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October 29, 2009

Prospectus Today

Complete Mastery

by Joe Sheehan

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I can't help but think that this World Series turned, and I mean in a big way, and we missed the sign. At about 8:18 p.m. last night, after CC Sabathia had energized the Yankee Stadium crowd by pitching out of a bases-loaded jam, Cliff Lee dispensed with Derek Jeter on three pitches suitable for framing: a fastball up and over the plate that Jeter hit foul into the stands over first base, then a curve down and in that Jeter tipped foul, and finally a changeup that Jeter swung through.

In that moment, as the Phillies whipped the ball around the infield and the Yankee captain walked back to the dugout, the Series shifted. In three pitches, Lee had shown his above-average heat, his terrific curve, and his ability to get even a great hitter off balance by changing speed and eye level. We didn't know it at the time, but Lee was going to spend nine innings showcasing those three pitches. We didn't know it at the time, but the game was over.

Lee was masterful, giving up few even hard-hit balls much less anything that resembled a rally. Heck, good swings were in short supply; the Yankees took a lot of emergency hacks last night. Even the Yankees' ninth-inning death twitch, down 6-0, didn't feel like anything other than an afterthought. Lee worked a bit more than you might have expected, throwing 122 pitches, but that was in part due to the Yankees' inability to make contact; they struck out 10 times against no walks, and their only extra-base hit came was an ineffectual two-out double in the fourth.

Now, if you read yesterday's column, you could suss out that I had the Yankees winning Game One, and the Phillies taking the next three by getting great starting pitching from Pedro Martinez, Cole Hamels, and Lee. If I'm right about the latter part, last night's game could be a huge swing. Even setting aside my prediction, the Phillies completely changed their narrative by beating Sabathia. Now, they get the Yankees' worst starter against them, A.J. Burnett, a right-hander who relies on his fastball and who is prone to falling behind in counts. They'll be starting Pedro Martinez, who has shown since his return in July that he can keep any lineup off balance for seven innings. The error bars on a prediction for either of these guys are wide, but the Phillies came in as the underdog, so being up 1-0 with a high-variance game in front of them for the chance to be up 2-0 with Hamels pitching at home… that's not just their path to a win; that's their path to a win in a much shorter series than anyone anticipated.

Yes, the World Series shifted last night, and while no one is writing off the Yankees, or even the possibility of a long week, the Phillies' win changed the dynamics of the Series. The parallels to 2008, in fact, are many: backed by a Chase Utley homer, Cole Hamels shut down the Rays over seven innings a year ago to put the Phillies, again playing on the road, up 1-0 over an AL opponent that was a distinct favorite. The 2009 Yankees may be better than the 2008 Rays, but if they are it's not by much, and these Phillies are also a little better.

--

  • The last time Chase Utley was in Yankee Stadium, he became famous for a mic'd F-bomb after being booed at the 2008 All-Star Game. Now, he's famous for hitting two homers in a World Series win. The latter is better. I was very happy to see Utley take a star turn like that; despite being one of the 10 best players in baseball, Utley is fairly anonymous, in part because he keeps supporting the MVP Awards of the teammates that flank him in the infield. Ryan Howard got his in part for driving in Utley, and Rollins his for scoring on Utley's hits. Thanks to superior defense and offense, Utley is a better player than both, and was even in those MVP campaigns, but has never sniffed the hardware.

  • Utley's homers were the first ones given up by the Yankees in this postseason, a stat that is probably the biggest reason the team was 7-2 going into last night. The catch is the opposition: they faced the Twins without Justin Morneau and the Angels, teams with below-average home-run power. The Yankees prevent the home run by getting strikeouts and ground balls, but really, the Phillies are the first team with real power they've seen this month.

  • Having now watched the play on video, I have no idea why the fifth-inning double play became a conference. Jimmy Rollins simply deked Hideki Matsui, getting him to believe there was a force on him at second on a ball that he actually caught in the air, so that Matsui wouldn't head back to first base and instead let himself be doubled off. The ball was clearly caught in the air and immediately called that way, and if anything, Rollins' fake caught Ryan Howard a bit too well, so that Howard both stayed on the bag on the wide throw and didn't know to immediately tag Matsui. It was terrific baseball by Rollins-who while OBP-challenged is a good baseball player-and an unnecessary delay by an umpiring crew that is probably terrified of making a high-profile mistake.

    Speaking of which, I have no idea what the current definitions are of "strike" and "ball." If anyone wants to drop a line, please, rescue me.

  • Charlie Manuel was noncommittal on whether he's bringing back Lee to start Game Four, but the decision to send him out for the ninth inning certainly made it less likely. Manuel's rotation is deep enough that it's not an automatic decision, although I would definitely get Lee three starts. What I don't understand is making the decision more complicated by letting Lee pitch the ninth inning. You are carrying nine relievers. You play one inning, then a game, then have a day off. You have nine relievers. Your team has tacked on four runs over the last two innings to go up 6-0. And you have nine relievers.

    Maybe the extra pitches Lee threw won't be the difference, but there was no reason to run him back out there save for the idea of a stat: a CG or a ShO. You don't manage the World Series that way. The worst thing happened, too: Lee had his worst inning, giving up two hits, throwing 16 pitches, the last 12 from the stretch. Maybe the marginal cost is small, but if you're going to carry nine relievers to play seven games in nine days, you shouldn't be paying any marginal costs at all.

  • The surprising thing about last night was how erratic CC Sabathia was. The end result-two runs in seven innings-was perfectly fine, but Sabathia struggled with location all night, and needed 113 pitches to get through his gig. Unlike Lee, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Sabathia will come back for Game Four, and the increased possibility that the Yankees will be down in the series come Sunday would seem to seal that.

  • Both in the ALCS and last night, I got a lot of e-mails from people suggesting that Mariano Rivera should be used even more aggressively than he already is, such as in the seventh inning of Sunday or down 2-0 last night. Look, I have advocated that we shift a greater burden to good relief pitchers than they currently have, but at some point, you have to be realistic. You're not going to start using Rivera as if he is Dan Quisenberry and we're all hanging out in Lee jeans and Adidas with fat laces. Joe Girardi has been as aggressive with Rivera as is reasonable, and asking him to go beyond that is too much.

    The real problem Girardi has is that he's not used Philip Hughes properly in this offseason, turning him almost into a specialist, a matchup guy, when what he was during the regular season was a three- to six-out machine. The difference between Hughes and Rivera as relievers, in fact, favors Hughes. The lack of work and the limited way in which he's been used seems to have hampered Hughes' command, and it was Hughes' walks that sent the game spiraling out of control last night. You don't fix that by going crazy with Rivera; you fix that by letting Hughes throw 30 pitches and get five outs. (Note: last night was not the time to do this, with Utley and Howard coming up third and fourth, and in fact, starting the inning with him was questionable. Use Marte to start the inning.)

  • The seventh-inning stretch was out of control. I appreciate the sentiment, but baseball does not have or need a halftime. I half-expected to see the USC song girls. Maybe tonight.

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

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