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October 18, 2009

Prospectus Today

Absent Without Leave

by Joe Sheehan

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I get accused of bias quite often, so I'm going to cop to one here. When I wrote :

For the sake of everyone involved-by which I mean 50,000-odd baseball fans currently chugging Theraflu prophylatically-let's hope MLB makes a call on this game early. … If it's going to rain all night-and it's going to rain all night-call it at 4 p.m. and show that you give a darn about the fans.

…it wasn't entirely a neutral position. I've been pretty sick since Thursday, and because of that and the brutal forecast, I gave up a ticket to last night's game. It just seemed like a bad decision, during the busiest month of my year, to spend four hours with a whole bunch of strangers in the rain and cold when I'm already fighting off something that's affecting my ability to work. It was the mature, professional thing to do.

Maybe I should have resigned, because not only did it not rain for most of the night, but as you all know, Game Two of the ALCS was a classic contest that will be remembered for years. In what has become one of those Octobers, one of those months that leaves you breathless until Thanksgiving, last night's game may be the signature game. We got five hours and ten minutes of baseball that, fittingly, wasn't always clean, wasn't always well-umpired, wasn't always played in the best of conditions, but nonetheless left us even more in love with the game than ever before.

It ended, appropriately, with a series of mistakes. With first and second and one out in the 13th, Maicer Izturis ranged to his left to play a ground ball by Melky Cabrera. Instead of taking the out at first base, a sure play, he tried to wheel and get the runner at second. His poor throw was what allowed Jerry Hairston Jr. to round third and score the winning run, but it was the decision that was the real problem. There was no chance at all at a double play, given how far Izturis had to range and that Cabrera started from the left-hand batter's box. The value of the runner going to second was zero; the only runner who mattered was Hairston, who was going to third in all cases. Even nominally "keeping the force alive" wasn't in play, as Cabrera would have likely taken an unoccupied second base via defensive indifference on the next pitch. Izturis chased a play with no chance of success and a high risk of catastrophic failure-the spin throw to second is a tough play under the best of circumstances-for absolutely no benefit.

The decision was the first mistake, the throw the second. Perhaps lost in the chaos is that if Chone Figgins takes his time and makes a clean play on the errant throw, he would have had a great shot at gunning down Hairston at home plate; I would go so far as to say Hairston was a dead duck. Perhaps understandably, Figgins wasn't able to get a handle on the ball, and his bobble was the final mistake that ended the game. Physical errors happen, but the mental error, losing sight of the importance, or lack thereof, of a baserunner, was the real cause of the game-winning run.

Maybe it was inevitable that the Yankees would win once they got into the Angels' bullpen. Like the Phillies' pen in the NL playoffs prior to Friday, the Angel bullpen had avoided losing games thus far, but loomed as the Achilles' heel of the roster. Last night, that pen allowed seven hits and one unintentional walk in 5 1/3 innings, including the game-tying home run in the 11th and the leadoff single in the 13th that would lead to the game-winning run. And while it was that single by Hairston off of Ervin Santana that triggered the game-ending rally, the biggest blow came two innings prior.

The idea that Alex Rodriguez had some character flaw that prevented him from succeeding in the postseason was always ridiculous. I don't know yet how the last few weeks will eventually be spun, but what we're seeing isn't some change in a person, some growth in his character, something that makes it easy to differentiate his performance in October 2009 from his performances in October 2005 and 2006. We're just seeing a great player across five games of his career, doing the things great players do, the things Rodriguez has been doing since he first reached down, picked a baseball off the ground and felt the power that baseballs have over young boys. Rodriguez had nine bad games, 38 bad plate appearances, a week and a half in which he didn't hit, split by a year, and millions of people reached a dumbass conclusions over those nine games.

He'll never get an apology. That's not how it works, of course. Whether you base your evaluations on careful analysis of performance or on pop psychology, you never have to apologize. But if anyone deserves an apology for how he was treated by fans, the media, and even his manager, it's Alex Rodriguez. One of the dozen best players in baseball history was demoted to the eighth spot because his own manager couldn't see past a week's worth of failure. That will always be the low point of Joe Torre's tenure in New York.

Rodriguez's game-tying homer in the rain last night was helped along by Brian Fuentes, who followed up two pitches right on the edges of the zone with an 0-2 fastball that got way too much of the plate. If you're going to make mistakes in this ballpark, you can't make them up and away to right-handed batters, it's just too easy for them to poke the ball out. Given how the rest of the inning laid out-Brett Gardner, Freddy Guzman (probably Hairston), Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera-Fuentes just had to keep Rodriguez in the park. He failed because he made a bad pitch to a great player.

It's 2-0, but does anyone think this series is over? The Angels have held the Yankees to eight runs in 21 innings, and at that have given up maybe half of those with their defense. They'll have the better starting pitcher in Game Three and Game Five, and might even get a second hit out of Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu at some point (the two are 1-for-16 with four walks and a hit-by-pitch).

I am feeling a little bit better this morning. I guess that's something.

---

  • When a game goes 13 innings, the starting pitchers tend to get a bit lost in the shuffle. Joe Saunders threw seven solid innings in much the same way that Pedro Martinez did on Friday, throwing first-pitch strikes to just 10 of 26 batters, and starting nine straight hitters 1-0 at one point in the game. He got double plays in the fifth, sixth, and seventh to keep the game tied, justifying the decision to start him, one that I had questioned.

    One play I want to go back to is the double play Saunders started in the fifth. With the Angels having tied the game in the top of the inning, he certainly wanted to get off the mound without giving the lead back to the Yankees. So allowing singles to the eighth- and ninth-place hitters wasn't part of the plan. On a 1-1 pitch, Saunders got Derek Jeter to rap a ball back to the mound. Now, if you've seen this play enough times, you've seen pitchers, overeager to turn the double play, spin and fire to second without aiming and turn two outs into first-and-third with a run home and nobody out. Saunders turned, located his middle infielders, paused and fired a clean strike to first that made the double play possible. (Jeter was apparently safe, per replay, but was called out.) It was a critical pause, not even a second, just a beat, but on a play that so frequently turns into a mess, in a moment so important to the Angels, Saunders came up calm.

  • The half-inning prior to that play marked the only time all game A.J. Burnett struggled. He got ahead of 13 of the first 15 hitters in four innings. In the fifth, he started every batter who took a pitch with a ball (Mike Napoli flew out on the first pitch he saw). He lost command of his breaking ball, bouncing one off Figgins' back foot, throwing one wild pitch, and being saved from another when ball four to Torii Hunter bounced off of Jose Molina's shinguard all the way into the stands, preventing Erick Aybar from scoring. He threw 15 balls in the first four innings, then 15 in the fifth alone. It carried into the sixth inning; he kept falling behind, but he got away with it.

  • It wouldn't be October 2009 without a controversial call. In the bottom of the 10th, Jerry Layne called Melky Cabrera safe at second when Erick Aybar failed to touch second base on a double-play pivot. The call was correct-Aybar never tapped the bag-and completely wrong. I'm not a huge fan of the neighborhood play-the practice of calling the runner out when the second baseman doesn't quite touch the bag while holding the ball during a pivot-but it's become part of the way the game is called. Middle infielders have been trained, through the de facto rules enforced by umpires, to keep themselves safe on pivots.

    Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, maybe 995 out of a thousand, Cabrera is called out. Last night, Jerry Layne, at random, called him safe. He suspended the de facto rules in favor of the de jure ones in extra innings of a playoff game. It's good for baseball that the Yankees didn't score in the inning, leaving the call as an afterthought.

    You cannot run the game a certain way 99 percent of the time, then randomly decide to make a by-the-book call in a high-leverage moment. It turns the game into a farce. We see this now and again, an umpire calling a runner safe, or denying a batter first base for not making an effort to get out of the way of a pitch, and it becomes a nightmare every time. If the umpires want to have a set of rules separate from the ones in the book, fine, but they can't go back and forth between the two at will. If they're going to do so, I'll say it again: bring on the cameras, because the sheer number of plays that are called wrong because of these rules, be it the neighborhood play or obstruction at home plate or my favorite, the ball-beats-the-runner-so-the-tag-doesn't-matter, is ridiculous. Baseball got lucky last night, but soon enough, one of these calls is going to turn a series, and my generation is going to have its Don Denkinger.

  • I loved Joe Girardi's use of Mariano Rivera. Phil Hughes has been outstanding and was pitching well, but with two switch-hitters and a left-handed batter up and a runner in scoring position, you want Rivera on the mound. (Scioscia might have considered using Howie Kendrick to hit for Aybar-managers have to start coming around on Rivera now that he's been in the league for 15 years, right?) Then, as Rivera was pitching well and with an offday looming, Girardi let him go for seven outs. It was a good job of managing a key asset.

  • Johnny Damon has to be taken out of games sooner. His play on Figgins' RBI single in the 11th was just this side of embarrassing, as he approached the ball tentatively-no doubt because of the wet grass-and then unleashed an impossibly weak throw that never came close to pegging Gary Matthews Jr. He was playing shallow against Figgins and still couldn't make the play. If you can't throw out the runner on that ball playing that close to the infield, your arm defies description. But for Rodriguez, he would have cost the Yankees the game.

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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