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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