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October 26, 2009

Prospectus Today

Turning the Trick in Six

by Joe Sheehan

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For much of last night, it was 1996 again. Or 1998. Or maybe 2000. You had Andy Pettitte getting big outs, a deep lineup grinding away at an opposing starting pitcher, a key break going the Yankees' way, a crowd buzzing with confidence, eager to celebrate a clinching. Forget that it was a new building, or that the guy who got the biggest hit not so long ago contributed to a dark day in franchise history, or that the big plays were consecutive bunts, or that Mariano Rivera managed to give up a run. For one night, Aura and Mystique did a show in the Bronx, and when they were done, the World Series was coming home again.

For all the pregame discussion about possibly using CC Sabathia, Joe Girardi made the right decision in starting Andy Pettitte. The dropoff between the two over one game is small, and the Yankees' ability to start Sabathia against Cliff Lee Wednesday, and perhaps to use him three times in the World Series, is a key to their ability to beat the Phillies. Girardi didn't necessarily make the win-maximizing decision for one night, but he unquestionably made the championship-maximizing decision.

It didn't hurt that Pettitte pulled out a start from his dynasty days, pounding the strike zone and spending the whole night ahead of the Angels hitters. Of the 25 men Pettitte faced, 19 started out 0-1, and eight started 0-2. All told, Pettitte threw strikes on nearly two-thirds of his 99 pitches, scattering seven hits and walking one man. When he left in the seventh holding a 3-1 lead, you half expected to see Jeff Nelson come in and Bob Sheppard make the announcement.

Contrast Pettitte's work with that of Joe Saunders, a similar pitcher by type who on this night threw 83 pitches, 42 of them out of the strike zone. Saunders walked five and got strike three on exactly no one, the latter turning into a real problem for him during the game. Strikeout rate isn't just a predictor of longevity, it's a proxy for how much a pitcher can help himself. Saunders, who doesn't strike out many men, repeatedly started off 1-0 (15 of 22 batters), then would work the count to two strikes without being able to close things out. Saunders got just one swing-and-miss all night, and gave up two hits on 1-2 counts and two critical walks after getting two strikes on Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter in the fourth. The inability to put hitters away killed Saunders last night.

At that, Saunders allowed just three runs, a figure the Angels would have blown by in many games this season. In this postseason, however, the Angels have been killed by the inability of their table-setters to, well, set the table. Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu each did have a single last night, and each were involved in the Angels' two runs (Abreu driving in the first, Figgins scoring the second). But the Angels needed more from them, needed them on base more than once apiece. The two combined for a sub-.300 OBP, which is perhaps the biggest reason that the Angels lost this series.

The Angels' difficulty scoring runs made Mike Scioscia's curious decision to bench his most effective lefty-crusher that much more damaging. Mike Napoli has suffered the indignity of being benched when John Lackey pitches, of being repeatedly pinch-hit for by Gary Matthews Jr., and last night was sat down so that Jeff Mathis-who's been a better hitter than Napoli since at least Tuesday-could play. I might buy the idea that Scioscia was riding a hot hand of sorts, but if that were the case, shouldn't Figgins, Abreu, or Kendry Morales have been sitting? If you absolutely have to play Mathis, fine; it's wrong, but go ahead. But you have to find a way to get Napoli, your best hitter against lefties over the past two seasons, into the lineup. Morales, Abreu… hell, sit Vladimir Guerrero. But to not play Napoli in an elimination game against a left-handed starter is a terrible decision, baseball malpractice of the highest order. In an amusing end, Scioscia sent up Matthews to hit for Napoli one last time, with two outs in the ninth. Batting a bad left-handed hitter for a good right-handed one against Mariano Rivera shows a rather disturbing lack of situational awareness.

Scioscia didn't have a very good game, being slow to lift Saunders in the third-Jered Weaver should have been throwing as early as the second inning-then unnecessarily exposing Ervin Santana to a stretch of left-handed batters in the eighth. Down one run with maybe one inning left, Santana needed to be Brian Fuentes, or perhaps Scott Kazmir. Santana's struggles against lefties are a career-long thing, and you have to be tactical when one run matters. That Scioscia eventually got Weaver into the game, for one out when down three runs, might have been interesting if I hadn't been distracted by all the horses running around the outfield. Weaver, probably the second best pitcher the Angels have, got four outs in the last six days of this series. He should have been called upon earlier, and for more, last night.

By the time Weaver came in, the game was essentially over thanks to an eighth-inning meltdown by the Angels defense. On consecutive sacrifice bunts-Joe Girardi gives away outs like they're Halloween candy-Howie Kendrick dropped a throw and Scott Kazmir threw a ball over his head, turning a 3-2 game into 4-2 and eventually 5-2. The errors, added to Vladimir Guerrero's brutal baserunning earlier, capped a series in which the Angels belied their reputation for heady play with repeated mental and physical mistakes. Just as the Twins had in the Division Series, the Angels showed that a reputation for playing fundamental baseball doesn't necessarily mean you always play fundamental baseball. It wasn't as costly as the no-shows atop the lineup or the weak bullpen, but their poor decision-making and execution were part of why they lost.

CC Sabathia was awarded the MVP of the ALCS, and while Sabathia was terrific in his two starts, I have to assume this means that Alex Rodriguez didn't make it through the primary or something. Because if he was eligible for the award and didn't get it, after being the best hitter in the series and having a dramatic extra-inning home run in a key game, that would mean that the voters, of all things, couldn't come up big in October. And that's a bit too much irony for Monday.

--

  • It's not like Joe Girardi didn't try to give us a Game Seven. He had his charges lay down three sacrifice bunts, including a particularly dumb one against a struggling Saunders in the fourth inning, and a 2-0 bunt that led to the Kendrick error in the eighth. He also seems to have elevated Joba Chamberlain ahead of Phil Hughes in the bullpen pecking order, which is a bit like deciding Jeff Mathis is better than Mike Napoli if that decision weren't quite so ridiculous. The Yankees are 7-2 in this postseason in spite of their manager, and given the gap between Girardi and Charlie Manuel, that record may have no place to go but down.

  • In the interest of fairness, I should note that Girardi's aggressive use of Mariano Rivera in this postseason is completely to his credit. He's leveraged the additional days off on the schedule to maximize the use of his top relief pitcher. He should do so less at Hughes' expense than at the expense of others, but it's a start.

  • Kendry Morales' 3-6-3 double play in the seventh inning will be forgotten because it came in a loss, but it was the defensive play of the series. I don't think Morales has much lateral range, but he showed both good hands and a strong arm in this series. He's at least an average defensive first baseman, and may still get better.

  • In the Yankee clubhouse after the game, maybe 20 minutes after the first pitch, Kenny Albert asked a champagne-soaked Rivera, "Have you started thinking about the Phillies yet?" I would have given anything for this:

    "Yeah, Kenny, that's what I was just doing, and all these mother******s won't shut up. My scouting reports are soaked in this crappy grape juice they're calling champagne. I need to think about whether to throw the cutter to Ryan Howard or maybe go to the knuckleball I've been working on. The 15 or 20 minutes we've had since the game ended…it's all wasted time. We'll never get it back. If we lose the World Series, lose because of a lack of preparation, these guys will have to live with that. Now get out of my face so I can go back to thinking about the Phillies."

  • New York and Philadelphia. I'm starting to believe in the Curse of Jeffrey Loria. Since Game Five of the 2003 World Series-eventually won by Loria's Marlins-there hasn't been an outdoor World Series game played in a place warmer than St. Louis.

I'll be back Wednesday with some thoughts on the World Series.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Two Strikes,  Joe Saunders

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