The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, October 27, 2001

 

The Buck Showalter Alumni Classic

I suppose I ought to tear myself away from reading my brand-new copy of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract for long enough to jot down some thoughts about the World Series before it actually starts, especially given that the team I spend so much time following (and writing about) is one of the participants. But not before I pause to recommend that any baseball fan who spends significant time thinking about the game should avail themselves of a copy of this 1000-page masterwork. As somebody whose own view of baseball was shaped by James' work in the eighties, and who still gets great mileage from that work (the 1985 version of the Historical Abstract is still close at hand and often referred to in my household), I am excited to see the developments in his analytic approach. I look forward to exploring the book in detail in the very near future and sharing my thoughts on it. I think it promises to revolutionize how we view certain aspects of the game and answer some of its Really Big Questions. But I'll get to that another time...

Now then, onto the World Series, or the Buck Showalter Alumni Classic (Showalter is the immediate predecessor of both managers, having been fired by the Yanks before Joe Torre took over the team in the winter of 1995, and by the Diamondbacks after last year in favor of Bob Brenly). The past three days have been an opportunity for me to catch my breath after two solid weeks of exhilirating baseball. I have long held the first weekend of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to be the most thrilling concentration of sporting action in all of this great land. This year's baseball postseason, up to this point, has been as heart-stopping as several of those weekends played consecutively, especially if you are a Yankees fan, which I am. Their sustained comeback against the Oakland A's was remarkable, and their upset of the mighty Mariner juggernaut was even more so, even to somebody who, like me, still had every confidence that the Yankees could win.

I don't mean to be smug here. And I don't want anybody reading this who's NOT a Yankees fan to get the idea that we Yankees fans take this for granted. Every year of this dyansty has brought new challenges, and each of their wins has felt like a completely different task from the one before it. The 1998 team had the pressure of validating their 114-win season as a motivator (see Mariners, Recently Departed). The 1999 team, more of a human-interest drama, had to overcome several brushes with mortality--Joe Torre's prostate cancer, Darryl Strawberry's colon cancer, the deaths of three players' fathers, including Paul O'Neill's on the day of the final World Series game--along with the usual pressure to repeat as champions. The 2000 team flopped historically down the stretch, nearly got waxed by the upstart A's, then managed to Turn It On and peak at exactly the right time. This year's run, in the aftermath of September 11, has taken on a symbolic significance to the city of New York that is unlike any other run I've ever witnessed in sports. I've been exhausted by it, at times, but I'm a damn long way from being tired of it.

For all of the Yankees surprising success in the first two rounds of the playoffs, it's very clear to me that facing the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series is a completely different type of challenge from those they've conquered. That's primarily due to the presence of two of the best and most dominating pitchers in baseball, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. While both the A's and the Mariners threw some very good pitchers at the Yanks, none of them are as overpowering as the Snakes' duo, and none of them are as experienced, either. Both Schilling and Johnson have long histories of pitching in big games to call upon, a significant advantage over the Tim Hudsons and Freddie Garcias at this time of year. Schilling carried the 1993 Phillies on his back through a very competitive World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Johnson, who beat the Yanks twice (once out of the bullpen) in the 1995 AL Divisional Series, has had some hard luck in his postseason career, but he's unlikely to wilt beneath the harsh glare of the World Series spotlight.

For a franchise which has been in existence only four seasons, the Diamondbacks have a team which can go toe-to-toe in the Grizzled Veteran sweepstakes; statistically speaking, they're the oldest team in the bigs, with an average age of 31.9 for hitters and 30.9 for pitchers (the Yanks are 30.9 and 30.8, slightly behind both the Snakes and the Mariners' 31.3 and 30.8). Matt Williams, Steve Finley, and NLCS MVP Craig Counsell have all played in the World Series, as have pitchers Schilling and Brian Anderson (the surprise Game 3 starter despite his 4-9, 5.20 ERA season)--not a ton of players who've been there before, but enough of a steadying influence on those who haven't.

Arizona's a very good team all around. Their offense was the third best in the league, scoring 5.05 runs per game, albeit in a hitters' park. Luis Gonzales is the big bopper, with 57 home runs (adherents to the Curse of the Balboni theory, which holds that no team has won the World Series with a player who more than 36 home runs since Balboni's KC Royals in 1985, please take note). Reggie Sanders has good power, and the team has nine players who reached double digits in home runs. The D-Backs get on base--their .341 OBP was 14 points higher than the league average, thanks particularly to Gonzales (.429), but also first baseman Mark Grace (.386) and second baseman Counsell (.359). They have a very strong bench, which will give then an advantage when they get to add a designated hitter (Erubiel Durazo, who should be a regular and is such a darling of statheads that "Free Erubiel Durazo" has become a rallying cry, will likely see most of the ABs here) or have to pinch-hit--Greg Colbrunn is one of the best in that department. Add Danny Bautista, Jay Bell, and David Delucci to the mix, and you've got plenty of options for manager Bob Brenly in the late innings.

Their pitching, on the strength of their two aces, was second in the league in ERA, and led the league in fewest baserunners per nine innings. But their starters beyond those two are question marks. Anderson and Miguel Battista are scheduled to get three starts between them--a controversial move, given that Brenly could have ordered his rotation such that one of his horses could pitch a Game 7 and the two could combine to start five of the seven games. Their bullpen features some real warhorses--Mike Morgan, Bobby Witt, and Greg Swindell average 19 years apiece in the bigs, with a combined record of 405-462 (I didn't say they were good, necessarily)--the Kingsford Trio, as my pal Nick refers to them. Closer Byung-Hyun Kim is solid, but he's no Mariano Rivera, and here the Yanks appear to have a big edge.

Arizona's defense made the fewest errors of any team in the league, and their D, from what I've seen in the postseason, has been stellar. Counsell, shortstop Tony Womack, and third baseman Matt Willaims have all made some great plays lately. Steve Finley is a four-time Gold Glove winner in centerfield. I don't think the D-backs will self-destruct the way the A's, especially, did in the critical moments of a series when the Yanks applied the pressure.

Whether we're talking about Arizona or the Yankees, it all comes back to Good Pitching beating Good Hitting. Both teams have the benefit of aligning their rotations for the series. The Yanks have a foursome as battle-tested as anybody, with their top starter, Mike Mussina, opposing Schilling in Game 1 on Saturday, and Andy Pettitte, MVP of the ALCS, countering Randy Johnson on Sunday. Roger Clemens, clearly stronger in the ALCS than the previous series, will have had over a week between starts to recharge his ailing body sufficiently. Given that Schilling and Johnson are pitching twice for the Snakes, the Yanks will have to beat one of them at least once in order to take the series. I think they can do that, because I think their primary asset of being able to outlast even the best pitchers will come into play. I also think that the thoroughness of Yankee scouting will have found some small chinks in those pitchers' armor. Look for the revitalized Chuck Knoblauch to set the tone at the top of the order with long at-bats. Look for Randy Velarde, with a .452 career average against the Big Unit, to start at either third base or first base in Game 2. And even though Paul O'Neill is slated to be on the bench in both games, don't think that Torre doesn't remember his 10-pitch at bat against Armando Benitez in Game 1 of last year's Series. He'll likely get a key late-inning at bat somewhere.

These Yanks have beaten the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, and Al Leiter in winning four of the last five World Series. My money says they can get through to the Snakes' best enough to win this one. It won't be easy, by any stretch, but I'm taking the Yanks in six.

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