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November 1, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Trouble With Southpaws

by Jay Jaffe

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On Saturday night, Andy Pettitte and company did what no pitchers have been able to do since October 3, 2007: keep Chase Utley off base during a postseason game. For 27 consecutive games spread out across three Octobers, Utley had either collected a hit or drawn a walk, setting the table for fellow slugger Ryan Howard if he wasn't socking one out of the park himself. But in Game Three of the World Series, Pettitte and reliever Joba Chamberlain neutralized him, holding him to a 0-for-4 showing with two strikeouts.

Coming into the game, the knock on Pettitte was supposed to be that despite his left-handedness, he actually showed a reverse platoon split against lefty batters because of his unwillingness to pitch inside. However, he came in just often enough to keep the lefty trio of Utley, Howard, and Raul Ibaņez-who bopped 110 of the Phillies' league-leading 224 homers this year-guessing, and by the time he departed after six innings, that trio had gone 0-for-8 with five strikeouts. Including the work of Chamberlain and Damaso Marte, they wound up 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts. The sole lefty batter to collect a hit for the Phillies was pitcher Cole Hamels, whose second-inning sacrifice bunt attempt squibbed into the no-man's-land between Pettitte and catcher Jorge Posada as they converged on the left side of the mound, which loaded the bases, enabling the Phillies to tack on two runs and stake out a 3-0 lead against the Yankees' struggling southpaw.

Back up for a moment and check out Pettitte's so-called reverse split:


         ----------vs. LHB-----------     -----------vs. RHB----------
Split    AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K %   K/BB     AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K %   K/BB
2009    .282/.321/.409   23.3   4.58    .249/.331/.386   15.7   1.48  
Career  .271/.318/.393   19.2   3.36    .270/.329/.400   16.7   2.13

Aside from the 33-point difference in batting average, the 2009 numbers aren't so convincing; because of a stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties, he actually allowed a slightly lower OBP against them, and a slightly lower ISO as well. For his career, the numbers are essentially even save for fewer walks against lefties; basically, he just throws them more strikes and lets the chips fall where they may.

He certainly did so last night. His interminable 31-pitch second-inning aside, Pettitte yielded just two hits and one run-Werth's monster sixth-inning shot-in his five other frames, using just 73 pitches, and got first-pitch strikes on 12 of 19 hitters. He also, of course, helped his own cause by blooping an RBI single up the middle during Cole Hamels' fifth-inning meltdown. The Yankees' bullpen, which has been shaky of late outside of Mariano Rivera, provided scoreless innings from Chamberlain and Marte, though manager Joe Girardi's ninth-inning handling of Phil Hughes raised some eyebrows after he was given just two batters against whom he could protect a four-run lead.

The big story on the night, of course, was the awakening of the bats of Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher. A-Rod's instant replay-aided two-run homer in the fourth inning pulled the Yankees back into the game and marked the slugger's first hit of the series; he reached base four out of five times on the night thanks to a walk and two HBPs. Swisher, who sat out Thursday night's game in the throes of an 11-for-77 slump dating back to mid-September, returned to the lineup and sparked the Yankees' fifth-inning rally with a leadoff double down the left field line, then added a solo shot off J.A. Happ an inning later. The Yankee offense has gotten by thus far this postseason with only sporadic help beyond Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Hideki Matsui, who added a pinch-homer in the eighth. With Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, and Johnny Damon all scuffling at times, his return to productivity is a welcome sign.

Back to the Phillies. As in the first two rounds of the postseason, they're again having trouble hitting left-handers, with the occasional big blow disguising their inconsistency. In Game One, they were 5-for-28 against CC Sabathia, Damaso Marte, and Phil Coke, while last night they were 5-for-25 against Pettitte and Marte. Six of those 10 hits have been for extra bases, but only one-a ninth-inning double off Phil Coke in Game One-has come with runners on base, and their overall line against lefties in the series (.189/.268/.453) is similarly shaped to that of the first two rounds (.194/.322/.444). Take away Jayson Werth's production and for the entire postseason, the rest of the lineup is hitting a fairly tame .174/.304/.383 against southpaws. With Sabathia and Pettitte lined up to pitch as many as three of the remaining four games (if the series stretches that far), this remains a huge problem for the Phillies.

Not that it's the only one. The lineup's first four hitters-Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley, and Howard-are a combined 8-for-45 thus far against the Yankees. Howard, who whiffed six times in a row in Games Two and Three, already has nine strikeouts, three shy of tying Willie Wilson's 1980 World Series record. He hasn't walked in the World Series yet, either. Rollins, whose pre-series prediction (Phillies in five) has already been rendered impossible, is hitting an anemic .235/.316/.294 for the entire postseason. Further down the lineup, Ibanez has struggled this fall as well (.233/.313/.395), to say nothing of Pedro Feliz (.143/.182/.310).

The Phillies' other big problem right now is the state of their rotation. It's been pointed out several times that Hamels' strikeout, walk and homer rates in 2009 were virtually identical to those in 2008, with his rising ERA a matter of shifting fortunes on batting average on balls in play. Nonetheless, between his last three regular season starts and his four postseason ones, he's put up a 7.32 ERA while yielding nine homers in 35.2 innings, failing to notch a single quality start. For the first three innings last night, he dominated the Yankees in a manner befitting the 2008 World Series MVP, but he fell apart like a cheap watch in the fourth, retiring just four of the final 11 hitters he faced as he tried to establish his curveball. With the decision to hold Cliff Lee back to pitch Game Five instead of Game Four (a decision that's been flogged twice in this space already), Hamels is in line to pitch a potential Game Seven, but it's impossible to have much confidence in him right now.

It's only slightly easier to muster such confidence for tonight's starter, Joe Blanton. He's a thoroughly capable number four starter who put up a career-best strikeout rate this year (7.5 per nine), but it came at the expense of a career-high homer rate (1.4 per nine) and a career-low groundball rate (42 percent). Some of that is simply the shift in leagues and ballparks, from Oakland's pitcher-friendly Coliseum to the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, but it's nonetheless an unsettling trend. Also unsettling is the fact that the righty yielded a .270/.321/.469 line against righties, compared to .252/.320/.401 against lefties. The Yankees themselves have shown more muscle against righties than lefties this fall (.252/.342/.450, compared to .255/.346/.418). They're poised to create another souvenir or two tonight.

The bottom line is that the Yankees come back with their ace tonight against the Phils' fourth-best starter, one who's got matchup problems against the Bronx Bomber lineup. While the series is by no means over, the two games to one margin and the way the rotations line up going forward makes this their series to lose.

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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