I like food. I enjoy the entire process of eating a good meal, or for that matter, a not-so-good one. I’m not blessed with a particularly sophisticated palate, and I don’t understand food and cooking the way that my good friend Keith Law does, but I can appreciate everything from a late-night greasy spoon to the best meals of my life. Growing up, we didn’t eat at fancy places, so the manner of a multi-course, paced meal was something foreign to me. You may laugh, but the first time I was exposed to the concept of sorbet (“sherbet,” always orange, was as close as we got to it in my upbringing) as an intermezzo for a large meal rather than a dessert was in the second act of “Pretty Woman.”
Last night’s Phillies/Dodgers game, which was effectively over in time for you to catch almost all of the Turnovers/Falcons matchup, tastes better if you think of it as sorbet. This postseason-and let’s include the Twins/Tigers play-in game in this-has been two weeks of intense baseball games with late-inning intrigue, extra-inning drama, lead changes, controversial calls, and more. It’s been flavorful and satisfying, but also a bit heavy, and we’re all a little logy. A crisp, light, bit of raspberry-or a baseball game with little about which to write-cleanses the palate for more courses to come. It was almost refreshing, after five-plus hours of baseball stretching well past midnight in the east Saturday night, to come across a game in which one team dominated from the very first pitch.
Cliff Lee shut down a team that was third in the NL in raw OPS against lefties this season, and first in OPS on the road. He did so by doing all the things he’s done since spring training 2008, pounding the strike zone, not necessarily throwing first-pitch strikes, but rarely allowing the Dodgers to get into hitters’ counts, either. He struck out more than a third of the batters he faced and gave up very little hard contact. It helps to be up 4-0 when you take the mound in the second, but no matter the score, Cliff Lee has proven to be hard to beat in these playoffs. I had said that Clayton Kershaw could be this year’s Cole Hamels, the breakout star of the postseason, but it’s looking more and more like that title isn’t leaving the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.
Hiroki Kuroda is a good enough pitcher than the decision to use him, if healthy, isn’t necessarily a questionable one. I remain unclear why the Dodgers would slot Kuroda and Vicente Padilla ahead of Randy Wolf against a Phillies team that is very left-handed. The team doesn’t fall apart against southpaws, but if you can put the odds even a little bit in your favor, it seems worth doing. For Wolf to go from the guy Joe Torre wanted starting Game One of the NLDS to the guy potentially only getting one start in the NLCS seems like the wrong lesson to take from four shaky innings against the Cardinals. No matter how Wolf pitches tonight, he should have gotten into this series sooner than today’s fourth game.
It’s not the ninth spot in yesterday’s Dodger lineup that grates. No, Joe Torre’s decision to have Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp in the fourth and fifth slots was the peculiar one. He moved
Rogers HornsbyRonnie Belliard to the second slot, with Andre Ethier batting third. Yes, Belliard hits lefties well, and yes, you’d like to break up the righties with Ethier, but a lineup in which your two monster bats bat fourth and fifth against the other team’s ace is willfully suboptimal. Matt Kemp has run up a big platoon split his entire career, and was at .362/.429/.626 against lefties in 2009. That guy cannot bat fifth so that Ethier (.252/.317/.382 career and .194/.283/.345 in 2009 against lefties) can bat two spots higher. Elevating Belliard wasn’t a bad idea, but forcing down Ramirez and Kemp canceled any positive effects of the move. Tactically, you’re better off loading up with right-handed batters in the first through fifth spots, even if that means Charlie Manuel‘s job is easier in the late innings; if Chan Ho Park is facing a bunch of righties, it means that you got Lee out of the game, which has to be the primary objective when facing a pitcher of his caliber. If lineup spots weren’t so larded with meaning, you could lead off Belliard and bat Furcal second, breaking up the righties, but then the world would stop spinning because an Approved Leadoff Hitter was batting second behind a slow guy.
I’m reasonably sure that batting Ethier third instead of sixth didn’t cost the Dodgers 12 runs last night, but it sure was noticeable that neither Ramirez nor Kemp, both of whom have spent their careers hammering southpaws, didn’t bat in the first inning. Torre is going to face Hamels once more for sure, and perhaps see Lee again, and he’s got to fix his lineup to make sure that he’s not giving Ethier at-bats against those guys at the cost of ABs for his best lefty-mashers.
Speaking of left-handed batters with large platoon splits, Ryan Howard‘s triple was one of the most entertaining moments last night, and it gave him a cycle for the series. He’s now at .385/.452/.731 in the 2009 postseason. That’s not the most interesting thing about his performance, though. In 30 real plate appearances, Howard has just five strikeouts. In his postseason career, that gives him 28 strikeouts in 102 real plate appearances (real excludes intentional walks), about 27.5 percent. That rate is lower than his regular-season rate in the three years in which he’s reached the playoffs (29.3 percent). It’s a small difference, but it’s one in the opposite direction that you would expect; the subset of pitchers you face in the postseason has a higher strikeout rate than the overall pool does, so hitters should strike out more. (I suspect that a hitter like Howard faces an even tougher pool than that in the playoffs, if you account for handedness.) Howard, one of the highest strikeout-rate batters in baseball, actually strikes out a little less, and the trend is positive-he’s had a lower strikeout rate in each successive postseason.
I don’t know if it means anything. I suspect the sample sizes are too small too indicate anything meaningful, and the difference is pretty tiny-a couple of strikeouts would even up the rates. But given Howard’s impact on this year’s Phillies run, how great a run he’s on, I think it’s worth mentioning.
Against a background of dainty spoons clinking against the bottom of pretty glass dishes, I’ll close this out and wait for two very tasty courses to come.