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October 6, 2008

Prospectus Today

LDS Recap

by Joe Sheehan

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Red Sox/Angels

This game was so good, it got me to write about the day's contests out of chronological order.

The weird thing about this game was just how Yankees/Red Sox it felt. With the cool night air, the extra innings, the slow pace-the first four innings took two hours after starting late, and it took four hours to play nine-all could have come right out of a 2003 or 2004 ALCS. Josh Beckett's command problems even had the Angels working deep counts-his curve was the only pitch he could throw for a strike. All you needed were 462 cuts to a stern Derek Jeter and promos for shows that no one will ever wa...OK, the Jeter shots were all that was missing.

I can't help but think, however, that the game didn't need to go 12 innings. It seems to me that Mike Scioscia had ample opportunity to get the job done in nine, but he kept making the wrong choice. In the fifth, he had a tiring, moderately effective Joe Saunders holding a one-run lead, tying run on second, and Kevin Youkilis coming to the plate. There was little chance that Saunders was going to pitch into the sixth, and with three right-handed batters coming up, so there was not much tactical value to his continuing to pitch in the fifth. The Angels are carrying six right-handed relievers, and one of their key competitive advantages is the trio of power arms they have in their pen.

The only reason I can see for leaving Saunders in was the idea of having him pitch five innings for the win, because that's what we do with starting pitchers. And as we've pointed out with things like saves, shutouts, and complete games, this winds up being a case of putting an individual's statistic ahead of the team's best chance of winning, in this case in the short term. Saunders, who admittedly could have been working on a shutout but for the Angels' Keystone Cops handling of a short fly ball in the second, had put baserunners on in four of his five innings and worked many of his pitches from the stretch. Letting him face Youkilis and Jason Bay was giving the Red Sox an edge there was no need to give in a high-leverage situation.

Does the argument become more convincing when you consider what happened after his departure? Jose Arredondo retired five of the six men he faced, walking the other. Then Scot Shields retired all seven men he faced. Getting to those two with a lead, rather than a tied game, might have saved the Angels three innings of baseball, a bunch of pitches on Shields and/or Francisco Rodriguez, and put them in better position to win tonight.

Scioscia was also far too willing to go down with Erick Aybar, who can't hit. In the seventh, Aybar came to the plate with two outs, two on, and Hideki Okajima entering the game. If Brandon Wood isn't going to bat in that spot, why is he on the roster? Wood isn't a star, but Aybar-all together now-can't hit, and Wood can pop the occasional lefty. Aybar's empty .262 career average was of little value in that spot.

(I realize that Aybar blooped a single in the 12th to drive in the winning run. It doesn't change the fact that repeatedly letting someone who can't hit do so in high-leverage situations is a bad idea.)

While he was acting as if Aybar was Barry Larkin, Scioscia was also using four players in the number six spot over the course of about 15 minutes. He ran Reggie Willits out to right field in the bottom of the seventh for defense, hit Kendry Morales for him in the ninth, then put Gary Matthews Jr. in afterwards. Why not just put Matthews in in the seventh, or for that matter, let Willits and his Slappy McOBP routine bat in the ninth? Morales is better than Willits at the plate, but not by so much as to warrant burning two players with one out in the ninth, not when you're repeatedly letting Erick Aybar determine your fate. Willits is probably a better hitter than even Aybar is, although it's close. The 80 points of OBP, career, may be swaying my appraisal.

Scioscia's tactical judgment can be called into question, but so can his approach to the game. Perhaps you want to blame Torii Hunter, and only Torii Hunter, for trying to stretch a ninth-inning leadoff single into a double and getting thrown out by the distance between "FrankTV" and funny. I can't argue with that. However, I have to think some of that decision to take the extra base is Scioscia's influence, the way he wants the Angels to play. The problem is, the Angels' nominal style of baseball is terribly ill-suited for their personnel. This is not a contact-hitting, take-the-extra-base roster. It hits for power, strikes out a bunch, and doesn't run well. Maybe a 26-year-old Torii Hunter is safe at second. Maybe the 2002 version of Darin Erstad gets there standing up. But in October 2008, that play is just handing the Red Sox an out. At some point, Scioscia, aided by Tony Reagins, is going to have to either revamp the roster or instruct his players to stop running the bases as if there were no consequences. Since he can't do the former by 8:30 p.m., I'd suggest the latter.

The Angels got their fifth run, the decisive run, on two soft singles wrapped around a sacrifice bunt. Yay. The other four came on a solo homer, a two-run homer, and a double followed by two walks. So while Chip Caray's 11-second version of the word "manufactured" was entertaining, let's not pretend that the Angels won last night for any reason other than that they played big ball. Remember: look past the storyline to what actually happened. Watch the game, think about the game, and don't let anyone-whether on TV, in the newspaper, or at some web site for stat dorks-tell you that black is white. Or that the difference between closers and set-up pitchers is some character trait that one, but not the other, has.

That was the other interesting part about last night-Francisco Rodriguez. Do you think he cost himself a few bucks? Probably not, but he didn't look like a pitcher I want making $200,000 an inning for my team over the next five seasons. He seemed completely unwilling to throw his fastball over the plate, which was noticeable given that Shields had just spent two innings beating the Sox with his, and Jonathan Papelbon was doing much the same during his time on the mound. Rodriguez's pitch selection was the biggest reason why he loaded the bases and needed 33 pitches to get out of the tenth inning. I just don't know that you can be a high-leverage reliever if you're that reliant on a breaking pitch; I certainly question whether you can be a high-cost investment throwing a curveball with that kind of frequency.

It's a first-game rematch tonight, with Jon Lester taking on John Lackey. Both teams had to lean hard on their pens last night; I might give a slight edge in this department to the Red Sox, who didn't ride their top three quite as hard as the Angels did theirs, and who have a little more history of riding Papelbon hard when necessary. The one time Rodriguez went 30 pitches this year, however, May 20 in Toronto, he did come back the next night to throw a shutout inning.

Phillies/Brewers

What a weird series. The Phillies scored in just five innings, the Brewers bullpen was terrific, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were lousy, and the Phillies still won in four games.

The Brewers' inability to do anything at the plate was their primary downfall; they scored just nine runs in the series, hitting just one homer, Prince Fielder's solo shot in the seventh yesterday. They were helpless against mid-rotation guys Brett Myers and Joe Blanton, a continuation of the problems they had against righties all year-.210/.278/.284 in the series-although they were even worse against lefties, .200/.260/.200.

The Phillies/Dodgers matchup should be an excellent one. The Phillies are a better match against the Dodgers' staff than the Cubs were, thanks to having better lineup balance. However, the Phillies don't have the pitching the Cubs do, not beyond Cole Hamels. Not only should this be a long series, but it should be a highly entertaining one.

White Sox/Rays

The White Sox scored five runs without hitting a home run, which was the biggest upset of the day. That offensive outburst, keyed largely by Dewayne Wise's Hatcheresque run through the Division Series, was more than enough for John Danks, who pitched well yet again in a 5-3 win.

This may very well end up being a series in which the home team wins every game. Not only did the two teams have dramatic home-road splits during the season, but their relative strengths and weaknesses are magnified by their home parks. The White Sox didn't use the long ball yesterday, but they do hit a lot of homers at the Cell, while the slow track hinders the Rays' speed on the bases and in the field. Today's matchup of Andy Sonnanstine and Gavin Floyd, a pair of fourth starters this year, promises to be the highest-scoring game of the series.

Of the two teams, the Rays are better equipped to survive a short start. After all, while the Sox are down to two relievers they trust-Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks-Joe Maddon has a full complement of options. His bullpen has thrown 8 1/3 innings, allowing just one earned run, striking out 10 batters, and walking just one. Maddon can go after righties or lefties, get a strikeout or a ground ball, play matchups or get multiple innings... and 99.99 percent of America couldn't name a single reliever he's used in this series. That's something GMs should think about this winter as they prepare their offers on Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, and other relievers. Yes, Omar, I'm looking at you.

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,  Erick Aybar,  Joe Saunders,  Stretch Run

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