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October 11, 2008

Playoff Prospectus

Coming Unravelled

by Jay Jaffe

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The Dodgers are in trouble. After steamrolling the Cubs in the first round, many prognosticators, this one included, picked them to beat the Phillies in the National League Championship Series on the strength of their starting pitching matchups and tendencies. Yet on Thursday, after five dominant innings, Derek Lowe came apart like a pair of single-stitched slacks. On Friday, Chad Billingsley couldn't even get out of the third, and the Dodgers now find themselves in a 2-0 hole as they head back to Los Angeles.

Billingsley allowed the potent Phillies offense to piece together a pair of four-run rallies in the second and third innings on Friday night, and while the Dodgers were still able to make a game of it, the effort was too little, too late. What was surprising—particularly after the Phils had overcome Lowe's effort with a pair of homers that plated three runs in the sixth inning of Game One—was that they put up their eight runs without benefit of a single long ball. Furthermore, the primary damage was done not by big guns Chase Utley or Ryan Howard, but by the supporting cast; particularly Carlos Ruiz, Brett Myers, and Shane Victorino.

On Thursday, the light-hitting Ruiz had snapped out of a 2-for-36 slump dating back to September 18 by slapping a two-out single in the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit the Phillies had collected to that point and their first since the second inning. That should have done nothing beyond guaranteeing that the batting order cleared the pitcher, but Cole Hamels, a .224 hitter during the year, then smacked an 0-2 slider for a line-drive single. At that point, Lowe was clearly rattled. As the towels swirled in Citizens Bank Ballpark, he stepped off the rubber, conferred with catcher Russell Martin about the signs, and lost the rhythm that had him cruising. Jimmy Rollins took Lowe to a full count before flying out to Manny Ramirez in left to shut down the threat. When Victorino reached on a two-base throwing error by Rafael Furcal to start the sixth, Lowe was again knocked off kilter, conferring with Martin and changing the signs, only to have Utley and Pat Burrell clubb homers that erased a 2-0 Dodger lead.

On Friday, Ruiz again became the bane of the Dodgers' existence when he lashed a two-out RBI double in the second inning that scored Greg Dobbs. Again a pitcher compounded the damage by extending the frame; this time it was Brett Myers, whose two tenacious at-bats against CC Sabathia in Game Two of the Division Series had helped send the big man to an early exit. Myers, who collected four hits all year long, singled to center field to drive in Ruiz and turn the lineup over, the first of three hits he would collect on the day. A Rollins single, a bobble by Matt Kemp that sent Rollins to second, and then a two-run single by Victorino, and the Phillies had suddenly put up four runs.

What the two rallies had in common besides their genesis in the bottom of the lineup was the apparent communication problems between the pitcher and Martin. Lowe served up a few sinkerballs that didn't until they'd traveled the better part of 400 feet, failures of execution for which he blamed himself, though they came at a point after the conferences and sign changes had disrupted his momentum. Billinglsey, on the other hand, pointed a finger at Martin, questioning pitch selection after the fact. It was a thoroughly unprofessional thing to do, but it came from an amped-up and dismayed 24-year-old who'd just faltered in the biggest game of his career. It might rate a stern lecture behind closed doors from manager Joe Torre, but coupled with the way Lowe came apart on Thursday, it may suggest a pattern.

Which isn't to say that the Phillies don't deserve credit. Communication breakdown or no, their job was to hit the mistakes, and hit them they did. While Howard has been held hitless in eight at-bats thanks to a steady diet of sliders, his supporting cast has been getting the job done well enough. That they were able to scratch out eight runs without benefit of a homer on Friday night was still unexpected. During the regular season, the Phillies were second in the NL and third in the majors in their percentage of runs generated via homers. That data has come up often in various discussions of the postseason, but since we haven't published it all anywhere else, it's worth a closer look:

Team           Runs  HR    R_HR  PCT
White Sox      810   234   384   47.4
Marlins        770   208   330   42.9
Phillies       800   214   341   42.6
Reds           704   187   285   40.5
Brewers        751   198   297   39.5
Astros         712   167   272   38.2
Padres         637   154   243   38.1
Tigers         821   200   310   37.8
Rays           774   180   287   37.1
Rangers        902   194   333   36.9
Cubs           856   184   309   36.1
Cardinals      779   174   279   35.8
Yankees        788   180   281   35.7
Rockies        747   160   265   35.5
Mets           799   172   280   35.0
Orioles        782   172   270   34.5
Indians        806   171   276   34.2
Red Sox        845   173   286   33.8
Diamondbacks   720   159   240   33.3
Angels         765   159   254   33.2
Pirates        735   153   241   32.8
Mariners       671   124   208   31.0
Athletics      646   125   194   30.0
Blue Jays      714   126   213   29.8
Dodgers        700   137   199   28.4
Nationals      641   117   181   28.2
Braves         755   130   211   27.9
Royals         691   120   192   27.8
Twins          829   111   191   23.0
Giants         639    94   141   22.1

By itself, the percentage of runs on homers isn't a particularly consistent indicator of team success. Both the actual run and home run totals correlate much better with team winning percentage than homer percentage does, and among the top quartile of offenses—the teams which scored 800 or more runs—are units whose homer percentages were below the major league average of 34.5 percent.

By now, that shouldn't be terribly surprising given the Phillies' offensive output this October. In the first round against the Brewers, 10 of the Phils' 15 runs came on homers, as did all three on Thursday night. That averages out to a paltry 3.6 runs per game from a team that ranked second in the league in scoring. Prior to Friday, they might have been accused of waiting around for the long ball, and in fact they're not a terribly successful offense when they're not hitting them:

Team           R_nHR  R_HR   R/G
Twins          3.91   1.17   5.09
Rangers        3.51   2.06   5.57
Red Sox        3.45   1.77   5.22
Cubs           3.40   1.92   5.32
Braves         3.36   1.30   4.66
Indians        3.27   1.70   4.98
Mets           3.20   1.73   4.93
Orioles        3.18   1.68   4.86
Tigers         3.15   1.91   5.07
Angels         3.15   1.57   4.72
Yankees        3.13   1.73   4.86
Blue Jays      3.09   1.31   4.41
Dodgers        3.09   1.23   4.32
Cardinals      3.09   1.72   4.81
Royals         3.08   1.19   4.27
Giants         3.07   0.87   3.94
Pirates        3.05   1.49   4.54
Rays           3.01   1.77   4.78
Rockies        2.98   1.64   4.61
Diamondbacks   2.96   1.48   4.44
Mariners       2.86   1.28   4.14
Nationals      2.86   1.12   3.98
Phillies       2.83   2.10   4.94
Brewers        2.80   1.83   4.64
Athletics      2.81   1.20   4.01
Marlins        2.73   2.05   4.78
Astros         2.73   1.69   4.42
White Sox      2.61   2.36   4.97
Reds           2.59   1.76   4.35
Padres         2.43   1.50   3.93

The Phillies ranked just 23rd in the majors in non-homer-generated runs per game, and prior to Friday had scored without benefit of a homer in just two of the 42 innings of post-season ball in which they'd batted: the third inning of the Division Series opener, and the sixth inning of Game Three, their sole post-season loss to date.

The primary point I had seized upon in calling the series for the Dodgers was their pitching staff's ability to prevent homers; the Dodgers allowed just 123 during the year, by far the lowest total in the NL. With Lowe, Billingsley, and Game Three starter Hiroki Kuroda all ranking among the top 10 in fewest homers allowed per nine innings, they seemed well-equipped to counter the primary weapon of an offense that ranked first in the league and second in the majors in home runs. Preventing them should have helped their cause considerably.

Nonetheless, even with the damage done, the Dodgers had their chances to get back into the game, particularly after Manny Ramirez jacked a three-run homer in the fourth to cut the 8-2 lead in half, but by then Torre had painted himself into a corner by burning through his pitching staff. Myers' second hit of the game, a two-run single that squirted past a diving James Loney, had run the score to 6-2 and chased Billingsley. With two on and one out, Chan Ho Park came on and struck out Rollins but yielded a bases-clearing triple to Victorino, which prompted Torre to call upon lefty Joe Beimel, who then walked both Utley and Howard before being yanked himself.

In came rookie James McDonald, who had pitched all of six innings with the big club this year. He struck out Burrell looking, but by then the score was 8-2. McDonald entered the game via a double-switch which placed Jeff Kent in the pitchers' spot and the pitcher seventh in place of second baseman Blake DeWitt, who'd made the final out of the third. While that prevented McDonald from having to bat in the fourth, it was a short-sighted move. The marginal difference between having Kent bat down six runs in the fourth and having McDonald bat down three runs in the fifth turned out to be pretty large; according to Fangraphs.com, the Dodgers began the top of the fourth with just a five percent chance of winning, but that had increased to 16.4 percent by the start of the fifth.

Even ignoring the fact that the gimpy Kent grounded into a double play in his first at-bat, the fact that Torre had burned Park, Beimel, and DeWitt to get to that point was a waste of resources, one that may resonate as the series continues. McDonald did a magnificent job of holding the Phillies in check by tossing 3 1/3 scoreless innings and striking out five, but Torre then called upon potential Game Four starter Clayton Kershaw to throw 1 2/3 innings. That may have prevented further damage by the pair of lefty sluggers in the middle of the Phillies' lineup, but Torre gave up a lot by chasing platoon advantages as the odds of winning the game grew longer. Fangraphs shows the Dodgers' odds of winning the game at the point of Kershaw's entry at just 5.9 percent; his use likely whittled Torre's choices for the Game Four starter down to either the less-than-ideal Greg Maddux, or Lowe on three days' rest. The latter is probably the preferable option, and in fact my call of the series in the Dodgers' favor incorporated the chances of just such a likelihood, but after Thursday's meltdown, that's not a choice that the Dodgers can make with as much confidence as before.

The Dodgers could hold their heads high despite losing in Game One; they got to Hamels for two early runs, held a potent lineup in check, and lost by just one against a team throwing its ace in their home park. Now they appear to be coming apart at the seams, and unless they can muster a better showing on Sunday against Jamie Moyer, they're on their way to a quick exit.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Dodgers,  The Who,  Game 1,  Three Homer Game,  Single,  The Call-up

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