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November 3, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Shorting Out

by Jay Jaffe

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The Phillies hit 224 home runs during the regular season, and another 14 through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Through the first four games of the World Series, they added seven more, but they didn't get so much bang for their buck, as all of those homers were solo shots. That changed in the first inning on Monday night, when Chase Utley crushed an A.J. Burnett meatball for a three-run homer, erasing a 1-0 Yankees lead in a potential World Series clincher and sending the Citizens Bank Park fans into a towel-waving frenzy.

Utley added another homer in the seventh inning, and with it he entered the history books, tying both Reggie Jackson's 1977 record of five homers in a World Series and Willie Mays Aikens' 1980 record for the most multi-homer games in a World Series. His second shot was a solo stroke, and it widened the Phillies' lead to 7-2. As it turned out, they would need that run, because the Yankees fought back from an early five-run deficit to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning.

The Yankees began the game in a hole because Burnett laid an egg, surrendering six runs in two-plus innings. Pitching on three days' rest, he was unable to match the brilliance of his seven-inning, one-run Game Two start, not because of fatigue-his average fastball and curveball velocities were higher according to Brooks Baseball-but because he was unable to fool the Phillies with his curveball, in part because home-plate ump Dana DeMuth's strike zone wasn't as wide as that of Jeff Nelson. Breaking down the breaking balls thrown in the two starts:


Game Total Ball  SS  SL   F   I
Two    45   20    8   7   7   3
Five   16   10    3   0   2   1

For the unfamiliar, SS is strikes swinging, SL is strikes looking, F is foul balls, and I is in play. Whereas Burnett generated not-in-play strikes on 22 out of 45 curves in Game Two (49 percent), he did so on just five out of 16 (31 percent) in Game Five, none of them strikes looking. Five of his nine strikeouts in Game Two ended on a curveball, three swinging and two looking, as compared to one of his two walks. He got just one strikeout via curveball (swinging) last night, and two of his four walks.

The result was a nasty, brutish, and short start that left the Yankees in a 5-1 hole by the time he departed. Utley's homer, which followed a Jimmy Rollins single and a Shane Victorino hit by pitch on a bunt attempt, came on just his eighth pitch of the night. After escaping the second inning unscathed, he walked Utley and Ryan Howard-never, ever a good idea-to start the third, then yielded RBI singles to Jayson Werth and Raul Ibaņez. That was enough for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who called upon David Robertson. Robertson retired both Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz, but the latter's grounder scored Werth to give the Phillies a formidable five-run lead.

It almost wasn't enough. Cliff Lee was nowhere near as dominant as he'd been in Game One, getting just three swinging strikes all night, compared to 16 in his previous effort. In the first inning he threw first-pitch balls to five of the six hitters he faced, and the Yankees plated a run on a painful reminder of what had transpired the night before, a Johnny Damon single and an Alex Rodriguez double. Lee continued to fall behind hitters, getting first-pitch strikes to just seven of his first 18, but the Yankees were able to convert that into just two walks without a hit across the next 3 1/3 innings. They finally broke through in the fifth, when pinch-hitter Eric Hinske worked a walk, went to third on a Derek Jeter single, and scored on a Damon grounder to Howard at first base. Robertson and Alfredo Aceves each gave Girardi a pair of scoreless innings to keep the margin at four runs, but Phil Coke fared much worse in the seventh: Utley greeted him with his record-tying homer, and Ibaņez connected for his first round-tripper since the NLCS opener.

Lee had thrown 102 pitches through seven innings, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who rode him for 122 pitches in the opener, sent him back out for the eighth. It's tough to fault Manuel for that decision, given that the Phils' bullpen to that point had yielded six runs in 9 2 innings over the previous three games, all losses, and that Lee had yielded just four hits through the first six innings, only two of them since his shaky first frame, both singles. Nonetheless, the Phillies' ace faltered. Though he put both Damon and Mark Teixeira into 1-2 holes, they reached safely, Damon on an infield single to shortstop, and Teixeira on a double to left field. The latter to that point had been just 9-for-56 during the postseason and 1-for-17 in the World Series. Still enjoying the cushion of a six-run lead, and unwilling to entrust such a big job to his relievers, Manuel let Lee face Rodriguez. The Yankee slugger ripped his first pitch into the left-center gap, where Ibaņez dove for the ball, only to have it deflect off his glove as both runners scored.

With that, Lee departed in favor of Chan Ho Park, who induced Nick Swisher to ground out, then yielded a soft fly ball to center field by Robinson Cano, another slumping Yankee (11-for-53 in the postseason, 3-for-18 in the Series). To much surprise, Rodriguez, who'd taken third on Swisher's grounder, tagged up and scored when Ben Francisco, who had just entered the game at the top of the inning in place of a bewildered Victorino, was caught flat-footed.

That run, charged to Lee, cut the score to 8-5, and it wasn't the Yankees' last threat of the night. With Brad Lidge having allowed three runs on 30 pitches the night before, Manuel called upon Ryan Madson for the ninth, who quickly yielded a double to Jorge Posada and a single to pinch-hitter Hideki Matsui to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Jeter. Nobody expected Captain Clutch to attempt another lunk-headed bunt, as he had in Game Two, but nobody expected him to get ahead of the count, 2-1, and then ground into a double play. He did, delivering a room-service special to Rollins that went 6-4-3 and sucked most of the remaining oxygen out of the Yanks' frenzied comeback effort.

Most, but not all. In a tenacious at-bat reminiscent of Sunday's ninth-inning game-changer, Damon singled up the middle on Madson's seventh pitch, once again bringing the tying run to the plate. It was Damon's third hit of the night, his second straight three-hit effort. Alas, after connecting for a rare hit in his previous at-bat, Teixeira returned to his futile ways, flailing at a low Madson changeup to end the game and send the series back to New York.

Burnett's short-rest implosion raises the inevitable question regarding the Yankees' three-man rotation plan for the series. Sabathia wasn't terribly sharp on three days' rest in Game Four, throwing fewer pitches than in any of his other postseason outings, and yielding more than two runs for the first time. He'll go on three days' rest again in Game Seven if the series goes that far. While the Yankees haven't officially announced that Andy Pettitte will do the same in Game Six, they have little alternative. Potential fourth starter Chad Gaudin, whom some suggested should start Game Five to keep Burnett on regular rest, simply isn't cut out to face the Phillies' lefty-heavy lineup:


         ----------vs LHB-----------     -----------vs RHB----------
Split    AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K %   K/BB     AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K %   K/BB
2009    .296/.408/.415   14.4   0.98    .224/.293/.380   27.2   3.29  
Career  .293/.389/.433   11.1   0.84    .249/.318/.409   23.4   2.80

That's a ticket to a beatdown right there, given that Gaudin can't even strike out as many lefties as he walks. In last night's Roundtable, other readers suggested the Yankees do a so-called bullpen game for Game Five; again, a bad idea given that it's inadvisable to punt a World Series game by expecting the lion's share of the innings to come from the bottom half of the team's pitching staff. Prior to last night, none of the Yankees' non-closers-Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves, Robertson, et al-had given the Yankees more than three outs without allowing a run since Game Three of the ALCS; thus far this postseason only Hughes and Robertson had done so even once. That the Yankees got three such efforts last night from Robertson, Aceves, and Hughes doesn't mean they could have done so out of the gate, as those were low-leverage innings with at least a three-run deficit each time.

No, the Yankees are without realistic alternatives to the three-man plan because of earlier failures on the part of Girardi, pitching coach Dave Eiland, and general manager Brian Cashman. Girardi and Eiland handled Chamberlain so poorly that they got a 7.69 ERA from him over his final 11 starts. They dickered with Sergio Mitre, who gave them nine starts with a 7.16 ERA. Cashman could have dealt for Jon Garland during the post-deadline waiver period just as he did for Gaudin. (The other starters of note to change teams during August, such as Jose Contreras, Scott Kazmir, and Carl Pavano, weren't fits for a variety of reasons, most of them obvious.) He could have dealt for a more reliable fourth starter at the July 31 deadline. He didn't, and because of that, the Yankees reached this stage with just three reliable starters. The record of such starters isn't exactly promising, as I pointed out in my preview: coming into the year, short-rested starters in the Wild Card Era had made 86 postseason starts, averaging just 5.4 innings per start, with a 4.59 ERA, a 21-34 record for the starters, and a 31-55 record (.360 winning percentage) for their teams. Still, given the experience of the Yankees' big three pitching on short rest (30 starts, an average of over six innings per, and a collective ERA under 4.00), it was hardly the worst plan in the world. Putting as many innings as possible in the hands of your top pitchers is what wins championships, and the Yankees are still just one win away from doing so.

As for the Phillies, their offense finally broke out last night, scoring more than five runs for the first time since Game One. Still, their production has been a bit uneven. Utley has five homers, though he's yet to collect even a token single. The two batters ahead of him, Rollins and Victorino, are a combined 8-for-37, while Howard is just 3-for-19 with 12 strikeouts, tying Willie Wilson's 1980 Series record. As a team the Phils are hitting just .232/.314/.470, and though they've outhomered the Yankees 10-5, they've still been outscored 25-24.

They've also got a rotation conundrum of their own. Pedro Martinez is the obvious choice to start Game Six in Yankee Stadium after his sterling Game Two effort there, but a potential Game Seven leaves Manuel with a tougher call to make. He could hand the ball to Cole Hamels, who has put up a 7.32 ERA while yielding nine homers in 35 2/3 innings across his last seven starts, none of them quality starts, or he could bypass the 2008 World Series MVP in favor of rookie J.A. Happ, who hasn't thrown much or thrown well this fall, yielding a 6.75 ERA in 5 1/3 innings and lasting just three in his lone start. It's still a crossroads a manager down 3-2 would love to reach, but there's no clear answer.

The only thing clear at this point is that we've still got more baseball, a welcome sight given that the last five World Series ended after four or five games. Not that some of them weren't close; all four of the 2005 games were decided by one or two runs, and four of last year's five were as well, whereas just two of these five games have been. Still, the anticipation created by the extra day off and the chance, however slim, of taking the Series to the limit is something that should make the hair of just about any fan stand up, no matter your rooting preference. It's been a memorable series so far, and with Martinez and Pettitte going against each other in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, the stakes only get higher.

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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