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.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Getting My Phil

From today's Baseball Prospectus column:
After nearly 48 hours of second-guessing regarding the circumstances under which Game Five was played and halted, speculation as to how the Rays could sustain their stay of execution to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, and unanswered questions about travel days and the amount of rest Cole Hamels might need before taking the hill again, the Phillies brought the World Series to an abrupt end on Wednesday night. Once play resumed, they outscored the Rays over the remaining 3½ innings to claim the second World Championship of their 126-year history.

...Yesterday morning, on my weekly radio hit for WWZN-Boston's "The Young Guns" show [linked here, complete with an overly generous helping of "uhhhs" and "you knows" reflecting the caffeine's slower-than-anticipated effect on my synapses], I was asked what it was that people missed about the Phillies this year, given that four teams (the Angels, Cubs, Rays, and Red Sox) won more games. Obviously, they weren't hurt by having to face only one of those teams in the postseason, but they shouldn't have been underestimated by anyone. They did have the game's third-best run differential (+119), a nascent ace who was the best pitcher of the postseason (Cole Hamels), a bullpen tailor-made for October game-shortening, and a blend of power and speed among a strong, productive supporting cast surrounding the NL's previous two MVPs and a guy who out-WARP'd them both over the past three years:
Player         2006   2007   2008  Total
Chase Utley 8.3 10.4 10.6 29.3
Jimmy Rollins 8.2 11.2 7.4 26.8
Ryan Howard 9.7 7.7 5.4 22.8
None of those three players had a dominant series at the plate, but they did have their moments. Rollins was in a 9-for-47 post-season funk before he led off Game Three with a single and scored the first run; he collected three hits and scored three runs in the Phillies' 10-2 rout the following night. Howard, after being controlled by a steady stream of breaking pitches and unfavorable matchups (for him), took advantage of Maddon's faith in struggling Andy Sonnanstine and broke Game Four open with a three-run shot, then added another off of lefty Trever Miller later in the game. Utley only collected three hits in the series, but two were home runs, and his defensive wizardry brought to mind a combination of Graig Nettles' clutch acrobatics in the 1978 World Series and Derek Jeter's field presence in the 2001 postseason, at least as far as this writer is concerned.
Utley's play was the big one last night, worthy of World Series lore. He stopped Akinori Iwamura's up-the-middle single before it could leave the infield, and after pump-faking to first base as Jason Barrett barreled around third, he threw a perfect peg to Carlos Ruiz that beat Bartlett by a mile, preserving a 3-3 tie.

Ultimately, there was much to second-guess regarding Rays manager Joe Maddon's sequence of pitchers, simply because very little that he tried actually worked. Many (myself included) felt that David Price should have been the call to gain the platoon advantage against whichever lefty pinch-hitter Charlie Manuel sent up to bat for Hamels to resume the game. Price's strong performances in ALCS Game Seven and World Series Game Two, his dazzling stuff, and his ability to go multiple innings all seemed right for the occasion. The problem was that the pitcher's spot was due fourth in the next frame, and Maddon tried to avoid burning too many players at once. He instead kept Grant Balfour in the game and watched him turn into a pumpkin and give up a run, then sent J.P. Howell into the game and, because of the matchup that awaited him the following inning, forced him bat for himself and make the one-out sacrifice bunt that set up Utley's inning-ending play. The lefty Howell proceeded to make a hash of the very matchup Maddon had kept him in the game for, facing righty Pat Burrell, who's vulnerable to sliders. Burrell smacked a double to deep center field, then groundball specialist Chad Bradford got a ground ball that moved the runner over before Pedro Phreakin' Feliz got the decisive hit... and so it went. Price wasn't even sharp when he finally came in, throwing less than half of his pitches for strikes, but having him warm up twice before entry may not have helped. Maddon may have earned his spot as a media darling this year -- including among statheads -- but he made tactical mistakes all series long, mistakes that loomed large given that the Rays lost three games by a total of four runs. Just like youngsters B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, he still has a lot to learn.

In any event, even though I rooted for the Rays, I had no real problem with the Phillies winning. They're an engaging team with some standout players, and like the Rays, they're largely homegrown, and they're well-run. I pulled for the Phillies in their three most recent World Series appearances. The 1980 team, the lone champion in franchise history, featured the core of players who had come up short in their two previous battles with the Dodgers, but with the amazing Mike Schmidt and likeable players such as Tug McGraw, Bake McBride and Greg Luzinski, they were easy to pull for, and in the historic view, they remain a testament to one of the great player development machines of the era. The 1993 bunch, with guys like Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk, was a gritty, lumpy crew that seemed like the second coming of the 1982 "Harvey's Wallbangers" Brewers I had once fallen for. These Phillies are worthy heirs to that lineage. Congrats to them and their fans.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It Never Rains...

Since we last spoke:

• In Friday's column at Baseball Prospectus, "A Tale of Two Right Fielders," I discussed the way the spotlight seemed to find the Phillies' Jayson Werth and the Rays' Rocco Baldelli all night long in Game Two. Both players took unlikely routes to the World Series, and each threw out the other on the basepaths along the way to the Rays' 4-2 victory.

• In Friday's chat, I fielded questions on the World Series, the offseason, and the Hall of Fame. A brief sampling:
oira61 (San Francisco): It seems like there are no players on either team who are already good Hall of Fame candidates (though guys like Utley, Upton, etc. have time to qualify.) Can you ever remember a Series without such an established veteran star?

JJ: Wow, that's a good question, one that pretty much ties into what I was saying a couple of days ago about how rare it is to get two fresh teams facing off in the series for the first time in awhile. Add to that the fact that both teams are dominated by younger guys whose best days may still be ahead of them and you wind up with a situation like this. I'm jogging my memory and looking back over the WS matchups and thinking that we've hit a real stumper. At the time, people wondered aloud if the 1998 Yankees would yield a Hall of Famer, but now it's apparent that Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will make it if nobody else does, to say nothing of Tony Gwynn from the opposite dugout.

The 1982 matchup maybe - at the time it certainly wasn't apparent that Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor or Don Sutton would make it (Sutton would win 60-something more games in the majors), and Rollie Fingers was sidelined too. Definitely a question to sock away for future pondering.

Swingingbunts (NY): I think the 1997 World Series is a good match for the 1st question. The Indians had Manny and Thome but they were only 25 at the time. The Marlins had Sheffield who was only 28. That's about it.

JJ: Fair point, though I guess one might have been forgiven for hoping that Kevin Brown or Orel Hershiser might continue building strong cases, David Justice (31 and coming off a monster year) too.

Ameer (NYC): ...Follow-up to the first question of the chat--who do you see as the most likely HOF candidates on each of these WS teams? I know it's a lot harder to make any kind of prognostication with the kids, like Price, but hey, it's fun to take a guess.

JJ: ...Looking at these rosters, I'd say both Utley and Howard have uphill battles given their relatively late starts to their careers, though Utley could be the Jeff Kent of the next decade albeit with better defense AND plate discipline. Rollins may make a run at 3000 hits; despite his flaws, he's got 1461 through his Age 29 season and he's generally been very durable. The sky's the limit for Cole Hamels if he stays healthy...

And you an say that about Longoria, Upton, Price, Shields, Kazmir... all of them or none of them might pan out as HOFers - if I had to pick one I'd put my money on Longoria.

blaseta (Calgary): Do you see the Jays having any chance at signing Derek Lowe? They seem like a really good fit with their strong infield defense. Personally, I think they'd be much better signing him then they would be if they got AJ Burnett back given their respective histories. Am I making sense are is my dislike of AJ getting in the way?

JJ: Lowe has been among the most durable pitchers in the majors; he's second to Maddux in games started over the last four years while Burnett is... not. He's a horse and there aren't too many teams who COULDN'T use a pitcher like that. Which means the Jays would have to outbid the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets and anyone else who throws their hat in the ring.

As for Burnett, he's got a MUCH higher upside, but with the high reward comes a very inflated risk, not to mention his reputation as a jackass, which as you acknowledge can distort the perception of his value. If he opts out, I think the Jays are better off looking in another direction rather than paying him, though I'm sure somebody will.
• On Monday night, I partook in a World Series roundtable along with colleagues Will Carroll, Steve Goldman, Derek Jacques, Christina Kahrl, David Laurilia and Joe Sheehan. Despite the incessant tangential banter about the career of Hall and Oates (much of which thankfully took place before I arrived on the scene), we did spend a lot of time talking about baseball and in particular the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions which led to the suspension of the Game in the middle of the sixth inning. I laid out my feelings on the topic of whether the game should be halted as the weather worsened (I've italicized reader questions to make them more clear than they are at the BP site):
Jay Jaffe (7:49:58 PM PT): I can't believe there's no contingency for suspending a non-tied postseason game after the fifth due to unplayable weather conditions. This is horse****.

Jay Jaffe (8:16:09 PM PT): "Tim (Philly): This is an absolute embarrassment. Had the Rays not scored, theres no way they'd have called the game. I don't want to hear a single Rays fan say they got unlucky breaks this series. Major League Baseball just handed them the World Series."

For what it's worth (i.e., not much), MLB's resident prince of darkness Bob Dupuy told Chris Myers that they were going to bring out the tarp at the end of the half inning because conditions had gotten so bad. I'm not exactly ready to buy that, but even if it's true, it's a loooooooong stretch to say delaying a tie game with a team down 3-1 is handing anybody the World Series.

Let me get this straight: you seem to think a team that was 12 outs from a World Champions are going to curl up into a fetal position and let themselves be steamrolled by the Rays simply because of the timing of a tarp?

Jay Jaffe (8:37:23 PM PT): "Jon (SF): Maybe I am naive or missing something, but I fail to see how the Phillies are being screwed. Please explain."

At the simplest level, the idea is that the two teams should both be playing under the same conditions for an even amount of time. When the lights are turned on for a game, for example, they have to be turned on at the start of an inning so one team doesn't gain an advantage.

At a deeper level... reader tirk44 sums it up well: "Thinking ahead the Rays must be feeling good. They have a 3 1/2 inning game whenever this gets started, and the Phillies' best pitcher is likely done for the year. It's not a stretch to say that the pitching matchups, and home field advantage, favor the Rays in games 6 & 7"

Jay Jaffe (9:26:04 PM PT):...I'll cap this with a closing observation based on watching part of the post-game press conference. It sounded quite apparent that there was a mandate from MLB to the umpiring crew prior to the game to play all nine innings even if that required an unprecedented (in WS history) suspension of play. If that's the case, then maybe there was a bit more leadership than I've given credit for. The timing of the suspension was still awkward and arguably bent towards the Rays, but I think we can all agree that a title granted via rainout would have been the worst of all possible outcomes.

The commissioner who gave us an All-Star game that ended in a tie did manage to avoid a situation that would be ridiculed even more. So he's got that going for him.
• Finally, in addition to discussing the sodden conditions, my column for today puts the oh-fers of Carlos Peña and Evan Longoria — a combined 0-for-31 leading up to the fourth inning of Game Five after combining for 26 hits, nine homers, and 21 RBI in the first two rounds of the postseason — into historical context. Not all of the baker's dozen players on the list, which spans 100 years, failed to collect a hit in the World Series, but the performances of Dave Winfield (1-for-22 in 1981), Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (a combined 2-for-36 in 1988, albeit with two homers) aren't much better for having avoided the horse collar. Here's a couple of interesting ones:
7. Davey Johnson, Orioles, 1969
Perhaps better known for piloting the 1986 Mets to their second World Championship, Johnson also played a part in their first one, albeit reluctantly: the All-Star second baseman went just 1-for-16 as the heavily favored, 109-win Orioles fell to the Miracle Mets. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around on a team that hit just .146 over the five game series, and Johnson wasn't even the worst offender. Brooks Robinson went 1-for-19 (albeit with two RBI to Johnson's zero), and Paul Blair and Don Buford each went 2-for-20, but Johnson's link to the Mets' two championships stands out, and that's why he's noted here.

8. Dick Green, Athletics, 1974
The Big Green Machine's second-base situation—exacerbated by manager Dick Williams' penchant for pinch-hitting for the light-hitting Green—had already drawn heavy scrutiny the previous fall, when owner Charlie Finley forced backup second baseman Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit saying he was injured after Andrews made errors on consecutive plays in the decisive 12th inning of Game Two. Finley wanted Andrews deactivated in favor of rookie Manny Trillo (who would later share in the 1980 Phillies' World Championship), but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn saw through the ploy, and Andrews' teammates mutinied, taping Andrews' uniform number to their uniforms during a workout.

Green had gone just 1-for-16 in Oakland's 1973 victory, but he under-did that the following year. New skipper Alvin Dark maintained Williams' tendency to pinch-hit for Green, who went 0-for-13 in the five-game victory over the Dodgers, but Green's slick fielding nonetheless helped him earn the Babe Ruth Award, given by the New York chapter of the BBWAA to the World Series MVP; Rollie Fingers won the official World Series MVP Award for collecting a win and two saves.
Anyway, it remains to be seen whether Pena and Longoria can hit their way out of consideration for an updated list, or when that might happen; given Tuesday night's grim forecast, MLB has decided not to attempt resumption of the game until Wednesday evening. As noted at the end of my piece, FanGraphs' live win expectancy figures show the Phillies with about a 58 percent shot at winning the game once play resumes, and even if the Rays should come back to force a Game Six and a Game Seven, Hamels would be available on three days' rest for the latter, assuming the travel day is absorbed by the rescheduling. The Phillies and their fans can gripe about getting a raw deal from Mother Nature and MLB, but they still hold a considerable advantage.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Radio Radio

Recently the guys who run "The Young Guns" show on Boston's WWZN have begun posting MP3s of their guests. My hit from this morning, discussing the outlook for the Phillies-Rays World Series, the fate of Manny Ramirez and the pair of offseason quandries the Red Sox face regarding Jason Varitek and David Ortiz, is here. Last week's show is here, in case you missed it.

I'm on at 8:05 AM Eastern every Wednesday morning at 1510 AM on your dial or on your browser, for those wishing to catch the show live.

In other series news, 27 out of 33 "Designated Hitter" alumni (a/k/a guest authors) of The Baseball Analysts website picked the Rays to win the World Series. My invitation to participate was mis-routed and thus late, and so my response has been posted in the comments and included in the aforementioned totals. Thirteen of the 33 see the series going to six games, with another 10 calling it in seven.

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Triple Threat

It's all the Jaffe you can eat today. I've got my hand in not one but two pieces today at Baseball Prospectus. First, there's a little something that Joe Sheehan and I cooked up, a thought experiment in which we pooled the Rays' and Phillies' rosters and chose up sides, schoolyard style, based simply on who we'd want to play for us over the next two weeks.

The idea was to illustrate Tampa Bay's edge in depth, and I think we did that. The first 21 picks featured 11 Rays and 10 Phillies, but of the next 19 picks, 13 were Rays, and the last 10 picks were all Phillies. In general, Rays were chosen ahead of their Philly counterparts, with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson rating as the exceptions. The lower portions of Philadelphia's lineup, bench and bullpen, in our consensus, simply don't match up to those of the Rays. That said, our agreement to avoid positional hoarding within the closed system of the draft meant that one person's choice often dictated another, and a straight reading of the picks as overall, objective rankings is likely to be misread. Speaking for myself, I chose strategically, focusing on choices where the gap between the players at the two positions was the widest and deferring ones where it wasn't as clear (see the Ryan Howard/Carlos Pena bit below).

Also up is today's column, examining the Rays' historic turnaround in Defensive Efficiency, a topic I first addressed in the spring with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Back in mid-April, when PECOTA's forecast for an 88-win season for the Rays still rated as outrageous, I dug deep to expose an underlying assumption of that projection which seemed even more outrageous. Namely, the Rays' rise was predicated on a record-setting year-to-year improvement in Defensive Efficiency, the ability of their fielders to convert batted balls into outs. As with the bullpen, the 2007 Devil Rays' defense had a claim as the worst in history via the lowest Defensive Efficiency since 1954, the earliest year of our database. Crunching the numbers, I concluded that PECOTA was predicting a 46-point DE improvement for the 88-win Rays, a jump that would rank as the second-greatest of all time. I remained skeptical:
The take-home message here is that the magnitude of the defensive jump that stands as part of the foundation of this year's Rays forecast is virtually unprecedented over the last half-century. The franchise has plenty of reasons for optimism, both for the 2008 season and in the years beyond, and if nothing else they should be a damn sight more appealing than the eyesores of yesteryear. But at the moment, the case for their sudden rise into contention appears to be overstated, and we'd be well served to temper our expectations.
Holiday bird-feasting is still about a month away, but it's time to eat some crow here, since the Rays not only surpassed the 88 wins but also the 46-point jump. As with the bullpen's WXRL total and Fair Run Average, they set a record for the largest year-to-year improvement in our database, and they led the majors in that category as well. Nate Silver's roll continues.
Rather than embark on another lengthy history lesson involving other teams who improved dramatically from year to year, I added a handful of World Series notes. Many of them are Rays themed, not because I have anything against the Phillies (despite their having steamrolled my two favorite NL teams on their way to the pennant) but because between the my previews for the Division and League Championship Series and articles covering the latter I've got at least 10,000 words about the Phillies under my belt this month. No disrespect, all due respect, fugeddaboutit, howyadoin'...

Here's a taste:
The Rays' hitting is better than most people think

There's a popular misconception that the Rays aren't a great-hitting team, one borne of the fact that they finished just ninth in the AL in runs per game, fourth in on-base percentage, and eighth in slugging percentage. They had some injuries which affected those rankings — Evan Longoria's wrist, Carl Crawford's hamstring, B.J. Upton's shoulder — but as the ALCS showed, all of those players appear to be in working order right now, to say the least. That trio alone combined for 26 hits, eight homers and 23 RBI in the seven-game series, and Carlos Pena and Willy Aybar added another 15 hits, five homers and 12 RBI between them. These guys have some punch.

What the regular-season numbers ignore is the fact that the Rays play in very pitcher-friendly park. According to the five-year park factors on our Equivalent Average page, Tropicana Field has the fourth-toughest park for offense in the league behind Seattle, Oakland and Minnesota, depressing scoring by about three percent. Equivalent Average adjusts for that, and the Rays' .265 EQA actually ranks third in the AL behind only Texas and Boston:
Team          PF    EQA   EQR    Runs
Rangers 1018 .278 857.9 901
Red Sox 1049 .270 787.5 845
Rays 972 .265 766.4 774
Twins 961 .264 755.4 829
Tigers 1029 .264 758.1 821
Yankees 1019 .262 731.9 789
Indians 1009 .261 733.9 805
Orioles 1023 .259 716.5 782
White Sox 1039 .259 720.6 811
Angels 1016 .254 678.2 765
Blue Jays 990 .253 672.8 714
Mariners 953 .250 662.7 671
Royals 1013 .246 629.4 691
Athletics 957 .244 619.5 646
Speaking of adjusting for offensive context and clearing up misconceptions, it's worth noting that Citizens Bank Park isn't exactly Coors Field East; its 1006 Park Factor means that scoring is inflated there by less than one percent. Once you adjust for that, the Phillies' .267 EQA ranks fourth in the league behind the Cardinals, Mets and Cubs. They certainly have more raw power than the Rays, but this isn't a mismatch.
If that's not enough, I'll also be partaking in BP's Game One roundtable, with a chat of my own scheduled for Friday. Better go ice my shoulder...

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


October Surprise

As noted in my previous post, with the Dodgers out of the playoffs, I was pretty skittish about investing much emotional energy in the remaining ALCS battle as the Red Sox stormed back to force a seventh game against the Rays after being down 3-1. Moments after sitting down to Game Seven, I was IMing friends following Dustin Pedroia's first-inning homer. "Two batters in and I'm ready to chew a limb off," I wrote.

Luckily, Game Seven turned out to be one for the ages, and I emerged with limbs (if not fingernails) intact. Pedroia's homer was the only one hit the Sox would collect off Rays starter Matt Garza until the seventh inning, by which point the upstarts from Tampa Bay had taken a 2-1 lead against Jon Lester, courtesy of an RBI double by Evan Longoria in the third and an RBI single by Rocco Baldelli in the fifth. Garza struck out nine Sox hitters, seven of them swinging, making their lineup look old and impotent -- such a joy to see David Ortiz and Jason Varitek flailing after all the grief they've caused over the last few years.

Former Dodger Willie Aybar added an insurance run via a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, and after Boston's Alex Cora (another former Dodger) reached on an error by Jason Bartlett to start the eighth, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon pulled Garza and essentially traded pitchers for outs, maneuvering through his battered bullpen to get the most favorable matchups.

Maddon used four relievers to get out of the eighth, the last of whom became the story of the night. As the overall #1 pick in the 2007 draft, David Price is hardly an unknown in the baseball world, but with just 15 big-league innings under his belt to that point in time, bringing him for such a crucial situation -- two on and two out in the eighth, with J.D. Drew at the plate and all the money on the table -- was still a gutsy move. At Baseball Prospectus, where we've touted the Rays as contenders since pitchers and catchers reported, the idea that Price could get key innings in the postseason was one that's been circulating for awhile, but watching that possibility come to life nonetheless made for stirring theater: "David Price in October Surprise."

Price struck out Drew on four pitches, the last of them a 97 MPH low-and-away fastball against which Drew tried to check his swing. He came back to nail down the ninth inning, walking Jason Bay but going through a very weak bottom of the order like a hot knife through butter. Mark Kotsay fouled two off to fall behind O-2, took two balls and then struck out looking on a pitch similar to the one that capped Drew's at-bat, Varitek went down swinging against a slider over the middle of the plate, and pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie grounded to second base to seal the game and the pennant for the Rays. Thriling stuff, not only to see the stake hammered through the heart of the Red Sox but to see the upstart Rays get one step closer to completing their amazing worsst-to-first journey.

For today's Prospectus Hit and Run column, I took a look at the turnaround of the Rays' bullpen since last year, when they were the worst in the majors according to BP's Reliever Expected Wins Added metric (they were first this year) and virtually tied for the worst since 1954 (as far back as our play-by-play-based database goes) in Fair Run Average, their runs allowed per nine innings after adjusting for their performance in handling inherited runners. I looked at the nuts and bolts involved in turning such a historically awful unit around and the historical precedents for doing so:
Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman couldn't be blamed for wanting to burn the bullpen to the ground and start over, and that's almost what they did. They signed free agents Troy Percival and Trever Miller, and shifted 2007 starters Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell to the bullpen. Here's what they got (relief stats only):
Name              IP     FRA  WXRL    LEV
J.P. Howell 89.1 2.78 4.6 1.41
Dan Wheeler 66.1 2.94 2.1 1.84
Grant Balfour 58.1 0.96 3.4 1.34
Jason Hammel 50.2 5.81 0.7 0.84
Troy Percival 45.2 5.26 1.7 1.51
Trever Miller 43.1 3.32 1.5 1.07
Gary Glover 34.0 6.21 0.5 0.81
Al Reyes 22.2 4.86 0.0 0.98
Chad Bradford 19.0 2.65 0.8 1.53
David Price 8.2 1.20 0.1 0.60
Percival, who'd come out of retirement to put together a nice second half in St. Louis in 2007, was installed as the closer, and despite serving stints on the DL in June and July, he saved 27 games and put up a 3.69 ERA into mid-August before injuring his knee while fielding a bunt. He was rocked for seven runs in his first four appearances upon returning, lost his closer job and pitched sparingly while dealing with assorted maladies, and was left off of the post-season roster. Balfour and Wheeler, acquired in separate deals near the 2007 trade deadline, both filled in for Percival, with the former coming up from Triple-A Durham and carving out a roster spot for himself in the closer's absence. Howell emerged as a multi-inning lefty stopper, giving Maddon a much more versatile palette to draw on for the late innings, while Miller did solid work as a lefty specialist. Meanwhile, 2007 mainstays Glover and Reyes both struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness and were cut loose in midseason as more effective pitchers were added to the roster; Reyes was designated for assignment shortly after the team traded for Bradford in early August.
The year-to-year increase in WXRL ranks as the greatest of all time:
Year   Team        WXRL   Prev   Diff
2008 Rays 15.2 -1.8 17.0
2007 Indians 13.5 -1.5 15.1
1996 Padres 16.0 1.3 14.7
1970 Phillies 11.3 -2.7 14.0
2001 Astros 13.3 -0.4 13.7
2002 Twins 16.7 3.5 13.2
1993 Dodgers 11.8 -1.1 12.9
1992 Indians 10.4 -2.4 12.8
2006 Mets 17.8 5.0 12.8
2004 Cardinals 15.0 2.4 12.6
1974 Braves 5.9 -6.6 12.5
1991 Braves 7.8 -4.6 12.4
1996 Yankees 14.2 1.8 12.3
1998 Padres 15.9 3.8 12.1
2007 Royals 10.4 -1.6 12.0
1989 Cubs 8.8 -2.4 11.2
2002 Braves 18.9 7.9 11.0
2004 Padres 11.0 0.6 10.4
1992 Astros 11.1 0.8 10.4
2000 Mariners 12.0 1.8 10.2
2007 Braves 11.4 1.2 10.2
The list is heavily weighted towards the modern era, where bullpens get more usage than in the past and thus generate higher WXRL totals and larger year-to-year fluctuations. Nonetheless, such improvement is a good indicator for success. Fourteen of those 21 teams made the postseason, five of them (the 1991 Braves, 1996 Yankees, 1998 Padres, 2004 Cardinals and now these Rays) won the pennant, while the 2006 Mets and 2007 Indians came within a game of doing so. Oddly enough, those Yankees, who benefited from Mariano Rivera's first full year in the bullpen, were the only team here who actually won the World Series.

My money says the Rays could be the second one. Given the similarly long layoffs that seemed to hamper both the 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies, teams that clinched the pennant early while the other LCS went the distance, I think the Phillies are actually at a disadvantage having rested for six days. After all, it's not like the extra rest will spur them to start Cole Hamels -- the best starter in the series -- three times instead of two. Furthermore, the Rays enjoy the edges in both topline talent -- an idea Joe Sheehan and I explored in a little exercise that will run tomorrow at BP -- and in all of the non-Hamels pitching matchups. They're my pick in six games, and I'll be cheering for their amazing story to continue. Go Rays!

• • •

Quick post-pub side note: ESPN's Jayson Stark has some interesting stuff on the link between the drawn-out postseason and the less-than-competitive World Series we've seen in recent years (three sweeps in the past four years, with the 2006 five-gamer the exception):
• In the 25 years of the two-round division-play era, there were only five World Series in which at least one team had five or more days off before the Series started -- and only two in which one team had four more days off than its opponent.

• But in the 14 postseasons since the expansion to three rounds, we've already had EIGHT years (including this one) in which at least one team had to wait around for at least five days for the World Series to begin.

• And now, for the first time ever, we've seen three straight years in which one of these World Series teams had a full week between games. The Phillies can only hope that's not as dangerous a development for them as it was for the 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies.
The aforementioned 1996 Yankees also fit the bill as a team that struggled upon taking time off. They clinched the AL pennant on October 13, then had to wait until October 20 to start the World Series. The Braves, who had clinched on October 17, pounded the Yankees by a combined score of 16-1 in the first two games before the Yankees shook off the rust and stormed back to take the next four (thanks to Nick Stone for the reminder on that front).

Good stuff, definitely something Bud and the boys at MLB should consider -- particularly getting rid of those non-travel off days that have sprung up like mushrooms over the past few years while pushing the World Series ever closer to November.

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Friday, October 17, 2008


Dreams and Nightmares

Writing up a postmortem of the NLCS for Baseball Prospectus today, I was forced by the events of last night in Fenway Park to graft a new head onto my piece like some Dr. Frankenstein. Having watched enough of the Red Sox from the vantage point of a Yankees fan last year, I could see all too well what was in store:
No lead is safe.

If there's one thing I've learned from rooting against the Red Sox over the past decade or so, it's that in Fenway Park a ballgame is never as over as it seems based merely on a lopsided score. The Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, and the odd angles in between all appear designed by some sadistic baseball god to exert a gravitational pull towards entropy — an entropy where the only thing more chaotic than the endless rallies which generate a seemingly insurmountable early lead are the endless rallies where that lead is swallowed into some rip in the space-time continuum which leaks odd bounces and extra outs. It ain't over 'til it's over, indeed.

Thursday night's ALCS Game Five was just such a game, yet another surreal encounter in a series that has been full of them. With the defending World Champion Red Sox having been pushed to the brink of elimination by three straight losses to the Rays by a combined score of 31-13 and with the Monster having been used for target practice by its upstart visitors, the early home runs hit by B.J. Upton, Carlos Peña, and Evan Longoria — a trio that's now combined for 10 in the series — felt like reruns. By the time the Rays took a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning, they'd been prematurely anointed AL champions by the TBS crew and most of a country that's forgotten the lessons of the 1999 Division Series and the 2004 and 2007 ALCS. For those of us wanting to see the villain killed off, it's just another installment of that z-grade horror series, Nightmare on Lansdowne Street.

Scarred by such lessons, I'll confess to having not let myself get too absorbed in this series thus far, particularly because of my immersion in the NLCS as both a diehard Dodgers fan and a hopefully more level-headed analyst. I love a post-season doubleheader as much as the next man, but there's no suffering through five-and-a-half hours of strike-zone nibbling, ineffectual relief pitching, and multiple lead changes for a man with a Tivo and a desire to some claim on sanity, particularly one with the sting of the Dodgers' defeat still fresh in mind. Prior to Thursday night, I might have admitted it was my loss, but fast-forwarding to the improbable heroics of David Ortiz and J.D. Drew in front of a reanimated Fenway crowd reminded me down to the pit of my stomach that I haven't missed a damn thing. I've seen this show before, thank you, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't end well.
As for the Dodgers, who bowed out on Wednesday night, here's some of what I had to say:
Still, it was a thrilling ride for the Dodgers, the best they've given their fans in the 20 years since Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershier willed another injury-wracked team past the heavily favored Mets in the NLCS and then the equally heavily favored A's in the World Series. Derided for winning just 84 games, these Dodgers put their strongest team on the field in October, one that over the course of a full season might have been ten wins better than their final record, and one that clearly illustrates that for all the faults of their management — the wasteful contracts dispensed by Ned Colletti, the lineup dickering of Joe Torre — the team's deep reserves of both talent and money can make them a formidable club when they do get it right.

As for what comes next, the Dodgers face some truly vexing questions with regards to their free agents. Can they afford to keep Ramirez, given the probability that he may command something well beyond $100 million to cover the twilight years of his late 30s and early 40s? Can they afford not to, given that they haven't had a single player hit over 20 home runs for them since 2005, and that Manny Being Manny was such a huge hit with the fans of Los Angeles? If they keep him, can they dig a ditch deep enough to sink the costs of both Juan Pierre ($28.5 million remaining) and Andruw Jones ($22.1 million remaining, in a heavily back-loaded deal), both of whom want out of LA every bit as badly as the fans want them gone? Will they let rotation anchor Derek Lowe walk after he piled up 135 starts for them over the past four years, tied for second-most in the majors? Will they pick up the $8.75 million option on Brad Penny, who put up a 6.27 ERA after a Cy Young-caliber season, and who has managed just one more start over the past five years than Lowe has in four? What of Furcal, who's had stretches of MVP-caliber play when healthy, but who was limited to just 36 games this season? If they let Furcal, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, and Casey Blake all leave, how many of their infield spots will they turn over to youngsters Blake DeWitt, Chin-Lung Hu, and Tony Abreu? Can they trust Colletti to make better decisions than the ones that put them into such a bind this year? These things give Dodger fans plenty of reasons to lie awake at night.

For better or worse, such decisions will be dealt with in due course. In the meantime, this Dodger fan would like simply to say thank you and farewell to the exciting and occasionally frustrating club that provided such a thrilling joyride over the past two and a half months after so much disappointment prior. Having watched Ramirez star in so many installments of those aforementioned Nightmare on Lansdowne flicks, it was refreshing to sit back (or, more often, bolt upright) and appreciate his tremendous gifts as a hitter, even if he did shoot a man in Boston just to watch him die, or whatever crimes it was that the mainstream media would have had you believe he committed to grease his skids out of Beantown.

Furthermore, it was a gas to watch the Dodgers' highly-touted young nucleus, which bore such harsh criticism for their late-2007 fade, shed some baggage by helping to capture the NL West flag and then to roll past the heavily-favored Cubs in the first round. If Kemp, Martin, Billingsley, Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Hong-Chih Kuo, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Cory Wade, et al weren't good enough to be National League champions yet, they're still on the sunny side of 27, and time is on their side. It's been 20 years since the Dodgers were such fun, and I already can't wait for the next one to start.
The end wasn't pretty, but it was a great year for the Dodgers. Reading the entertaining post-mortem on the excellent and well-named Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness blog, I was reminded of all of the improbabilities that occurred between spring training and the team's elimination:
Who could have seen Nomar and LaRoche getting hurt in the same spring game? Is it more surprising that DeWitt was the Opening Day 3B or that he was the starting 2B in the NLCS? Are you more amazed that Andruw Jones had quite possibly the worst season in baseball history (even those against ardently his signing never saw this coming, don’t lie) or that Joe Torre would actually bench Pierre? That the shortstop who would get the most at-bats this season would not be Rafael Furcal or Chin-Lung Hu, but Royals bust Angel Berroa? That Russell Martin would make only four fewer starts at third base than LaRoche? That Kuo would become one of the most dominating relievers in the entire sport, and that Wade would become a huge part of the bullpen? Every team has injuries, but how many teams can claim to be in first place in September despite having their Opening Day starting pitcher, ace closer, shortstop, second baseman, third baseman, and center fielder either on the DL or in the minors?
Some seriously crazy stuff had to go down in order for the Dodgers even to assemble the unlikely cast that they did, let alone to get so far into the postseason, and if that doesn't sum up baseball's charms, well, I'll once again invoke some familiar words:

You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it." -- Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns... And Comebacks

Well, my Dodgers-in-six prediction isn't looking so hot these days. Here's what I've been up to since then:

• My rundown of the first two games of the NLCS, with a statistical look at the Phillies' reliance on the home run ball for their scoring.

• Some notes for Game Four that foreshadowed Derek Lowe's early exit and showed how Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel went against type by calling upon closer Brad LIdge in the eighth inning.

• A closer examination of Manuel and Torre's bullpen handling in Game Four.

• With the Red Sox joining the Dodgers in the 3-1 pit of despair, today I've got a look at the history of teams that came back from such deficits to win a seven-game series. I expanded what was originally intended to be an Unfiltered post into a full-fledged piece, with details about each comeback. What follows here is a bare-bones version on the times that it's happened.

• • •

From 1922 to 1984, the World Series was the only seven-game series on the baseball calendar. Prior to that, it had occasionally been a best-of-nine affair instead of a best-of-seven, but since the first 3-1 comeback didn't happen until 1925, it makes for an acceptable shortcut to begin counting at the point where the Fall Classic reverted to its current form. In 1969, expansion split the two leagues into two divisions apiece, giving rise to the League Championship Series, but those remained best-of-five contests until 1985.

In this span of 63 World Series, only four teams came back from 3-1 to win:

1925 WS: Pirates over Senators
1958 WS: Yankees over Braves
1968 WS: Tigers over Cardinals
1979 WS: Pirates over Orioles

From 1985 to 1993, the postseason consisted of three seven-game series a year, the two newly-expanded League Championship Series and the World Series. Of the 27 series in this era, three teams came back from 3-1 to win, with one team doing so twice in the same year:

1986 ALCS: Red Sox over Angels
1985 ALCS: Royals over Blue Jays
1985 WS: Royals over Cardinals

Since 1995, the postseason has become a three-tiered extravaganza, though the two LCS and the World Series remain the only seven-game series. Of the 39 series from 1995 through 2007, four teams have come back from 3-1 to win:

1996 NLCS: Braves over Cardinals
2003 NLCS: Marlins over Cubs
2004 ALCS: Red Sox over Yankees (was 3-0)
2007 ALCS: Red Sox over Indians

In all, that's 11 comebacks out of 129 series (8.5 percent). In the seven-game LCS era, that's seven out of 66 series (10.6 percent). Going just by World Series, that's five out of 85 (5.9 percent), by LCS it's six out of 44 (13.6 percent). All told, that's roughly one in 10 times, with the odds apparently greater if you're the Red Sox.

The full details on each comeback/meltdown, as well as a look at the historical breakdown of each team winning Game Five and the series, are available in the subscriber version.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008


Preview Redux

The version of my NLCS Preview is up now, complete with, like, three grammatical corrections even. Talk about a value add. I actually had no idea how long the piece was, word-count-wise, but ESPN's Rob Neyer counted it up in the service of giving me a nice shoutout in a blog entry($) today: 5,408 words. Dunno if that includes all those little numbers, but damn, I outdid myself. Anyway, here's Rob:
In my last post, I picked the Phillies to beat the Dodgers.

Then I read about the Diamond Mind simulation, in which the series was played 2,000 times and the Dodgers won 62 percent of them. Then I read Jay Jaffe's in-depth (5,408 words!) analysis of the series and learned some things I didn't already know.

For one thing, the Phillies depend on home runs for their offensive punch. Actually, I knew that already. What I didn't know is that the Dodgers are exceptionally skilled at preventing home runs, giving up only 123 all season, fewest in the majors. And it's across the board. All three of their top starting pitchers gave up only 13 or 14 homers this year. The Phillies won't find a soft underbelly until Game 4, when they face Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw; Maddux gave up 21 homers in 194 innings this season, Kershaw 11 in 108.

...Meanwhile, the Phillies' top two starters -- Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer -- are lefties. Who do the Dodgers want to face?

I'll spare you the odd self-referentiality of quoting him quoting me on the Dodgers' lefty splits, and instead cut to the end of the piece. Referring to the headline of his previous post, he closes with the following: "The Dodgers are the trendy pick, and the Phillies are the better team. But sometimes being better isn't good enough. There seem to be some pretty good reasons for Jaffe to pick the Dodgers in six, and for Diamond Mind to make the Dodgers overwhelming favorites."

Very cool.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of Dodger-flavored questions in my chat at BP today, and also some good ones on the Brewers and on pitching prospects:
pestevez (Miami): Do you see Dewitt as a semi long term answer at 2B for the Dodgers? I don't recall their having an upcoming 2B in the system.

JJ: Gonna double up this question with one my friend Nick keeps trying to submit: "Who is the real Furcal? The .814 OPS from 2006? The .688 in 2007? Should this year's injury issues give the Dodgers pause about resigning him?"

[Rafael] Furcal is a fantastic, MVP-caliber player when healthy, which is about two months a year lately. I think his injury should definitely make the Dodgers think twice about signing him. I'm not opposed to it (perhaps overly jazzed about what he's shown in the last three games) but if they do I'd like to see another shorter-term deal (3 years max) with some incentive clauses or vesting options in there.

As for [Blake] DeWitt, the Dodgers have him, Chin-Lung Hu and hopefully Tony Abreu as up-and-comers, and as I said in last week's roundtable, that leaves them many options to fill their infield in a post-Kent, post-Blake (and post-LaRoche) world. It's too obvious for them to try to let all of those young 'uns have jobs, so they're likely to sign/acquire/retain at least one of the Furcal/Kent/Blake lot and then let the others battle it out for two positions.

I'm not entirely convinced DeWitt's a good enough fielder at 2B. I'm also not convinced his bat can carry 3B yet. I think the chances of one of those two coming through in the next couple years is decent, but I don't know which one, and I'm not sure the Dodgers do either.

• • •

HRFastness (MKE): So, if your Doug Melvin, are you trading JJ? Moving him to 2B and Weeks to Center? Essentially, the question is this: If you're Dough Melvin, what trades and positional moves are you making for the Brewers this winter?

JJ: I'd think about moving Hardy to 2B or 3B to accommodate Escobar (or maybe he moves, I don't know without talking to somebody more knowledgeable about his defense), I'd think about moving Weeks to CF or another team.

I think Prince Fielder may be a more tradable/replaceable commodity than Hardy. I know one of the big media wags proposed a Fielder/Matt Cain swap, which makes sense given the Brewers' need for pitching in a post-Sheets, post-Sabathia world. The Brewers would hear about it from their fans, though.

• • •

mattymatty (Philly): Going into this season Phil Hughes and Clay Buchholz were widely considered to be two of the best young pitchers in the game. Both had what might kindly be termed lost seasons. Were we wrong to think they were so good? What do you think about them going forward? Thanks!

JJ: As we like to say around these parts: TNSTAAPP. There's no such thing as a pitching prospect, because pitchers don't develop in orderly fashion. Injuries happen, mechanical flaws manifest themselves, crises of confidence occur, hitters adjust, and suddenly guys don't look like the ones in the catalog.

Both Hughes and Buchholz had lost years, but it's way too early to give up on them given the promise they've shown and the health of their arms. Most pitchers who are anointed top prospects have faced little adversity over the course of their careers to get to that point - they've dominated just about every level. Figuring out how to cope with failure, adversity and opponents' adjustments is all part of the learning curve, and some guys take longer to do that than others.
As usual, there's plenty more where that came from -- each of those topics had at least one follow-up in the chat, but rather than spoil the fun here, please go read for yourself.

Go Dodgers!

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Clearing the Bases: Chitter Chatter Pitter Patter

A few things:

• The 12-minute spot I recorded on Wednesday morning for "The Young Guns" show on Boston's WWZN 1510 AM is available here. Hopefully now that the show's got a blog they'll be archiving all of my appearances so I can share them here (you can listen to a web stream if you're not in the Boston market but that's live).

As for the clip, once you adjust for the fact that I'd been awake for about seven minutes and was trying to force enough coffee down my gullet to sound coherent, it sounds fine. Though the emphasis is on the Red Sox, there's lots of talk about both LCS matchups.

• I'll be hosting a chat at Baseball Prospectus on Thursday at 2 PM Eastern to discuss both series and anything else you may have on your mind. Those of you looking for something to do after getting home from Yom Kippur services can get a head start on next year's atonement slate by stopping by; that's my plan, at least.

• Familiar faces Joe Sheehan and Cliff Corcoran have nice little wrapups of the Division Series at on the topic of "What We Learned," in five bite-sized chunks. Cliff's piece covers the AL; here's what he had to say about the Rays:
4. The Rays are an extremely well-rounded team

The Rays aren't going to crush their opponents. They don't have a shut-down ace (though they might when David Price is ready for his close-up). They don't have a don't-let-him-beat-you masher in their lineup (though Evan Longoria could quickly mature into such a hitter). They don't really even have a closer (though curse-spewing Aussie Grant Balfour could assume the role before the postseason is over). They scored just 4.78 runs per game in the regular season, which was a lowly ninth in the AL, and didn't score more than six in any game of the ALDS. They aren't going to beat their opponents into submission; they're just going to out-play them.

The Rays were second in the AL in walks, led the league in stolen bases with a respectable 74 percent success rate, and were the best team in the majors at turning balls in play into outs. Speed, patience, and defense are perhaps the must undervalued skills in the game, and the last has a very large effect on pitching, which is a large reason why the Rays allowed 1.7 fewer runs per game this year than last. The Rays were also second in the AL in one-run wins (to the Angels, who ironically fell one-run short last night) and led the league in extra-inning victories.

One way to look at those stats is to say that the Rays are a team balancing on a razor's edge. Another is to say they're a team that wins games on the margins by being one step faster on the bases and in the field, by tracking down one extra out, and extending their own half of the inning by one extra at-bat, and by not allowing their opponents to plan around their one big bopper or their ace starter. Akinori Iwamura, Dioner Navarro, and Carlos Peña were the top Tampa hitters in the ALDS, but Longoria and Upton both had multi-homer games. Their bullpen allowed one run in 11 2/3 innings while striking out 13. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Matt Garza are each capable of a dominant pitching performance. The Rays are dangerous because, while none of their players is going to single-handedly destroy their opponent, they're all capable of hurting them, and the opposing team never knows where the blow are going to come from on any given day.
Joe's piece is on the NL, and his point about the Brewers reflects a change in tune from his thoughts a couple days earlier, perhaps reflecting the enthusiasm he saw in Miller Park last weekend even as the Brew Crew went down in defeat:
4. Despite the early exit, the CC Sabathia trade was worth it for the Brewers.

They may miss Matt LaPorta down the road, as not having him limits their options for future trades, but the Brewers would not have made the postseason without Sabathia, and making the postseason has been a great moment for this franchise. After such a disappointing 2007, in which they blew an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL Central, there was a risk that another such season would jade a fan base just as the products of the farm system were coming together.

By winning a tight wild-card race, bringing October baseball back to Milwaukee and generating towel-waving, Thunderstick-banging excitement for a weekend, owner Mark Attanasio and GM Doug Melvin showed the fans that the Brewers could take the next step, a decision that will resonate for years.
Amen to that.

• Speeking of that, Sheehan's Yankee Stadium Memory for the Bronx Banter series is a fine piece about what must have been a great time -- a doubleheader from 1983, with extra innings in the second game. For a kid that's like ice cream forever.

Emma Span's piece is another worth recommending. Going against the grain, she chooses the infamous Bloody Sock Game (2004 ALCS Game Six) and captures a spirit of camaraderie among the ballpark's infamous hecklers. I bust a gut laughing at her NSFW account of the game, which felt cathartic even after all these years.

All of which prompted me to go looking for my own account of attending the game with Cliff. I wrote it up as a guest piece for, which has since merged with, orphaning my post. It took me awhile to find it via, but I did. Not exactly the most pleasant memory, I'll admit, but I'm proud of the piece and amazed I was able to churn out a nearly 4,000-word opus in less than 24 hours.

Those were the days.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008


NLCS Preview

My National League Championship Series preview is up at Baseball Prospectus, and it's free (it's supposed to be mirrored on as well, but that link will have to wait). In the intro, I included a hat-tip to one of the storied rivalries of my youth. I don't remember the 1977 wildness (recounted here and to even better effect via a column by the late, great Jim Murray at Dodger Thoughts), but I vividly remember "The Penguin" Ron Cey waddling home on Bill Russell's pennant-clinching hit in the 1978 LCS and the announcer telling the audience that Russell was a clutch hitter, a new concept to me. Anyway:
Adding color to what already appears to be a competitive series, the Phillies-Dodgers matchup is one steeped in LCS history. The two teams battled three times for the NL pennant from 1977 to 1983, with the Dodgers taking the first two series in memorable and sometimes bizarre fashion but the Phils getting the last laugh. Echoes of that matchup reverberate with the presence of representatives from that era on the coaching sidelines here; ironically, it's former Phillies pepperpot Larry Bowa coaching third base for the Dodgers in his inimitably aggressive style, and former Dodgers base thief extraordinaire schooling the Phils in the fine art of baserunning as the Phillies' first base coach. More recently, Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was astutely plucked from the Dodgers' system via the Rule 5 Draft in 2004, and right fielder Jayson Werth spent three years in LA before landing in Philadelphia. Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't note nearby Norristown, PA native (and Phillies' free-agent signing circa 1945) Tommy Lasorda's long-standing grudge against the Phillie Phanatic.
Further down, I've got some numbers on the Dodger offense pre- and post-Manny:
Period    Games  RS   R/G   HR (LgRk) RHR  %RHR (LgRk)  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
Thru 7/31 108 450 4.17 74 (15) 106 23.6 (15) .256/.321/.376
From 8/1 54 250 4.63 63 (3) 93 37.2 (7) .281/.355/.443
Total 162 700 4.32 137 (13) 199 28.4 (13) .264/.333/.399
Percentage of runs on home runs is a favorite stat of my colleague Joe Sheehan; it tends to characterize the potency of an offense. The Phillies were second in the league and third in the majors in this category at 42.6 percent, and the Dodgers, wiht the trade, moved up from a rate that would rank 15th in the league before the trade to seventh in the league (slightly above the 34.5 percent average) after. With Rafael Furcal now atop the lineup again in front of Ramirez and company, the importance of that stat grows even more.

Anyway, I went into the piece thinking that once again I'd be picking against a team I'm rooting for, but the closer I looked, the more I analyzed, the more I came around to the idea that this matchup could favor the Dodgers:
Despite the difference in full-season records, this is a relatively even matchup. Hamels is possibly the best starter on either team in the series, but the Phillies' reticence towards bringing him back on three days' rest may neutralize that if the Dodgers shorten their rotation and opt for Lowe to start Game Four. If that's the case, Philadelphia's only clear advantage in the matchups would come in the opener, whereas a Hamels/Billingsley Game Five could be a tossup (note the extra day off in between Games Four and Five that will keep the latter on normal rest), and Lowe-Blanton or Lowe-Moyer might be expected to tilt the Dodgers' way, tilting the series as well.

Otherwise, Torre's got a couple of decisions that may put him on the spot (Maddux/Kershaw for Game Four and Kuo on/off the roster), something he generally tries to avoid. Either way, that Game Four pairing could still favor the Dodgers by a hair, but the rest are tossups, with Hamels' and Billingsley's advantages over their opponents canceling out. What it may come down to in that case are the Dodgers' staff's stinginess in surrendering home runs (they led the NL with the fewest allowed at 123, 24 fewer than any other club) and their tactical advantage in being able to counter the Phillies' concentration of lefty threats with one pitcher as compared to the Dodgers' more dispersed lineup may prove the deciding factor.

In the end (and with the caveat that I'm a Dodger fan, albeit one who's proven comfortable with picking against my own strong rooting interests in such past previews), I'm willing to go out on a limb and call this for the Dodgers in six.
As I noted in the comments to that pice, adjusted for ballpark, the ability of the Dodger staff to limit home runs stands out even more starkly. Only Greg Maddux and Chan-Ho Park allowed homers at an above-average rate, and neither appear to be central to the Dodgers plans. By contrast, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton both allow homers at an above-average rate, and Cole Hamels is right at the average. Furthermore, as one Dodger Thoughts comment pointed out, Maddux and Clayton Kershaw are the only two pitchers active for the series who allowed home runs to the Phillies this year.

I'm still waiting to see how the various roster decisions fall regarding Hong-Chih Kuo (potentially on) and Takashi Saito (potentially off) before I adjust my analysis there. But I do think this is a winnable series for the boys in Dodger blue.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008


A Nice Saturday

On Saturday I watched the Dodgers win their first playoff series in 20 years. I watched the Brewers win their first playoff game in 26 years. And I welcomed home my wife after an eight-day business trip, just in time to join me on the couch for the latter as I waved my Brewers towel along with the 43,992 fans packed into Miller Park for the stadium's first-ever postseason game. Not a bad Saturday.

I was a college freshman when Orel Hershiser struck out Tony Phillips to complete one of the biggest World Series upsets in history. As upsets go, these Dodgers' sweep of the 97-win Cubs, owners of the NL's best record, rates pretty highly on the Upset-O-Meter as well. I don't know of anyone who predicted it, but via a discussion with a few of my Baseball Prospectus a quiet consensus emerged about the Dodgers' sleeper potential given their revamped lineup and the two teams' late-season play.

If Hershiser and company beating the A's seems like more than half a lifetime a go (and for me, it is), it makes my head spin even more to think that when Harvey's Wallbangers went up 3-2 at old County Stadium to send the 1982 World Series back to St. Louis, I was still about two months shy of my bar mitzvah. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Aaron and Jame, not only managed to snag a pair of tickets for the first postseason game in Miller Park history, they wound up on TV thanks to the TBS-friendly sign they made (picture 1, picture 2). Not a bad memento.

The season's final Hit List is up today; glad to retire that wordy beast for another winter. Thanks to my editors for their eternal patience with it, and to my readers for making the column such a popular one.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008


Predicting Playoff Success

Considering I spent about 10 hours on my couch watching baseball on Wednesday -- admittedly a good portion of it working on a couple different projects -- it was an exhausting day. The Brewers couldn't touch Cole Hamels, who looked better than I've ever seen him pitch. The more baseball I watch, the more I'm convinced that a high-quality change-up is the key to pitcher dominance. Pedro Martinez in his prime, Johan Santana, Greg Maddux... C.C. Sabathia the other day... and certainly Hamels are a few examples. Sabathia will have to bring his A-game today if the Brewers are to get back in this series.

Things worked out better in Chicago, where the Dodgers doubled their post-1988 postseason win total by beating the Cubs 7-2 on the strength of a grand slam by James Loney and solo shots by Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin. BP's Christina Karhl called the series for the Cubs in her preview, but between the conversations I've had with her and Joe Sheehan there's a consensus that this may actually be a stealable series for the Dodgers, who are fielding a much better club now than at any time during the season -- they've got Rafael Furcal and Takashi Saito back from injuries to go with Manny Ramirez and the absence of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. Hopefully they can push the Cubs to the brink with another win tonight.

In handicapping the various playoff series, mainstream pundits and barstool jockeys alike are apt to cite the contrast between teams' overall won-loss records in picking a favorite. As it turns out, going on overall record alone is a fool's errand. In the history of postseason baseball dating back to the dawn of divisional play in 1969, the team with the better record has won the series just 44 percent of the time. This alarming finding was something I discovered while doing some research earlier this week, and it forms the starting point of today's Baseball Prospectus column. As it turns out, projected records based on runs scored and runs allowed do a better job of predicting series winners, but even so are only right about 50 percent of the time. What turns out to be the most reliable indicator is a team's third-order discrepancy. In plain English, that's the difference between their projected record after adjusting for run elements, park, league, and quality of competition and their actual record. Teams with the larger discrepancies win postseason series about 53 percent of the time:
 Series       Period      #    W0    W1    D3
All 2-Div 1969-1993 72 .403 .417 .486
All 3-Div 1995-2007 91 .473 .560 .560

All 5-Game 1969-2007 82 .439 .476 .573
All 7-Game 1969-2007 81 .444 .519 .481

All Non-WS 1969-2007 126 .444 .516 .563
All WS 1969-2007 37 .432 .432 .405

All 1969-2007 163 .442 .497 .528
Any resemblance to the NL West standings is entirely coincidental, though it does make for a convenient metaphor. The data underscores the utter futility of using actual records to predict playoff series; that .442 winning percentage is a nearly exact match for the actual record of this year's Giants (.444). The success rate is considerably higher using first-order records, over .500 in some blocks but not all of them, enough to suggest that even using those is pretty much a crapshoot. It's at its highest with the third-order discrepancies, a little higher than the actual record this year's Dodgers on the whole (.519), and at times about as high as those big, bad Phillies (.568).

I don't want to overstate the claims about what all of this tells us given the sample sizes, but it's worth laying out the inferences we can draw:

1) Projected records appear to be solid indicators of series success in the Wild Card era, much moreso than in the two-division era.

2) Those projected records appear to do a much better job in the intermediate series than they do in the World Series (the smallest sample here).

3) Third-order discrepancies appear to be the strongest indicators in five-game series, and they match up well across the entire Wild Card era.

The first and third points have the current era in common, and when we consider the difference between this period and the two-division one, one factor that stands out is the evolution of the bullpen's importance. Recall that Nate Silver found closer quality (as measured by WXRL) to be a significant enough predictor of postseason success that he incorporated into what he termed the "Secret Sauce," and add to this my own reported finding of a modest correlation (r = .42) between team WXRL totals and third-order discrepancies across the 1954-2007 Retrosheet era, a correlation that edges up to .49 in the Wild Card era. What we appear to have stumbled upon is some further evidence of a link between regular season over- or underachievement, bullpen quality, and postseason success, one that merits further exploration.
W0 is a team's actual winning percentage, W1 is their first-order winning percentage (a/k/a Pythagorean winning percentage, as projected by runs scored and runs allowed) and D3 is the aforementioned gap between their adjusted projection and their actual performance. Anyway, while hardly definitive, I found it to be interesting stuff worthy of further inquiry.

Around the horn:

• For Wednesday morning's appearance on Boston's "The Young Guns" radio show (1510 AM "The Zone" at 8 AM every week), co-host Chris Villani asked me how often the team that wins the opening game of a five-game series prevails in the series. I didn't have the answer at the time, but during yesterday's slate of games, the TBS teams showed the data, which carries an alarming split. NL teams that win the opener have gone onto a 23-4 record (.852 winning percentage) in their five-game series. AL teams that have done so have gone 12-14 (.462). There's no inherent reason for the split, but it's worth noting that the Yankees bucked the trend in losing the openers in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 but going on to win, and in winning the 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2006 openers but going on to lose. Only three times during the 12 years of the Joe Torre era did they follow the trend -- 1998 and 1999, when they swept the Rangers, and 2007, when they got blown out of the first game and lost the series.

Take that combined 3-9 record of first-game winners in Yankee seriess out and the AL's record is 11-5 (.688), which is close to the overall combined record of the two leagues, 35-18 (.660). Given the sample sizes, that last is the number I'd cite the next time the question arises.

• Speaking of Manny Ramirez, I stopped reading Bil Simmons at precisely the point where the balance of AL East power tipped from the Yankees to the Red Sox, but I've found something to dig into today with his epic piece on Manny Ramirez's departure from Boston. Annotated with a generous serving of footnotes that might have cheered up the late, great David Foster Wallace, Simmons is with me when it comes to seeing the influence of high-powered Boston media personalities on his eventual departure from Boston:
I thought of that story when Manny began acting up again this summer. Boston's brain trust had decided to dump him. Again. We were doing this dance for the fourth time in six years. There were two crucial differences this time, the first being Manny had canned his old agents and hired Scott Boras, one of the worst human beings in America who hasn't actually committed a crime. Manny's contract was set to expire after the 2008 season, with Boston holding $20 million options for 2009 and 2010. Boras couldn't earn a commission on the option years because those fees belonged to Manny's previous agents. He could only get paid when he negotiated Manny's next contract. And Scott Boras always gets paid.

The second difference? The guys running the Red Sox felt like flexing their muscles this time around. They had renovated Fenway Park, turned the team into a cash cow, captured two titles and become local celebrities on par with Denis Leary and the creepy guys from Aerosmith. They didn't feel like dealing with Manny anymore. Although it's usually impossible to jettison a popular star without a backlash from fans, the Red Sox wield unprecedented sway over nearly every relevant media outlet that covers them. One of the team's minority partners, the New York Times Company, happens to own Boston's signature newspaper (The Globe). The team owns a cable channel (NESN) that shows every Sox game, pregame show and postgame show. The Sox signed cushy deals with Boston's signature sports radio station (WEEI) and sister station (WRKO), and since those rights always can be shopped to a competitor down the road, you'll see CC Sabathia hit an inside-the-park home run before a Red Sox owner gets ripped to shreds on WEEI. They even have good relationships with every relevant national writer, including Peter Gammons, the face of baseball for ESPN, a beloved figure in New England and a longtime friend of general manager Theo Epstein.

Why is this important? As Manny Ramirez's memorable Red Sox career began to crumble for good, two people were to blame (Manny and Boras), and yet we only heard about one of them. Had the identity of the second villain been revealed, maybe Boston fans wouldn't have been so eager to downgrade from a first-ballot Hall of Famer to Jason Bay. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We know for sure that, heading into the last year of a $160 million deal that seemed lavish at the time and turned out to be money well spent, Boston's hierarchy (Epstein and owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino) basically told Manny and Boras, "We aren't giving you an extension after the best offensive stretch in Red Sox history that didn't involve Ted Williams, and we're also not deciding on our 2009 and 2010 options yet. Let's see how you do this season." In other words, welcome to no-man's land! By not making a decision, the Red Sox did make a decision: They turned the situation over to Boras and expected his most impressionable client to handle himself with professionalism and class. Like that would happen.

Once Manny shifted into sulk mode, the Red Sox wasted no time painting him as a malcontent. After Manny berated the team's 64-year-old team employee and shoved the poor guy to the ground, the team did everything but hire actors to re-enact the incident on After Manny skipped a crucial game against the Yankees, claiming he had a sore knee, management made a point of getting MRIs on both knees and telling reporters he was fine. Did the team ever suspend him? Of course not. That would have made too much sense. Once the old school baseball writers started hissing that Manny didn't respect The Game, for many Boston fans, that was the final straw. And maybe they were right -- after all, it's indefensible to quit on your team just because you don't like your bosses, especially in November when you're about to make crucial trades and free-agent signings.

(Whoops, I'm getting my "Guys Who Quit on the Red Sox" confused! I'm thinking of Epstein, who ditched them after the 2005 season because he was tired of dealing with Lucchino. Sorry about that.)
I haven't read the entire piece, and I don't buy the article's conclusion that Manny will wind up wearing Yankee pinstripes once he hits free agency this winter; I'm hearing that the Dodgers will offer him a big package which includes vesting options, and I can see the Mets being a player for him before the Yankees are, particularly given Brian Cashman's press conference remarks regarding the Yankees' aging lineup and the Mets' need to make a splash in the market.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Short Rest

Waking up before 7 AM in each of the past two days to do early morning radio hits has me bleary-eyed as the playoffs begin, particularly given how late I was up working on my preview of the Phillies-Brewers series for Baseball Prospectus. Monday's makeup game and Tuesday's Game 163 playoff certainly didn't help my cause when it came to buckling down to get work done.

Like the other BP series previews (Christina Kahrl on Dodgers-Cubs, Joe Sheehan on Red Sox-Angels, with White Sox-Rays still pending) it's mirrored over at For those of you that simply want to cut to the chase and avoid the numbers, here's the payoff. I don't think it'll make my in-laws happy, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em in this racket, and anyway, I hedged my bets:
This is a more even series than it might appear to be at first glance given the state of the Brewers' pitching staff. That the Brewers might face southpaws three times in a five-game series helps their cause just a hair due to two of those starts being taken by Hamels. The biggest difference between the two clubs appears to be at the front end of their bullpens, where the Phils enjoy a considerable advantage, and the feeling here is that unless the Brewers can find a way to get Sabathia a second turn on the hill for a Game Five, that bullpen edge may prove decisive. I'm predicting the Phillies in four, but if the Brewers can force a rubber game, my money's on the big man.
Also, the flip side of my not-so-happy take on the closing of Yankee Stadium is up at Bronx Banter. It's a top ten countdown of my favorite memories of attending games at Yankee Stadium. A small taste that won't give away too much:
7. The sweltering Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2000 when my friend Julie and I practically peed ourselves laughing at the sight of a young Hasidic Jewish man who somehow fell out of the stands, far enough down the left field line to where the wall starts to slant upwards, a good six or eight foot drop onto the field. Visibly dazed and confused, perhaps even with a broken arm, he was escorted off the premises. His pain was our comedic gain, an eternal reminder of the rough justice of the Bronx.

6. The night of August, 8, 2000, when Oakland closer Jason Isringhausen came on to protect a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning but lasted only two pitches, surrendering solo homers to Bernie Williams and David Justice. The Yankees of the Joe Torre era made routine sport of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but never did they do so with more surgical precision than that.
I could easily have expanded the list to 20, and once things cool off, I'll run a countdown of the best of the rest here.

Moving along:

• The New York Sun, an occasional outlet for my writing via a syndication deal with BP, has closed up shop. I won't miss their neoconservative politics at all, but their baseball coverage was something else entirely, with Steven Goldman and Tim Marchman appearing regularly, and several BP authors (myself included) getting their first chance to reach the daily newsstands. Christina Kahrl eulogized the sports page.

Apparently, my piece from last week was the final one from our BP syndication agreement. When you folks and your robot monkeys get around to building me the Wikipedia fan page I so richly deserve, please be sure to include that tidbit.

• Alex Belth had something to add about the Sun as well, along with discussing Goldman's last piece and the latest Neyer-Jaffe throwdown. On the latter, so did the good folks at YanksFanSoxFan. Thanks, guys.

• Finally, I haven't had time to write about it anywhere, but I'm elated to hear that Brian Cashman has decided to remain with the Yankees for another three years. I suspect that the dearth of job openings had something to do with that; currently the Mariners have the only GM vacancy. The Dodgers, whom Cashman grew up rooting for and who might be an attractive destination given their payroll and the obvious Joe Torre link, are likely to keep Ned Colletti on after winning the division; that Manny Ramirez trade saved his hide.

Interesting in its own right is that former Yankee and current Dodger assistant GM Kim Ng appears to be the leading contender for the Mariners job. She was the first woman ever to interview for a GM job back in 2005 when the Dodgers tabbed Colletti (ugh) and she's held in such high esteem within the game that it's likely only a matter of time before she lands in the big chair.

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