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October 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

Making a Stab

by Joe Sheehan

I have no idea who's going to win the National League Championship Series.

This goes beyond my usual "You can't predict the outcome of a short series between two comparable teams" theme. It's not just about that. If you gave me any other matchup between evenly-matched squads, I could come up with some kind of rationale for preferring one to the other, if only slightly. Heck, I'll do just that tomorrow for the ALCS.

When it comes to the Dodgers and Phillies, though, I can't choose. Both are very good teams, very balanced teams. Neither has some fatal flaw in construction that will be revealed in the next week. Neither manager is a dolt; Joe Torre is a bit overrated, but he's shown himself to be a good post-season manager in all areas but roster assembly, and he's even done a decent job at that this year. Charlie Manuel has specific tactical weaknesses that he's gotten better at addressing, and he does helm the best base-stealing team ever.

Despite-or because of?-this confusion, I am as excited for this series as for any post-season series in memory. I cannot remember the last time I was this geeked for a Game One, and that extends to the ALCS as well. We have in front of us a week or two of fun, exciting baseball, and the lack of clarity about which of the teams will advance, the lack of even a mild favorite, makes it all the better.

Let's work through the key points in the series, as I see them.

  1. Game Four: Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw? It's that important to me. I think this decision by Torre could swing the entire series, and we won't know until Sunday night what he'll do with it. Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher ever, maybe my third-favorite player ever, and I'll tell you he has no business starting a critical post-season game against the Philadelphia Phillies ahead of Clayton Kershaw. Were it the Brewers, maybe. Were it the Padres, maybe. But to choose the soft-tossing right-hander over the devastating lefty against this team would be a mistake of huge proportions in the context of a short series. The gap between the two might swing the game... 10 to 15 percent the Phillies' way. That's my conservative estimate. You need four wins. There's not another decision Joe Torre can make that will affect the Dodgers' chances by two or three percent. None. This is the biggest decision Torre will have this season, and there is a clear right answer: Kershaw.

  2. The Dodgers are 3-0. The Dodgers' regular season is effectively useless in gauging their team. The current Dodgers basically didn't exist until last week, and they haven't lost a game yet. Having a terrific leadoff hitter in Rafael Furcal and a terrific number-three hitter in Manny Ramirez makes this a better team than it was all season long. The notion of "peaking" is a soft idea connected to so many of the soft notions we hear about this time of the year. The Dodgers, however, are peaking simply because their roster is better now than it was at any point from April through September.

  3. The Dodgers don't give up home runs. This isn't just a park effect, although playing 18 road games in the two Sans-Diego and Francisco-helps. The Dodgers allowed an NL-low 123 homers, and their 74 homers allowed on the road was 13th in the league. The bottom four teams in the league all come from the NL West, so yes, there's a Petco effect, but this is clearly a skill for the Dodgers, especially for the team's relevant pitchers: Derek Lowe, Hiroki Kuroda, and Chad Billngsley all had home-run rates well below one per two starts, and the team's top three relievers allowed just three homers in 165 innings.

  4. The Phillies aren't the Cubs. In the Division Series, the Dodgers faced right-handed batters more than two-thirds of the time (67.3 percent). This played beautifully into the hands of their right-handed rotation, especially Kuroda and Billingsley, who both held right-handed batters under a .300 OBP in 2008. This, as much as any other factor, is why the Cubs' offense stalled so badly. They simply were caught in brutal matchups.

    This won't be the case for the Phillies, who can be expected to start at least two left-handed hitters and two switch-hitters, and they're four of the team's best players. Pat Burrell and Carlos Ruiz will play left field and catch, but Manuel will have the option of using Greg Dobbs at third base-and he absolutely should-and Geoff Jenkins in right field to start six lefty bats against the Dodgers' right-handers. The platoon split of Billingsley-70 points each of OBP and SLG-dictates stacking up the lefties against him at least. Basically, this matchup isn't nearly as good for the Dodgers' hurlers, so even if they pitch as well, the results should not be as good.

  5. What Will Charlie Do? I think I mentioned that Charlie Manuel is growing on me, largely from his demeanor in press conferences, where he seems a cross between Bobby Bowden and Bobby Bowden's grandpa. I never had a read on him with the Indians, but when you look at the Phillies' basestealing, or their reasonably well-crafted bench, or the complete lack of drama around the team, you have to assign some credit to Manuel.

    The man has a critical decision in front of him, though, and it's one that could play an important part in the course of the series. He has to find a way to separate Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup. That could mean Utley/Burrell/Howard, or Utley/Victorino/Howard, but if he bats the two lefties back to back, Joe Torre is going to make sure that the Phillies' two stars never see a right-hander in a key situation between the sixth and eighth innings.* Remember, Torre never had a problem running a bullpen when he had the horses, and on this team, he'll have specialist Joe Beimel and at least one of Kershaw and Hong-Chi Kuo in the pen. Howard can't hit lefties, and Utley drops off a bit against them. It's a significant difference, and if you separate the two with Victorino or Burrell, you at least introduce a cost to making pitching changes. Batting them back to back is a huge tactical error against a team with good lefty relievers and a manager who knows how to use them.

    (*If we could just get Torre, and all other managers, to recognize that platoon splits matter in the ninth inning as well, we'd be on to something.)

  6. Brad Lidge's next home run. Lidge is a popular target because of the memory of that long post-season home run he allowed to Albert Pujols at his peak, which immediately preceded a drop in his performance. The two weren't related, but the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is pervasive in sports coverage because of its simplicity.

    This year, despite pitching much of the year in a good home-run park, Lidge has allowed just two long balls. He's still a fly-ball pitcher; he's just been, well, lucky. His HR/FB rate was under five percent, one of the lowest marks in the league.

    The problem for Lidge, and for the Phillies, is that Lidge's third home run allowed is going to hurt very, very badly. There's an inevitability to it, not because Lidge has some character flaw that will show itself at an inopportune time and cause him to give up a home run, but because he's a hard-throwing fly-ball pitcher, and about one in 10 fly balls go for homers. It's a math problem, really; maybe he continues to pitch in good fortune and doesn't give up that third home run, but in a series this close, losing one game that you lead in the ninth inning may be too much to overcome.

What swings the series for me is the idea that Greg Maddux will start Game Four, the Phillies will win it, and that will make all the difference. I'd like to be wrong. Phillies in six.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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