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October 14, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Popping the Lidge Early

by Jay Jaffe

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Prior to Monday night's Game Four of the National League Championship Series, I noted the contrast between the two teams when it came to deviating from standard closer usage. Dodgers manager Joe Torre has shown a penchant for calling upon his closer in the eighth inning when the situation merits it, a tendency that dates back to the days of Mariano Rivera putting championship rings on his fingers, while Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has stuck to a strict ninth-inning usage plan this year. The two teams deviated from the script in Game Four, with results that may have turned the series decisively in the Phillies' favor.

Torre bypassed an opportunity to bring on Jonathan Broxton with none out and a man on first base in the eighth inning to protect a two-run lead. By the time he summoned him, that lead was gone. Top set-up man Cory Wade, who had thrown 33 pitches over two innings the night before, came on instead, and after retiring one hitter, he served up a hanging curveball to Shane Victorino, who crushed it for a game-tying two-run homer. Three batters later, it was Broxton serving up a long ball, a 420-foot, two-run blast by pinch-hitter Matt Stairs. In the bottom of the eighth, Manuel called upon Brad Lidge to face Manny Ramirez with two outs, and Lidge went the rest of the way for his first long save since July 6, 2006, giving the Phillies a 3-1 lead in the NLCS.

The two teams came into the series with bullpens that ranked first and second in both WXRL and ERA, with the Phillies having a 3.3-win edge in the former (15.0 to 11.7), and a slight edge in the latter (3.22 to 3.34). With each team forced to send one starting pitcher to an early shower thus far in the series, both well-worked relief corps had shined, combining to yield just one run in 23 2/3 innings over the first three games. Monday was a different story, as the bullpens were hit for seven runs in eight innings of work. No matter what Torre did, he couldn't find the hot hand.

Trailing two games to one, Torre had bypassed a difficult decision between Clayton Kershaw and Greg Maddux to call upon Game One starter Derek Lowe to go on three days' rest. Lowe has had intermittent success doing so in the past, but in the short-rest starts he'd made that had followed other starts (as opposed to between-starts relief appearances), he'd never gone longer than 76 pitches. He had a rocky beginning on Monday, yielding two first-inning runs and throwing 19 pitches and a tantrum in the dugout; he had reportedly struggled with gripping slick baseballs that he felt had not been sufficiently rubbed down. Despite those early woes, he settled in and retired 13 of the next 15 hitters, concluding the fifth by freezing Chase Utley on a slider, his 74th pitch of the night.

Trailing 2-1 at that juncture, the Dodgers rallied for a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth after loading the bases with nobody out. With lefty Ryan Howard due up to start the sixth, Torre elected to pull Lowe in favor of the lefty Kershaw, who'd thrown an impressive 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Game Two, and retiring Howard on a fly ball for his final out that time around. The rookie couldn't match those results, however; after getting ahead of Howard 1-2, he couldn't get him to bite on curveballs on either side of the plate, and walked the big man. Kershaw then fell behind Pat Burrell 3-0 before yielding a single, and got the hook after Victorino sacrificed the runners to second and third.

It was at that point that Torre made perhaps his most questionable decision on a night that included many of them, starting with the choice of Juan Pierre in center field over Matt Kemp. By calling for the sac bunt and then sending up righty Pedro Feliz to pinch-hit for lefty Greg Dobbs (1-for-9 against left-handers), Manuel had given the Dodgers an escape hatch for the inning. Torre decided to go strictly by the book and take advantage of Feliz's massive platoon split (.288/.349/.496 this year versus lefties, .231/.279/.357 against righties) by bringing in right-hander Chan Ho Park. The odd thing is that Kershaw, in his brief major league career, has actually shown a reverse platoon split that favors results against righties (.269/.349/.393 in 378 PA) over those against lefties (.250/.337/.475 in 80 PA). That's quite possibly a statistical blip that may have disappeared upon closer inspection of Kershaw's two stints in the majors this year, but his strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratios (70/38 versus 30/11) suggest there may be something to it, particularly given that his impressive curveball moves away from lefties. In any case, we're talking about Chan Ho Park here, who's spent most of this millennium as an extremely well-paid punchline, while Kershaw has become one of the top pitching prospects in the land.

Whatever the merits of the decision Torre made there, it didn't work: Park retired Feliz on a fly ball, but he threw a wild pitch that squibbed past Russell Martin and knotted the game at 3-3, and then he walked Carlos Ruiz, the light-hitting catcher who's become the bane of the Dodgers' existence in this series. When Manuel called upon lefty Geoff Jenkins to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Joe Blanton, Torre went back to his bullpen and called upon left-hander Joe Beimel, which prompted Manuel to burn Jenkins (.256/.313/.415 against righties this year but an anemic 3-for-23 against lefties) in favor of So Taguchi (.184/.231/.224 versus southpaws this year but .281/.330/.385 in his career). Beimel threw just one pitch, and got Taguchi to fly out.

At that point it was the Philly bullpen that faltered. Chad Durbin quickly gave the lead right back to the Dodgers, serving up a solo home run to Casey Blake to lead off the home half of the sixth. The Dodgers appeared headed for more when Juan Pierre then doubled (!) and pinch-hitter Matt Kemp walked, with Durbin departing without retiring a hitter. Lefty Scott Eyre came on and was victimized by a throwing error on Howard as he fielded a Rafael Furcal sacrifice bunt and sailed a throw into right field, scoring Pierre to expand the lead to 5-3. Howard partially atoned for that sin by snaring a line drive by Andre Ethier that might have added two more runs, and then Eyre wisely issued an intentional pass to Manny Ramirez before departing in favor of Ryan Madson, an early call by Manuel that foreshadowed his move to Lidge. Madson served up a screamer to Russell Martin, but Utley made what may well go down as the series' single most important play, diving to his right to snag the ball, falling to his knees, and then quickly getting up to scuttle over to second to double off Furcal and end the threat. Ladies and gentlemen of the Baseball Writers Association of America, is there any further question who the real MVP of the Phillies is?

With the top of the order due up to start the seventh, Torre followed lefty with lefty, calling upon his bullpen's secret weapon, Hong-Chih Kuo. Despite four elbow surgeries (including two Tommy Johns) and a September spent largely on the sidelines as he nursed a sore triceps, Kuo has filthy stuff, and as the Dodgers look towards a horizon that may include surgery for Takashi Saito (whom Kuo replaced on the LCS roster), it's fair to wonder if he might get a crack at the closer's job at some point. In any event, he retired Jimmy Rollins on a groundout, and then blew Jayson Werth and Utley away on a combined six pitches, five of them fastballs in the 96-97 range. Good morning, good afternoon, and good night.

The night would have been a whole lot better for the Dodgers had Kuo not fallen behind Howard 2-0 to start the eighth before yielding a single. From there, the Dodgers simply couldn't stop the hemorrhaging. Wade came on and retired Burrell but served up Victorino's shot, and Broxton fell down the (Matt) Stairs to give the Phillies a 7-5 lead. The question remains whether the inning may have unfolded differently had Torre decided to bring in his 290-pound behemoth instead of Wade. Broxton had thrown 14 pitches the night before compared to Wade's 33, and while he'd been called upon by Torre to get five long saves this year (tied for the fourth most in the majors), none of them-none of his outings, period-had been longer than five outs. Torre's best option might have been simply to stick with Kuo, who'd thrown just 14 pitches to that point. Both Burrell and Victorino are stronger from that side, with OPS advantages of at least 120 points apiece, but Kuo has snuffed righties at a .205/.284/.285 clip this year.

One of the drawbacks of shuffling through a bullpen by playing matchups is the possibility of drawing a bum card from the deck, a pitcher whose turn it is for an off night. In all, Torre made a series of pitching decisions, each of which was individually defensible given the data he had at his disposal, but the whole of what's been a very good bullpen thus far added up to far less than the sum of its parts on Monday night.

Meanwhile, everything came up Milhouse for Manuel and the Phillies. Madson survived a two-on, one-out threat in the seventh that was aided by Torre's decision to let Kuo bat for himself and sacrifice. J.C. Romero came on in the eighth and issued a leadoff walk to Furcal, but Ethier slapped into a double play. Manuel then called upon Lidge to face Ramirez, who doubled before Lidge got Loney to fly out and then worked his way through Blake and a pair of pinch-hitters (Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent) in the ninth for his long save and a 3-1 series lead for the Phillies.

That Lidge hadn't worked anything longer than three outs for a save this year is somewhat unusual, but hardly unprecedented; in fact the single-season saves record was broken in just such a fashion this year:


Year Saves  Pitcher
2008   62   Francisco Rodriguez
1995   46   Jose Mesa
2006   46   Trevor Hoffman
2005   45   Bob Wickman
1997   45   Randy Myers
2007   45   Joe Borowski
2002   45   Eddie Guardado
1993   43   Mitch Williams
2005   43   Trevor Hoffman
2004   43   Jose Mesa
2001   42   Jose Mesa
2007   42   Trevor Hoffman
2008   41   Brad Lidge
2000   41   Robb Nen
2003   41   Eddie Guardado

None of these pitchers worked more than three outs for a save in the above season. Though Mesa's 2001 campaign came on Manuel's watch in Cleveland, it's not as though Manuel had never asked a Phillies pitcher to go long in a non-blowout situation:

2005: Billy Wagner, 6
2006: Tom Gordon, 2
2007: Brett Myers, 2; Antonio Alfonseca, 1; Ryan Madson, 1

With the advantage of a day off between Games Four and Five, Manuel was secure enough in his decision-making to call upon Lidge to do something he'd never asked him to do before. It wasn't rocket science to make such a call, and as noted before, by the time the moment approached it had become an inevitability given Madson's early entry and exit. Lidge did the job using just 24 pitches, just one more than he needed to seal the deal in Game Two, but 11 fewer than he used against the Brewers in Game One of the Division Series. Now he and the Phillies have the Dodgers over a barrel, and the National League pennant is in reach.

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

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