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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


A Little Good News

When one door closes, another opens, goes the old saying. Today's news not only finds Joe Girardi accepting the Yankees' offer to manage, but the man he replaced and the man he beat out headed to the dugout of the Dodgers. Reports out of LA have the Dodgers firing Grady Little and hiring Joe Torre, with Don Mattingly -- whose son Preston was the team's supplemental first-round pick in 2006 -- coming along for the ride as well as bench coach. Prior to Girardi being offered the Yankees job, rumors about him either joining Little's staff or replacing the current skipper had surfaced, hinting that the Dodgers were up to the kind of backroom intrigue that saw GM Paul DePodesta ousted in late 2005.

My head is spinning on this one, but I'd be elated to see Torre land on his feet in LA. Little did a very good job with the Dodgers in 2006, but it all fell apart for him last year. On July 16, they were first in the NL West, a season-high 13 games above .500 at 53-40. They went 29-40 the rest of the way, including a 1-10 skid in the second half of September that featured Plaschke-fueled squabbling between the veterans and youngsters (notably Jeff Kent and Matt Kemp, with Luis Gonzalez and James Loney chiming in as well) and some frighteningly ignorant pitcher handling by Little. The manager called setup man Jonathan Broxton's number 10 times between September 6 and 19. Broxton, who'd been brilliant all year, put up an 11.05 ERA in that span, allowing five of his six homers and a .794 SLG. In one of the more damning quotes by any manager last year, Little dismissed both that stretch and Broxton's own complaints of arm soreness: "It's not a fatigue situation. It's a situation where they're doing more adjusting than he is.... He's just snake-bit right now and he's paying for mistakes with the long ball." Yikes.

Still, the open question is how well Torre will handle the youth movement that caused Little to stumble. The latter said the right things at times, but he found the club's two top hitters, Kemp and Loney, just 686 plate appearances in 2007, and he futzed with the third base situation all year long with no great resolution. While Torre's New York tenure was hardly flawless, his efforts the past few years to integrate Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera at the expense of higher-paid veterans while quelling clubhouse dissent, and adhering to the organizational mandates regarding Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain may be the key here. If, that is, the Dodger organization isn't in the total disarray it appears to be and simply looking for the quick PR fix that a man of Torre's stature can provide.

As I sat down last night to digest the day's Yankee doodle doings, I was greeted by a brilliant Roger Angell piece on Torre in this week's New Yorker:
What has set apart the Torre era is not just winning but a sense of attachment and identification that he effortlessly inspired among the fans and the players and the millions of sports bystanders. Already known by the fans as a strong-swinging Brooklyn-born catcher (and, later, a third baseman) with an eighteen-year career with the Braves, the Cardinals, and the Mets, and then for his long tenure as a semi-distinguished manager of the same three teams, he became a sudden celebrity, a Page Six sweetheart, in his first season with the Yankees, when his brother Frank Torre, another former major leaguer, underwent successful heart-replacement surgery the day before the last game of the World Series. The fourth game, in which the Yankees, trailing the Braves by 2–1 in the Series and 6–0 on the scoreboard, came back to win in extra innings, beginning their rush to the championship, changed New York to a Yankee town overnight. Torre’s composure and steadiness in hard times became as familiar as his odd, tilting trudge from the dugout to the mound to call in a fresh pitcher. A habitual modesty interwoven with an awareness of the difficult daily grind powerfully secured him to his players. Whenever someone brought up the batting title and National League M.V.P. award he had captured in 1971 with a .363 average, he threw in a reminder about his .289 mark the following year. Mid-July often brought on a retelling of a game of his as a Mets third baseman in 1975, when he batted into four double plays and also committed an error. This ease with himself and his profession set the tone in his pre-game and post-game press conferences, delivered every day to thirty or forty writers, plus TV and radio and Japan.

...The shock of Torre’s departure will not soon go away, but of course we should have known how it would play out. Only the owners, down in Tampa, seemed startled (at times, anyway) by his decision, but if they knew anything about him how could they not have known what would follow? Is it possible that they have no sense of the calamity to the franchise and to the fans and to baseball itself that the departure of Joe Torre from New York represents? He, at last, supplied the touch of class, the Augustan presence, that the Yankees had so insistently proclaimed for themselves and have now thrown away. For Torre, it was still about the players.
If all this does indeed unfold as reported, it won't be quite an equal trade for this bicoastal fan with Torre managing the Dodgers instead of the Yankees, since he won't be on YES to do what he does best, deal with the media crush. But after missing him more than I ever thought I would in the three weeks since he last managed, I'm damn glad to have Torre back in my life.

• • •

Speaking of the New Yorker, now's a good time to go back and read Ben McGrath's fine profile of Manny Ramirez which I discussed here. On the eve of the World Series, I joked that Ramirez would hit a seven-run homer in Coors Field, upon which he would bronze himself at home plate. Will Leitch, the Deadspin domo who did a great job blogging the postseason for the New York Times (read his eloquent description of the Yankees' last stand here), trumped my vision with this:
When they say "Manny Being Manny," what they mean is "Manny is An Alien Life Form Unfamiliar With the Mores and Vagaries of Earth." Someday he's going hit a game-winning grand slam and, when he flips his helmet off to run the bases, it will be revealed that he has antennae, and these antennae are draped in a feather boa.
With his flamboyant home run celebrations and his helmet flipping, Ramirez frustrates the hell out of a lot of purists, but once you read McGrath's piece, you'll gain a bit more insight into his world.

• • •

Alos, I've got a pair of aging Baseball Prospectus Unfiltered posts of mine to report, one on Curt Schilling's Hall of Fame chances, and the other an accompaniment to a video appearance I made at the Bleacher Bloggers website. The latter focuses on the most dubious achievements of teams in 2007, sort of a Hit List of ignominy. I'm about three minutes in on the video, if you want to skip the soccer-styled comedy. Enjoy!

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Monday, October 29, 2007


Swept Away

The Boston Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies right out of the World Series on Sunday night, but before the game was even over, news from Yankeeland swept that off the front page. Late in Fox's broadcast, Ken Rosenthal reported that agent Scott Boras had informed the Yankees of Alex Rodriguez's decision to opt out of his contract, foregoing the remaining three years and $81 million of his landmark 10-year, $252 million deal in order to test the open market. No sooner had the sun risen on that news than a leak from the Yankees revealed that they've offered their vacant managerial job to Joe Girardi, bypassing favorite son Don Mattingly as well as first base coach Tony Peña.

Where to begin with all of this?

Start with the Rodriguez situation. The announcement was an utterly tacky play by Boras; frankly, it was horseshit. Nobody, not even the Red Sox, deserved to be upstaged at a moment that should have belonged to them alone. Rodriguez had until 10 days after the end of the World Series to make his decision, so there was little urgency to the matter. With the free-agent filing period yet to begin, no team can begin negotiating with him yet, even if there may be some back-channel deal already outlined. Why show your cards before the betting has begun?

The Yankees didn't even get the chance to negotiate. They had prepared a five-year extension to his current contract, said to be worth around $150 million, but Boras wouldn't let them present the deal to his client before breaking the news. The stated reason for not waiting was the instability of the Yankee organization, from the lack of a manager to the status of free agents Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, but frankly that insults everyone's intelligence, given the imminence of the team's managerial announcement and the strong likelihood that the players in question will stay to play for their former teammate.

Even as a Yankee fan, it's tough to know who to root for here, or who to blame. In some ways, the Yankee organization is getting its just desserts, both for the way it embarrassed Rodriguez during the 2006 stretch drive and for the clumsy way they handled the departure of Torre, offering him a one-year, incentive-laden, take-it-or-leave it deal. In the transition from George Steinbrenner to sons Hank and Hal, the common denominator is the Yankees' public stance of ultimatums and inflexibility. By their way of thinking, the Yankee brand is an infallibly desirable commodity, and anyone who dares question the terms of their offer simply doesn't want to be a Yankee, so screw them. It's as though the Steinbrenner kids are a pastiche of the old man, operating via cues gleaned from watching Oliver Platt's bravura performance in The Bronx Is Burning. The my-way-or-the-highway bullshit doesn't work anymore, kids, and frankly, it hasn't since about 1978.

Not that the Yanks didn't have reasons — not necessarily good ones — for ousting Torre, or for declaring that if A-Rod opted out, they would no longer negotiate. The Texas Rangers, who traded Rodriguez to the Yankees in February 2004, were slated to pay some $21 million of the remaining dough on his contract, but once the contract no longer exists, that debt is gone. Simply to replace that money with Yankee dollars would cost the team closer to $30 million once the luxury tax is factored in. That $21 million trumps any suggestion that there's a double standard between retaining born-and-bred Yankees Posada and Rivera and the itinerant Rodriguez.

As for Rodriguez, opting out is certainly his right; that's the purpose of having the clause in the first place, and coming off a 54-homer, 156 RBI season in which he's likely to garner his third MVP award, he may never have better leverage. Whatever you think of Boras, don't confuse his ruthlessness with stupidity; he's as good at his job as Rodriguez is at his. And whatever you think of Rodriguez's party line that he loved playing in New York, loved the team and the fans, you have to figure he still bears a grudge for being booed and buried in 2006, and that he's been dying to stick it back in their faces. As I wrote back in July, when Rodriguez and Boras rebuffed any attempt to extend the contract before the season ended:
Of course, what A-Rod could have said is that the team and its fans deserve to sweat a bit for the shoddy treatment they afforded him last year; he owes them no discount for the times Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, unnamed front office officials (you think that Post cover happened naturally?) and a certain segment of the fan base (to say nothing of the rabid media) have thrown him under the bus. I'm reminded of the great Simpsons "Trash of the Titans" episode, where Homer's stint as sanitation commissioner ends with the re-election of the man he deposed, Ray Patterson. Upon returning, Patterson tells the crowd, "You know, I'm not much on speeches, but it's so gratifying to leave you wallowing in the mess you've made. You're screwed, thank you, bye."
But the problems for Rodriguez are just beginning. First, no matter whether it's the Angels, Dodgers, Tigers, Giants, Cubs, Red Sox, or some other team who signs him, he will be hard-pressed to match the deal he walked away from -- eight years and around $230 million -- without the Yankees being involved in the bidding. There's simply no other team that can afford him the way the Yankees can, and no one Boras can use to raise the stakes into the stratosphere. The Yankees' opening day payroll according to USA Today was $189 million, and that's not even counting the in-season signing of Roger Clemens. The Red Sox were next at $143 million, followed by the Mets at $115 million, the Angels at $109 million, and the White Sox and Dodgers at $108 million. If any of those teams decided to add Rodriguez, they'd instantly be bumping up their payroll 20 to 30 percent, which appears rather unlikely.

Second, the most sensible suitor to pursue Rodriguez, the Red Sox, seem to be getting along pretty well without him, having won two titles since their failed attempt to acquire him in December 2003. They were upstaged on a special night for the organization and their fans, who could be heard chanting "Don't Want A-Rod!" even as the team dogpiled. Their incumbent third baseman, Mike Lowell, is a pending free agent who's among the team's top run producers, not to mention the MVP of the World Series, and a scenario where the team lets him depart to sign A-Rod, only to see their hero wind up in Yankee pinstripes as his replacement, won't fly very well at Fenway Park.

Third, the opt-out does nothing but harm Rodriguez's public persona. If he was unclutch because of his October failures -- 4 for 50 from his home run in Game Four of the 2004 LCS to his first at-bat in Game Three of this year's Division Series -- now he's leaving because he can't handle the pressure, can't win the big one. If he was a mercenary for leaving a very good Mariners team for a lousy Rangers one, he's an older and none-too-wiser mercenary for leaving a very good and much wealthier Yankees team for whatever's behind door #2. If he lacked leadership skills before, he lacks them even more now having waited for Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte to make their decisions instead of boldly stating his intentions and suggesting they follow suit. If he was a more palatable potential all-time home run leader than Barry Bonds, now he's lugging around a whole new set of Samsonite. No matter what he does, he's the villain here, subject to hatchet jobs from media hacks. Even by kicking the team that most of the baseball world loves to hate squarely in the groin, he simply can't win.

Meanwhile, the news that Girardi is in as Torre's successor isn't exactly unanimously positive. The former Yankee catcher, who played on the 1996, 1998, and 1999 champions, is more of an intense Buck Showalter type than a calm Torre clone. He won Manager of the Year honors in 2006, his sole season at the helm, going 78-84 with a young, cheap team that appeared ticketed for much worse. While his feuds with ownership -- the execrable Jeffrey Loria -- can be excused, his handling of the team's young pitching staff should be enough to make Yankee fans uneasy. The five pitchers under 25 who made up the bulk of his rotation -- Dontrelle Willis, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez -- all suffered either arm injuries or a precipitous decline after his departure:
         --------2006---------    ------2007------
Willis 24 223.3 3.87 112 205.3 5.17 83
Olsen 22 180.7 4.04 107 176.7 5.81 74
Johnson 22 157.0 3.10 139 15.7 7.47 58
Nolasco 23 140.0 4.82 89 21.3 5.48 78
Sanchez 22 114.3 2.83 152 30.0 4.80 90
Johnson, whom Girardi sent back into a game following an 82-minute rain delay on September 12, 2006, suffered a forearm strain and was shut down for the rest of the season. He developed ulnar neuritis during his rehab, and amid his abortive return, blew out his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery, costing him all of 2008. Sanchez required arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in late June, while Nolasco was held back by elbow inflammation. There's no proof that Girardi's handling was responsible for any of these, but a team staking its hopes on a bevy of young pitchers like Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy might have done well to think twice before choosing Girardi.

In making their choice, the Yanks have cost themselves the services of Mattingly, who spent four years on Torre's staff, the last as bench coach, preparing himself for the day he might succeed his mentor. More popular than just about any Yankee this side of Derek Jeter, Donnie Baseball may have represented the most palatable way out of the public relations nightmare the team is experiencing this fall, and his stewardship could have provided more continuity with the Torre days. But he had zero managerial experience, and that was likely the deciding factor, the reason that while George Steinbrenner favored him, Brian Cashman did not.

For all of the well-deserved fallout from this double whammy, it's clear that the Yankees are in a position to remake themselves. Their ownership has new faces, they've got a new manager, and they're shedding a significant chunk of payroll and a cornerstone of their lineup, with perhaps more to follow. They can continue to cut costs, go younger, avoid locking themselves into the bloated contracts which ballooned their payroll over $200 million, and bill themselves as the underdog to the big bad Red Sox, who've won twice during thir interminable seven-year championship drought. After all, Hank Steinbrenner, who showed no patience with Torre's desire for more than a one-year deal and no tolerance for anything less than a championship, apparently feels that such patience and tolerance are necessities for his new skipper.

So the Yankees are leaner and decidedly meaner. It remains to be seen whether they can turn those new traits into assets as they try to build another champion.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Root for the Rox, Bet on the Sox

As I did on Opening Day, I awoke at virtually the crack of dawn this morning and did a handful of drive-time radio hits across the country, previewing the World Series for Fox News Radio. Starting at 7:10 AM, without benefit of coffee or an alarm besides the phone (some idiot who shall remain nameless forgot to tell my wife about my schedule), I hit WREC (Memphis, TN), WJCW (Tri Cities, TN), KFAB (Omaha, NE), WPIN (Blacksburg, VA), WHJJ (Providence, RI), WERC (Birmingham, AL), and KCOL (Fort Collins, CO). No, they're not all New York City, but a couple of those hits are close to the cities of the two Series participants, and it's always fun to spread the Baseball Prospectus gospel and the Futility Infielder name to new and occasionally out-of-the-way places.

Which isn't to say that I'm overwhelmingly bowled over by the prospect of this World Series, as I'm not exactly prone to rooting for either team. I was greatly disappointed that the Red Sox came back from a 3-1 deficit in the League Championship Series to defeat the Indians, but I was hardly surprised. Since the 2004 ALCS, I refuse to believe the Red Sox are dead until I see somebody picking the splinters out of their fingers after hammering a wooden stake into their collective heart. The Indians had their chances to apply the coup de grâce to Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but they failed to deliver, then lost the late-inning battles in a big way. The Tribe's bullpen was charged with 16 runs allowed over their final three games and 11 innings, helping to create the widest average margin of victory in a seven-game series at 6.28 runs. The Sox, in winning despite not starting Josh Beckett in Game Four, undid my prediction for the series because of those bullpen failures, but also because the real C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona -- to say nothing of Travis Hafner -- never showed. Requiescat in pace.

The Sox are overwhelming favorites to win this series as well, and when pressed for a prediction, I've called it in six games on all of my radio hits. But I do believe the Rockies have a shot thanks to the vulnerability of Boston's rotation. Game One starter Josh Beckett remains the modern-day answer to Bob Gibson, but Game Two starter Curt Schilling will be going on four days' rest, something he's done only once since returning from his seven-week stay on the DL; manager Terry Francona has done everything but volunteer to take the ball himself in order to get the Big Schill an extra day of rest. Game Three starter Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn't gone longer than five innings in his three postseason starts after a brutal final six weeks of the regular season. With Tim Wakefield left off the roster due to shoulder trouble, Jon Lester is the potential Game Four starter. As an extreme flyballer, he isn't best suited to Coors Field, where fly balls tend to wind up littering Pike's Peak.

Additionally, the Sox are faced with sitting David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, or Mike Lowell in the games at Colorado due to the loss of the DH. Ortiz can play first base (he had seven games there this year) but may sit against lefty Jeff Francis in Game Five, and if he's in, Youkilis is out unless he plays third, where he saw only 13 games worth of action. Given how top-heavy the Sox lineup has been this year, losing one of those guys is a blow both offensively and defensively (Youkilis > Ortiz, Lowell > Youkilis), though Francona's overdue decision to start Jacoby Ellsbury over Coco Crisp in centerfield has reduced the number of offensive sinkholes by one.

As for the Rockies, they've got vulnerabilities in their rotation as well. Game One starter Jeff Francis, the staff ace, is good but is no Beckett. Rookie Ubaldo Jimenez is prone to walking hitters (3.86 unintentional walks per nine, including the postseason). So mediocre is Game Three starter Josh Fogg that he's never posted an ERA better than the park-adjusted league average; his career ERA+ is 91, nine percent worse than the league. Game Four starter Aaron Cook has been sidelined by an oblique strain since August 10; starting him at the expense of rookie Franklin Morales is a huge gamble, and while one can point to Cook's ability to keep the ball on the ground as a reason to pitch him at Coors, Nate Silver points out, he's not a particularly good matchup for this lineup. Morales lasted only seven innings in his two starts, though he came into the postseason as hot as any Rox pitcher. As another lefty, he too may have forced Ortiz to the bench, which is a chance worth taking.

Beyond that, I don't have a ton to add at this point. Nate did an excellent job previewing the series at BP; it's free. He makes a couple of salient points worth remembering:

• Though the Rox have won 21 out of 22 and become one of the great Cinderella stories of all time, being an especially hot or cold team coming in to the World Series has no predictive value in and of itself.

• The 2007 Sox are the best Secret Sauce team since Division Play began. The Secret Sauce, as created for Baseball Between the Numbers is the combined ranking of each team in the only three categories found to be statistically significant in systematically predicting the outcome of a series: the quality of the team defense as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average, the power-pitching orientation of the staff as measured by Equivalent Strikeouts per nine innings, and the quality of the closer, as measured by WXRL ranking.

One more not-so-predictive tidbit to add, courtesy of USA Today. With the Rockies coming off an eight-day break in the action, it's worth noting that last year's Tigers to the contrary, seven of the last 10 teams to enter the series on five or more days of rest have won. Be that as it may, I'm sticking with my prediction of the Sox in six, but I'll be pulling for the purple gang from Colorado to provide an upset for the ages.

Oh, and I'll add another prediction or two to the pile: Don Mattingly in as Yankee manager as of Friday. Back on that score later this week.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


This Is The End...

When the Yankees were eliminated from the 2007 postseason, my friend Nick was some 8,000 miles away, floating on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. He'd gone off the grid with the Yanks trailing two games to one, with George Steinbrenner's ultimatum still hanging in the air. As the outs dwindled, I pictured Nick lying awake at night envisioning the end of the Joe Torre dynasty, with the Doors' "The End" playing over an unsightly montage: one-hoppers to Derek Jeter's left... a parade of broken down starters and useless middle relievers departing the field dejectedly... lefty sluggers flailing at Rafael Perez's slider... and midges, an endless horde of midges.

Apocalypse Now, Yankee style.

Following a week and a half of tedious delays and breathless speculation, The End arrived on Thursday, when Torre rejected an incentive-based one-year contract offer from the Yankees. Though the base salary of $5 million would have allowed Torre to remain the highest-paid manager in the game, it nonetheless represented a 33 percent pay cut that he could only recoup if the team made it to the World Series, something they haven't done since 2003. It was a cynical, non-negotiable offer, designed to be refused but allowing both sides to save face. After 12 years, 1,173 regular-season wins, 10 division titles, six pennants and four World Championships, Torre wasn't fired, nor was Steinbrenner's managerial bloodlust -- held in check for an unprecedented dozen years -- sated.

Instead, the team, amid a changing of the guard from Boss Steinbrenner to his two sons, decided that their incumbent manager was only so valuable to them, and that what was behind door #2 -- Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi, Luis Sojo, Tony La Russa or the worm-eaten remains of Billy Martin -- might be preferable given the potential changes looming for the team. With Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Abreu, Roger Clemens and (likely) Alex Rodriguez all free agents or in an option year, the 2008 Yankees could look very different from this year's flawed model, and the presence of Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and perhaps Ian Kennedy in the rotation may require a different skill set and mindset to manage.

Which isn't to say that the current slate of candidates has that skill set or mindset. Mattingly, though providing some level of continuity with the currrent team, lacks any managerial experience. Girardi, though experienced at the big-league level, left behind a troubling legacy of damaged young pitchers in Florida. La Russa, though carrying a championship pedigree, likely attempted to drum up interest as a ploy to gain leverage in St. Louis, where he too is a managerial free agent. Sojo, though with experience in the minors and a connection to the heyday of the Torre dynasty, apparently hasn't drawn serious consideration from the Yankee brass. Coaches Tony Pena and Larry Bowa, both of whom served on Torre's staff, have managerial experience but hardly the kinds of track records one might want for a championship-caliber club; the latter will probably gain an interview to appease Bud Selig's requirements of minority consideration for such openings.

But let the next manager and the makeup of the 2008 Yankees wait for another day. Today is about Torre and what he meant to the franchise, and to this fan. Speaking as someone who moved to New York City in 1995 with a genetic predisposition towards rooting against the Yankees, I watched as "Clueless Joe" -- 109 games below .500 for his career and with just one division title in 14 seasons of managing -- took the reins of a club that hadn't been to the World Series in 14 years and hadn't known managerial stability in two decades. Skippering a team featuring an appealing mix of homegrown talent (Pettitte, Rivera, Jeter, Bernie Williams) and shrewd acquisitions (Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, Jimmy Key, David Cone), Torre was the calm voice of reason, providing a welcome antidote to the bluster of Steinbrenner and the shrill Dallas Green, manager of the crosstown Mets, who ripped his sad-sack players in the press on a daily basis.

To someone raised to hate the Yankee way, watching Torre work was an eye-opening experience, and it didn't take long before I found my resistance weakening. By the time David Cone made his dramatic comeback from a career-threatening aneurysm in his arm, tossing seven no-hit innings before departing in a cloud of -- whoa --perspective, Torre's Yankees had drawn me in. By 1998 I was part of a ticket package, bonding with friends over trips to the ballpark. We wiled away endless summer hours as the Bronx Bombers devoured the soft underbelly of some hapless bullpen, and huddled together through tense October showdowns where the good guys, Joe's guys, usually won. Perfect games, milestones, comebacks, endless rallies, towering home runs into the upper deck, clinchers, 55,000 fans singing "New York, New York" in unison while the champagne corks popped... we shared magical moments with Torre's teams over the past decade-plus. They brought us together as friends. At times, they brought a city together, and in the wake of September 11, even a country together. And somewhere in there, they inspired me to start writing about baseball.

So as the sun sets on this era of the New York Yankees, all I can say is this: Thank you, Joe Torre. Thank you for standing up to George Steinbrenner's bluster and the media's harsh glare, and for doing so with class, dignity, and grace while maintaining a firm grip on some of the best ballclubs I've had the pleasure to see. Your run with the Yankees has been a thrill to behold, and a life-changing experience for this fan. So again, thank you. Thank you a thousand times from the bottom of my baseball-loving heart.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Rox, Sox and Endlesss Organizational Talks

I've got a Prospectus Hit and Run column up at BP today, loosely focused on the Rockies, who finished up their sweep of the Diamondbacks on Monday night. As improbable as their 21-1 run has been, the Rockies' claim on National League superiority is legitimate. They finished the regular season with the best run differential (+102) and highest Hit List ranking (#4) of any NL team thanks to their finishing kick.

Still, it was a weak league, Charlie Brown. The four NL postseason representatives combined for just a .532 Hit List Factor (the average of their actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages), the lowest of any slate from the Wild Card era, and their combined Hit List ranking of 38 tied for the second-highest of that era. This isn't an isolated situation, either. The 2005 slate, which featured the 18th-ranked Padres (-44 runs and a .483 HLF) has the edge with a combined ranking of 39, while last year's slate, with the 17th-ranked Cardinals (+19 runs but a .497 HLF) tied at 38. The presence of the 15th-ranked Diamondbacks (-20 runs and a .4998 HLF) hurt, as did the fact that the 8th-ranked Phillies and 11th-ranked Cubs were the other two teams in.

Here's how the Wild-Card era NL stacks up:
Year  TotRk    Year   AvHLF
1999 .607 1999 13
1998 .603 2004 18
2002 .597 1998 20
2004 .582 2000 20
2000 .571 2001 20
2003 .565 1997 22
2001 .565 1996 25
1997 .563 2002 25
1996 .553 2003 27
1995 .552 1995 28
2005 .542 2006 38
2006 .536 2007 38 <-
2007 .532 <- 2005 39
One league's weakness is the other league's strength. This year's AL finished with the lowest combined Hit List ranking of any league playoff slate via the #1 Red Sox, #2 Yankees, #3 Indians and #6 Angels. It isn't even particularly close:
Year  TotRk    Year   AvHLF
2001 .609 2007 12 <-
2002 .598 2001 17
1998 .586 2002 17
2007 .583 <- 2006 17
1995 .581 1995 18
1999 .577 2005 18
2003 .574 1996 20
1997 .570 2000 20
2006 .569 1997 21
2004 .569 1998 22
2005 .566 2004 24
2000 .564 1999 27
1996 .563 2003 27
Elsewhere in the piece, I point out that the Rockies' average ranking over the course of the year was 16.1; they spent time in both the top and bottom five spots of the Hit List. I came up with a compact form to display the week-by-week rankings of the various contenders. For the Yankees, it looks like this:
1 11 14 10 2 2 2
8 10 9 5 2 2
3 12 8 4 2 2
17 12 7 3 2 2
10 2
For the Rockies, it's like this:
20 24 22 16 14 11 4
16 25 21 16 13 8
16 25 20 16 11 6
24 26 15 17 14 5
19 11
The Rockies actually wound up as most volatile of any team in terms of the standard deviation of their Hit List rankings. That's not necessarily a plus, though four of the five most volatile teams -- the Phillies, Yankees, and Angels were the other three -- wound up making the playoffs; only one of the five least volatile, the Red Sox, made it in, though the bottom 10 also includes the Indians and the near-miss Mets and Padres.

Anyway, that's some stuff to chew on regarding the NL champions, who've become a pretty entertaining team to watch during this run. I'm still not much of a Todd Helton fan, but I do like Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday, not to mention pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez and Jeff Francis. I won't root for them if they face the Indians in the World Series, but if the Red Sox manage to claw their way out of a 3-1 hole, the Rox get my nod.

As for that series, I'm not terribly surprised to find the Indians up 3-1. In the Unfiltered addendum to my ALCS preview, I had the pitching matchups of the first two games as tossups and the Indians with an edge in the next two. Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd helped me look smart by consistently getting Strike One on the patient Red Sox hitters and putting them in a hole, while Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield wilted like hothouse flowers, continuing their poor performance trends of the past two months. Bad breaks behind him had more than a little to do with Wakefield's demise, but once it started he was as powerless to stop them as any other 41-year-old coming off an 18-day layoff due to back and shoulder trouble.

Westbrook threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the first 20 Sox hitters and 21 of 27 overall. Byrd did so to 17 out of 21 after doing so to 20 out of 25 Yankee hitters in the Division Series. How important is this? Baseball-Reference's splits show that batters hit .239/.283/.358 after an 0-1 count, compared to .284/.394/.463 after a 1-0 count. That's 45 points of batting average, 111 points of OBP and 105 points of SLG higher!

Of course, those first-pitch stats count all balls in play as strikes, but even so, the Red Sox only put Westbrook's first pitch in play twice, via a Dustin Pedroia groundout in the second and a J.D Drew single in the seventh. Here's the breakdown:
1 3 3 0 0
2 5 3 2 0
3 3 2 0 1
4 4 3 0 0
5 3 2 0 0
6 4 2 0 0
7 5 1 1 1
T 27 16 3 2
TBF is Total Batters Faced, SL is Strikes Looking, SS is Strikes Swinging (including fouls), and SIP is Strikes In Play. The Sox challenged Westbrook to throw Strike One and he did nearly every time until he reached the heart of the order for the third time, by which point Cleveland had a 4-0 lead. As for Byrd, his breakdown isn't quite so emphatic, but again, he took advantage of Boston's patience:
1 3 2 0 1
2 4 2 2 0
3 5 2 1 1
4 4 1 1 1
5 3 2 0 0
6 2 0 1 0
T 21 9 5 3
Can the Sox come back? Anyone who remembers 2004 would be an idi... a moron to deny that it's possible. To my surprise, many in the national media were pretty adamant about the idea of throwing Josh Beckett on three days' rest for Game Four -- something I felt could be the deciding factor in the series -- and are hammering Terry Francona for it now. Beckett threw only 80 pitches in his Game One start, but apparently, tightness in his back kept Francona from even considering pitching him instead of Wakefield on Tuesday night -- inconvenient for the Sox. Still, with two more days of rest under his belt, going against a C.C. Sabathia who hasn't lived up to his #1 billing in October, this series could easily go back to Fenway. I don't care who the starting pitchers are, that's a can of Whoop Ass I don't want to see opened.

As for the Yankees, the waiting game regarding Joe Torre's fate continues. With every pundit busy spinning their wheels regarding this ongoing Hamlet act and taking the we-have-no-news news to ridiculous extremes, I'll hold my tongue and focus on the baseball that's still going on. There's a ton to be said about the impending end of an era, whether it's Torre's era or that of paper tiger George Steinbrenner, but all in due time.

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Friday, October 12, 2007


Playoff Prospecus: Red Sox-Indians

By now, the Yankees are old news. Contrary to my sanguine assessment of Chien-Ming Wang's chances while pitching at home, Wang made another early exit as the Yankees fell, 6-4. The loss didn't merely end the team's 2007 campaign, it may have drawn the curtain on the Joe Torre era. Since Tuesday, the national media's been abuzz, waiting to see whether George Steinbrenner makes good on his threat not to renew Torre's contract. Speculation that the team will tab Don Mattingly or Joe Girardi as Torre's successor has abounded, but by far the most disconcerting rumor -- though hardly the most credible one -- involves Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, himself in limbo with the ouster of GM Walt Jocketty.

As bummed as I am about the Yankees' defeat, I haven't really had time to pick over the bones regarding all of this, because Baseball Prospectus tabbed me to preview the AL Championship Series between the Indians and Red Sox. The preview is here, and there's an important addendum here, because I screwed something up:
In my ALCS preview, I made a provisional prediction of the series outcome, one that hinges on whom the Red Sox tab to start Game Four. Terry Francona has indicated a preference to start knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who was bombed in September [an 8.76 ERA in five starts] and missed the ALDS following a cortisone shot in his shoulder. But Game One starter Josh Beckett could also start if willing to pitch on three days’ rest, something he did in shutting out the Yankees to clinch the 2003 World Series. If that’s the case, Beckett would then be available to pitch a potential Game Seven on normal rest. But if Wakefield goes, the Sox forego that third start from Beckett and are faced with a choice of Game Three starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, himself a human piñata since mid-August [7.14 ERA over his final eight starts, plus an early exit in Game Two of the Division Series], for the rubber match, or of bringing back Wakefield, who would be on normal rest.

Neither of those choices is optimal, but the real problem with what I wrote was that I misidentified Cleveland’s potential Game Seven starter as Fausto Carmona. Carmona will start Game Two, and would then be in line to pitch Game Six, with Jake Westbrook slotting for a Game Seven. In other words, score that E-6. D’oh!

...For consistency’s sake, I’ll stick with my pick of the Indians over the Red Sox under the Wakefield-4 scenario. But I’m decidedly less emphatic about that outcome than I would be if Carmona were going.
Having written that, I'm still not 100 percent satisfied with those conclusions, and clearly many of my readers aren't either. So let's work through this together.

Scenario 1: Beckett starts Game Four
Fr 10/12: Beckett/Sabathia - tossup
Sa 10/13: Schilling/Carmona - tossup
Mo 10/15: Matsuzaka/Westbrook - Indians edge
Tu 10/16: Beckett/Byrd Red Sox - Red Sox edge
Th 10/18: Schilling/Sabathia - tossup
Sa 10/20: Matsuzaka/Carmona - Indians edge
Su 10/21: Beckett/Westbrook - Red Sox edge
As it should, the first two games feature the series' best pitchers. Beckett, Carmona, and C.C. Sabathia were all among the AL's elite hurlers any way you slice it. Curt Schilling has been forced to remake himself as a pitch-to-contact hurler in the wake of the rotator cuff strain which sidelined him for seven weeks this summer, but his control and pitch efficiency have covered for an otherwise drastic drop in strikeout rate, and let's face it, the guy has made his name pitching in October. So I'm comfortable calling that a tossup even given Carmona's prowess. By my reckoning, this scenario yields two edges in each team's favor and three tossups, two of them at Fenway, so I'll call it for Boston, but in seven games, not six as I originally did.

Scenario 2: Wakefield starts Game Four
Fr 10/12: Beckett/Sabathia - tossup
Sa 10/13: Schilling/Carmona - tossup
Mo 10/15: Matsuzaka/Westbrook - Indians edge
Tu 10/16: Wakefield/Byrd - Indians edge
Th 10/18: Beckett/Sabathia - tossup
Sa 10/20: Schilling/Carmona - tossup
Su 10/21: Matsuzaka/Westbrook - Indians edge
This time around, I've got three advantages for the Indians, and four tossups, three of them in Fenway. Even if three of those tossups go Boston's way, in my view, they still wind up
on the short end in my book. Indians in seven.

I should add here that I'm strongly pulling for Cleveland to win this series, but anybody suggesting that the objectivity of my analysis is compromised by that preference need only look back to my Division Series preview, when I picked the Indians against my own rooting interest in the Yankees. Knowing the Bronx Bombers as well as I did, I was hypercritical of their every flaw, particularly the ones which doomed them in recent postseasons. I wound up looking wise when their rotation decisions backfired, and when the Indians' bullpen gained the upper hand in the late innings based on matchups. So I had that going for me amid the bummer of the Yanks' elimination.

Predictions are a necessary evil in this business, and while getting one right certainly makes you look smart, it's critical to remember that in a short series, any damn thing can happen. To me, the process of how that prediction was arrived at -- casting aside my initial preconceived notions about a series and attempting to correctly analyze the various components of the two teams involved -- is far more important. The end result may not be a bullseye, but unless the readers are planning on taking my predictions to Vegas (and seriously, God help you if you do), they should have gained insight into what to watch for and the means by which I arrived at my prediction. It's the journey, not the arrival, that matters most to me.

Almost forgot: Brad Wochomurka interviewed me for a BP Radio hit hit this morning. We did 10 minutes, mostly on the ALCS but also covering the Diamondbacks and Rockies in the NLCS.

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Monday, October 08, 2007


No Place Like Home

The Yankees live to fight another day, thanks to some timely hitting by Johnny Damon, a spark on the basepaths by gimpy Hideki Matsui, some lousy defense by Cleveland's Trot Nixon, and fine relief pitching from Philip Hughes. The latter was necessary after Roger Clemens departed in the third inning, trailing 2-0 and having aggravated his injured hamstring. My prediction got the inning right if not the score.

For Game Four, Joe Torre has opted to go back to Chien-Ming Wang, who was tagged for eight runs in Game One. He's appearing on just three days' rest, and his outing wasn't exactly short; 94 pitches under duress is a pretty full workload for 4.2 innings. Anecdotally, sinkerballers such as Wang tend to benefit from being a bit tired. With three days of rest instead of the seven he had prior to the series opener, the Yankees have to hope so.

Just as important as the amount of rest, if not more, is the fact that Wang is pitching at home. I made note of his persistent home-road splits in my series preview at BP and expanded on them here a couple days back. Today at BP, I have a quick and dirty study taking an even closer look at Wang and examining whether groundballers such as Wang tend to fare better at home than on the road:
Looking at the performance record, note the consistent disparity in innings pitched across the two splits. Overall, Wang has thrown 55 percent of his innings at home, suggesting that the Yanks may regard that setup as optimal. Second, while Wang's home/road split has been consistent across all three years, the actual ERA disparity is much, much wider than suggested by his peripherals, as reflected via FIP [Fielding Independent Pitching]; an apparent home-field advantage of 0.14 runs according to FIP turns into a 1.58 run advantage according to ERA. For those wise enough to pooh-pooh the earned/unearned run distinction, the spread is 1.82 runs per nine innings.

The difference appears to be largely due to the results of balls in play. Wang's BABIPs at home have consistently been about 40 points below the league averages (.296, .305, and .308, respectively, over the last three years), enabling him to beat his FIP estimates by 0.78 runs. On the road, his BABIPs have been about 15 points above, with a much wider variation from year to year; collectively, his road ERAs have been 0.66 runs higher than his FIPs.

This discrepancy could be random, but it may not be. Along with the ballpark-to-ballpark variations in fence distances and the amount of foul territory, home/road differences may be a reflection of field preparation. It's no secret that groundskeepers can prepare the field to the benefit of the home team's starting pitcher. For any pitcher, that may include tailoring the mound to his liking. For a groundballer, that may include watering down the area in front of home plate and leaving the infield grass longer; likewise, for an opposing groundballer, the crew may opt to cut the grass short and keep the plate area dry and hard. The TBS broadcast of Game Two of the Cubs-Diamondbacks series showed the Arizona crew watering down home plate before the game even as the umpires looked on. Lou Piniella complained, prompting the umps to order the application of a drying compound, but the results were still reportedly damp. Still, there's an element of tradition involved—such groundskeeping gamesmanship goes back to the 19th century, as teams even back then were watering down the basepaths to slow down their speedier opponents.
Turning to the group of 65 pitchers (including Wang) who threw at least 50 innings at home and on the road in each of the last three seasons -- a group that's decidedly better than league average -- we see:

• a homefield advantage of 0.38 runs of ERA for the entire group of pitchers. That's about twice as large as predicted by FIP (based on the pheripherals), with differential results on balls in play widening the gap.

• a 0.30 ERA advantage for the group's groundballers over the flyballers, mainly due to a lower home run rate.

• a 0.45 ERA advantage for the groundballers at home, as compared to a 0.39 ERA advantage for the flyballers at home, with a separation in favor of the groundballers persisting across the two sets. The ERAs of the four subsets of performers:
    Home  Road
GB 3.78 4.23
FB 4.16 4.45
More detailed breakdowns can be found at the BP, where the piece is free. The take-home message is this:
What this in-no-way-definitive study suggests is that a groundballer pitching at home -- exactly like Wang in Yankee Stadium -- would appear to be the best of the limited permutations available. Further research along these avenues is needed to clarify the matter, but at River Avenue and 161st Street in the Bronx on Thursday night, with the Yankees' continued presence in the postseason and Joe Torre's tenure in pinstripes riding on Wang's performance, it will have to do.
Go Yanks!

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Sunday, October 07, 2007


Torre's Last Stand

Not a lot to say about the spot the Yankees find themselves in going into this evening's ballgame. I watched Friday evening's taut and thrilling pitching duel between Fausto Carmona and Andy Pettitte on TiVo delay, getting to the bugfest -- the ickiest non-injury scenario I've ever seen on a ballfield -- around 1 AM. I roused my half-asleep wife to come take a look at the sight of the Yankee infielders spraying each other with OFF, and of poor Joba Chamberlain's neck crawling with gnats.

As somebody who spends much of my backwoods time slathered in Ben's 100 -- the no-bullshit equivalent of bug napalm, exponentially more powerful than OFF -- because I'm so prone to insect bites, I can't say Chamberlain's meltdown surprised me. When you're caught in a swarm, staying focused isn't easy. I'm not sure that the umpires should have stopped play on their own accord, but I wouldn't have blamed Torre for pulling the team from the field and engaging in a lengthy discussion with the umps and the grounds crew to buy his flustered pitcher some time to calm down. Still, part of being a well-paid professional athlete is keeping your cool under extreme pressure. Chamberlain did not -- hell, Jeter looked just as flustered, but the ball wasn't in his hands -- and it led to the Indians tying the game.

Blaming Chamberlain or the infestation for losing the game isn't appropriate, however. Over the course of nine innings, the offense simply couldn't solve Carmona, the Tribe's even filthier equivalent of Yankee sinkerballer Chien-Ming Wang. On the eve of the series, one pro-Yankee BP reader, responding to my series preview, suggested I wasn't giving the Bronx Bomber lineup their due going into the series: "Don't you think your undervaluing offense a little here? The Indians clearly have the better top two starting pitchers but the Yankees seem the perfect team to combat them with an incredibly patient offense that can push them out of the game early."

"You mean like the vaunted Yankee offense waited out the Tigers in the first round last year, and the Angels the year before?" I retorted. I got no reply.

Indeed, the storyline isn't too dissimilar to years past; the Yankee offense I "undervalued" isn't hitting (.121 through two games), and they left just three runners on base on Friday. By contrast the Indians left 14 on before finally breaking through against Luis Vizcaino in the bottom of the 11th. Vizcaino's capitulation was inevitable; the Yanks don't have a reliable reliever after Chamberlain and Rivera, nor do they have a lefty specialist to match up with lefty Travis Hafner, who stroked the game-winning hit.

With the Yanks facing elimination this evening -- I was none too optimistic about Roger Clemens in my preview, and here I'll predict a departure by the third, down 4-0, red-faced and limping -- the word on the street is that this may really be the last night of the Yankee dynasty. George Steinbrenner has stopped drooling long enough to assert that Torre's job is on the line: "I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series." With the Yanks having not reached the World Series since 2003, or the LCS since 2004, his point becomes increasingly valid. I'm not sure that what's behind door number two -- Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi or the Ghost of Billy Martin as skipper -- is anything to write home about, but I won't be surprised if we get to find out very soon.

For what it's worth, Torre reminds us why he's lasted this long in his job as Yankee skipper in this audio clip from Peter Abraham. If this is it, let the record show Torre remains the coolest customer around when it comes to the Boss' yapping, and for those of you calling for his head if the Yanks lose, don't be surprised when the next guy doesn't handle the heat so well.

• • •

With the first round of playoffs threatening to end tonight, the regular season already seems far off. Nonetheless, I couldn't achieve closure without running a season finale edition of the Hit List; it's up today at BP. Check it out.

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Friday, October 05, 2007


Wang Goes Bang

Much to my chagrin, it looks as though I was right about one thing from my series preview of the Yankees and Indians: Chien-Ming Wang is not the same pitcher at home as on the road. Wang got the snot kicked out of him, allowing eight runs on nine hits and four walks in just 4.2 frames. The JV of Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Veras and Philip Hughes surrendered four more runs as the Yanks fell 12-3 in Game One of the Divisional Series.

One of my BP readers asked why a groundballer might show a substantial home-road split. Generally speaking, I tend to group the explanations into three categories:

ballpark dimensions: in addition to the fence distances, the amount of foul territory can be a factor because even groundballers tend to get infield popups now and then. Here Jacobs Field is clearly less favorable, with smaller foul territory than Yankee Stadium. classifies Jacobs Field's territory as "small," and Yankee Stadium as "large."

As for fence distances, as we saw last night, they do matter when a pitcher, groundballer or no, leaves one up in the zone. Jacobs (327-370-405-375-325) is longer down the lines than Yankee Stadium (318-399-408-385-314) but a hair shorter to centerfield and considerably shorter in the power alleys.

the physical field: as we saw in the Diamondbacks/Cubs game that followed the Yankee debacle, groundskeepers can tailor the field to benefit that day's pitcher or work to the opposing pitcher's disadvantage. Shots in that game showed the Arizona groundskeepers watering down the homeplate area even the umpires watched and ordered them to apply drying compound to help groundballer Doug Davis. The result slows down balls that hit the dirt in front of the plate.

Keeping the grass longer can help a groundballer as well. For an opposing groundballer, a crew might dry out the home plate area and cut the grass shorter to help balls get to the infielders quicker. We don't know what steps if any the Cleveland groundscrew may have taken yesterday -- and it didn't matter much given that he got more air outs (5) than groundouts (4) -- but had Wang been matched up against Cleveland sinkerballer Fausto Carmona (who pitches tonight) the Yanks might have at least gotten "field parity," as the conditions would have been the same for two similar pitchers. Additionally, the mound can be an issue. Ask any pitcher and he'll tell you certain mounds are more favorable than others in terms of comfort level.

the mental aspect: there's nothing like sleeping in one's own bed; hotels simply aren't as comfortable, and living out of a suitcase is a pain in the ass. Pitchers are creatures of habit and for some, the routine of coming from home to the ballpark is very proscribed, and any variation from that routine can mess with their heads.

Now, I don't have any actual insight into Wang's tastes in fields and mounds or whether he's a particularly poor traveler. I'm just saying that given three straight years of sizable home/road splits, we can't discount the fact that he may be more comfortable in Yankee Stadium than elsewhere. My nickel is on the ballpark and field issues based on a look at his actual splits, his projected ERAs from those splits using the Fielding Independent Pitching formula [(13*HR + 3*BB - 2*K)/IP + 3.20], and his Batting Average on Balls in Play:
Home    IP   ERA    BABIP    FIP    dif
2005 66.0 3.55 .260 4.20 -0.65
2006 118.7 3.03 .267 3.79 -0.76
2007 111.3 2.75 .262 3.63 -0.88
TOT 296.0 3.04 .264 3.82 -0.78

2005 50.3 4.65 .276 4.25 0.40
2006 99.3 4.35 .322 4.11 0.24
2007 88.0 4.91 .336 3.63 1.28
TOT 237.7 4.62 .318 3.96 0.66
Based on his peripherals which you can see at, Wang's performance at home and on the road yields very similar ERA projections. But his BABIPs at home have been consistently lower than league average (generally around .300) at home and higher on the road, to the tune of a .054 spread over the course of his career. This could be random, but it could also be an effect of the way the playing fields are treated on days he pitches. It's a subject for further inquiry.

One way or another, Wang had his ass handed to him last night, and there's at least some consideration being given to the possibility of the Yanks bringing him back on short rest in Game Four in New York, with Andy Pettitte pitching on normal rest in Cleveland for Game Five:
After pitching poorly Thursday, Wang said he wanted to start the fourth game on short rest. Ron Guidry, the pitching coach, said Wang could benefit from starting at Yankee Stadium, where he was 10-4 with a 2.75 earned run average. He was 9-3 with a 4.91 E.R.A. on the road.

“Maybe the next time will be different,” Guidry said. “There’s always that next time. He knows, if we bring him back in Game 4, he pitches at home, too. He pitches well at home. Maybe that’ll help him out.”
The other interesting aspect of last night was Cleveland manager Eric Wedge's decision to use his three best relievers for four innings to protect a six- to nine-run lead with a game the following night. Here's what Joe Sheehan had to say:
Up 9-3 in the sixth, with Aaron Fultz having warmed up in the fifth, Wedge instead went to Rafael Perez, one of his two best relievers. He would proceed to use Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Rafael Betancourt—his three best relievers—for 31, eight and 22 pitches, respectively, protecting leads of six, eight, and finally nine runs. It was a desperate display, and a waste of the pitchers involved. With a game the next night, why use your most valuable pitchers protecting a lead that your worst ones probably couldn’t blow? Wedge brought Rafael Betancourt in to protect a nine-run lead in the ninth; Yuniesky Betancourt wouldn’t be able to blow that lead. It was overmanaging, and if in the interests of getting his guys work, a waste of their energy. If there is even a one percent chance that the 53 pitches Perez and Betancourt wasted last night might affect what they can give Wedge tonight, then it wasn’t worth using them. When, exactly, do Fultz and Tom Mastny pitch, if not last night?
Good question. The Yankees better hope it has an effect, because they're already behind the eightball.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007


Playoff Prospectus: Yanks-Indians

My preview of the Yankees-Indians series, which starts this evening, is up at
Baseball Prospectus. Yankee fans reading this may not be too happy to know that I'm picking against the Bombers. As a fan, I won't be unhappy if I'm wrong, but as an analyst, I'm basing the call on a few things:

• The Yankee rotation is in disarray:
Make no mistake: this Yankee rotation and its deployment may be the team's downfall in this series. As good as Wang is, he's shown a decisive enough home-road split (2.75 home/4.91 away this year; 3.04/4.62 career) to prefer that he not start in Cleveland once, let alone twice if the series goes five games. Pettitte has enough postseason experience (34 starts, 212 innings, 4.08 ERA, 14-9) to add a line to his resume virtually identical to his 2007 stats. With his days of tipping pitches hopefully behind him, Yankee fans can hope he's the stone-faced killer of their 2003 run, because they'll need him to be.

The problem is Clemens, who has just one start (six innings) since September 3 due to elbow and hamstring injuries. The 45-year-old hurler has an unenviable recent track record in recent postseasons, one marked by early departures due to injury, departures that often left his club up the proverbial creek. Forget the glowing report out of Tampa after his simulated game on Tuesday; the decision to start Clemens feels more motivated by salary than common sense.

If the Yankees shadow Clemens with rookie Philip Hughes — who pitched well against the Indians on August 10 (6 4 1 1 1 6) and really hit his stride in September (2.73 ERA in five starts) — that leaves Mussina exposed. The 38-year-old Moose served a two-week exile in the bullpen in late August after three consecutive disaster starts. He posted three solid starts but was bombed during the season's final weekend. Unless he gets enough separation between his mid-80s fastball and his offspeed offerings, his outing could be every bit as nasty, short, and brutish as that of Clemens. A better alternative would be to start Hughes in Game Three, come back with Wang in New York in Game Four (short rest might actually help his sinker), and send Pettitte to the hill in Game Five.
• The Yankee bullpen lacks a lefty to face the top of Cleveland's order [lefty Grady Sizemore, switch-hitter Asdrubal Cabrera (more effective versus lefties), lefty Travis Hafner, and switch-hitter Victor Martinez (more effective versus righties), and their righty options don't match up well:
Elsewhere, Torre and company have opted to forego carrying even a token lefty, bypassing Ron Villone, who handled lefty hitters at a .239/.311/.343 clip. This leaves the Yanks at a significant tactical disadvantage. Beyond Rivera and Chamberlain, neither veterans Vizcaino (.265/.362/.427 versus lefties) and Farnsworth (.273/.379/.445) nor live-armed rookies Ohlendorf (.293/.371/.504 in Triple-A) and Veras (.273/.368/.394) handled lefty hitters very well. The Yanks' only means of mitigating this is to deploy Chamberlain (.132/.195/.211) against the top of the Indians' order, and at best they get to do this one time through instead of twice.
• The Indians' bullpen, on the other hand, matches up well versus the Yanks:
For the Indians, the story is happier. Their bullpen ranked second in the league in WXRL, just a few whiskers behind Boston. Borowski led the league in saves, but with a sky-high ERA thanks to early-season bombings, including a six-run one by the Yanks on April 19. Since mid-May, he's pitched much more respectably (3.91 ERA, 40/10 K/BB and 6 HR in 50 2/3 IP), right in line with his QERA. The real key to the Tribe bullpen is setup man Betancourt, who trailed only J.J. Putz in individual WXRL; he pitches in situations nearly as high in leverage as closer Borowski (1.87 to 2.09) and sometimes for multiple innings, justifying his usage in the set-up role rather than endowment with the less flexible Scarlet C. His splits are eye-popping: 80/6 K/UIBB overall, 41/1 at home.

Beyond that pair, rookie southpaw Rafael Perez ate lefties alive this year (.145/.209/.241), and was no slouch against righties (.213/.257/.324); he looms as a key figure in this series given the Yankee lineup's lefty tilt. Any stint of three batters or longer is likely to bring him in contact with two tough lefty hitters, and he's capable of tossing multiple innings as well. Fultz gives Wedge a LOOGY to deploy in the middle innings, if necessary. Though unconfirmed at press time, the presence of Laffey makes sense for long-relief purposes. Closer aside, there's a decided edge to Cleveland here based on matchups.
One reader already took issue: "Don't you think your undervaluing offense a little here? The Indians clearly have the better top 2 starting pitchers but the Yankees seem the perfect team to combat them with an incredibly patient offense that can push them out of the game early." Clearly this fellow has fond recollections of the way the vaunted Yankee offense patiently waited out the Tigers' pitching in 2006 and the Angels' in 2005.

If the Yankees do roll, I'll gladly eat crow, but the prediction is pain:
The Yankees have a threatening offense, but they appear to have committed to a much less than ideal rotation alignment, and they're at a clear disadvantage when it comes to late-inning matchups. The one-two punch of Sabathia and Carmona could easily push their team to the brink of victory before they even hit the Bronx, where the Yankees will need some good fortune simply to get quality starts. Indians in five.
Catch the rest of it at BP, where it's today's freebie.

• • •

I focused most of Tuesday's chat on the end of the regular season and what to expect in the postseason. A few of the better exchanges:
ntf8888 (Austin): [Matt] Holliday for MVP?

JJ: The NL MVP race is a very, very tough call. I'm a believer that the award has to go to to a player on a contender, which leaves us with numerous candidates.

Going into the weekend I'd have said David Wright gets the call, but I'm haunted by his screw-up of the forceout on Friday night. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are imperfect candidates, Rollins for his .340-ish OBP, Utley for missing a month, Howard for missing time and playing bad defense that holds his WARP1 down at 6.4. Holliday has very good numbers (fourth in WARP1 at 10.1, behind Pujols at 11.3, Wright at 11.2, and Peavy at 10.9), and while he had several key hits this weekend, he also had a near-fatal defensive lapse that leads one to wonder about the validity of his +13 FRAA.

In the end, I probably stick with Wright, who was still hitting the stuffing out of the ball even as the team faded. But I can understand Holliday before Rollins, who's probably the popular favorite.

James (MD): Jay, do you think a case can be made that in the playoffs, the strength of your bench and the very back of your bullpen is the most important? Teams are going to clearly lean on their 4 best relievers pretty much every night, and they will have to use their bench, especially in the NL. Philly has a great bench with Victorino or Werth, a versatile defender/pinch runner in Bourn, and then a defensive specialist in Nunez and a guy who can hit into the gap in Helms. Couple that with Myers, Romero, and Gordon, how could anyone pick against the Phillies at this point?

JJ: Intuitively that makes some sense, but systematically speaking, it's not the case. Nate Silver and Dayn Perry looked at this for Baseball Between the Numbers and found that the quality of the closer was one of only three statistically significant factors in forecasting the outcome of a short series. The other two are staff strikeout rate and the quality of team defense. Nate calls this the Secret Sauce, and he ran the numbers for this year's teams.

In a short series where off days make up about 1/3 of the schedule if not more, bullpen depth tends to play less of a factor except in cases where a starter makes an early exit (Roger Clemens, I'm looking at you). Benches are far more important in the NL, where pinch-hitting for pitchers is a factor, but the Creeping La Russaism move to 12-man pitching staffs has shortened too many benches and left managers without a proper counter to that third lefty.

As for picking against the Phillies, I like their bench, but as great as their run has been, their staff and bullpen still make me very nervous. I've been heartbroken by Tom Gordon one too many times to have much faith in him.

Jim Clancy (Exhibition Stadium): Why is the Mets' collapse from this year so much "worse" than clunkers before it--like the awful and touched-by-Satan collapse of the Blue Jays in '87 (despite their having at least one stellar right hander)? I mean, to hear people talk now, no one else ever collapsed so brutally as the Mets did this year. Even this year's Padres might qualify as similar.

JJ: From the Postseason Odds perspective that Clay Davenport invented and Nate Silver applied in his fine "Blowing It" article last week, the Mets' potential collapse ranked second behind only the 1995 Angels. Home field advantage for those final seven games, and quality of competition (all of them against sub-.500 teams) come together in an almost perfect storm.

In the Jays' case, four of those seven losses came against the Tigers, who won the division at 98-64, and the other three were against the Brewers, who wound up 91-71. Three losses were on the road. As bad as it is, from a degree of difficulty standpoint, it's much more understandable than the Mets.

But from a more subjective standpoint that paints Willie Randolph as History's Greatest Monster, it comes down to a rather bloodthirsty New York media ready to seize upon any sign of weakness because it sells papers in a hypercompetitive market. See Alex Rodriguez, September-October 2006.
I did pick the Yankees over the Indians during the chat, but as noted, it was in writing the piece that I reversed myself.

As for MVP and other award arguments, you can cast a virtual ballot in the Internet Baseball Awards voting between now and October 12. I'll post my ballot here once I've voted.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Clearing the Bases -- Down from the Mountain Edition

First things first: I'm chatting today at 1 PM Eastern over at Baseball Prospectus, and I'll have a Division Series preview of the Yankees-Indians matchup there tomorrow. The regular season finale of the Hit List will follow later this week.

Yes, I'm back from my European sojourn, though you'd barely know it around these parts. Since returning, I've done a promotional appearance for It Ain't Over, written a Prospectus Hit and Run covering a second-half Hit List and the hottest and coldest hitters and pitchers in September, and watched one of the most thrilling final weekends in baseball history. Thanks in part to my Extra Innings package, I watched more than 24 hours of baseball from Thursday through last night, and while relatively little came up Milhouse from my point of view, the ride has been pretty fun.

The biggest news around these parts, of course, is the Mets' collapse, one in which Nate Silver and Clay Davenport estimated to be the second-worst in baseball history based on the Prospectus Postseason Odds Report methodology, which measures the likelihood of a team making the postseason via a Monte Carlo simulation which plays out the season one million times, accounting for run-scoring and -allowing proclivities, home field advantage, and opposition strength. The Mets, according to the report, had a 99.8 percent chance at reaching the postseason as of September 13, the day I left for Switzerland. They proceeded to blow a seven-game lead with 17 to play, finishing with a 1-6 homestand against the sub-.500 Nationals, Cardinals, and Marlins that culminated with 300-game winner Tom Glavine making a shocking first-inning exit in which he was charged with seven runs.

One of the problems of being away so long at such a crucial time of year is that there's really no adequate way to catch up with all the nuances of what's been missed. Here's how I started my column, which got lost in the editorial shuffle and didn't run until Saturday morning instead of Friday:
I'm back from a nearly two-week European vacation that fell smack in the middle of the playoff hunt. News of distant pennant races trickled through on either end of my journey, but I was totally off the grid for a six-day period while hiking in the majestic Dolomites--no Internet, no newspapers, no TV, and the last thing my wife wanted to discuss when I called her from Rifugio Fanes at a $1 per minute clip was the status of the NL Wild Card hunt.

As such, I was mercifully spared the demise of my Dodgers. Discovering their seven-game losing streak upon returning was no more traumatic than being told that my goldfish died while I was at camp--no tears, just the accompanying solemnity of an imagined, unceremonious flush several thousand miles away. On the other hand, plugging in to discover the misdirected acrimony in the wake of their fade has my blood boiling. Along those lines, getting back into the swing of things isn't easy; one can read the standings and the game reports for the handful of relevant teams, but two weeks is too long an absence to grasp the nuances of everything that's gone down. Late rallies and bullpen meltdowns are most viscerally understood in real time or at most within one news cycle. To pick the most obvious example, the Mets had a seven-game lead in the NL East when I left, and even with their postseason odds falling below 90 percent after a huge loss on Wednesday, it was difficult for me to accept their shellshock until tuning in to Thursday night's game, where if I closed my eyes, I could hear Roky Erickson strumming "I Walked with a Zombie" and know that he wasn't singing about my jet lag.
Friday night's game, which I took in with Alex Belth, was even more revealing. Oliver Perez, the only crazy man who might have been sane enough to salvage the Mets' futile run, showed up in his Mr. Hyde guise and was wild all over the place, walking Jeremy Hermida before yielding a homer to Dan Uggla in the first, and hitting three batters in the third. Perez is one matter, but the telling moment for the Mets, the one that said they were cooked, occurred in that inning, when Hermida's bases-loaded grounder was fielded by David Wright, who threw home for the force out. Catcher Paul Lo Duca threw back to third, but Wright, forgetting the force was still in effect, tried to tag Hanley Ramirez instead of stepping on the bag, and all hands were safe. After a huge strikeout of Miguel Cabrera, Perez was so adrenaline-charged that he hit the next two batters, bringing home two more runs to widen the lead to 4-1. The Mets would cut the lead in the bottom of the frame, but that moment, when MVP candidate--perhaps favorite--Wright made such a crucial mental lapse, was the skid in a nutshell.

I'm not really a Mets fan, but I have enough of them -- not to mention enough experience with collapses going back to the Jaffe family institutional memory of 1951 -- to understand their pain, and while I empathize, I'm glad I can shut the emotion off at some point. The sting for me is that via BP I was credentialed for the Mets' playoff games at Shea Stadium, a plum opportunity that it hurts to miss. In the immortal words of Joe Schultz, aw, shitfuck.

Not much to say about the Phillies, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, except "Wow!" Whatever the flaws of laid-back manager Charlie Manuel, he earned his keep patching the team's decimated pitching staff together all year long; five of the six starters they held at the outset of the season, all except Jamie Moyer, were injured at one point, with one, Punchy Myers, later shifted to closer to compensate for the loss of the injured Tom Gordon. Ace Cole Hamels, who threw just eight innings over a six-week span due to elbow woes, made the kid gloves treatment pay off with eight scoreless innings of 13-strikeout ball on Friday to move the Phils into first place. After Adam "Completely Useless" Eaton and company came up short on Saturday, Moyer, who had put up a 6.16 second-half ERA up to that point, was at his soft-tossing best, flummoxing the Nationals as fellow grizzled vet Glavine faltered in New York, giving the Phils the NL East title.

As for the rest of the slate, I won't pick over the Dodgers in too much detail except to say that when I heard a rumor Ned Colletti was contemplating a Matt Kemp/Clayton Kershaw for Johan Santana deal, I sent a faux telegram to BP's internal list: "AM ON WAY TO AIRPORT STOP. WILL KILL COLLETTI, PLASCHKE STOP. TELL MY WIFE I LOVE HER." The idea that youngsters like Kemp (who hit .342.373/.521 but couldn't get 300 at-bats from Grady Little) are responsible for the team's collapse for lack of veteran herbs and spices isn't just laughable, it's downright criminal. At a time when Dodger assistant GMs Logan White and Kim Ng have drawn consideration for other teams' GM openings, it's clear that the Dodgers' best play would be to fire Stupid Flanders and promote one of them rather than lose either, but it appears Ned gets at least one more year. God save the Dodger prospects.

Beyond the Dodgers, the Brewers' demise disappointed me. It had been a slow leak from that 24-10 start, characterized by the fact that the team lost 22 straight games (18 starts) in which Chris "Angel of Death" Capuano appeared. Plus they had to endure yet another incomplete season from Ben Sheets, who threw just 22 innings after July 14 and only one in the season's final two weeks, so dogged with injuries was he. Still, the team mounted a respectable 16-12 September after going 20-34 in July and August, and remained alive until losing to the Padres on Friday night. They exacted no small amount of revenge against the Pads, beating them in extra innings on Saturday; the game-tying hit off Trevor Hoffman came via Tony Gwynn, Jr., of all people, and the winning hit was by Vinny Rotino, fellow passenger on a puddle-jumping flight I took a year ago upon his initial recall. The Brewers found plenty of sweetness in that victory; their 82nd win of the year meant they recorded their first winning season since 1992; my wife (in Milwaukee on business) and in-laws called to celebrate that bit of good news. The Brewers weren't done, kicking Padre ass on a crazy Sunday to force a Game 163 playoff for the NL Wild Card on Monday night.

That loss tied them with the Rockies, who went on an incredible 13-1 run (including seven straight over the Dodgers) to vault from fourth place in the NL West into the thick of the Wild Card race. I'm no Rox fan, but I do like their storyline. The fact that the team's vaunted youngsters -- BP's Kevin Goldstein rated their organization second at the outset of the season -- like Franklin Morales, Ubaldo Jimenez (both filling in within a decimated rotation) and especially Troy Tulowitzki came up so big down the stretch should serve any Dodger exec with a reminder that the NL West is a pirhana tank full of young talent in Denver and Arizona, making the perils of Ned all the more clear.

So I was mildly pulling for the Rox last night although I actually picked the Padres to win the World Series back in March. My reasoning on the latter is that they no longer stood a chance with the losses of Mike Cameron and Milton Bradley, the the latter of whom while I was gone stepped on the former's hand, tearing ligaments in Cameron's thumb then tore an ACL amid an umpire-baited tirade later in the same game, thus wiping out 2/3 of the team's starting outfield in one night. That, plus the late-season struggles of Chris Young (6.33 ERA since missing time in July with oblique and back trouble) and the presence of Brett Tomko in their rotation, prompted me to compare the Padres to Randall Patrick McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pass the pillow.

Anyway, even with the Padres' maladies, they helped leave us with a 13-inning epic that culminated such an incredible weekend. Jake Peavy, who appears on his way to winning the Cy Young award I predicted for him, must have gotten stuck in the humidor while a cleverly disguised impostor surrendered three early runs to the Rox. They came back to take a 5-3 lead thanks in part to a grand slam by Adrian Gonzalez. The look on Rockies' starter Josh Fogg's face when he watched that ball go out was priceless. Something along the lines of: "Shit, I left the car in neutral, and now it's down in the river. My wife is gonna be PISSED. We got any more of those PBRs?"

In the end, the game came down to a pair of questionable umpiring calls. Up 6-5, Garret Atkins appeared to have a home run over the leftfield wall, but out-of-position ump Tim Tschida ruled the ball hit the yellow cushion atop the fence -- which would have absorbed the blow -- instead of the chair just behind it, which caused a sizable deflection. He, or rather pinch-runner Jamey Carroll, was left stranded. The Pads tied the game up in the eighth, and things remained knotted until the top of the 13th despite the Rockies hauling out an unenviable parade of shamed closers -- Latroy Hawkins, Brian Feuntes, Matt Herges, and finally Jorge Julio, who surrendered a two-run homer to Bradley's replacement, Scott Hairston. On came Hoffman, and at this point I was fully pulling for the Rox, if only because Hoffman has symbolized the Padres' superiority in the NL West for so long. But he didn't have it, as Kaz Matsui, Troy Tulowitzki, and Matt Holliday laced consecutive loud hits off him to tie the game.

One out later, Carroll came up and lined to Brian Giles, whose throw home appeared to beat Holliday, who tagged up. The runner went in head first, narrowly missing catcher Michael Barrett's cleat but apparently -- replays were inconclusive at best -- not touching home plate even as he got a faceful of dirty. Home plate ump Tim McClelland made no signal until the ball dribbled away from the catcher. The only explanation for this sequence, as I understand from BP rules expert Bil Burke, is the rarely-invoked application of rule 7.06(b): "The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand." Lacking possession, the catcher has committed obstruction and the runner is therefore safe -- except that rule goes against the de facto precedent of the last quarter century which has seen catchers block the plate with impunity whether or not they had the ball.

It was a controversial end to a thrilling ballgame and a fantastic regular season, and while I'd love to pick it over further, I've got plenty to do over the next 24 hours, so check in at BP, where we've got your October covered.

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