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October 2, 2008

Prospectus Today

First-Day LDS Action

by Joe Sheehan

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First-day wrap-up, bullet-point style:

Brewers/Phillies

  • Cole Hamels, America. America, Cole Hamels. Look, maybe it came a year too late for Phillies fans, who would have liked to see this version of Hamels take on the Rockies in last year’s Division Series, but when a lefty starter puts down the Brewers the way Hamels did, you have to take notice. His outing was dominant, not in a Nolan Ryan way, but in a way that leaves you watching a 3-0 game with absolutely no sense that it might get to 3-3.

    What struck me, watching Hamels' post-game presser, was how much he reminded me of Mike Mussina. As a pitcher, you get Johan Santana—fastball/changeup, fly balls, command—but listening to his answers, there was definitely a "smarter than the room" feeling. I don't mean that critically—I like pitchers to have a mind at work, and arrogance isn't a trait that bothers me at all. I came away from the combination of his pitching and his talking about his pitching with a sense that Hamels is going to take another step forward at some point and become a Cy Young winner. Or maybe he'll just end up in a park that doesn’t punish fly balls. In any case, I was impressed.

  • When they weren't being owned by Hamels, the Brewers were gift-wrapping runs for the Phillies. The three-run third was entirely about their bad defense. Bill Hall fumbled a bunt that could have become a fielder's choice or double play. Rickie Weeks flat-out dropped Hall's throw to first on the same play. Mike Cameron misjudged a fly ball by Chase Utley. In a five-minute span, the Brewers made three key misplays that put two runs on the board on a day when they would score just one.

    The third inning was an extreme example, but you can take from it that the Brewers still have a ways to go in building their defense, They're better now than they were a year ago, but it's time to try Weeks in center field, to get a major league second baseman, and to make defense the priority that successful teams like the Red Sox, Rays, and Cubs have.

  • Brad Lidge's adventurous ninth inning may affect his availability today. He threw 35 pitches, struggling mightily with command of his slider. The Brewers didn't hit him very hard, but the deep counts they ran up added to concern over Lidge, who threw more than 30 pitches just once all season, and got the day off after. I imagine he's available, but if he comes in, he'll be as vulnerable as he's been all year long, and a long outing could be very dangerous to his effectiveness.

    I’m less concerned about Lidge's specific struggles of late than I am about the type of pitcher he is in general. As a fastball/slider pitcher who worked up in the zone, Lidge was homer-prone, even at his best. The unusual element of his 2008 season isn't his strikeout rate, ERA, or even his success at converting save opportunities. No, it's his home-run rate. Lidge allowed just two homers all season, three below his career best of five in 2005. This is on the heels of allowing 19 homers in 2006 and 2007 combined.

    This didn't coincide with some change in his fly-ball rate. Lidge still puts balls in the air. It didn't coincide with a trade to San Diego, but rather, a move from one good home-run park to another. No, Lidge's home-run rate, which drives the rest of his good numbers, is a statistical outlier. There's nothing in him that's changed to make him less likely to allow longballs; the 70 percent drop in his HR/FB rate is what's caused it, and that's just a fluke. Just seven pitchers with at least 30 innings in the NL had a lower HR/FB rate than Lidge's 4.3 percent (thanks, Hardball Times).

    That, and not his pitch count or command, is why Phillies fans should be worried about Lidge. It would be unfortunate for his run to end with a key homer allowed to blow a post-season save, but that possibility lingers because he's a hard-throwing fly-ball pitcher who usually gives up 5-10 homers a year.

Dodgers/Cubs

  • Homers by Manny Ramirez, James Loney, and Russell Martin stole the show, but the tone for this game was set by the first batter. Rafael Furcal, essentially on the DL since May 8, stepped to the plate against Ryan Dempster and struck out on six pitches. Doesn't sound like much, but Furcal's working a 3-2 count was the kind of work the Dodgers have been missing from the top spot in the lineup. Furcal would see 29 pitches in five plate appearances, drawing two walks and scoring a run, giving the Dodgers a huge upgrade in the leadoff spot and at shortstop. The return of Furcal cuts the difference between these two teams to almost nothing.

  • Ryan Dempster, the Cubs' third-best starter, was pegged to start Game One because of his home-road split this season. That's a pretty bad reason to pick a starting pitcher when we know that single-season home/road splits are more noise than signal. Dempster struggled desperately with his command, walking seven of the first 21 batters he faced before Loney changed the game with a grand slam in the fifth.

    Nate Silver raised a good point: why was Dempster facing Loney in a situation where he clearly was struggling? That he had a two-hit shutout was clearly misleading, and the importance of any given game, inning, and batter is magnified in a best-of-five series. Dempster walked three of the four batters in front of Loney, including the last two, throwing seven of his last eight pitches before Loney for balls. His command had deserted him, and that loss of command cost him when, on a 1-2 pitch to Loney, he grooved a thigh-high fastball. (People watching the game at home learned that thigh-high fastballs are "up in the zone." Indeed.) Perhaps some aggressiveness by Lou Piniella—some imagination—would have saved the Cubs’ bacon on a night when his handpicked #1 starter was channeling the mediocre Marlin of his younger days.

  • Derek Lowe had his command, walking one and striking out six in six innings. He benefited from a Cubs' lineup featuring seven right-handed batters (counting Dempster), just as Chad Billingsley will tonight. The Cubs do hit righties well, but having to face tough northpaws who hold right-handed batters in check—Billingsley held them to a 621 OPS this year—makes their job that much more difficult. Some Mike Fontenot might be in order this evening.

    By the way, if anyone has any idea what version of Carlos Zambrano we'll see tonight, drop me a line. This is a guy who since September 3 has skipped a start, thrown a no-hitter, then been crushed in his next two outings. I'm not sure there's any good way of predicting what pitcher will show up in what is the most important game the Cubs have played in a long time.

Red Sox/Angels

  • This series changed in the sixth inning of Game One, when Jason Bay turned around a John Lackey fastball like he knew it was coming, giving the Red Sox a 2-1 lead they would eventually stretch to a 4-1 final. Beating Lackey puts the Red Sox in the catbird seat, not because of home-field advantage, but because last night's matchup was the one in the series where they were taking the worst of it. Now, they'll have the better starter in each of the next two games, and yes, be home for two of the next three.

    It was good to see Bay be part of the story, because it allows me to reiterate the point I’ve been making since the afternoon of July 31: the Red Sox got a little better by trading Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay. Bay matched Ramirez’s production for the Sox, and he’s a much better defensive outfielder than Ramirez is. Forget all the off-field concerns, even forget that Bay comes in at half the price of Ramirez; just know that Jason Bay is just as good a player, all things considered, as Ramirez is at this stage of their careers.

  • In my preview of this series, I noted that Mike Scioscia might keep playing Angels baseball with something shy of Angels players. This team has much less speed, top to bottom, than it did earlier in the decade, so the aggressive baserunning comes with more cost. Scioscia's inability or unwillingness to see the limitations of his personnel is perhaps the one thing about his management style that hurts the team.

  • Think about the eighth inning last night, with Vladimir Guerrero on first base with one out. There was a time when Guerrero was a five-tool player capable of running the bases well and quickly. Knee and back problems have ended that time, leaving Guerrero a dangerous right-handed bat with a strong arm in right field, but little to no speed or range. Scioscia acknowledged this, in part, by using Guerrero at DH and Gary Matthews Jr. in right field (a problem in and of itself). In the eighth inning last night, though, he needed to go further by pinch-running for Guerrero. I don't know who is faster, Reggie Willits or Sean Rodriguez, but one of them needed to be on first base when Torii Hunter's bloop landed in right field.

    The focus, after the play, was on Kevin Youkilis' excellent recovery and Guerrero's decision to even attempt to go to third base. Youkilis did make a nice play, although his throw (labeled a good one on air) was terrible, arcing and 20 feet from the third-base bag. It got the job done, however, because Guerrero and his piano were even further away from third base when it arrived. Guerrero took criticism on the broadcast for making the decision to go, but the fact is, it was the right one—he was running on a guy face down in short right field facing away from the play, and with one out, you go for third base—but he shouldn't have been the one making it. It should have been Willits.

I really do love these two days, with the three-game marathons. It's not quite the first two days of the NCAA tournament, but it has a similar feel. Today's games, with the Cubs and Brewers in must-win or close to it situations, and the first post-season game in Rays history, should be a lot of fun.

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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