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October 14, 2009
A Triple Play of Division Series Post Mortems
It feels like we deserved more than this. A week ago, three of the four postseason series seemed so evenly matched as to defy prediction. Two of those three did just that, but not in the way expected. The Cardinals scored six runs in three games en route to being eliminated by the Dodgers, and the Red Sox weren't much better in being swept by the Angels. The Twins, as expected, went down to the Yankees despite mostly holding down the game's best offense.
I can't say I was a huge fan of the idea that Vicente Padilla should start ahead of Chad Billingsley in the postseason, so his seven innings of shutout ball Saturday in eliminating the Cardinals was something of a surprise to me. It may be that we have to add Padilla to the long list of players who cross leagues and see their performances change dramatically. Padilla had 59 strikeouts and 42 walks in 108 innings for the Rangers before they released him in August, and a ratio of less than two to one in just shy of four years in Texas. For the Dodgers, Padilla struck out 38 men and walked just 12 in 39 1/3 innings, and tacked on four strikeouts and a walk Saturday.
In the wake of the game, there seems to be a sense of panic emanating from St. Louis, an idea that an ill-timed three-game losing streak is somehow indicative of a fatal flaw in the team's construction. The Cardinals should try to improve-every team should try to improve-but we didn't learn anything new last week. The Cards didn't have a great offense during the season, right around average overall, which is damning when you start with one of the best hitters in baseball history. Even since acquiring Matt Holliday, offensive malaise wasn't unheard of: they scored seven runs in three games against the Astros in August, 11 runs in five games in the third week of September and 13 runs in six games about two weeks ago. They thrived in 2009 in spite of their offense, rather than because of it, and that they scored just six runs in three games against an excellent run-prevention staff doesn't tell us anything we didn't know a week ago. Heck, no one was castigating the team when they had 26 outs and the 27th one in the air Thursday night. The Cardinals faced a slightly better team and lost three straight, and that it happened in October doesn't make it special.
The word "protection" keeps coming up, so let me throw something out here: you protect a great hitter from the front, not from behind. You protect Albert Pujols by having the guys ahead of him be on base all the time, which forces the opposition to pitch to him in a way that no amount of batters behind Pujols ever will. The Cardinals failed badly at this in 2009, getting a .360 OBP from the leadoff spot-not bad, not great-but just a .316 mark from the second spot. More than anything, the Cardinals need an OBP guy, preferably an infielder, to bat high in the lineup so that Pujols bats with runners on base that make walking him intentionally a non-starter.
Well, and so that your offense doesn't suck. The Cards were fourth in the NL in batting average but just ninth in OBP, because they never walked. They had a .327 OBP in the three games of the NLDS. They need more baserunners, especially since the 2010 pitching staff will be hard-pressed to duplicate the run prevention of the '09 one.
The Cardinals are one of the top organizations in baseball, and losing three games to the Dodgers doesn't change that. The core talent is in place for another strong season, and what they have to do is tweak it, rather than make wholesale changes.
As far as the Dodgers go, they played well and caught the biggest break of the series, so instead of winning in four or five they did it in three. Joe Torre's love of Ronnie Belliard, which hampered his team in the first round, would now become an asset with the Phillies' Cavalcade of Southpaws around the corner. Torre showed tremendous flexibility in administering his exceptional, deep bullpen, and a level of aggression-exemplified by lifting Randy Wolf early in Game Two-that will serve the Dodgers well. In fact, given Charlie Manuel's generally strong performance to date, it may be this series, rather than the Cardinals/Dodgers one, that provides the most tactical oneupsmanship.
Loosely speaking, I liked the Red Sox in this series because I felt that they had the edge in the front of the rotation and at the back of the bullpen. What happened was that John Lackey outpitched Jon Lester, Jered Weaver outpitched Josh Beckett, and the Red Sox bullpen was terrible in a way that cost them one game and damaged them in the other two. It was just three games, but in those three games the Angels outplayed the Red Sox in every possible way. Their pitchers held the Sox to a .158 average, four extra-base hits, and eight walks, and while the vaunted edge in stolen bases didn't materialize-the Angels stole three bases in four attempts-the timing of the steals was high-value, and the Angels' defense far outpaced that of the Sox.
The surprise wasn't that the Angels won, because these two teams were evenly matched. The surprise was how much better the Angels looked in winning. As with both NL Division Series, the brevity of the series doesn't tell the whole story, as the Angels were tied in the eighth inning of one game and trailed by two in the ninth of another. The idea that the results of short series don't provide significant information about one team's quality stems from the fact that success or failure in close games isn't necessarily connected to team quality. One team can win a few close games over another by outplaying them for a short period of time-that's baseball-without that necessarily being meaningful. The Red Sox and Angels are as evenly matched today as they were last week, but the Angels played better baseball for three days, and they move on.
Amid the Angels' comeback in Game Three, one decision stood out. Following Bobby Abreu's double in the ninth that cut the lead to 6-5, Terry Francona elected to have Jonathan Papelbon intentionally walk Torii Hunter, loading the bases for Vladimir Guerrero. To walk one right-handed hitter to face another is a rarity; you might do it with less than two outs with an eye towards a double play, or as a road team needing to create a force at home plate to prevent the winning run from scoring on a tag play. You would even do it if there was a large gap in ability from one batter to the next, although that situation often brings with it the likelihood of a pinch-hitter.
Here, we had none of those. That the decision failed to produce a positive outcome for the Red Sox-Guerrero lined a game-winning single-isn't something on which it should be evaluated. No, it should be evaluated based on the likelihood that it would lead to one, and it seems clear that it was at best a slightly negative decision, and maybe worse than that. The presence of small-sample split data that showed Guerrero was 1-for-11 lifetime against Papelbon, upon which the decision was presumably made, is not valuable because of the error bars on 11 at-bats. Moreover, whatever advantage may have been gained by pitching to Guerrero instead of Hunter was negated by putting a runner on first base, loading the bases. Papelbon's margin of error was reduced, the edge of facing a free-swinging hitter clipped by the need to throw strikes rather than force home the run. Facing Hunter with a base open would have been much more advantageous, with the ability to get the eager Hunter to chase pitches, with the downside likely being no more than the same walk that was issued intentionally.
Terry Francona makes so few tactical errors that this one stands out, and it certainly doesn't mean he's a poor manager. Unlike Jim Tracy's work in the NLCS, the decision here was wrong, but not egregious. Moreover, the Red Sox didn't put themselves in as strong a position as the Rockies did, and more of the late rally can be pinned on a pitcher, Papelbon, who was having the worst season of his career-albeit still a good one.
The Red Sox got beat for three games, twice by starting pitchers, every day by the Angels' lineup. As with the Cardinals, a three-game losing streak at the wrong time doesn't warrant sackcloth and ashes. The Red Sox are as well-run a franchise as there is in sports, and they have no reason to go crazy over their loss. They won 95 games in the toughest division in baseball and can rightly call themselves one of the four best teams in the game. Like the Cardinals, they could use some tweaking, most notably as regards The Escape Hatch. David Ortiz was one-for-the-series, and both his lineup placement (fifth and sixth, or two to three spots ahead of J.D. Drew, a vastly better player two years running) and the use of him against lefties (he's hit .216/.301/.424 against them the past two seasons) are ridiculous given what we've seen for the last two years. Francona needed to hit for Ortiz in the ninth on Friday, when the Sox were trying to beat Brian Fuentes, but he wouldn't do it. The Sox commitment to Ortiz as an everyday DH is one reason why their season ended without a trip to the World Series in each of the past two years, and how they address that issue is one of the biggest challenges in getting back there in '10.
For the Angels, this series served as a reminder that John Lackey is a terrific starting pitcher, that Bobby Abreu is one of the smartest hitters alive, and that no matter how the Angels win baseball games, it will be attributed to speed and defense. Everything I would have said a week ago about them still applies, except that they now face a team, in the Yankees, against whom they have an edge in starting pitching. I would like to think that the Angels' dispatching of the Red Sox (and the memory of the in-season reversal between the Yankees and the Sox, after a spate of "are they in their heads?" stories) will keep us from reading about the Angels' similar success against the Yankees in the past. Those series don't mean much, but the Angels' rotation and their newfound affection for getting runners on base do. The ALCS is basically a coin flip.
I'm pretty sick of writing about bad umpiring, which is maybe the biggest reason I ended up not bothering to write about the Friday games last week, the decision that led me to keep pushing back writing about the AL series until today. The call by Phil Cuzzi that turned a Joe Mauer double into a foul ball left an awful taste in my mouth, as much because the general reaction to it, and all the failed umpiring over the last week, has been so disappointing. The code that you don't blame the umpires, that you take blame for losing, may be honorable, but it doesn't serve the game.
That the Twins didn't score after having the bases loaded in the 11th and no one out became a cop-out, became a way of saying, "Well, they failed." They did fail, but that doesn't make the massive error any less important, any less game-changing. Managers and players protect umpires in these situations, I can't tell out of fear or loyalty or habit, and it's one very big reason why the situation never improves. As I commented yesterday, I was out watching the game, and it was hard to not feel a little dirty, a little cheap, when Mark Teixeira's game-winning homer left the yard. You shouldn't have to feel that way when your team wins, but when that win is in no small part-regardless of what the players say-because middle management turned up into down, it just sits wrong.
The Division Series round went one game over the minimum, which is as misleading a fact as you'll find. Of the 13 games, just one in each series was effectively decided before the eighth inning, while five featured ninth-inning runs that either tied the game or broke a tie. The Twins got swept, but they had a two-run lead with two outs to go at one point, then had the bases loaded with no one out against a rookie pitcher (having been jobbed of a probable run by that hideous call) in the 11th. A night later, they led in the seventh, then had first and third and no one out in the eighth before Nick Punto failed to pick up his third-base coach and wiped out the rally. Oh, the mistake was all Punto, who never looked up at Scott Ullger until it was too late in a situation where an aware ballplayer-carrying the tying run with no one out and the middle of the lineup coming to the plate-has to consider the entire situation when rounding third. He failed, and the impact of that failure on the Twins' chance to win that game was massive-with first and third and no one out, a team can expect to score nearly two runs; with a runner on first and one out, about half a run. It was the biggest mistake of the Division Series round not made by Jim Tracy, and yes, it was bigger than the error by Matt Holliday.
The Punto play was the latest in a long, long line of miscues made by the Twins over the last two weeks. Because the AL Central race was the last one going, because it involved a playoff game and some day baseball and then the Twins advancing, fans have gotten to see a lot of Twins baseball these last few weeks. It is my hope that this spotlight will end the meme that the Twins are successful because they do the blessed "little things" better than most teams. The Twins are, in fact, a terribly error-prone team, particularly on the bases, that features some of the worst plate approaches in the game. Their success over the last few years has come about basically because they have had the best roster core in a division that simply doesn't have very many good players, and one of the organizational strengths-producing league-average starting pitchers-has come in handy. Winning 83-88 games with a low payroll doesn't mean you do the little things, and the connection made between the two is as delusional as batting David Ortiz in the middle of a lineup.
As long as we're killing storylines, well, there's Alex Rodriguez. Short memories abound, but five years ago, in his first postseason series with the Yankees, Rodriguez almost single-handedly beat the Twins with a great week. Not long after, he watched the Red Sox celebrate a historic comeback on the Yankee Stadium field and was stuck with a wildly disproportionate amount of the blame for that occurrence. Since then, the idea that Alex Rodriguez, one of the dozen greatest players in baseball history, is somehow unable to play well in the postseason has become a dominant theme in his career. Well, it was never true, and the only way to make it true was to define Rodriguez's postseason career as running from Game Four of the 2004 ALCS though whatever day you were filing your nonsense.
I want to not care. I want to be above it, safe in the knowledge that my evaluation of Alex Rodriguez cannot possibly be affected by a week's worth of at-bats. But for his sake, and for the sake of my sanity as a baseball-loving person living in New York-it's actually an emotion completely disconnected from being a Yankee fan-I want him to keep hitting, because I just don't want to hear about it any longer.
One last note on this series. Delmon Young saw 44 pitches, one of which hit him. He swung at 28 of the others. The idea that he's turned some kind of corner is laughable.