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October 30, 2009

Prospectus Today

A Classic Confrontation

by Joe Sheehan

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The best short reliever in postseason history, arguably the best relief pitcher in the game's history, on the mound. The best second baseman in baseball, one of the top six players in the game, coming off of a two-homer night, at the plate. Behind him, the greatest left-handed slugger extant. The crowd, 50,000 strong, rising to greet the moment in a beautiful new ballpark on a gorgeous autumn night. One man out. Two men on. A two-run lead in the eighth inning of a World Series game, as close to a must-win for the pitcher's team as the second game of a best-of-seven can be.

We sit through a lot of bad baseball, watch a lot of dreary 8-1 wins, shake our heads at all manner of errors, mental and otherwise, and we do it all for a moment like last night's eighth-inning confrontation between Mariano Rivera and Chase Utley. You can't script the drama in baseball, so sometimes the biggest moments come around and you find Rafael Betancourt pitching to Pedro Feliz. The matchups you want to see often happen in mundane situations. Last night, though, we had the setting for greatness, and we had players to match, and we got five minutes of hold-your-breath, bite-your-lip, too-scared-to-cheer tension as Rivera and Utley battled through seven pitches, a sequence in which they traded the upper hand twice-going from 1-0 to 1-2 and on to 3-2-as Rivera danced around the edges of the strike zone and Utley waited patiently for a pitch he could drive. There was a quiet intensity to the moment, two players known for excellence with an absence of flamboyance, professionals in the best sense of the word, executing against one another as a season hung in the balance.

Rivera won the matchup, getting Utley to ground into a double play that may have benefited from a bad call at first base. He then dodged a bullet in the ninth inning, allowing a double that brought the tying run to the plate before getting the 27th out. On this night, Rivera would once again cue Metallica with his entrance and Sinatra with his exit, the kind of book-end music combination you usually only find on Weird Al Yankovic albums. "Enter Sandman" may be Rivera's signature tune, but it's the frequency with which he ends his workday to the sound of Ol' Blue Eyes that had made him a legend of the game, and a hero in the Bronx.

Rivera would not have been in position to get the last six outs had A.J. Burnett not crushed the job of getting the first 21. It certainly wasn't the best start of his career, but Burnett may never have executed a game plan as thoroughly as he did last night. Taking the mound amid concern over what a Phillies team-one that loves fastballs and loves getting into hitters' counts-could do to the sometimes erratic, always hard-throwing Burnett, the righty defied all expectations with two pitches: first-pitch strikes and a sharp, backdoor breaking ball that froze left-handed hitters all night. The Phillies had a plan-the first seven hitters took the first pitch-and Burnett beat it-he started the first 11 hitters with a strike, and 22 of the 25 batters he faced 0-1. A.J. Burnett often has innings where he is 1-0 to four or five batters. He was 1-0 three times all last night. Almost every time he was in a key spot in the game, he made a great pitch to get out of it. We started the night wondering what Pedro Martinez might do to amaze us, and instead got mesmerized by the unexpected. How very like baseball.

It's not like Martinez didn't put on a show. Ranging up and down the velocity table, Martinez worked primarily off of his changeup to keep the Yankees off-balance all night. He allowed two runs in his first six innings, and probably should not have been allowed out for the seventh inning to give up his third. The outing was exactly what Martinez has done in his best work since joining the Phillies in July: pitching backwards, pitching from behind, but using such a wide array of pitches thrown at disparate velocities and locations to keep the opposition from squaring up balls. The two Yankee homers came off of good pitches, the first a changeup on the outer half of the plate that Mark Teixeira went out and got, yanking it over the fence in right-center. The second came on a curve well down and in on which Hideki Matsui had to clear out his entire front side to golf it into the right-field seats. Martinez beat himself up a bit for that one, saying, "I was disappointed because maybe the pitch wasn't the one I would probably have chosen if I were to think again." Perhaps, but Matsui really had to work to get the ball out of the park.

Refreshingly, the main stories of Game Two were the players, from Burnett's amazing performance to the Rivera/Utley battle to the work of Martinez to the swings by Teixeira and Matsui. It wouldn't be the 2009 postseason, however, if we didn't have the human element rearing its head. Twice last night, the umpires got key calls wrong that could have, perhaps did, change the game irretrievably. On the first, a seventh-inning line drive off the bat of Johnny Damon that was one-hopped by Ryan Howard was ruled a catch on the fly. Howard was unsure himself, and made a wide throw to second base that should have left the Yankees with the bases loaded and one out with Teixeira coming to the plate. Instead, Jorge Posada was doubled off (already at second base, he was tagged out easily) and the inning ended with the Yankees up 3-1.

A few minutes later, the duel between Utley and Rivera ended with a 4-6-3 double play. Replays showed that Utley's foot did hit the bag before Teixeira received the throw. The missed call was a devastating blow to the Phillies, who went from first and third with Ryan Howard up to the inning being over, and Rivera, who had thrown 23 pitches already, safely in the dugout.

Both calls were close, and in a postseason that has seen so many easier plays get called wrong, it's almost piling on to point out these mistakes. They were critical to the game, however, ending innings that were on their way to being productive for the teams involved, and the calls did, in effect, change reality: Posada should not have been "doubled off" on a ground ball. The Phillies' rally shouldn't have ended on a fielder's choice. That's just what the humans decided had happened. My point isn't to blast the umpires for their calls-each was arguably too close to call-but to note that these plays expressly illustrate that the problem isn't umpire competence, but the impossibility of the job. We have much, much better technology for evaluating these plays, and to not use them because it'll take a few extra minutes, or because of some misguided allegiance to a romantic notion of baseball, or just because you don't think it's worth it, is wrong.

We know, empirically, that Ryan Howard didn't catch that ball. We know that Chase Utley beat the throw. Why shouldn't we get to use that knowledge?

The managers mostly stayed out of this one as well, although Charlie Manuel was involved in a couple of key decisions. Allowing Pedro Martinez to start the seventh inning was just a mistake. He'd gotten six great innings from his starter, and asking more from him on a night when he'd labored a bit, just after he'd given up a home run, was too much. Manuel put nine relievers on his postseason roster and hadn't used a single one through 45 outs. With a day off today, he should have pulled Martinez in favor of Chan Ho Park to start the seventh. The run that scored in part because he didn't do so may have been critical to the outcome.

Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more debatable, was Manuel's decision to not start the runners on Rivera's 3-2 pitch to Utley in the eighth. When the count went to 3-2, I turned to Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter and asked him if he'd start the runners. Reiter said he would, and we debated the point just long enough for Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Brian Gorman to make him look very, very smart.

As I see it, though, Manuel was risking something to gain virtually nothing. Despite what actually did happen, a double-play ground ball was highly unlikely given the matchup. Utley is a left-handed fly-ball hitter with good speed. Rivera throws a pitch, the cutter, that isn't designed to produce grounders, and the ones it does generate are usually far two weak to allow for double plays. In fact, the frequency with which Rivera saws off left-handed hitters for humpback liners made starting the runners likely to increase the double-play risk. Starting the runners in anticipation of a hit seemed unnecessary given the speed of Jimmy Rollins on second base-he would be likely to score on any hit-and even the scenario of a strikeout on which the runners would advance a base wasn't particularly enticing, as it would open first base with Howard coming up, giving Rivera, Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi greater flexibility in pitching to the slugger. There was very little to be gained and, with Rivera pitching, a lot to be risked. I could see going either way on this-starting the runners would have been defensible as it might have put the tying run on second-but the decision to not start them isn't a bad one.

The other decision of note came just prior to the Ryan Howard double play in the seventh. After the Yankees had taken a 3-1 lead and had runners on first and second with no one out, Derek Jeter and his .334 batting average came to the plate. Girardi called for the sacrifice, because we couldn't go a whole game without some overmanaging. After Jeter failed to get the bunt down twice, Girardi took the bunt off, but Jeter tried again, striking out. Girardi said, "With two strikes it was on his own, we had taken it off." That's nice, because it allows us to ridicule both of them for the same plate appearance. Having your .334 hitter sacrifice in all but a degenerate situation is a bad play. Being a .334 hitter and sacrificing of your own volition is also a bad play. Jeter does this all the time, like he learned in Little League how to play baseball and never really grasped that you don't play MLB quite the same way. You're a .330 hitter, man, swing the bat. You sacrificing is like Christina Kahrl writing billboard copy.

The Phillies won the first game in a relatively low-scoring affair, then lost the second in similar fashion. They're headed home tied to host a presumably superior team. Is any of this sounding familiar to anyone? Maybe those in Florida? Along the West Coast? I don't know a single person who doesn't think we're going to be back in New York next Wednesday, but then again, you could have said the same about Tampa Bay a year ago.

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:  A.J. Burnett,  The Who,  Bad Start,  The Call-up

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

BP Comment Quick Links

ScottyB

Too bad it takes the disaster of the 1st 2 rounds of the playoffs to motivate baseball and the unps to get things right. In this series so far, the umps missed a few bang-bang calls, but have not made an egregious error and have consulted each other and talked through two calls to ensure they got things right. I have no problem with any upiring in these 1st two games.

Oct 30, 2009 11:25 AM
rating: 0
 
iddscoper

Actually, on Damon liner, the umpires consulted, talked it though, and still got it wrong. If that's not an argument for expanded use of replay, I don't know what is. It would have been quicker to check the replay and get the call right than to have all six of them huddle together and still fail.

Oct 30, 2009 11:38 AM
rating: 3
 
bristol

One hard part about instant replay, is that the runner needs to know immediately if the ball was caught or not. If the ump calls it a grounder live, then the runner has to run. What happens if they replay it and say it's a catch? It's not fair to then call the runner our for not getting back to the base. MLB needs to figure out a total system if they do want to implement instant replay. That's a much harder question.

Either way, I'm not sure what Howard was thinking. If he thought he caught it he should have just stepped on first. If not, he should have thrown to 2B immediately or gotten the sure out at first. His indecision and late throw could have been a disaster.

Oct 30, 2009 11:59 AM
rating: 2
 
thenamestsam

I agree that the Howard play is a tough one for instant replay advocates since what Howard does is presumably influenced by what the umpire calls, although his decision in this case to throw to first seemed to come immediately upon the out call being made oddly enough. However if you go to the replay and determine it's not caught can you really call both guys safe since Howard assumed one was out(maybe) when he made his decision to throw.

Oct 30, 2009 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

I argue that in a world where baseball has instant replay, Howard would have known that he didn't catch it and wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) be worried about what the umps thought he did, because he'd know the truth would be revealed.

Oct 30, 2009 13:45 PM
rating: 0
 
JParks

The egregious error in this case was that Rivera threw about six balls to Utley before the double play grounder and it should have been Howard vs Mo with the bases juiced and one out. After all the kvetching Joe has done about balls/strikes over the last three weeks I can't imagine how he let that pitch sequence go by without comment.

Oct 30, 2009 12:19 PM
rating: 2
 
Rob_in_CT

Got a link for that. I don't recall the AB going like that.

Oct 30, 2009 12:26 PM
rating: -1
 
Rob_in_CT

Silly of me. I can look this up myself on Brooks. Though it's being really clunky right now (maybe it's my comp, I dunno).

Oct 30, 2009 12:33 PM
rating: -1
 
Rob_in_CT

I looked it up. There was one pitch in that at-bat (the second pitch) that was a ball but was called a strike. So you've got a beef, but not nearly as much of one as you said.

Oct 30, 2009 12:54 PM
rating: 1
 
casey

True, but the pitch he grounded out on was in the same spot as the miscalled ball. The conclusion I take from that is that Utley felt forced to swing at a ball for fear that he'd be rung up.

Oct 30, 2009 13:50 PM
rating: 0
 
JParks

You are right, six was an exaggeration but I pretty clearly remember at least one of the called strikes (Ithink the second one) being way off on the Fox graph.

Would have made it 2-1, can't remember where the pitch was that he fouled off at 1-2.

Of course Mo's approach changes too with the different count so who knows?

Still a great at-bat though.

Oct 30, 2009 13:53 PM
rating: 0
 
fishtaco

I would also add that Burnett threw a number of backdoor curves to lefties that were clearly off the plate but called strikes, Howard's last K a clear example.

Oct 30, 2009 11:41 AM
rating: 2
 
buffum
(458)

I would much rather read a Christina Kahrl billboard than watch Derek Jeter bunt.

Oct 30, 2009 11:47 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Hrm. See, I think I'd be responsible for way too many traffic accidents caused by people reading the copy, and that versus the odd television or two pierced by hurled remote controls within a 50 mile radius of New York City... I think the social good is better served by the latter.

Oct 30, 2009 12:07 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

You might not like the word limit on billboards.

You also have to consider your audience too. An average Joe the Plumber blue collar worker drives home from the game sees your billboard innocently adorned with a Yankees or Phillies logo, reads the message, gets lost somewhere between irony and and alliteration, and his head explodes.

We don't have that problem here at BP since paid access to Christina's commentary requires the knowledge and insight to be able to navigate the internet, the comprehension to realize the consequences of entering in credit card numbers, and other kinds of technical chicanery that weeds out the unprotected, innocent masses.

Oct 30, 2009 17:17 PM
rating: 1
 
Dr. Dave

"We know, empirically, that Ryan Howard didn't catch that ball."

Actually, I don't think I can say that. I watched all of the replays, and I did not see any that offered what the NFL would call "incontrovertible evidence" that the ball bounced on the ground, rather than bouncing off the webbing of the glove. In real time, it looked like a catch. On first review, the bounce became obvious -- but I never did get a view that clearly showed ball hitting dirt.

My point is not that the call was right or wrong, but that even having instant replay might not have reversed that play, depending on the exact standard involved. As we've seen in football, even instant replay doesn't always get the call right. You almost need a de novo review by an official who hasn't been watching the game and doesn't know what the original call on the field was.

Oh, and while we're at it:
http://www.brooksbaseball.net/pfx/szone.php?xml=http://gd2
.mlb.com/components/game/mlb/year_2009/month_10/day_29/gid
_2009_10_29_phimlb_nyamlb_1//pbp/pitchers/150359.xml&innin
gs=yyyyyyyyy&s_type=3&sp_type=1&h_size=700&v_size=500&extr
aStr=|10/29/2009|Philadelphia Phillies @ New York Yankees

Again, the Yankees got more called strikes off the outside corner, and fewer balls on pitches inside the zone. I don't think that's a bias, except perhaps in the sense that the Yankee pitchers have a style that is better suited to fool umpires. They simply throw more pitches in that zone that the umps consistently get wrong.

Oct 30, 2009 11:48 AM
rating: 2
 
Rob_in_CT

I don't see any bias there, no. It's not like the same pitches were being called balls for the Phillies. The Yankees kept throwing on (and off) that outside edge, and benifitted.

Looks like both teams got jobbed on some inside strikes.

Oct 30, 2009 12:06 PM
rating: 0
 
SpoiltVChild

Yeah, Nelson was calling that pitch the same way all night. Burnett (and Rivera -- god, that last pitch to Howard was infuriating) just took advantage of it more often than the Phillies pitchers did.

That said, given how lefty-heavy the Phillies lineup is, it probably did put them at a disadvantage.

Oct 30, 2009 12:21 PM
rating: 0
 
prs130

i don't see it as incontrovertible either - the ball clearly bounced, but it was impossible to see whether the webbing was under the ball when it bounced.

Oct 30, 2009 12:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Rob_in_CT

I can't fault the ump for missing the short-hop play. In real time, it looked like a catch. In superduper slow motion HD, oh look it hit the ground first. So yes, the Yankees lost 2 outs (bases juiced with Tex & ARod coming up against the Philly 'pen was something I'd have liked to see). But man, that's a tough call.

I've heard a number of people (Yankees fans) assert that, even though Utley beat the throw to first, Victorino was too far out of the baseline on his takeout slide and should've been called for interference. Agree? Disagree?

Oct 30, 2009 12:10 PM
rating: 2
 
Rob_in_CT

Following up, here's a picture:

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/players/7104/photos/im:urn:new
sml:sports.yahoo,getty:20050301:mlb,photo,7fe6aec0a8059f49
b42c610c0ce836bb-getty-92343117mh193_philadelphia_:1

He sure looks way out of the baseline and unable to reach the base (not that he tried).

Oct 30, 2009 12:27 PM
rating: 2
 
dzahniser

A billboard isn't big enough to hold all of the extra and too-big words Christina Kahrl uses.

Oct 30, 2009 12:19 PM
rating: 2
 
Carewfan29

The Ryan Howard line drive catch didn't look obvious to me either way, so I won't spaz at the Umpires on that one.

Loved how the TV crew wet themselves praising the Jeter bunt attempt. LOL. That was a horrible at bat. Why give up an out intentionally there when they have a .330 hitter and a man on 2nd with a lead?

Oct 30, 2009 12:34 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Long links make BP pages cry. Please use one of the link-masking sites. Thanks.

Oct 30, 2009 12:36 PM
 
Rob_in_CT

I assume that was directed at me. Sorry, will do next time.

Oct 30, 2009 12:38 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

Both of us.

Unfortunately, link-masking sites... mask links. I won't follow a link at work if I can't see where it goes in advance. Is it that hard to make a web page wrap long words properly?

Oct 30, 2009 14:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Mike Kastellec

If you are worried about such things, tinyurl.com allows you to create an intermediate page with a preview of the link. Your link would look like this: http://preview.tinyurl.com/yafs3cv

Oct 31, 2009 07:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

Thanks, Mike -- a very useful tip.

Oct 31, 2009 08:37 AM
rating: 1
 
jlefty

McCarver said something along the lines of "You don't often see Jeter make a bad play... That was a bad play." I don't know what praise you're talking about.

Oct 30, 2009 13:51 PM
rating: 0
 
monkeyfly78

Hard to fault the 1B ump or lack of replay system on the line drive call. Although the 1b ump was the closest, he probably had the worst view of it from behind. And I can't think of a replay system where they could reverse a call on the field without seriously screwing the runner. That's one we probably just have to let go. Does anyone know if a runner who leaves early on a caught ball, like Posada on the line drive, can be tagged out while standing on the other base? Doesn't that play require an appeal to 1B?

Oct 30, 2009 13:48 PM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

He doesn't have a right to 2nd base, so he may as well not even be on it. The tag is just as good as touching 1st.

Oct 30, 2009 13:53 PM
rating: 0
 
jkaplow21

Utley loast that battle because the ump was calling the outside ball a strike all night.

http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/199011/Utley.jpg

It is tough to hit Mariano when you have to swing at balls and hope that they fall in. Burnett lived on the ball is really a strike all night and Mariano got that call against Utley and Howard.

Oct 30, 2009 14:07 PM
rating: 0
 
flyingdutchman

Utley has been killed by called strikes on outside pitches in this series. The 2nd pitch of that AB was, what, at least the 3rd but maybe the 4th bad call off the plate to Utley?
I believe this is happening because Utley stands close to the plate, and the umpires are adjusting their reference points based on where Utley is, not where the plate is. The two or three calls Marte got the other night were just complete BS, and you can't look at these calls in a vacuum, especially when we're talking about a World Series team's best hitter.
On a website that debates endlessly a decision to bunt that maybe affected the outcome by a fraction of a percentage point, you would think there would be more attention paid to a hitter of Utley's stature being pulled from a hitter's count into a hole because the umpire can't be bothered to pay attention to the bright white, 17-inch wide slab of rubber that is 6 feet from his face.

Utley's 2009 splits:
1-0 Count 1.007
2-0 Count 1.516
3-0 Count 1.778
0-1 Count 1.094
1-1 Count .963
2-1 Count .581
3-1 Count 1.379
0-2 Count .850
1-2 Count .593
2-2 Count .590
Full Count .692

It matters, and it matters way more than Jeter bunting or not bunting. Bring on the machines, because this is not a job that humans with job security can do.

By the way, how about that OPS on 2-1 counts? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Utley is not actually a .581 OPS hitter in 2-1 counts.

Oct 30, 2009 15:11 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Burnett was getting that outside strike all night with that little curve away from the left-handed hitters.

On another note, I don't have a wide screen TV, so FoxTrax's strike zone is chopped off on outside pitches.

Oct 30, 2009 17:18 PM
rating: -1
 
yankee

I could see the umpires blowing the Ryan Howard play (difficult angle,etc.,) and for a second I thought the Yankee DP with Utley was a "makeup call", a common occurrence in the NBA. I'm a Yankee fan but Utley was safe. One could argue about the home plate umpire on balls and strikes, but it's a discussion that leads nowhere. For myself the only sour note was McCarver going on and on about sending the runners with Utley at the plate. From McCarver's tone one would think it was a moral absolute. McCarver aside, I think that after two games the Phillies look to have a better all-around ball club. Better defense and nice offensive balance. Some of the Yankee hitters are acting as if they have never seen a change up before.

Oct 31, 2009 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
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