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October 19, 2009

Prospectus Today

Palate Cleansing

by Joe Sheehan

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I like food. I enjoy the entire process of eating a good meal, or for that matter, a not-so-good one. I'm not blessed with a particularly sophisticated palate, and I don't understand food and cooking the way that my good friend Keith Law does, but I can appreciate everything from a late-night greasy spoon to the best meals of my life. Growing up, we didn't eat at fancy places, so the manner of a multi-course, paced meal was something foreign to me. You may laugh, but the first time I was exposed to the concept of sorbet ("sherbet," always orange, was as close as we got to it in my upbringing) as an intermezzo for a large meal rather than a dessert was in the second act of "Pretty Woman."

Last night's Phillies/Dodgers game, which was effectively over in time for you to catch almost all of the Turnovers/Falcons matchup, tastes better if you think of it as sorbet. This postseason-and let's include the Twins/Tigers play-in game in this-has been two weeks of intense baseball games with late-inning intrigue, extra-inning drama, lead changes, controversial calls, and more. It's been flavorful and satisfying, but also a bit heavy, and we're all a little logy. A crisp, light, bit of raspberry-or a baseball game with little about which to write-cleanses the palate for more courses to come. It was almost refreshing, after five-plus hours of baseball stretching well past midnight in the east Saturday night, to come across a game in which one team dominated from the very first pitch.

Cliff Lee shut down a team that was third in the NL in raw OPS against lefties this season, and first in OPS on the road. He did so by doing all the things he's done since spring training 2008, pounding the strike zone, not necessarily throwing first-pitch strikes, but rarely allowing the Dodgers to get into hitters' counts, either. He struck out more than a third of the batters he faced and gave up very little hard contact. It helps to be up 4-0 when you take the mound in the second, but no matter the score, Cliff Lee has proven to be hard to beat in these playoffs. I had said that Clayton Kershaw could be this year's Cole Hamels, the breakout star of the postseason, but it's looking more and more like that title isn't leaving the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.

Hiroki Kuroda is a good enough pitcher than the decision to use him, if healthy, isn't necessarily a questionable one. I remain unclear why the Dodgers would slot Kuroda and Vicente Padilla ahead of Randy Wolf against a Phillies team that is very left-handed. The team doesn't fall apart against southpaws, but if you can put the odds even a little bit in your favor, it seems worth doing. For Wolf to go from the guy Joe Torre wanted starting Game One of the NLDS to the guy potentially only getting one start in the NLCS seems like the wrong lesson to take from four shaky innings against the Cardinals. No matter how Wolf pitches tonight, he should have gotten into this series sooner than today's fourth game.

It's not the ninth spot in yesterday's Dodger lineup that grates. No, Joe Torre's decision to have Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp in the fourth and fifth slots was the peculiar one. He moved Rogers HornsbyRonnie Belliard to the second slot, with Andre Ethier batting third. Yes, Belliard hits lefties well, and yes, you'd like to break up the righties with Ethier, but a lineup in which your two monster bats bat fourth and fifth against the other team's ace is willfully suboptimal. Matt Kemp has run up a big platoon split his entire career, and was at .362/.429/.626 against lefties in 2009. That guy cannot bat fifth so that Ethier (.252/.317/.382 career and .194/.283/.345 in 2009 against lefties) can bat two spots higher. Elevating Belliard wasn't a bad idea, but forcing down Ramirez and Kemp canceled any positive effects of the move. Tactically, you're better off loading up with right-handed batters in the first through fifth spots, even if that means Charlie Manuel's job is easier in the late innings; if Chan Ho Park is facing a bunch of righties, it means that you got Lee out of the game, which has to be the primary objective when facing a pitcher of his caliber. If lineup spots weren't so larded with meaning, you could lead off Belliard and bat Furcal second, breaking up the righties, but then the world would stop spinning because an Approved Leadoff Hitter was batting second behind a slow guy.

I'm reasonably sure that batting Ethier third instead of sixth didn't cost the Dodgers 12 runs last night, but it sure was noticeable that neither Ramirez nor Kemp, both of whom have spent their careers hammering southpaws, didn't bat in the first inning. Torre is going to face Hamels once more for sure, and perhaps see Lee again, and he's got to fix his lineup to make sure that he's not giving Ethier at-bats against those guys at the cost of ABs for his best lefty-mashers.

Speaking of left-handed batters with large platoon splits, Ryan Howard's triple was one of the most entertaining moments last night, and it gave him a cycle for the series. He's now at .385/.452/.731 in the 2009 postseason. That's not the most interesting thing about his performance, though. In 30 real plate appearances, Howard has just five strikeouts. In his postseason career, that gives him 28 strikeouts in 102 real plate appearances (real excludes intentional walks), about 27.5 percent. That rate is lower than his regular-season rate in the three years in which he's reached the playoffs (29.3 percent). It's a small difference, but it's one in the opposite direction that you would expect; the subset of pitchers you face in the postseason has a higher strikeout rate than the overall pool does, so hitters should strike out more. (I suspect that a hitter like Howard faces an even tougher pool than that in the playoffs, if you account for handedness.) Howard, one of the highest strikeout-rate batters in baseball, actually strikes out a little less, and the trend is positive-he's had a lower strikeout rate in each successive postseason.

I don't know if it means anything. I suspect the sample sizes are too small too indicate anything meaningful, and the difference is pretty tiny-a couple of strikeouts would even up the rates. But given Howard's impact on this year's Phillies run, how great a run he's on, I think it's worth mentioning.

Against a background of dainty spoons clinking against the bottom of pretty glass dishes, I'll close this out and wait for two very tasty courses to come.

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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Bill N

What a Whopper of a food metaphor. I'm feeling Lipton Brisker after reading that.

Oct 19, 2009 12:00 PM
rating: 1
 
Ira

Bon Appetit my good man (or should that be Bon A' Pettitte?)

:D

Oct 19, 2009 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
tooci4

Not sure what you're hinting at with your Ryan Howard section...

Expecting his K-rate to go up?

Suggesting some innate postseason ability?

Provocative.

Oct 19, 2009 12:07 PM
rating: -3
 
J Scott

Yeah, I'm thinking "provocative" as well. Especially since, if memory serves, Joe is the guy at BP who has argued that Jeter isn't anything special in the post-season because his numbers in October/November are similar to the April-September ones. And I was the guy who wondered whether maintaining the same level of production against broadly superior competition didn't, in fact, represent a raise in level of play.

Is Sheehan beginning to come around on this point? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oct 19, 2009 12:22 PM
rating: -2
 
antoine6

Pretty sure his point is just that Ryan Howard is playing really well.

Oct 19, 2009 12:35 PM
rating: 8
 
sblonder

Not sure I agree with dropping Ethier against Hamels in light of Hamels' reverse split (06 to 08 lefties had a 67 point advantage compared to righties against him)

Oct 19, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: -1
 
jkaplow21

I have no idea who will win, though the Phils are hopefully the favorites now, but I think last night's game was an example of how the two teams differ.

The Dodgers are an across the board good hitting the team. Manny, having regressed a bit, and the rest are good-very good hitters. The Phillies have 4 great hitters, 3 below average hitters and Shane Victorino, whom is both.

Great pitching stops good hitting. Great hitting stomps good pitching. You have to et lucky if you expect your good hitting to top great pitching (like Ruiz). It's better to have more superstars and below average guys than a bunch of pretty good guys.

If you were to draft players from the two teams, without really looking at the players, I am pretty sure 6 of the top 8 or 9 would be Phillies.

Oct 19, 2009 13:11 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Jay Jaffe and I did something like that a year ago with the Rays and Phillies. Not sure it's meaningful, but it was an entertaining exercise.

Oct 19, 2009 13:29 PM
 
3n2sports

So without digging too much you'd end up with something like:

Ruiz
Howard
Utley
Rollins
Blake
Ramirez
Kemp
Werth

The pitching would be trickier. Rotation is probably heavily phillies and the pen all Dodgers aside from maybe Madson and Park. As far as the starting lineup goes, aside from Ruiz and Blake that's an all-star team.

Oct 19, 2009 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
bldxyz123

Too much focus on line up order in a game where the team being criticized for it gave up 11 runs. Sure, Joe noted the insignificance of it, but awareness is only the first step. How about explaining why a top offensive team flails at times, as the Dodgers repeatedly have done? Sone analysis of feast or famine? What about how a top ERA team with a well respected bullpen gives up 11 runs? Looking for some more central and meaningful insights here!

Oct 19, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

"How about explaining why a top offensive team flails at times, as the Dodgers repeatedly have done?"

Good pitching beats good hitting. There, isn't that better?

Oct 19, 2009 16:10 PM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Oh, and good hitting beats bad pitching.

I'm only half-kidding here. Kuroda was simply unable to get ahead of hitters. He got strike one to only two of the seven hitters he faced in the first inning. Of the 10 hitters he faced, he only got a second strike on Ibanez, that after he'd started the AB 3-0. Failing to get ahead in the count while facing a very good offense in a hitters' park is a tremendous recipe for a blowout.

Oct 19, 2009 16:17 PM
 
emanski

A lineup of all Albert Pujolses would have been challenged to win the game yesterday. When Lee is on, he is murder. Lee had it, Kuroda didn't. Not much mystery there.

Troncoso threw that tailing FB to lefties one too many times - Victorino finally just started looking for it and sure enough, it was in the exact same spot as the pitch before. If there's anything to analyze, I'd think it would be the way the Dodgers are pitching to the Phillies' hitters. Seems to me like they are pounding one spot or one side of the plate again and again.

Oct 19, 2009 13:49 PM
rating: 0
 
emanski

Sorry, Belisario.

Oct 19, 2009 13:49 PM
rating: 0
 
3n2sports

A lineup of Albert Pujolses is Brad Lidge's worst nightmare.

Oct 19, 2009 14:05 PM
rating: 1
 
3n2sports

Or perhaps it's one of the more difficult legs of a Lord of the Rings style quest.

First you must pass through Moria, then you will face the dread Lineup of Pujolses. If you can best them you will find yourself at the gate of Mordor...

Nerdy maybe...but imagine it.

Oct 19, 2009 14:09 PM
rating: 1
 
hessshaun

I enjoyed the Howard love as a Phils fan and lover of the color red. Last year, he certainly didn't deserve it. It's one of the few times I will ever say the words I hate the most in life..... small sample size. While it is true, I just hate that term. It's almost like arguing with a religious person. Whatever we can't quantify, we just chalk up as divine intervention and that's the gospel. End of debate.

I am not pointing fingers either, just stating that I hate the close minded approach.

Oct 19, 2009 13:58 PM
rating: -3
 
jkaplow21

Dodgers in 7? j/k

Oct 20, 2009 06:25 AM
rating: 1
 
Ray Whatley
(267)

I notice that most of the comments left for this article are from Oct. 19th between Noon and 2 PM, yet I received this edition of BP at 6:00 AM west coast time today, Oct. 20th, nearly 16 hours after the first comment. What am I missing, or is this just an anomaly for west coasters?

Oct 20, 2009 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
Drew Miller

Cleansing the palate appears to be what Mariano Rivera was doing to the baseball last night.

Oct 20, 2009 09:52 AM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

It's funny, my whole postseason experience has been palate cleansing; I've yet to get a main course. Whether because of late starts (all the games that end after midnight), frequent off days (especially the gap between series), turning games that were seemingly over off too early (I'm looking at you, Phillies and Angels), or my own busy schedule (full-time job + midterms), the only games I've seen are the blowouts. I hope I get to watch some of this mythical great baseball I keep reading about.

Oct 21, 2009 09:48 AM
rating: 0
 
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