sandwiching strikeouts of Miguel Cairo and Chase Utley around a Jimmy Rollins single and a Shane Victorino groundout. He'd thrown just 17 pitches, and by the end of the Dodgers' half of the seventh, wasn't due up until the fourth spot in the eighth. Once upon a time, Kuo had the capability to toss multiple innings, but with two Tommy John surgeries and about eleventeen other operations in his medical file, the Dodgers refuse to take chances with his arm. On Wednesday, according to MLB.com beat reporter Matthew Leach, Torre said flat-out that he wouldn't use Kuo for more than one inning. Indeed, not only did he not do so once this year-a topic that became a minor conflagration between two writers whose work I greatly respect-he didn't even bring back Kuo to face a hitter in a new frame after sitting him down while the Dodgers batted.

Now, perhaps this is more the Dodger fan in me than the objective analyst coming out, but given that low pitch count, I'd have thought that Torre could justify deviating from the script to bring Kuo back to face Howard, then alternate Chad Billingsley and Sherrill to counter the righty Jayson Werth and the lefty Ibaņez, or simply punt the platoon advantage on the latter and call upon Jonathan Broxton for another eighth-inning appearance, while still having those two available for the ninth if necessary. But no. And even if that decision could be forgiven due to a note from Kuo's doctor, Torre's failure to pull Kershaw before things got out of hand still leaves him wearing the goat horns moreso than any one player.

Baseball is a funny game, sometimes funny like a toothache. It made for a maddening night, both as a partisan and as an analyst. The night's results were a reminder that the outcome of any one game, or even the sequence of events, often defies our analysis and makes even smart men look foolish. As deposed Rockies skipper Clint Hurdle said last year, "There's two kinds of people in this game-those that are humbled, and those that are about to be."

In the case of all of this portsider nonsense, perhaps that because we're attempting to judge these players' abilities-or at least communicate in shorthand regarding them, for reasons of space and clarity-only on the most recent small sample size instead of much larger career numbers. Take Ethier's career splits:

        -----------vs. RHP------------  ------------vs. LHP----------
Year     PA  HR   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  OPS     PA  HR   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  OPS  Advantage
2006    359  10  .298/.362/.480  842     82   1  .351/.378/.468  846     -4
2007    386  12  .286/.360/.470  830    119   1  .279/.319/.396  716    114
2008    441  17  .326/.392/.560  953    155   3  .243/.325/.368  692    261
2009    498  25  .302/.390/.571  960    187   6  .194/.283/.345  629    331
Career 1684  64  .304/.378/.525  903    543  11  .252/.317/.382  700    203

Ethier's got a platoon advantage of 203 points of OPS over the course of his career, but his annual differentials have been all over the map, and they seem to have taken a turn for much worse even as he's developed into a star-level player. Here's Howard:

        ------------vs. RHP-----------  ------------vs. LHP----------
Year     PA   HR   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   OPS    PA  HR   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  OPS  Advantage
2005    285   21  .323/.396/.645  1042    63   1  .148/.175/.246  421    621
2006    479   42  .331/.453/.711  1164   225  16  .279/.364/.558  923    241
2007    402   31  .297/.428/.644  1072   246  16  .225/.333/.493  826    246
2008    435   34  .268/.366/.601   966   265  14  .224/.294/.451  746    220
2009    451   39  .319/.395/.691  1086   252   6  .207/.298/.356  653    433
Career 2085  169  .307/.409/.661  1070  1060  53  .226/.310/.444  754    316

His rookie season notwithstanding (not pictured: 42 total PA in 2004), Howard's had actually been pretty stable up through last year, with a wider split than Ethier, but then his performance against lefties fell off the cliff this year. Even a blind shortstop-an analogue for the two hitters' recent performances against lefties-laces a double now and then; both of them did so last night. The odds were significantly tilted against either happening, but for both to do so... well, that's baseball for you. Add in the homers by Loney (a career 68-point platoon advantage, but a 29-point reverse advantage this year) and Ibaņez (a career 90-point platoon advantage, but a 139-point reverse advantage this year on a .285/.359/.639 showing), not to mention the at least somewhat inscrutable career patterns of the principal pitchers involved (Kershaw had a reverse platoon split in 2008, and Hamels in both 2007 and 2008), and it's a reminder that sometimes we don't know nuthin'.

In any event, the Dodgers had their chances to get back into the game. They countered Philly's five-spot with three runs of their own in the fifth against Hamels, two of them on a homer by Manny Ramirez, his first since September 18. Following Ibaņez's eighth-inning shot, they rallied for a pair of runs against Ryan Madson, and brought the dreadlocked one back to the plate with two on and two outs, only to have Ramirez fail to get the ball out of the infield. They led off the ninth against Brad Lidge with a single by Matt Kemp to bring the tying run to the plate again, but Casey Blake grounded into a double play. Loney walked, apparently because Lidge isn't comfortable unless Phillies fans aren't, but Belliard popped out to end the game.

Thus the Phillies broke serve and put the pressure on the Dodgers' Vicente Padilla to pitch them back into this series in Game Two, not the most solid proposition in the world even given that in the small-sample picture, he's outpitched opposite number Pedro Martinez since the two pitchers joined their respective rotations in mid-August. In the grand scheme of things, Martinez is going to the Hall of Fame and Padilla is a target for scorn based upon his reputation as a teammate in Texas and upon the overall stuff-to-results ratio of his major league career. But if the Dodgers have any hope of evening this series, he'll have to do.


Back to Martin for an extended aside. Along with his hitting, pitch-blocking is an area in which the Dodger backstop really struggled in 2009. In yesterday's preview and again during last night's roundtable, I cited a study done at the Driveline Mechanics blog using the Linear Weights value of a wild pitch or passed ball to measure each catcher's impact in that department via the formula ((WP + PB) - (lgWPPBrate * PA)) * -0.28. The numbers, which appeared in the larger context of various attributes for catcher defense, showed that at least for 2009 (the only season of data offered), Martin was one of the league's worst in that department, while his opposite number in this series ranked as the best:

Player         WP/PBRns
Carlos Ruiz       5.6
Jason Varitek     5.1
Matt Wieters      3.9
Kurt Suzuki       3.6
Gregg Zaun        2.9
Rob Johnson      -3.8
Jorge Posada     -3.8
Josh Bard        -3.8
Russell Martin   -5.1
Miguel Olivo     -7.8

That's about one win of difference between the two catchers in question, a number that's not out of line with what Sean Forman found via "Better Defense Through Bruising," his 2006 SABR Convention-winning presentation, which concluded, "A good catcher saves four-plus runs/year, and a bad catcher costs the same." Furthermore, Forman showed that such an ability correlates as well year-to-year as park-adjusted batting average. Amid our discussion, Joe Sheehan questioned the spread of talent via those numbers, which prompted me to dig these up. I'm not sure if more work has been done in this area since, but the two studies certainly support the idea that two catchers can differ by a full win in this department.

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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