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October 17, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Dream Season Ends, a Nightmare Continues

by Jay Jaffe

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No lead is safe.

If there's one thing I've learned from rooting against the Red Sox over the past decade or so, it's that in Fenway Park a ballgame is never as over as it seems based merely on a lopsided score. The Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, and the odd angles in between all appear designed by some sadistic baseball god to exert a gravitational pull towards entropy-an entropy where the only thing more chaotic than the endless rallies which generate a seemingly insurmountable early lead are the endless rallies where that lead is swallowed into some rip in the space-time continuum which leaks odd bounces and extra outs. It ain't over 'til it's over, indeed.

Thursday night's ALCS Game Five was just such a game, yet another surreal encounter in a series that has been full of them. With the defending World Champion Red Sox having been pushed to the brink of elimination by three straight losses to the Rays by a combined score of 31-13 and with the Monster having been used for target practice by its upstart visitors, the early home runs hit by B.J. Upton, Carlos Peņa, and Evan Longoria-a trio that's now combined for 10 in the series-felt like reruns. By the time the Rays took a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning, they'd been prematurely anointed AL champions by the TBS crew and most of a country that's forgotten the lessons of the 1999 Division Series and the 2004 and 2007 ALCS. For those of us wanting to see the villain killed off, it's just another installment of that z-grade horror series, Nightmare on Lansdowne Street.

Scarred by such lessons, I'll confess to having not let myself get too absorbed in this series thus far, particularly because of my immersion in the NLCS as both a diehard Dodgers fan and a hopefully more level-headed analyst. I love a post-season doubleheader as much as the next man, but there's no suffering through five-and-a-half hours of strike-zone nibbling, ineffectual relief pitching, and multiple lead changes for a man with a Tivo and a desire to some claim on sanity, particularly one with the sting of the Dodgers' defeat still fresh in mind. Prior to Thursday night, I might have admitted it was my loss, but fast-forwarding to the improbable heroics of David Ortiz and J.D. Drew in front of a reanimated Fenway crowd reminded me down to the pit of my stomach that I haven't missed a damn thing. I've seen this show before, thank you, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't end well.

As such, let's switch over to the National League, where the Phillies are champions. On Wednesday night they completed the job of dispatching the Dodgers, riding the golden arm of Cole Hamels into the World Series for their first pennant since 1993. The Phillies took advantage of a pair of Dodger implosions, one from starter Chad Billingsley, who failed to make it out of the third inning for the second time this series, and the other from Rafael Furcal, who joined Willie Davis in the post-season annals and the Big Book of Dodger Defeats by committing three errors in one inning, leading to two unearned runs. For the second time in the postseason, the Phils got a leadoff homer by Jimmy Rollins in a potential series clincher and never looked back.

At the outset of the series and again after Game Two, I noted the Philadelphia offense's season-long reliance on home runs: they were third in the majors in the percentage of their runs scored on homers, and second in runs per game generated by their homers, but just 23rd in the majors in non-homer-generated runs per game. Ten of their 15 runs in the Division Series came via that route, as did all three of their runs in Game One. However, over the last four games of the LCS, it was a different story; just five of their 22 runs came via home runs, including none in Game Two, when they set their post-season high by scoring eight runs. Of course, of the three homers they did hit from that point onward, one tied the game and the other two gave them leads that they would not relinquish. Quality, not quantity.

What's notable besides the fact that such a relatively low percentage of their runs came via homers, was a distribution that showed the depth of their offensive attack. Ryan Howard clubbed 48 during the year, but didn't hit one; Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, tied for second on the team at 33, both did, however, as did the likes of Rollins (11 during the year), Shane Victorino (14), and Matt Stairs (two with Philadelphia, 13 overall). Howard did overcome a steady diet of sliders to collect six hits, five of them singles, over the last three games, and the big man tied for the team lead with four runs scored in the series, testament to the work his teammates did further down the lineup. Eight different Phillies scored multiple runs, and six drove in multiple runs, led by Victorino with six. Their plethora of weapons was a big reason why the Dodgers' starting pitchers totaled just 21 1/3 innings over the course of the series; they couldn't get the easy outs that they needed to get towards the bottom of the lineup.

Hamels couldn't match the dominance he'd shown in the Division Series in either of his LCS starts, but he was by far the best starter in the series, and his two outings were the only ones on either side where a pitcher lasted longer than six innings. The shortcomings of his rotation-mates shifted a heavy load to the bullpen, but the relief crew was more than up to the task, allowing just two runs in 18 2/3 innings, one of them during garbage time in their Game Three loss. Brad Lidge gets the lion's share of the credit thanks to his spotless record, but set-up man Ryan Madson was every bit as effective, and neither of the Phils' two lefty specialists, J.C. Romero or Scott Eyre, allowed a hit against the 15 hitters they faced (though they did walk four). In all, it was enough to set them apart as the better team in the series. Forget the Rays, the Phillies are the hottest team in baseball, having won 20 of 25 dating back to September 11. Congratulations to Charlie Manuel and company on a pennant well earned.

Which isn't to say that the Dodgers didn't have their chances. They scored first in each of the first two games, and held a lead into the eighth inning of Game Four before their bullpen imploded. Even in Billingsley's two dud starts, their relievers kept them within striking distance. Time after time, though, their hitters simply couldn't come through. The Phillies couldn't find a way to stop Manny Ramirez, who hit .533/.682/1.067 with two homers and seven RBI; the best they seemed able to do was to make sure he batted with nobody on base and let him do his damage, as when Lidge served up a two-out double in the eighth inning of Game Four following a double play, or when Hamels yielded a solo homer in the sixth inning of Game Five. Ramirez aside, the rest of the Dodgers hit just .233/.304/.320, with the meager performances of Andre Ethier (.227/.261/.273), Rafael Furcal (.211/.318/.368 plus four errors leading to three unearned runs), and Russell Martin (.118/.318/.118 and a lousy series behind the plate) looming large. As a team, the Dodgers went just 5-for-31 with runners in scoring position in their four losses, leaving 36 men on base in those games-an average of one per inning.

Still, it was a thrilling ride for the Dodgers, the best they've given their fans in the 20 years since Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershier willed another injury-wracked team past the heavily favored Mets in the NLCS and then the equally heavily favored A's in the World Series. Derided for winning just 84 games, these Dodgers put their strongest team on the field in October, one that over the course of a full season might have been ten wins better than their final record, and one that clearly illustrates that for all the faults of their management-the wasteful contracts dispensed by Ned Colletti, the lineup dickering of Joe Torre-the team's deep reserves of both talent and money can make them a formidable club when they do get it right.

As for what comes next, the Dodgers face some truly vexing questions with regards to their free agents. Can they afford to keep Ramirez, given the probability that he may command something well beyond $100 million to cover the twilight years of his late 30s and early 40s? Can they afford not to, given that they haven't had a single player hit over 20 home runs for them since 2005, and that Manny Being Manny was such a huge hit with the fans of Los Angeles? If they keep him, can they dig a ditch deep enough to sink the costs of both Juan Pierre ($38.5 million remaining) and Andruw Jones ($22.1 million remaining, in a heavily back-loaded deal), both of whom want out of LA every bit as badly as the fans want them gone? Will they let rotation anchor Derek Lowe walk after he piled up 135 starts for them over the past four years, tied for second-most in the majors? Will they pick up the $8.75 million option on Brad Penny, who put up a 6.27 ERA after a Cy Young-caliber season, and who has managed just one more start over the past five years than Lowe has in four? What of Furcal, who's had stretches of MVP-caliber play when healthy, but who was limited to just 36 games this season? If they let Furcal, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, and Casey Blake all leave, how many of their infield spots will they turn over to youngsters Blake DeWitt, Chin-Lung Hu, and Tony Abreu? Can they trust Colletti to make better decisions than the ones that put them into such a bind this year? These things give Dodger fans plenty of reasons to lie awake at night.

Not to be forgotten in the Dodgers' loss are the questions of whether we've seen Kent, Garciaparra, or Greg Maddux on a ball field for the last time. Unable to regain his second-base job after returning from September knee surgery, the 40-year-old Kent went 0-for-9 in limited duty, and the enduring images of him flailing at third strikes and then arguing with umpires aren't pleasant ones, even for those who view him with grudging respect rather than affection. However, such images are instructive: Kent's businesslike approach to the game makes him an easy target, but his humorlessness should never have been confused with a lack of passion. If we've seen the last of him for the moment, we'll likely get to watch him have his day at Cooperstown eventually. Likewise for the 42-year-old Maddux, whose relief work in the series against the Cubs and Phillies suggests that while he's got no shortage of grit, moxie, and smarts, he's lacking in stuff, and if he walks away from the game without having passed Warren Spahn on the all-time victory list, it will be no shame; his claim on greatness is secure. As for the 35-year-old Garciaparra, his battles with injury-six trips to the disabled list in his three years in LA-have become increasingly painful to watch, and he's no longer suited for the expectations of full-time duty. As a 200 at-bat utilityman with pop, he might generate interest somewhere, but whether that role interests him may be another story.

For better or worse, such decisions will be dealt with in due course. In the meantime, this Dodger fan would like simply to say thank you and farewell to the exciting and occasionally frustrating club that provided such a thrilling joyride over the past two and a half months after so much disappointment prior. Having watched Ramirez star in so many installments of those aforementioned Nightmare on Lansdowne flicks, it was refreshing to sit back (or, more often, bolt upright) and appreciate his tremendous gifts as a hitter, even if he did shoot a man in Boston just to watch him die, or whatever crimes it was that the mainstream media would have had you believe he committed to grease his skids out of Beantown.

Furthermore, it was a gas to watch the Dodgers' highly-touted young nucleus, which bore such harsh criticism for their late-2007 fade, shed some baggage by helping to capture the NL West flag and then to roll past the heavily-favored Cubs in the first round. If Kemp, Martin, Billingsley, Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Hong-Chih Kuo, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Cory Wade, et al weren't good enough to be National League champions yet, they're still on the sunny side of 27, and time is on their side. It's been 20 years since the Dodgers were such fun, and I already can't wait for the next one to start.

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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