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 20, 2009


Double-Barreled Disappointment

It was a glum day for baseball chez Jaffe on Monday. Fresh off Friday's highs, I was dealt double-barreled disappointment in the form of walk-off losses by both the Yankees and the Dodgers. While I can navigate the line between fan and analyst under most circumstances, the sheer weight of all that made it hard to check my emotions at the door in cobbling together today's Hit and Run:
The late Bart Giamatti famously observed that baseball is designed to break your heart, but the former commissioner was notably silent about its ability to strangle you with your own entrails. That's how I felt on Monday, watching two teams near and dear fritter away late-inning leads and ultimately suffer walk-off losses.

Last Friday had me aglow. For the first time since October 9, 2004 and just the second time in my entire adult life, the Dodgers and Yankees—the two teams at the heart of what I've long referred to as my Bicoastal Disorder, a complicated set of rooting interests borne of blood and geography—both won playoff games. My dream of a World Series which would replicate the formative matchups of my youth was intact. The drop from that high point to Monday's action was dizzying, to say the least.

I offer that introduction not as a plea for sympathy. Indeed, the inherent contradictions of this life I've chosen have been the fuel for nearly a decade of writing beyond the decimals and differentials that make up so much of my work here, and I'm hardly ungrateful for this playoff bounty, particularly in the face of an angry mob of Tigers/Cardinals/Twins/Your-Team-Here fans. Nonetheless, Monday's twin killing will have to suffice as an excuse for the rather disjointed account that follows. As a fan, I feel as though I've been run over by a Mack truck. As an analyst... yep, Mack Truck again.

By far the more glancing of the two blows from Monday's action came in the ALCS, where the Yankees squandered a 3-0 lead thanks to a curious set of decisions by Yankees (over)manager Joe Girardi, all of which blew up in his face in spectacular fashion à la Wile E. Coyote. I'll leave that postmortem to others except to note that the Yankees still hold a two games to one lead in the series. Suffice it to say that my forehead was sufficiently tenderized for the nightcap.

As with the rest of the NLCS, Game Four continued to defy the percentages... [Dodger starter Randy] Wolf came into his start having allowed just one home run against lefty hitters all season long, and having held them to to a feeble .159/.217/.200 line in 185 plate appearances. [Ryan] Howard hit just six of his 45 homers against southpaws, managing just a .207/.298/.356 line. Yet when Wolf left a fastball up in the strike zone during last night's first-inning confrontation, Howard demolished it for a two-run homer.

We can scratch our heads and curse or cheer at the defiance of those percentages, but we'd do just as well to remember that Wolf's fateful pitch was set up by very human reactions. Home-plate umpire Ted Barrett, whose strike zone was small enough to fit into a pocket protector, made a lousy call on the preceding 2-1 fastball, which caught plenty of the plate according to both TBS's pitch tracking device and MLB Advanced Media's Gameday. Catcher Russell Martin had set up on the outside half of the plate, however, and in reaching back across his body to receive the pitch, swayed the umpire's judgment. Backed into a corner against the slugger, the flustered Wolf clearly still had that call on his mind when he served up Howard's homer, given the camera shot of him jawing with Barrett as he received a new baseball.

... At the outset of this series, my prediction hinged on the way the Dodgers' lefty pitching matched up with the Phillies' lefty hitting and vice versa, but thus far the Phillies have gotten the advantage. By my quick tally, Utley, Howard, Ibañez, and Cole Hamels are a combined 5-for-18 with two homers, nine RBI, seven walks, and four strikeouts against the Dodgers' southpaws, good for a .440 on-base percentage and a .611 slugging percentage. In the first two games, Dodger lefties Andre Ethier, James Loney, and Jim Thome started off 5-for-8 with a double, a homer, three RBI, and three walks against Philly southpaws, but they went 0-for-6 with a pair of K's against Cliff Lee on Sunday night.
So it goes. In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, "Tell your statistics to shut up."

Meanwhile, Dodger general manager Ned Colletti, better known as Stupid Flanders around these parts, has been granted a three-year contract extension. I have very mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, the Dodgers appear to have a pair of talented GM prospects in Kim Ng and Logan White, and among Colletti's moves are some real clinkers, such as the Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones contracts, the trades of Edwin Jackson and Carlos Santana. On the other hand, the Dodgers have made the playoffs in three of the four years on Colletti's watch. They did so this year having trimmed $18 million from the Opening Day payroll relative to last year, and late-season pickups such as Vicente Padilla, Ronnie Belliard, Jon Garland and George Sherrill — all of them low cost except for the latter, who required the surrender of third base prospect Josh Bell — were instrumental in the team finishing with the league's best record.

In the context of an extended rumination about the winter's potential front office turmoil, Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman nails it:
Honestly, there's another chapter to be written before we come to a firm conclusion about Colletti's value as a GM, and that's when the young Dodgers stars who have been earning from $400,000 to $4 million earn the service time that multiplies their salaries tenfold. That's when Colletti won't be able to pencil in low-paying stars in half his starting lineup anymore. There will be a host of difficult decisions to be made – the more of these guys Colletti wants to keep, the more difficulty he'll have overpaying to fill the gaps elsewhere, especially if the McCourts' travails lead to the team being put up for sale, with the budget for salaries locked down.
Grappling with the Colletti question is something I'll be doing later this winter in the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus annual.

Speaking of Dodger critiques and moving along the spectrum from astute commentary to blithering idiocy is this takedown of Joe Torre. There's a lot to take issue with regarding the way Torre has run the Dodgers during the NLCS — starting with the counterintuitive rotation plan and some Game One pitching changes — but Yahoo Jeff Passan, who's certainly capable of better, manages to catch absolutely none of it. He's so busy building a gallows for Torre to re-hang him for his crimes in the Bronx that he can't point to a single bad decision that's disadvantaged the Dodgers in this series. The takehome seems to be that Dodgers are losing — and thus about to end the season in total failure — because Torre's years with the Yankees were part of some big fraud, and he now gets paid more than he's worth. Wait, what?

Seriously, robot monkeys could churn out such execrable hackwork, which makes this revelation that an automated product called Stats Monkey can now write semi-competent game stories all the less surprising. No word on whether Passan was running Stats Monkey's sibling program, Outrage Monkey, but would it surprise anyone?

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