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October 5, 2008

Prospectus Today

One In, Two Knocking

by Joe Sheehan

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Brewers/Phillies

This, folks, is what keeps you coming back for more with David Bush. He can be a very frustrating pitcher, prone to blow-up starts and blow-up innings, and his lack of development since 2006 has been maddening. Then he takes the ball in the biggest start of his career against a team loaded with lefty power and shuts them down into the sixth inning. Bush pounded the strike zone and kept the Phillies in the park, getting through 5 1/3 innings on just 70 pitches before an impending matchup with Ryan Howard pushed him off the mound with one out in the sixth.

Mitch Stetter took that bullet, getting Howard to ground to third, and three of his colleagues closed it out. Does anyone remember when the Brewers' bullpen was discussed in the hushed tones reserved for conversations about death, say that of a beloved grandfather, or a market economy? In this series, the Brewers' bullpen has been outstanding: 12 shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Carlos Villanueva has faced 11 batters and retired them all. Eric Gagne, who most Brewers fans wanted left off of the playoff roster, the plane to Philadelphia, and the planet, has two shutout innings. They're still down 2-1, but this bullpen, which blew hot and cold all year long, is pitching well at the moment. And we haven't seen Brian Shouse yet, which is strange.

The eternal question about baseball, it being a zero-sum game, is whether what you're seeing is one group doing well or another doing poorly. Very quietly, the Phillies have had a terrible series at the plate, and when you look back, you see that even their successes had a tinge of fluke about them. Their three runs in Game One came thanks to defensive misplays, errors or otherwise, by the Brewers. Their inning in Game Two came about when uncharacteristic wildness met a small strike zone, allowing them to score five runs off of CC Sabathia. The Phillies have one run since Shane Victorino's second-inning grand slam on Thursday, and they don't seem in a hurry to get more.

As a team, the Phillies are hitting .234/.327/.394, and while they're hitting doubles (10), drawing walks (13), and stealing bases (five-for-six), they're not assembling those events into runs. Last night, they had five singles, three doubles, and a triple, but scored their only run on a grounder to third. A bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the ninth was quickly defused by a Pedro Feliz ground ball to third for two outs. The Phillies are, like a number of teams in this postseason so far, struggling with runners in scoring position, which is one reason why they are taking the field today. Having just one home run is part of the reason as well.

I wonder if yesterday's game changes the dynamic of this series. The Brewers know that if they win, they have a full-rest Sabathia going in Game Five, and that's what they were hoping for five days ago. The Phillies are up 2-1, and they are facing the unimpressive Jeff Suppan, but if they lose this game, a series that was in their hands a day ago becomes a toss-up, with a southpaw—a very good one—facing the Brewers and their ace. I think the Phillies wrap this up today, because they're a good offensive team facing Jeff Suppan and a bullpen that, 12 recent innings aside, isn't that good.

Dodgers/Cubs

You take Manny Ramirez. I'll take Rafael Furcal. The Dodgers are 21-16 when he leads off for them this season, and while their 33-23 record with Ramirez in the lineup is an improvement on that figure, the effect Furcal has on the Dodgers' offense and defense is a big reason why we only have three games to watch on Sunday.

Furcal scored four runs—20 percent of the Dodgers' series total—and at least one run in each game. He scored a critical run last night, tearing home from first on Russell Martin's fifth-inning double down the left-field line to give the Dodgers a 3-0 lead. He was on base seven times, at nearly a .500 clip, in the series. For a team that suffered through more than a third of its season with Juan Pierre's .293 OBP as a leadoff man, having Furcal in that slot is an upgrade that, while not as flashing as trading for a Hall of Fame left fielder, is just as important.

Of course, the Dodgers might have been able to beat the Cubs even without Furcal. Or Ramirez. Or Russell Martin. Or all three. Their pitchers completely shut down the Cubs, allowing just six runs in total, and just three outside of garbage time (the Cubs got three in Game Two after the outcome had been decided). As expected, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda took advantage of the Cubs' lineup's lean to the left by allowing one run in 13 innings, striking out 11 men along the way.

The Cubs' inability to score brings a key decision by Lou Piniella into the spotlight. With the Dodgers up 2-0 in the top of the fourth with a runner on third, Joe Torre walked Ryan Theriot to bring Rich Harden to the plate, essentially daring Piniella to hit for Harden with two on, two out, down two. Piniella let Harden bat, and he went down swinging to Kuroda. Harden would get just four more outs in the game, exiting in the fifth down 3-0.

Was that an opportunity lost? MLB.com's Matthew Leach made a convincing argument that hitting for Harden there, preferably with Daryle Ward, and taking a shot at a three-run homer was the best play. I didn't think so in the moment, but looking back, the runs Harden might have prevented in his remaining, say, three innings would be less valuable than the ones you might score by sending up Ward and taking a shot at a 3-2 lead. If the Cubs put runners on base, you might have to hit for Harden in the sixth, which means you're giving away a rally—he can't hit, with three singles and nothing else in 36 career PA—in a high-leverage spot in a must-win game for the sake of maybe six more outs.

That Harden didn't even pitch through the fifth makes it look worse, though you can't really use that information against Piniella. Still, the decision he made there was the wrong one. Taking a shot with Ward was the right play, even down just two runs in the fourth inning, because the Cubs weren't going to get that much more from Harden, and the value of the runs was so critical. Kudos to Matthew—we had a long exchange about the decision—for being on top of this one. Jerk.

The gnashing of teeth over another quick Cubs' exit in the postseason—they haven't won a playoff game since Game Four of the 2003 NLCS, a nine-game losing streak—will be quite painful. Unlike last year's team, which was good but not great, the Cubs had the best team in the NL this season, with a deep rotation bolstered by Harden, a power bullpen, and that rarest of things, a patient lineup. They were the favorites to reach the World Series for the first time since at least 1989, and that they ran into a team that had all its parts in order for the first time all year, and was much better than anyone realized, will be cold comfort to the fan base.

My article the other day about the overemphasis on post-season experience was met with some criticism that I was preaching to the choir, which isn't an unfair point. BP has readers with whom I was arguing baseball 15 years ago on r.s.b, and it has readers whose parents hadn't met when we were having those arguments. When you're writing to such a diverse group, you have to remake points, something I do largely when I get frustrated with the mainstream coverage of a particular matter.

I mention this because I'm about to do it again. Whatever frustration the Cubs, their management, or their fan base may feel at this moment, what they cannot and should not do is lose sight of the fact that the 2008 Cubs were a very good baseball team. Their was no missing link, no fatal flaw, nothing in the construction that portended a short stay in the postseason. They caught a bad matchup and had a three-game losing streak at the wrong time, and the rules of the game don't allow for that. This was the Cubs' fifth three-game losing streak of the season; these things happen even to 94-win teams. That they lost three in row, to a quality team, is just baseball. That they did so from October 1 through October 4 unfortunately means that they don't get to play on October 5. None of that, however, makes the 2008 Cubs less than what they were: the best team in the NL for six months. It just means they won't win a championship.

Post-season baseball is cool and cruel, but it doesn't mean everything, not in a sport that needs six months to figure out who the best teams are, and even then doesn't always get it right. The Cubs don't need to tear anything down, and the biggest challenge over the next eight weeks will be to not let the sense of disappointment drive the decisions they make. If they let three losses drown out 94 wins, well, that's how you end up without the opportunity to ever make that mistake again.

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 Streak,  Cubs

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

BP Comment Quick Links

bdoublegeez

Sorry to quibble, Joe, but don't you mean 97 wins for the Cubs? Your postseason coverage has been great, and as a member of the choir let me say keep on preachin'.

Oct 05, 2008 11:25 AM
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bdoublegeez

Okay, I presume you're going by third-order wins. Forgive my haste. The comment about your coverage stands.

Oct 05, 2008 11:27 AM
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BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

No, I got my 4 and my 7 backwards. 97-64, not the other way.

Oct 05, 2008 11:32 AM
 
EnderCN

I'll never understand the thought process of managers in baseball. Suppan had an 8.84 ERA and 1.110 OPS against in September and looked terrible in his last start. Why on earth would the Brewers start him over Gallardo who obviously was available since he is in the game now.

I don't think a single fan expected this to turn out well and predictably Suppan gets torched again and the Brewers season is probably over for no good reason.

Oct 05, 2008 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew
(455)

Great column, Joe. I heard a statistic - perhaps meaningless but still somewhat intriguing - that the Cubs were only the second NL team in the history of LCS play to have the best record in their league and get swept in the first round.

I agree with your analysis about the playoffs, but to a baseball fan, part of this is about solace. Solace in the fact that while the playoffs are a cold and cruel way to decide the fate of teams after six months, a win or two in the playoffs helps justify this cruelness. "See, we were good enough to win. They were just the better team over four/five games."

It is hard to hold on to this when yours was the best team and they produce nary a win. I realize three game losing streaks happen to the best of teams, but I would guess not usually when they are well rested and set-up exactly as they want for a series. Such does not justify brash and irrational decisions from a front office. But it does allow a fan base and front office to lament beyond just a "that's just the playoffs" throw away.

Oct 05, 2008 11:43 AM
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hasegawajohn
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

By "perhaps meaningless" you mean absolutely 100% meaningless, I'm sure.

Oct 05, 2008 15:05 PM
rating: -10
 
pro341

One could argue that the Dodgers were really the best team in the NL. If you consider that they had 43% of their entire payroll on the DL at some point in the season and that they are nearly all back for the post-season. If the Dodgers would have had Furcal, Saito, Nomar and others the entire year (ManRam), they would have easily surpassed the 90 win mark and perhaps challenged the Cubs for the best record.

If I were a Cubs fan, I would be much more concerned about the long term health of Big Z and Harden, than these 3 losses. IMO, letting Zambrano complete the no-hitter may have damaged his arm for the rest of his career and Harden has never been reliable.

Oct 05, 2008 12:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Robert Flaxman

The idea that having Zambrano throw ten more pitches than he might otherwise have done somehow messed up his arm for the rest of his career is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. He had a perfectly fine start in the playoffs, going 6.1 and being let down by his defense more than by his own stuff. He's a head case, but it's not at all clear that he's got any severe physical problems at this point, especially with a whole offseason to rest his arm now.

Oct 05, 2008 21:20 PM
rating: 1
 
bldxyz123

I agree. Zambrano's 5 runs in the second inning don't happen without the infield providing at least two extra outs, if not three. You can't link one to the other so easily.

Oct 06, 2008 13:16 PM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Joe- Love ya, but are you serious in advocating pinch hitting for a very good starting pitcher in the 4th inning for a guy with a 721 OPS (and an AB:HR ratio of 25:1) this season? especially when facing a stiff like Suppan and a very questionable pen?
The decision to stick with Harden may not have worked out, but BP, more than any other website I know, understands the maxim that you "should never confuse the intelligence of a decision with its outcome".

Oct 05, 2008 14:39 PM
rating: -1
 
ScottyB

Eeeek. Retraction. I got my series crossed up (I'm currently surviving the first three months of my son's life, so my brain cells aren't firing). Still, even against Kuroda and a good Dodgers pen, I think you stick with Harden.

Oct 05, 2008 14:41 PM
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dcarroll

Isn't the Cubs lineup rather right-handed? I don't know what their record was against RHP and LHP this season, but I would think that would be something to look at during this off-season.

Oct 05, 2008 15:20 PM
rating: 1
 
pro341

Team Record: 97-64
Record vs. Left-handed Starters: 31-16, vs. Right-handed Starters: 66-48

Oct 05, 2008 15:29 PM
rating: 1
 
greensox

Cubs went 20-19 against playoff teams.
Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Ryan Dempster are good pitchers - certainly good enough to beat the Pirates consistently - but is that a WS quality starting staff?

Oct 05, 2008 21:04 PM
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Robert Flaxman

Jason Marquis wasn't starting in the playoffs, Ted Lilly was the fourth starter, and Ryan Dempster was one of the five best pitchers in the National League this year. You're also ignoring Harden, also probably a top five pitcher in the NL by rate stats, and Zambrano, who was simply inconsistent this season but dominant at his best. So, yes, that is notionally a WS quality staff, although it could probably be improved. But so could any staff.

Oct 05, 2008 21:18 PM
rating: 1
 
Robert Flaxman

Joe: Not that I think this would necessarily have changed the outcome for the Cubs, but do you think that baseball should consider doing what the NBA has done, changing the first-round series from five games to seven? It seems kind of ridiculous to play 162 games and then let the first of three rounds be such a crapshoot, lowering the chances that the best teams will advance as far as possible.

Oct 05, 2008 21:23 PM
rating: 2
 
sanott

i was going to post a similar sentiment. what's 2 more games in october? more $$$ for fox/tbs/attendance, and maybe the best team truly comes out ahead.

Oct 06, 2008 07:28 AM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

You continually underestimate the role of the human psyche in its contribution to the outcome of the game. Treating your analysis as if it was of Strato cards rather than human beings. No such thing as clutch hitting? How about CHOKE hitting? I miss a 3 foot putt when the pressure is on why can't Soriano swing at a pitch in the dirt? The team that lead the NL in walks was swinging at pitches from the word go in the first game and finished it off appropriately with Soriano in the end. That type of behavior is far from random but simple human response to a slow realization that you are failing to live up to expectations. The Cubs weren't the first ones to experience this and won't be the last.

Oct 05, 2008 22:30 PM
rating: 1
 
ClubberLang

I think there are several BP writers who have agreed that they don't believe in clutch but they DO believe there's a such thing as choke.

Oct 06, 2008 08:12 AM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

You are right. There are non-tangible factors that determine outcomes. However, BP focuses on only the things that can be reliably measured. I don't think BP thinks the human factor is unimportant, they just think they can't measure it.
As to your Soriano example- he makes an out 60% of the time (and strikes out 20% of the time) even when not "choking" or being "clutch"- as a result, it is hard to attibute his 9th inning strikeout to any personal characteristic or emotional state.

Oct 06, 2008 08:56 AM
rating: 1
 
BillFisher

at Pro341: Thanks for the stats re W-L against righties and lefties. Can you tell me the team OPS against righties and lefties? Or at least where to find the data?

As for 5 game vs 7 game - in this particular case, it doesn't matter much. The Cubs would be down 3-0, and thoroughly outplayed while doing it. Sure, it's possible they could beat the Dodgers 4 straight, but those odds are pretty slim compared to beating them 3 out of 5 in the first place. Anyway, I'd rather bag this round of the playoffs altogether. Two divisions, no wild card.

Oct 06, 2008 13:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BillFisher

at greensox: By comparison, the Dodgers were 14-16 against Playoff Teams

Oct 06, 2008 14:04 PM
rating: 1
 
october271986

Joe:
You write that the Cubs had "no missing link, no fatal flaw, nothing in the construction that portended a short stay in the postseason." But do you think that the lack of a Furcal-like table setter hurt them? Soriano was awful in the series and his .344 regular season OBA wasn't anything special.

If Furcal's performance sparked the Dodgers than didn't Soriano's doom the Cubs?

Oct 06, 2008 16:18 PM
rating: 1
 
VeteranCCIWFan

The Cubs lost the best of 5 NLDS because they lost game one at home. In a best of 5, the team that wins Game 1 wins the first wins the series something like 83% of the time. The Cubs had a 2-0 lead and Dempster picked a bad night to be wild. I do think Piniella, although a fantastic manager, needs to manage the first game of the NLDS with a heightened sense of urgency. Pulling Zambrano against the Diamondbacks last year in Game 1 with the score tied (thinking big Z could then start Game 4 if needed) and not pulling Dempster after reaching the 100 pitch count in Game 1 this year are examples of not placing enough emphasis on winning Game 1. What would be wrong with warming up Ted Lilly after Dempster walked two more hitters in the 5th inning, knowing that the Dodgers productive lefthanded hitters were due?

Oct 13, 2008 06:31 AM
rating: 0
 
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