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November 5, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Anatomy of a Championship

by Jay Jaffe

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Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter may be the Yankees for whom the spotlight shines the brightest, but it was Hideki Matsui who did the dirty work on Wednesday night. Tying a single-game World Series record with six RBI, Matsui collected big hits in his first three at-bats to help the Yankees pounce on Pedro Martinez and the Phillies early, building up a 7-1 lead by the end of the fifth inning. As the Yankees did two nights earlier when they found themselves in an early hole, the Phillies made a game of it by summoning a brief hint of their offensive firepower, but it was too little, too late. For the first time since 2000, the Yankees are the World Champions.

Matsui had punched a decisive solo homer off of Martinez in Game Two, and homered again in his first turn at bat, this time following a Rodriguez walk which led off the inning (oh, those bases on balls) to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. An inning later, with two outs, the bases loaded, and Martinez's night going down in flames, Matsui stroked a two-run single to widen the lead to 4-1. In the fifth inning, with one out, two on, and another Yankee run having crossed the plate, he greeted J.A. Happ with a two-run double to right-center to expand the lead to 7-1. I believe he also demonstrated his heretofore unknown prowess as a tenor by singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, but I could be wrong, as by that point I was busy counting the remaining outs on my fingers.

For his performance, Matsui was named the World Series MVP, becoming the first designated hitter to ever win the award. Though he made just three starts and 14 plate appearances in the series, his .615/.643/1.385 showing (8-for-13 with a double and three home runs) ranked as the Yankees' most potent offensive force. Their lineup had its share of complementary performances, including Derek Jeter (.407/.429/.519), Johnny Damon (.364/.440/.455 and the series' most memorable play, his mad dash to third base in Game Four) and of course the ghost-chasing Rodriguez (.250/.423/.550 and six RBI, one plating the Game Four-winning run), but it was Matsui who not only led the team with eight RBI but was the only Bronx Bomber to hit more than one bomb, or to collect more than one game-winning hit. His showing was somewhat bittersweet, as it came in what well may have been his final appearance in pinstripes given his pending free agency and the Yankees' need to clear the DH spot for the aging stars above his pay grade. It left absolutely no doubt that the man can be a viable component on a championship team, so wherever he winds up next, Godspeed, Godzilla.

Martinez had baffled the Yankees for six innings in Game Two before faltering as he grew fatigued, but he couldn't summon the same kind of magic this time around. As Joe Sheehan noted prior to the game, he had a tougher task ahead of him given the return of switch-hitters Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher to the lineup, running the total of lefties he would face to seven; Martinez struck out just 11 percent of the lefty hitters he faced in 2009, compared to 30 percent of the righties.

Though Martinez's initial velocity was unimpressive-he didn't crack 85 mph until the second inning-his overall average was essentially the same as in his previous start according to Brooks Baseball. Still, he simply couldn't fool hitters with either his fastball or his changeup the second time around:


Fastball
Game  Tot  Ball  SS  SL   F   I
Two    39   14   1   10  11   3
Six    24   10   2    0   7   5
Changeup
Game  Tot  Ball  SS  SL   F   I
Two    44   14   7   10   8   5
Six    35   16   2    7   8   2

On non-in-play fastballs (including cutters), he got just nine strikes out of 24 (38 percent), compared to 22 out of 36 (61 percent) in Game Two. His strike percentage dropped on non-in-play changeups as well, from 64 percent (25 out of 39) to 52 percent (17 out of 33). Furthermore, where the Yankees went 0-for-3 when putting his fastball in play in Game Two, they were 3-for-5 in Game Six, including Matsui's two hits.

The second one, arguably, shouldn't have happened. After consecutive homers across the two games, Matsui had shown that he could solve Martinez. With two outs in the third inning, the bases loaded and the 38-year-old's pitch count already at 56, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had the opportunity to bring in Happ. The matter wasn't entirely platoon-based; the lefty-swinging Matsui actually showed a considerable reverse platoon split this year (.282/.358/.618 vs LHP, .271/.370/.465 vs. RHP) and has just a 41-point OPS difference in favor of righties over the course of his career. That Matsui rapped Happ for a double in his next turn isn't entirely the point either. By that juncture it was simply clear that Martinez's smoke and mirrors weren't working to the same extent as they had in his previous outing, and it was time for a change.

Meanwhile, Martinez's opposite number, Andy Pettitte, did what Andy Pettitte so often does: grind it out with something less than his best stuff. Pitching on three days' rest as CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett had in Games Four and Five, he generated just two swinging strikes against the Phillies, compared to 10 in his Game Three start. Nonetheless, he held them to one run through the first five innings despite his strike zone being visibly squeezed by home-plate umpire Joe West, squeezed to the point where he visibly confronted the ump-never known for either skills as an arbiter or a people person-after his two-walk fourth inning. He faltered in the sixth, issuing a one-out walk to Chase Utley, his fifth walk of the night, and then leaving a slider in Ryan Howard's happy zone. The big slugger, who'd gone just 3-for-21 with one RBI (back in Game One) in the series, connected for a two-run homer to left field. When Raul Ibaņez doubled two batters later, Pettitte's night was over.

In the books, it didn't count as a quality start, but Pettitte's effort was certainly enough to earn a standing ovation from the 50-some thousand Yankee fans in the Bronx. It marked the third time this October that he wound up earning the win in a series-clinching game (matching Derek Lowe's 2004 run), the sixth time in his career that he'd done so, and the second time he'd done so in a World Series (1998 being the other occasion). Though he's obviously benefited from the coincidence of his career and the three-round playoff format, he leads all pitchers in postseason starts (40), innings (249), and wins (18), with a 3.90 ERA that's a ringer for his career mark. I'm not in the camp that says he's done enough to reach the Hall of Fame once those credentials are placed alongside the rest of what he's accomplished in his 15-year career-he's a Clydesdale, not a thoroughbred-but the man's earned five rings by coming up big in big games, and Wednesday night was no different.

Once Pettitte departed, Joba Chamberlain, Damaso Marte, and Mariano Rivera closed out the Series by working around a few minor mistakes which put runners in scoring position in each of the next three innings. Marte came up particularly big, striking out Utley on three pitches with men on first and second to end the seventh, and whiffing Ryan Howard on three pitches to open the eighth. For the series, Marte set down all eight hitters he faced-Utley twice, Howard four times, and Jayson Werth and Ibaņez once apiece-striking out five. You can't ask for much more from a lefty specialist.

At the outset of the series, I predicted that the Phillies' struggles against the Yankees' left-handers would be their doom in the Series. I wasn't exactly right-I did better with picking the Yankees in six, and on a Toledo radio hit Wednesday afternoon I suggested Matsui versus Pedro was the key matchup for Game Six-but their performance had a similar shape to the lopsided .194/.322/.444 they mustered versus southpaws in the first three rounds:


Split            PA  HR   BB   SO    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
Yankees vs L    101   2    7   22   .217/.277/.359
Yankees vs R    124   4   11   34   .274/.363/.434
Phillies vs L   122   8   14   28   .219/.303/.524
Phillies vs R   103   3   12   22   .236/.330/.393

Here's how the big three lefties at the heart of their lineup fared against the southpaws:


Player      AB   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO
Utley       15   5   1   0   4   4    2   5
Howard      18   4   2   0   1   5    0   8
Ibanez      13   2   1   0   1   3    1   6
Total       46  11   4   0   6  12    3  19

That's a .239/.286/.717 line from that trio, and while it's offset somewhat by the homers, all of them save for Howard's were solo shots. Ultimately, the failures of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to get on base often enough in front of that trio (.309 OBP overall, and just six runs scored) were the Philadelphia offense's real doom.

The clearest separator of the two teams, ultimately, was Rivera. Consider how closely matched the overall performances of the two rotations were, regardless of the number of days' rest or the handedness, and the bullpens, minus the Sandman:


Split                IP    H  ER  BB  SO    ERA
Phillies Starters   36.1  32  21  11  36   5.20
Yankees Starters    34.1  28  19  20  33   4.98
Phillies Relievers  15.2  17  10   7  20   5.74
Yankees Relievers*  13.1  13   8   4  14   5.40
Rivera               5.1  3    0   2   3   0.00
*: Except Rivera

Mariano Rivera now has a 0.74 ERA across 133 1/3 postseason innings with a 107/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two home runs allowed. He is the greatest closer of all time, and arguably the greatest postseason performer as well. The closers of each of the other seven teams which reached the 2009 postseason faltered at least once when the money was on the table, and those mistakes ultimately proved fatal. Rivera, as in three other World Series, was the last man standing. Along with Pettitte, Jeter and Posada-the "Core Four"-he's now one of four Yankees to have earned seven pennants and five World Series rings dating back to 1996.

Though Yankees manager Joe Girardi made a few mistakes while struggling to establish a pecking order among his right-handed relievers, Rivera and Marte made him look smart when it came to bullpen management, or at least smarter than Manuel, particularly in Game Six. He went a bridge too far with Martinez in both outings, failed to maximize his usage of Happ, and called upon the eminently hittable Chad Durbin once down 4-1 in the fifth, when he could have gone to Joe Blanton; Durbin retired just one of four hitters, and that was on a sacrifice bunt. As with so many other big names on the Phillies' squad-just about everybody except Utley, who came close to becoming just the second player to win World Series MVP honors in a losing cause-Manuel did not have a good enough Series to win.

Which doesn't lessen what the Phillies have accomplished over the last two years. They were the first team to win back-to-back pennants since the 2000-2001 Yankees, and the first NL team to do so since the 1975-1976 Reds. As a follower of both the Dodgers and the Yankees this fall, I was utterly exhausted by watching opposing pitchers attempt to work through Philly's middle of the lineup; it's easier to run across I-95 four times a night. With the core of their team returning next year, I suspect we haven't heard the last of this bunch. Congratulations to their players, to their organization, and to their fans.

Ultimately, though, it's the Yankees who claimed their 27th World Championship in what turned out to be a very good series, the first one to last at least six games since 2003, and one which, judging by the TV ratings, captured the attention of the viewing public in a manner the last several had failed to. You can argue about whether or not their payroll disparity is good for baseball, but money guarantees nothing; the Yanks spent around two billion dollars on talent since their last championship to no avail, and the record they broke for the highest payroll of any World Series winner was not their own but that of the 2007 Red Sox. The $400 million-and-change spending binge which brought the Yankees Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira this past winter certainly played a factor in them reaching this point, but the players still had to deliver when the lights were the brightest. They did, and we got our money's worth. Congratulations to the Yankees' players, their organization, and their fans.

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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