October 16, 2008
The Forgotten Narrative
The Cubs had the 100-year itch and the whole "best team in the league" thing. The Dodgers had Manny! and Joe! and that big-market attractiveness. The Brewers rode CC Sabathia's amazing run to end a quarter-century absence from the playoffs.
The Phillies? We weren't talking much about them. They'd been here, briefly, a year ago, but even then they were a candidate for "Best Supporting Actor in a Drama." They played a Bill Pullman role to consecutive late-season disappointments by the Mets, the plot centering on how New York didn't win rather than how they did. The Phillies closed 13-4 last year, 13-3 this year, but the term "collapse," rather than "closing rush," was the one we heard and read about. Even in making the playoffs last year, they were just an extra in the hit show "Rocktober."
The thing is, they were no worse than the second-best team in the league this year, with the second-best record and second-best run differential. They were fourth in third-order record, although the difference between them and second was tiny. They had, if not a bye to the LCS, the best matchup of any Division Series team, facing a Brewers squad whose ace starter was coming in having been worked very hard and which was probably the weakest post-season team. The Dodgers beating the Cubs was a bonus; as well as the Dodgers played, and as much as their playoff lineup was incomparable to their regular-season lineup, they would be an easier foe to dispatch than the best team in the league.
Dispatch them, they did, and the main surprise is that it went just five games, continuing the trend of matchups which look likely to give us a dramatic series going on to disappoint. Just two of the five games were particularly competitive, although both of those were very good. The Dodgers' starting pitching was probably the biggest difference, as they got just one quality start in five games, after going three-for-three in the Division Series:
This was to be expected. The matchups in this series were not as favorable, with the Phillies' better lineup balance posing a tougher matchup for the Dodgers' starters than the Cubs' righty-heavy lineup. Chad Billingsley, the Dodger starter with the biggest platoon split and most trouble against left-handed batters, never saw the fourth inning in two starts.
Cole Hamels is the Dodgers' version of Billingsley, a young starter developing into a star. Hamels is a year ahead of Billingsley, however, with slightly better raw stuff and much better command of it. Hamels is the breakout star of the NL postseason, the senior circuit's counterpart to B.J. Upton in the AL. In three starts, Hamels has thrown at least seven innings every time and allowed zero, two, and one runs. He has a 22/6 K/BB ratio in 22 innings, and only in Game One of the NLCS, when he gave up some extra-base hits that the Dodgers converted to runs, was he ever at risk of losing a game. He's pitch-efficient-14 pitches an inning-and shows both raw talent and a feel for a game. I know that stylistically he's a match for Johan Santana, but I still can't get past the Mike Mussina comp for him.
The Phillies backed him with another long ball-Jimmy Rollins in the first-and with crooked numbers in the third and fifth. They've spread out their offense a bit more of late, but they're still scoring in bunches, last night taking advantage of Billingsley's wildness and some wretched Dodgers defense in equal parts. Even with Ryan Howard on the sidelines thus far-.258/.410/.323-the Phillies are getting by offensively, with 4.4 runs per game. They've allowed just 3.2, though, which is the biggest reason why they'll be playing in the World Series next Wednesday. In addition to Hamels, the Phillies' bullpen has been outstanding, with a 1.88 ERA and just one homer allowed in 28
The Dodgers' season was a success, even with the unhappy ending. We place so much emphasis on the postseason now that losing in it can be perceived as a significant failure, but seven of eight teams do just that at some point. The Dodgers may not have been a great team this season, but they had an exciting late-season run to win their division, and certainly the team they put on the field in October was competitive with the NL's best. The narrative-Joe Torre managed and Manny Ramirez carried this team to the postseason-is a little simple, and Ned Colletti's ability to see past that to what he really has in front of him will go a long way in determining whether or not the Dodgers get back here a year from now. Perhaps no team has a more complicated set of decisions to work through regarding its personnel, and along with the credit Colletti does deserve for the mid-season upgrade to Ramirez, there's also the blame he deserves for many of the decisions that preceded it. After all, Dodgers Dioner Navarro and Edwin Jackson are going to the World Series... as Rays... and the Dodgers squandered those two for absolutely nothing.
The Rays will start Scott Kazmir ahead of James Shields in tonight's ALCS Game Five. I don't hate the decision-Kazmir is pitching on full rest (ah, ridiculous scheduling)-but I'm not a real fan of the idea that the splits of the players may have played a part in it. Home/road and park splits over a period of years are more noise than signal, and best ignored in assigning playing time.
The primary cost of the decision is pushed into the World Series. Should the Rays lose tonight but advance, Shields, starting Saturday, would not be able to pitch Game One of the World Series, or would have to start on short rest. In fact, a seven-game outcome in the ALCS would leave the Rays choosing from among Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, and a short-rest Shields against Hamels next Wednesday, none of which are optimal. With that in mind, I probably would have started Shields tonight, with an eye towards the World Series that, with my team up 3-1, is reasonable to consider in making the decision.
Let me throw one idea out there about the Red Sox. In the absence of Mike Lowell, they've gone with Kevin Youkilis at third and Mark Kotsay at first base. This weakens the team defensively at both spots, and not by a small amount. Youkilis is a below-average third baseman now, and one of the best first basemen in the game. Kotsay is fair at first base.
Kotsay isn't a particularly good hitter: .276/.329/.403 for the season, which is a reasonable estimate of his ability. Would the Red Sox be better off playing Alex Cora (.270/.371/.349) at third base and Youkilis at first, trading off the offensive difference between Kotsay and Cora in exchange for a defensive upgrade at two spots? I don't think it's going to change the world-Cora probably wouldn't have had a play on all but one or two of the Rays' bombs this week-but in looking for edges, this may be one to take. Kotsay's bat just isn't so good that you'd force it into the lineup, and if nothing else, Cora works counts and adds speed at the bottom of the lineup, where it's most useful.
As long as I'm proffering advice... Jon Lester has to pitch in a Game Six. You can't let your season end without putting your best starter back on the mound with full rest. Whatever is going on with Josh Beckett, he hasn't been better than Lester all year; push him back to Game Seven, hope the extra rest helps him, and have him on a quick hook. If Lester doesn't start Game Six, that will be a very big mistake by Francona.
And I do think there will be a Game Six...