October 2009

The real Burnett stands up

My friend and colleague Stephanie Bee suggested that I write up World Series Game 2 as follows:

1. Mo was a bit over-used
2. Jeter shouldn’t have bunted
3. Burnett was brilliant
4. Umps still [expletive]

That seems like a fair rundown to me, though while my temptation is to cavil about numbers two and four, it’s probably best to stick with one and three. Actually, four is just a fact of life, and will be until Major League Baseball accepts that replay in baseball games need not be the Supreme Court hearing that is replay in the NFL and opts for having the most accurate baseball game possible, we’re going to have to live with cloddish umps. There are fewer things happening at once in most baseball replays than in football. Balls are caught or not, fair or foul. It’s not “did the wide receiver have his toes in bounds as he was/was not juggling the ball and did it cross the plane of the goal line or didn’t it?” One replay umpire stationed off the field could have overturned Ryan Howard’s non-catch in 10 seconds.

As for Jeter’s non-bunt, although the Old Captain is top-20 in double play percentage (17 percent of his chances, worst on the Yankees) giving away outs, as opposed to gambling on the better than 80 percent chance that a very good hitter WON’T hit into one, is not good managing. It was a poor decision by Joe Girardi which Jeter doubled down on by bunting foul with two strikes.

burnett_275_103009.jpgThose two items dispensed with, on to the better stuff. On A.J. Burnett’s loss/no-decision days this summer, he walked 4.8 batters per nine innings. When he won, it was only 3.4. Therein lies the sign of a happy curveball or an unhappy curveball. On Thursday night, the curveball was happy, and thereby were the Phillies made unhappy.

It’s the most basic of all human relationships. If only Burnett could be the pitcher he was Thursday night a tad more often, and had had more health — well, never mind. If your grandmother had wheels she’d be a wagon, and if Burnett had health and consistency he wouldn’t be what he is, and that’s plenty good in six starts out of 10. You just have to hope that the other four don’t come at important times.

With the help of umpire Jeff Nelson’s roomy strike zone, Burnett walked just two and struck out nine. In the game’s Nelson umpired this year, the number of strikeouts were average or even a bit below, so it’s puzzling that he gave the pitchers so much room off the plate. Still, he was consistent in having a wide zone for both teams, but for a pitcher like Burnett that little bit of generosity goes a long way. I’m not trying to diminish what Burnett did — he saved the World Series from getting out of hand — but the confluence of umpire and pitcher could not have been more perfectly timed.

During the YES postgame, one of the Yankees’ players (Jeter, I believe) was asked how it felt to know that Girardi had the “confidence” to use Mariano Rivera for two full innings. The choice of term was ironic, as Girardi was really expressing a lack of confidence in any of his other relievers. Insomuch as Game 2 was a must win, it wasn’t a bad call, but you have to question how long Rivera can keep this up. He threw 39 pitches, another high for the year, and though Girardi said in his postgame press conference that he didn’t ask Rivera to do this all year precisely so he could do it now, I’m not sure that that reasoning makes very much sense.

You’re talking about a 40-year-old guy who averaged 16 pitches per appearance this year more than doubling up his pitch counts. Given the lack of an off day between Games 3 through 5, can you really expect him to keep that up? Moreover, can you expect Rivera, a one-trick pony — it’s a wonderful trick, but it’s still just one — to keep fooling the Phillies at that rate of exposure? Andy Pettitte averaged 102 pitches per start this year and his 6.1 innings in each of his ALCS starts were the deepest into a game he’s pitched since August, plus there’s pinch-hitting for pitchers to consider in the National League park.

All of this means that Girardi is going to have to confront his bullpen problems as soon as Saturday. Rivera won’t be able to carry the whole load in Game 3, and maybe not in any of the games in Philadelphia. We will see if anyone else stands up to shoulder his burden. 

Just a little patience against Phils, for Swish

lee250.jpgSOMETIMES IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
Before Game 1, I suggested that the Yankees’ trademark patience would test Cliff Lee’s exemplary control. Score that one a clean miss. Unlike just about every other pitcher in the biz, Cliff Lee, who had the demeanor of someone who had just enjoyed a Prozac cocktail, did not bend, did not waver for even a moment. He threw nine innings of mistake-free baseball, never giving the Yankees a chance. A team that walked 38 times in six games against the Angels did not earn one free pass in the game.

You could dismiss this performance as just one game, and say, “Let’s see the next guy do that,” but for two problems. One, the bullpen took a close game and turned it into a rout. Two, Pedro Martinez. Martinez isn’t the old most-dominant-pitcher-ever Martinez, but the new version, which throws strikes and pulls strings, is still plenty good. He completely embarrassed the Dodgers in the NLCS. I will again cling to the belief that the Yankees’ lineup isn’t the Dodgers’ lineup, isn’t a National League lineup, and that lefties hit Martinez reasonably well in the future Hall of Famer’s brief regular season tune-up. The Yankees have also done good work against him (and bad, that also) in postseasons past.

Lee’s start and Pedro’s excellent control points up a way in which this Phillies rotation can take the Yankees’ best trait, their patience, and turn it against them. The Yankees like to work counts and take ball four. Phillies starters just don’t issue ball four. As a whole, Phillies starters averaged just 2.5 walks a game. Lee walked just 1.1 batters per nine innings as a Phillie, Martinez 1.6, Cole Hamels 2.0. The National League average was 3.5 walks per nine innings (the American League was roughly the same). Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, the club’s wildest starters, walked 2.7 and 3.0 respectively. This staff is simply very good at throwing strikes, and if the Yankees play their usual game — and it’s not advisable that they start hacking, because that doesn’t work either — they may find themselves facing some long counts.

As for the bullpen failure, it had limited bearing on the outcome of the game — you could imagine that if the relievers had held serve, Charlie Manuel might have been more inclined to go to his bullpen — but since the Yankees never made up the initial deficit that resulted from the CC Sabathia-Chase Utley confrontations, it didn’t matter. The real impact is in the uncertainty about the bullpen unit as a whole, which seems to have gone down the rabbit hole this October. Perhaps the relative inexperience of the unit has got them twitchy. Whatever the reason, they have to get over it quickly, particularly Phil Hughes, or this Series is going to end a lot faster than anyone anticipated. Worse, a bad performance could mean a winter of reaction from the Yankees’ front office, chasing veteran relief hands at high cost. This is a subject for another day, but that would be an extremely counterproductive strategy that has rarely worked for any GM that has tried it. It’s a quick path to a job on ESPN, however temporary.

We shouldn’t overstate the impact of one game. Two is a different matter. A lot of pressure falls on A.J. Burnett’s right arm. Does he come ready to dance, or does the wild, uncertain version of the pitcher show up? Mister Cream Pie could do more to improve the Yankees’ morale tonight than all of the cans of shaving cream he’s gone through put together — or he could break it.

AND ONE COFFEE JOE NOTE: THINK!
I buy that Nick Swisher needs a mental health break, but considering yesterday’s performance to be part of his slump isn’t exactly fair given the way Lee pitched. After Lee, the whole roster might need a mental health break. In addition, Swisher continues to get into good counts, working the pitcher, which has value in itself if you want to get to the Phillies’ relievers already. In any case, Jerry Hairston is a bizarre choice to substitute for him. I’m thrilled that Hairston has had 10 hits in 27 at-bats against Martinez IN A PERIOD THAT BEGAN IN 1999 AND ENDED FIVE YEARS AGO. Martinez ain’t the same Martinez, Hairston ain’t the same Hairston, and the relevance is extremely, extremely debatable. As with Jose Molina’s time in the game, we’ll assume that this decision won’t have more than an at-bat or two’s worth of impact, but wow, Coffee Joe, that’s an odd call. You readers know I believe in the stats, but you can’t be a slave to the numbers. You also have to THINK.

More to come…

Helter Skelter

Sabathia-10-28-250.jpgI was called into a meeting with the YES men today, so I’ve been trapped away from desk. As such, I am so far beyond the schedule that, in the words of Mel Brooks, I’ve gone to plaid. Herewith, a r-r-r-rapid run through the head to head matchups we still had yet to cover–and if anyone asks, the dog ate my homework, too.

THE STARTING ROTATIONS, AND GAME 1 STARTERS
CLIFF LEE vs. CC SABATHIA

This is as perfect a baseball matchup as any of those 1912 Walter Johnson-Smoky Joe Wood confrontations you’ve read about in the history books. Two top lefties with a shared origin in Cleveland. Lee had a slightly better year than Sabathia, with two thirds of it against the same DH-infused competition in the AL. The wins aren’t there, but that was a function of run support early on than it was anything that Lee did wrong–his quality start percentage was over 80 percent as an Indian. The Phillies gave him more support later, but thanks to some late-season hammerings he wasn’t quite as effective as he had been. The one thing Lee retained all the way through was excellent control, walking just one batter per nine with the Phillies. The Yankees will of course test this aspect of his game, but it would probably be better to disregard most of the career stats you’ll see quoted during the broadcasts–it’s nice that Mark Teixeira has done well against Lee, but Lee has been a lot of different guys in his eight seasons and most of those guys weren’t as good as the version that won the Cy Young award last year.

Shifting haphazardly to CC (everything about this installment is haphazard), if you emphasize late-season action then you can make a more pointed comparison between the two. Lee made his last 12 starts for the Phillies and was a 50-50 proposition, making a quality start half the time. Even so, his low ERA testifies to just how good he was when he was on. “Unhittable” wouldn’t be too strong a description. CC wasn’t quite as spectacular in his last 12 games, but he was more consistent overall, making 10 quality starts and posting a 2.52 ERA overall. Both Sabathia and Lee are getting to innings totals that they’ve never reached before, so fatigue could be a factor.

As for the rest of the rotations, you’d think the Yankees would be up to dealing with Pedro Martinez’s artistry. He was Leonardo da Martinez against the Dodgers, but the Yankees have a very different offense than the one Joe Torre had in Los Angeles, with more impact hitters getting the platoon advantage on Pedro. Cole Hamels can be dominant, but that wasn’t the case this year, either in the regular season or the postseason. As I wrote earlier this week, a key to this series for the Yankees is whether their slumping switch-hitters can find themselves against Lee and Hamels.

On the Yankees side, In Andy Pettitte we trust, but I fear A.J. Burnett’s wildness and right-handedness against hitters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. That said, lefties had a harder time with him this year than righties did (.217/.310/.343) which could be a fluke or a sign from Zeus. Your pick until the actual game. If the Yankees have to go to a fourth starter, the Phillies are in a better position with either J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton. A slim EDGE: Yankees, assuming CC takes Game 4 again. Otherwise, we’re even or very slightly leaning towards Philly.

BULLPENS
I only have time to say that the Yankees have far greater depth, assuming Coffee Joe doesn’t start making like a hyperthyroid octopus and start pulling two relievers at a time from the bullpen. Note that though Phillies relievers have not been as problematic in the postseason as expected, they have allowed 25 hits in 25 innings while walking 13 and striking out 19. That suggests to me that their aggregate 3.24 ERA ain’t worth the pixels it’s written on. Again, the Dodgers had a lot of guys who could be pitched to, or pitched through to get out of trouble. The Yankees are, at least on paper, a far deeper lineup.

The other day I suggested the Yankees pull Mike Dunn back from Arizona to become the bullpen’s third lefty. Dunn is crazy wild, but that’s not such a bad thing–a walk to Howard from Dunn is better than a home run off of Bruney. This point may be moot if Coffee Joe is careful and doesn’t spend his southpaws too early. The good news is that thanks to his cutter, Mariano Rivera can sort of pass as a third lefty. EDGE: YANKEES

MANAGERS
Again, the Clock-Hounds nip at my heels, so I will again resort to something I wrote earlier: Should Girardi play the hyperactive, overly fastidious neat-freak to Charlie Manuel’s laid-back slob, this version of the Odd Couple will benefit Philadelphia. EDGE: PHILLIES.

THE PREDICTION
I worry about Burnett and I see a bullpen loss somewhere due to missed matchups, but CC and Pettitte come up big again and some of the sleeping Yankee hitters will wake up. Yankees in six games.

ONE OTHER QUICK NOTE ON THE ROSTER
I was in such a rush that I forgot to comment on the addition of Brian Bruney, which is good, but I’d hate to see him slide ahead of David Robertson if the latter is actually healthy enough to pitch. This actually raises two questions: if Robertson isn’t healthy enough to pitch then why is he still on the roster, and if he is healthy enough to pitch than why isn’t Girardi pitching him? There’s really no good answer to either of those questions.

As for Eric Hinske returning and displacing Freddy Guzman, that undoes a move that should never have been made. Hinske gives the Yankees some pop off the bench that they lacked last time around, something that became obvious in all those tight late- and extra-inning games where Girardi ran out of players. Guzman was essentially a kick-returner on a baseball team. Even if the Yankees had a 50-man roster available to them, the utility of a kick-returner would be questionable as there is no kicking in baseball. Steve Martin once referred to luxuries like a gasoline-powered sweater and a fur-lined sink. That’s what Guzman was, and the only times that Girardi used him his impact was solely negative in that he achieved nothing decisive on the bases while depriving the Yankees of a more useful player. That Guzman actually got to bat in the ALCS demonstrates that if there’s a manager who can correctly utilize this particular chess piece, he’s not working this World Series.

Thus: up with Hinske! ? with Bruney, S-O-S to Robertson, and as General McAuliffe said to the Germans at Bastogne, “Nuts!” to Guzman. Finally, best of luck to the Yankees and may this be a fun series for all.

DEEP BREATH…
As mentioned earlier, I go directly from here to a live Baseball Prospectus roundtable at game time. It’s a fun way to watch the game, with a parallel commentary track, somewhat on the tart and irreverent side. All are welcome, and I look forward to hearing from you then… And I’ll be back with some more commentary after the game. Somebody hose me down, ’cause I’m burning up!

World Series head-to-head Part II

ANOTHER ANTICIPATED REUNION THWARTED
Miguel Cairo will not be on the Phillies roster for the World Series. I’m sure this will be a relief to John Sterling, who will now not have a conflict of interest.

swisher_275_102809.jpgIN RESPONSE TO A SWISHER-BASHER IN THE COMMENTS
How can Nick Swisher be a better player than Bobby Abreu? I’ll make this simple for you.

? Swisher hit 35 doubles, Abreu 29.

? Swisher hit 29 home runs, Abreu hit 15.

? Abreu took 94 walks, Swisher took 97, in fewer plate appearances.

? Swisher was dangerous from both sides of the plate, whereas Abreu wilted against left-handers.

? Abreu has the advantage on Swisher in two categories: He had 22 net stolen bases to Swisher’s none (Swisher also had no caught stealing) and he hit more singles. Abreu had 65 more at-bats than Swisher. If you even out the playing time, figuring that Swisher would have continued on roughly the same pace, then Swisher would have hit 40 doubles (+11) and 33 home runs (+18). Abreu would have maintained his lead in singles, 118 to 65. That’s a big gap, but it comes to an advantage of 53 total bases, whereas Swisher is up 94, giving him a net advantage of 41 total bases.

? Because extra-base hits generate more runs than singles (I’m assuming that you know how a home run works), this works out to a small advantage for Swisher. If you look at a basic stat like runs created per game, Swisher created 6.5, Abreu 6.3. That doesn’t seem like a huge difference but:

? Swisher is an average defensive outfielder, whereas Abreu splashes around out there like a toddler in a kiddie pool. Since defensive plays not made lead to runs, deduct several from Swisher’s total. At that point, Swisher’s advantage is no longer so small.

PS: Regarding Melky Cabrera vs. left-handed pitching: Yes, he has gone 6-for-14, all singles, against southpaws this postseason. However, for the full season he hit .268/.343/.420 against them. These were breakthrough results, though the power portion was inflated by an early surge. From the halfway point on, he hit .265/.337/.361, albeit in a small sample. Given that his career rates against lefties is .255/.325/.355, the latter number seems more likely to replicate itself in the future than the former, and has more predictive power than a 14 at-bat .420 streak, because Ted Williams is dead, by which I mean that no player is likely to carry that kind of performance forward for any real length of time.

WORLD SERIES HEAD-TO-HEADS PART II
While writing Part I, I was so caught up in getting past the obvious A-Rod/Pedro Feliz match-up at third that I never typed the words, “EDGE: YANKEES.” If it hadn’t been obvious before, well, now the suspense is over.

CATCHER
CARLOS RUIZ (15.6 VORP, 11th among catchers) vs. JORGE POSADA (35.7, 3rd)

Ruiz is a career .296/.406/.432 hitter in 26 postseason games, which is kind of amazing when you consider that he’s only a .246/.337/.379 hitter in the regular season and that he also went 1-for-14 in the 2008 NLDS. If you’re looking for Jeff Mathis II, here he is, with the same position and everything. Defensively, Ruiz is a good thrower, not a great one. He and Posada threw out about the same percentage of baserunners this year. He’s much better than Posada at corralling balls in the dirt, but then everyone is. The thing to remember about Posada is that as good as he is in the regular season, he seems to be play a bit tight in October. He’s played in 25 postseason series (a “wow” number all by itself) and he’s had good series and bad but overall has hit only .238/.353/.388. He keeps up his selectivity against good pitching, which is nice, but the rest of his came suffers. EDGE: YANKEES, but you can see how it could go the other way.

LEFT FIELD
RAUL IBANEZ (38.5, 6th) vs. JOHNNY DAMON (39.3, 4th)

Ibanez was more productive than Damon on a per-game basis but played less due to injury… Ibanez’s season breaks down into two parts, pre- and post-DL stint for a strained groin. At the moment he went down, he was having the season of his career at .312/.371/.656. A month on the shelf cooled him off considerably, and he hit .232/.323/.448 the rest of the way. His postseason has been a mixed bag.

The difference in Ibanez’s production this year was that while he was the same hitter he always has been against right-handers, but he killed lefties, knocking 13 home runs in just 144 at-bats. His career rates against them stand at .269/.326/.434, which isn’t of the same level but does give him more proficiency in lefty-on-lefty battles than your typical southpaw hitter.

Damon slumped in September and disappeared in the first round of the playoffs before coming back strong against the Angels. He too isn’t too damaged by seeing a left-handed pitcher, although most of his power disappears. The same thing happens when you take him out of the new Yankee Stadium. Ibanez will spend some time at DH in this series, including Game 1. Ben Francisco should be a defensive upgrade. Slight EDGE: Phillies.

CENTER FIELD
SHANE VICTORINO (37.7, 5th) vs. MELKY CABRERA (17.1, 22nd)

A rare two-time Rule 5 draftee, it took some time for Victorino to find his place in the Majors. He’s in the prime of his career right now, and he’s just good enough to start — whenever he slips a little he’s going to be no fun anymore. He does most of his hitting in Philadelphia. A switch-hitter, he’s more powerful from the right side, which means turning him around is not the greatest idea. Cabrera struggled in the first round, then hit well against the Angels, though like all Yankees a few more hits with runners on would have made it a faster and more painless series than it was. Defensively, this matchup is a push. Offensively and on the bases, Victorino is significantly better, and he’s been a postseason monster in other series, including both rounds this year. EDGE: Phillies.

RIGHT FIELD
JAYSON WERTH (42.8, 3rd) vs. NICK SWISHER (30.9, 10th)

Philadelphia’s big weapon against CC Sabathia, Werth crushes lefties, batting .302/.436/.644 against them this year and .294/.391/.570 for his career. He strikes out quite a bit, but is patient, powerful, and runs the bases as well as any non-burner in the game. He also excels defensively. It has been an unusual career for the former first-round pick, for it took a change of position and several changes of organization for Werth to find himself. He made his first All-Star team this year, at age 30. We’ve already talked too much about Swisher lately, but the Yankees can be competitive here if he can get out of his own head. Even if he does, this is an EDGE: PHILLIES.

BENCH AND DH
In his handful of interleague games, Charlie Manuel used the DH spot to get one of his weaker defensive players, either Ryan Howard or Raul Ibanez, off the field. Ibanez is nursing an injury (torn abdominal muscle), so he will DH in Game 1 with midseason acquisition Ben Francisco (open your golden gates) patrolling left field. Francisco is one of those tediously decent role players. Starting he would mediocre you to death, but in spots he can be helpful keeping his position above replacement level. He had a reverse split against lefties this year, hitting only .247/.351/.392, but that might have been a one-time thing. Phillies pinch-hitters hit only .186 but did hit 9 home runs in 237 at-bats. Matt Stairs, 41, had a rough year but remains very selective and is still a threat to hit the ball a long way now and again, with f
ive home runs in 62 pinch-hit at-bats. Lefty hitter Greg Dobbs, who used to have a share of the third base job, was strictly bench material this year and his game suffered for it. As a pinch-hitter he was only 9-for-54.

Hideki Matsui gives the Yankees an edge when there is a DH and a strong weapon on the bench when there isn’t. Brett Gardner gives the Yankees a speedy option the Phillies don’t have, and Jerry Hairston won’t kill you if he has to take an at-bat or two. EDGE: YANKEES.

NEXT
Starters and bullpens, managers, and my prediction, all before curtain time tonight.

LIVE ROUNDTABLE TONIGHT
I’ll once again be participating in the a live roundtable with my Baseball Prospectus colleagues during Game 1. As always, everyone is welcome. If you want to hang out at game time, or just submit a question early X marks the spot.

World Series head-to-head Part I

My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.

Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.

FIRST BASE
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)

teixeira_250_102709.jpgLet’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).

Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.

Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.

There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.

SECOND BASE
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)

Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.

Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.

THIRD BASE
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)

Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.

SHORTSTOP
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)

rollins_250_102709.jpg“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.

Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.

NEXT
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.

Beware of small sample size with Swisher

ON NICK SWISHER, BABE RUTH, AND OTHER FAILURE-MINDED BALLPLAYERS
Nick Swisher had a very difficult ALCS. In six games he went 3-for-20 with three walks. He struck out seven times, didn’t have an extra-base hit, didn’t drive in a run. This is the definition of a miserable performance. However, extrapolate at your own risk. Reggie Jackson, Mr. October himself, went 2-for-16 in the 1977 ALCS, just days before he personally bombed the Dodgers to death in the World Series. As I’ve been saying all along, this stuff happens. But don’t take my word for it. Here are just a few other examples:

  • Babe Ruth, 1922 World Series: 2-for-17 (.118), no home runs, one RBI.
  • Tony Lazzeri, 1926 World Series: 5-for-26 (.192), no home runs, three RBI.
  • Bob Meusel, 1927 World Series: 2-for-17 (.118), no home runs, one RBI.
  • Joe Gordon, 1939 World Series: 2-for-14 (.143), no home runs, one RBI.
  • Bill Dickey, 1941 World Series: 3-for-18 (.167), no home runs, one RBI.
  • Phil Rizzuto, 1941 World Series: 2-for-18 (.111), no home runs, no RBI.
  • Joe DiMaggio, 1949 World Series: 2-for-18 (.111), one home run, two RBI.
  • Mickey Mantle, 1962 World Series: 3-for-25 (.120), no home runs, no RBI.
  • Willie Randolph, 1976 World Series: 1-for-14 (.071), no home runs, no RBI.
  • Dave Winfield, 1981 World Series: 1-for-22 (.045), no home runs, one RBI.
  • Paul O’Neill, 1996 World Series: 2-for-12 (.167), no home runs, no RBI.
  • Derek Jeter, 2001 World Series: 4-for-27 (.148), one home run, one RBI.

That’s a dozen examples, and all, with the exception of Winfield, picked at random from the long list of Yankees greats. There are eight Hall of Famers on the list, plus Jeter, who is going in as long as he doesn’t rob any banks between now and 2020 or so. For some of them, the series listed above represented their only poor postseason; for others, I had several choices. Swisher hit very badly in the series just ended. There is no way around that. It changes nothing about the valuable season that he had or other series that he might play in the future.

We could also throw a Jorge Posada series or two onto the list above; in 23 World Series games, he’s a .208/.337/.338 hitter. He’s also had some very good postseason series. For example, he drove in six runs against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. These are very small segments of performance we’re talking about, and they don’t have much in the way of predictive power. As the Jackson and Jeter examples above show, they can call you Mr. October or even Mr. November, but, in the words of Casey Stengel, sometimes it doesn’t always work.

For once, nothing amiss, just a win

yanksalcs_1_250.jpgCONGRATULATIONS, YANKEES!
There were no insects this time, no Paul Quantrill making his 90th or so appearance of the season. A terrified Esteban Loaiza did not make an appearance in extra innings. Tom Gordon did not pitch with his arm hanging by a thread. Tanyon Sturtze was not called upon in a big spot. Alex Rodriguez did not hit .133 for the series and get demoted to eighth in the batting order. The starting ace, whoever it was, did not fold in the key game. Jaret Wright did not start, and Kyle Farnsworth could not be found in the bullpen. Randy Johnson did not pitch like a 42-year-old. An injured Gary Sheffield was not called upon in desperation. In short, aside from some compulsive pinch-running and pitching changes by the anxious manager, there were no Hail Mary passes, no fourth stringers dressed up as stars. There was, shockingly for the Yankees, NO WEIRDNESS. They played their games, played them well, and for the first time since 2003, they will return to the World Series. The 2009 Yankees have one of the deepest rosters in the history of the club and they played like it. Finally. Congratulations and good luck to the entire organization.

SOME NOTES ON GAME SIX

1. Even though he didn’t hit, Nick Swisher played his best defensive baseball in this series, culminating in his doubling Vladimir Guerrero off of first in the second inning. He also looked more relaxed at the plate in this game.

2. Jorge Posada was having a decent offensive series (.267/.450/.533, a home run and five walks) before Game 6, in which he had several chances to break the game open and failed miserably, going 0-for-5, hitting into two double plays and stranding 10 runners. Had the Yankees somehow lost the game, you would have had to point the finger his way.

3. Joe  Girardi was fully in the grips of Coffee Joe mania when he went to Mariano Rivera for a two-inning save. Asking your closer to pitch two innings is normally a great idea — it’s always better to cut out the (pardon the expression) middle-man — and that’s the way it was done until Bruce Sutter and then Dennis Eckersley cemented the idea that closers could only be used one inning at a time. The truth was that THEY could be used one inning at a time, but not everyone was subject to the same limitation. The difficultly with asking Rivera to do it in Game 6 is: (a) He’s about four weeks from turning 40; and (b) He had been asked to get six outs just once all year, and that was during a tie on May 16; so (c) As a result, Rivera threw over 30 pitches (31 and 32) just twice all season, and between 20 and 30 pitches just 11 times. This meant that (d) when Rivera ended his difficult eighth inning having already thrown 21 pitches, he had already exceeded his pitch count for all but a handful of his appearances. By the time it was all over, Rivera had thrown 34 pitches, his high for the season, and that was after sitting through the long bottom of the eighth. It worked, but it was risky, and it did nothing to reestablish Phil Hughes, who is going to be needed.

4. I wonder if Dave Robertson is going to get dropped from the World Series roster on the basis of injury. Girardi said he pulled him from Game 3 because his velocity was down (though he had pitched well) and never went back to him again. It wouldn’t serve the Yankees to announce that Robertson was injured as long as the round continued given that they couldn’t do anything about it, and the idea that their bullpen was short a man could somehow impart a psychological or tactical advantage to the Angels. Perhaps we will see the triumphant return of Brian Bruney, though part of me thinks that with the Phillies’ left-leaning batting order, the Yankees would be better off pulling Mike Dunn out of the Arizona Fall League, thereby giving themselves a third bullpen southpaw. I’m half-kidding about that, but only half.

5. It’s amazing how badly one can mess themselves up by thinking about purely physical things. Normally, your hypothalamus controls your breathing. Start trying to control it with your conscious mind — you’ll be gasping for air directly. Similarly, pick up a baseball and simply throw it as you’ve known how to do all your life and you make the play. Think about it, aim it, and you’re going to toss it into short right field. Yes, I’m talking about Scott Kazmir, who could probably make a 40-foot throw to first base blindfolded. Under most conditions, you and I could (I would probably need an empty stadium and advance notice that all errors would be forgiven). Make things just a little tense and even a professional ballplayer can fumble away a key play. The Angels, normally a very together club, did it repeatedly in this series.

6. Why was Gary Matthews, Jr. allowed to make the last out of this series? Why was he allowed to make any outs this series? Why did Mike Scioscia keep pinch-hitting him for Mike Napoli and Howie Kendrick, who are both far better hitters than Matthews? I’ve been hard on Girardi, but Scioscia, normally a fine manager, had his own Coffee Mike problems during 30 Days of ALCS.

7. At least there were no umpiring controversies in the last game.

8. What is with the faux-stitch-style league championship caps? They’re terrible. From spring training, your team plays nearly 200 games to get to the World Series and then you’re forced to put something on your head that looks like it was cut from the backside of your overweight older brother’s hand-me-down jeans. I guess someone thinks the kids really like stitching this year.

9. I don’t know what’s going to happen when Andy Pettitte becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. I imagine not much, just “thanks” and “no thanks.” Before the voters dismiss him, they ought to give him some outsized credit for his going 16-9 in 38 postseason starts.  

10. Was their ever a time in history when players actually drank the champagne they were given upon winning? That must have been the original intention, and then somewhere in the TV era somebody started spraying champagne, and everyone watching thought that was pretty novel, and soon everyone was doing it. Now the original thing would be to have a decorous toast. If players know to bring goggles to the party, the celebration is no longer spontaneous.

NEXT UP

We begin the Yankees-Phillies head to head comparisons.

To the mats: Reader comments from Game 5

1: DESPITE WHAT W.C. FIELDS SAID, SOMETIMES WE GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK
I’m surprised you ignored the single worst tactical decision Girardi made: pinch-running for A-Rod. See this article at Fangraphs. And while there is an argument to be made for starting the 7th with a reliever, leaving Burnett in is also an acceptable decision. It’s not Girardi’s fault that Mathis has turned into Superman this series, or that Hughes grooved one to Vlady when Posada’s target was at eye level.– L.Bury

Always good to hear from you, Dr. Bury. To deal with the last point first, a few readers took my including Mathis’s success in the list of questions as a criticism of Joe Girardi. That wasn’t the case. It was, probably alone on the list, a rhetorical question with a bit of Old Testament “How long, O Lord?” tossed in (let’s go with Habakkuk 1:2, just to be esoteric). As I said in an earlier installment here, these things happen — Pat Borders, a thoroughly risible hitter, was the MVP of the 1992 World Series after hitting .450 in six games. Bucky Dent was the MVP of the 1978 World Series, having hit .417 with seven RBIs in six games. Dent probably went whole months during the regular season without driving in seven runs — the guy averaged 38 per 162 games played. When a hitter muscles up and goes crazy like this during a short series, it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, nor an indication that the scouting reports are off. It just happens. Dent played in five postseason series and didn’t come close to that level of success in the other four.

Pinch-running for Alex Rodriguez was ludicrous. Even with a bum hip, Rodriguez is still a relatively fast runner (he does take some bad gambles running the bases); it’s not like we’re talking about Jorge Posada, who by one measure was the second-worst player to have on the bases this year. Had the game gone into extra innings, that move would have badly punished the team. I stayed away from it because I was focusing on the crucial seventh inning, whereas the removal of A-Rod came in the ninth and had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It was a decision that had an extremely limited upside compared to the possible negative consequences. A full-blown “Coffee Joe” call by Mr. Girardi.

2: FAIR IS FOUL AND FOUL IS FAIR

Haven’t been here for awhile. Are you still pushing Nick Swisher as the be all end all? How could you have left him out of your Friday Morning Quarterbacking Second Guess-a-thon? We all knew his odds of hitting safely in that situation as close to nil. Other commenters were dead on – HINSKE NOT GUZMAN ON THE BENCH. In fact I’d start him over Swisher with the funk he’s in.– Javamanny

Welcome back, Javamanny (is that like Coffee Joe?). Among the things you missed: I said Hinske-not-Guzman as well. I’ve also brought up Duncan-not-Guzman and am leaning towards Chicken Stanley-not-Guzman. Also, these are first-guesses, not second-guesses. If you read the live chats I’ve been doing during these playoff games, you will see me make a lot of the same points, though it happens I didn’t do one for Game 5. I wouldn’t kill the manager for swisher200.jpgsomething that wasn’t an obvious problem as it was happening. In fairness, I would use words like, “In retrospect…” Thursday’s game situations weren’t all that subtle.

As for Swish Nicker, I still think he’s a very productive player and far superior to the alternative initially proposed, but right now he’s in a disastrous slump. There’s just no other way to put it. That’s he’s in the wrong slump at the wrong time doesn’t change my earlier opinion on him, just like Gil Hodges’ infamous 0-for-21 in the 1952 World Series didn’t make him a bad player or Dave Winfield’s 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series made him bad player. In the same way that sometimes a hack like Jeff Mathis suddenly turns on the hitting in a short series, other players… don’t.

3: THE EXECUTION BLUES

Why, why, why do you throw Vlad a fastball again with 2 strikes, curveball, curveball, curveball. Posada/Hughes come on, are you guys kidding me.– jesseguerrero30

I find this one harder to complain about. Sometimes pitchers just miss their spots. By a lot. Had the pitch been out of the strike zone where it was supposed to be, there might have been a different result. As it was, it’s not like Guerrero nuked it. He hit it up the middle and Derek Jeter just missed catching up to it. It was a mistake, but pitchers miss their spots and hitters swing at bad pitchers. I’m trying to imagine the mechanics of the game if players always performed exactly as they intended to — you get into a paradox where hitters always swing at pitches they can hit, but the pitchers always make the right pitches so they get them out. I think my head is going to explode like one of those computers on the old “Star Trek.”

4: DETAILS, DETAILS…
Don’t the biplanes win in the end???? Otherwise, I love Rally Kong.– stultusmagnus

This remake ends differently. The biplane pilots realize that their reliance on fossil fuels is kingkong.jpgdamaging the environment and fly home, leaving the giant ape to root on his favorite baseball team and turn the Union Square Greenmarket into a million-dollar business due to his high-volume grape purchases.

5: SOMEDAY THEY’LL KNOW BETTER
Goldman, posts like these are why you are my favorite NYY analyst. WHERE THE HECK IS DAVID ROBERTSON!?!?– nyyls1fan

I happened to tune in to WFAN in the car this afternoon, and Mike Francesa was shooting down callers who were intent on asking why Robertson hasn’t been used properly by saying that you shouldn’t make him the flavor of the month based on two innings in this season. “He hasn’t been there all year,” he said, which I found very odd given that he pitched in 45 games and generally did very well, with that high strikeout rate to which I keep referring. Francesa is correct in insisting that Robertson is in no way a proven postseason performer, but then no one is asking for him to close games, just to be used in the situations in which he might help the team. He also was incredulous that Robertson might be ranked ahead of Joba Chamberlain, but that fails to take into account just how poorly Joba has been pitching. Better to go with the untried pitcher who you feel has a reasonable chance of succeeding than with tried solutions that have already failed.

MORE FROM ME…
After the game. If we have a game. I just saw Aquaman swim past my window, and I’m on the second floor. 

Coffee Joe extends ALCS

Despite getting some things in Game 5 that seemed impossible just hours and minutes before they happened — big hits from Mark Teixeira and (holy cow) Robinson Cano — Joe Girardi helped pay back a terrific Yankees rally by once again mismanaging his pitchers. There are many questions to ask about the fatal bottom of the seventh, some in the Yankees’ control, some not.

1. Why can’t the Yankees retire Jeff Mathis, a career .200 hitter who normally strikes out once every 3.3 at-bats, equivalent to 152 Ks over a 500 at-bat season?

girardi275.jpg2. With a rested bullpen and another day off in front of him, why did the previously hyper-twitchy Joe “Coffee Joe” Girardi stay with A.J. Burnett to open the frame? Sure, his pitch count was on the low side, but he had also been on the bench for nearly half an hour and, despite settling down after being roughed up in the first inning, had struck out only three Angels, suggesting that, lacking his best stuff, he could again be damaged by a combination of walks and balls in play.

3. Why wasn’t Burnett yanked after the Mathis single to open the inning? Having broken ground on his grave, he was allowed to dig further by walking Erick Aybar, a hitter who took just 30 free passes in the regular season in close to full-time play. Girardi, who was so pepped to make changes in prior games, sat on his hands after the Mathis hit.

4. Why not start the inning with Phil Hughes? The way relievers pitch when they enter with men on is very different from the way they pitch when they start an inning. Though Mariano Rivera has performed some Houdini-like escapes in this series, including one to bail out Joba Chamberlain in this very game, even he yielded to the Twins in Game 2 of the Division Series, entering with two men on and allowing an RBI single.

5. If the Angels’ batting order was the problem and Girardi didn’t want to have Hughes pitch to Chone Figgins after (theoretically) retiring Mathis and Aybar, then why not burn David Robertson and his strikeouts in that spot, then pull him for the inevitable lefty?

6. Related to the previous question, is it really even necessary to worry about the platoon matchup when facing Chone Figgins? The Yankees have done a great job of taking him out of this series, in part by giving him a steady diet of lefty pitching to face. But even if Figgins beats a righty pitcher, he is likely to beat him with a single; this is a guy who homered once every 123 at-bats this year. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of Bobby Abreu. Even against right-handers, he hit just 12 home runs in nearly 400 at-bats. That’s one per 32 ABs. Against hitters like these, a manager should only pursue the platoon advantage if it’s not going to trip them up in other ways.

In this case, it led to Girardi, so profligate with relievers previously, to keep his starter in the game, solely so he could avoid making a pitching change before those two lefties were due up. And as long as we’re on the subject of platoon advantages, let’s talk about Damaso Marte for a moment, and for that matter, Phil Coke as well. Even Casey Stengel, who loved the platoon more than anything else in the world save his wife, said that you don’t switch out a good pitcher for a bad one just to get a platoon advantage. You can see that done every day of the regular season, and though the move worked out in Game 5, Girardi might have been guilty of it here.

7. It didn’t have an impact on the game thanks to Rivera, but why is Chamberlain pitching ahead of Robertson, or Urban Shocker for that matter? It’s depressing, but sending Joba back to the bullpen has not magically turned the clock back to 2007. There are still the makings of a fine pitcher here — the guy just turned 24, which means he’s about 2.5 years younger than Tampa’s Jeff Niemann, who is going to get some Rookie of the Year votes. There is still time for him, but his moment might not be now.

8. I am sick of the Rally Monkey. Have the Yankees’ scoreboard operators gotten to work on the New York equivalent as of yet? Guys, I want to see Rally Kong climbing the Empire State Building and smashing biplanes. You don’t need more than a day to get that set up, right?

kingkong.jpg

Impatience leads to no reward

TEMPTED, BUT THE TRUTH IS DISCOVERED
With the Phillies in place for the World Series, the temptation is to jump ahead and crank up the head-to-head comparison with the Yankees. That would be premature. A.J. Burnett can be a riddle wrapped in an enigma decorated in squid ink, and when he’s off he’s really off. Yet, it would be wrong to think of him as truly unpredictable, because he gave the Yankees a quality start roughly two-thirds of the time. This was just a bit better than John Lackey (who did suffer from a strained elbow this year).

The great break that Burnett gets in this series is that when he’s off his game, he’s wild, but the Angels, by nature of their offensive approach, are not inclined to let him be wild. Despite all the talk that Bobby Abreu has made the Angels more successful by his example, if you remove him — along with Chone Figgins — from the equation (and they’ve pretty much removed themselves in this series), and they remain a team that likes to hack. The Yankees have nearly doubled them up on walks, 23-13. Arguably, they are also putting better pitches in play, as they’ve struck out more than the Angels but have gotten far better results when they have made contact.

As I write this, Coffee Joe is still mulling his lineup, which one assumes will be sans Jorge Posada. Melky Cabrera’s solid showing in the previous game probably bought him another start, whereas before it seemed likely that at some point Girardi would go to Brett Gardner for a game. We’ve seen the manager navigate the Jose Molina/Posada switch a couple of times now, and it hasn’t cost the Yankees. However, it remains to be pointed out that if there’s a high-leverage situation early in the game, he must pull the trigger on a pinch-hitter.

All of his fooling around with pinch-runners and incessant pitching changes doesn’t have half the potential to change the game’s outcome as putting a good hitter up with two runners on. Maybe Burnett’s comfort level is affected after such a switch, maybe not, but if you’re up by a few runs instead of trapped in a game where the score is just a run or so apart, you can pay a torre275.jpglot less heed to that particular issue. Plus, with the possibility of getting a nice rest before the World Series as part of the payoff for winning today, you can throw the bullpen at the Angels — which, let’s face it, Girardi was going to do anyway.   

BYE BYE BLACKBIRD
Joe Torre has gone home again, and it was a bit sad to watch him try to hold back the tears at this latest disappointment. More than ever, it seems like he’s never going to get another chance to live down the 2003 World Series. Or 2004. Or Joba’s 2006 Attack of the Insect Kingdom.

Give Torre credit for surviving to manage, and manage relatively well — at least in the regular season — to the age of 69.  As I said last night, not too many managers are working successfully at his age, or working at all. Unfortunately, Torre has never been a great in-game manager, and while it’s hard to pin too much of the blame on him for a series in which his pitchers had an ERA of 7.38 and his hitters put up a .287 on-base percentage, he still made numerous decisions, from starting Ron Belliard ahead of Orlando Hudson (reminiscent of his benching Tino Martinez for Cecil Fielder in the 1996 postseason) to casting Chad Billingsley into the bullpen. He emphasized a player’s short-term struggles or hot streak over longer-term results.

He didn’t show the same kind of manic hand in the postseason that Coffee Joe has displayed this year, but he never did. He just made his choices, picked his loyalties and stuck with them. This was a great asset in the days when George Steinbrenner was inclined towards a more impulsive leadership, but it’s a serious detriment when you have to shift gears on the fly, which the postseason demands. With luck, he’ll get to try again next year, assuming the strained ownership situation with the Dodgers doesn’t curtail their offseason efforts to get what they’re missing: one more starting arm, one more starting bat.