THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE CAMERA
I’m not sure how we ever had baseball without replay. I’m not sure how we can continue to have baseball without replay. Pennant races worth millions of dollars to the teams and a great deal of emotion to the fans are resolved on the whim of umpires — any time a team loses a race by one game, you have to ask, “Did they earn that, or did a blown call earn it for them?” And we have had World Series games decided by poor calls in the past, going back at least as far as the 1922 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants when umpires decided to call Game 2 for darkness in the middle of the afternoon. As far as pennant races altered by umpires, they go all the way back to the very beginning — just ask Fred Merkle. Wherever you are, Fred, we’re sorry.
Alex Rodriguez’s timely camera-shot would have been reviewed whether it occurred in the regular season or the postseason, but all calls should be reviewed. Baseball shouldn’t be a game that is sometimes accurately refereed and sometimes not. As I’ve suggested in previous installments, it wouldn’t have taken a booth umpire much longer than 30 seconds to change Rodriguez’s double into a home run, whereas there had to be a complaint by Joe Girardi, followed by a near-minyan of umpires conferring on the field, followed by the long march off the field, the review, the long march back on — what the heck is this, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow? Baseball is famous for being a retrograde institution, but let’s get on with it already. Baseball games are slow enough without the March of the Penguins added for no good reason.
That said, the games aren’t too slow for instant replay properly handled. On Saturday, my Baseball Prospectus colleague Joe Sheehan wrote at Sports Illustrated:
The most common objection to this system is that it would cause delays, but both pro and college football have survived, in part by selling additional television ads during the breaks. Delays would happen, but the improvement in accuracy, especially on high-leverage, high-profile plays, would be worth the time investment. You may even save time by eliminating the long arguments and conferences that currently occur.
Actually, the best way to save time would be to have umpires vigorously enforce pace-of-game rules. Doing that would more than make room for the occasional replay. Batters don’t step out. Period. Batters don’t get time called when the pitcher is already in his wind-up. Period. The pitcher holds the ball more than a set number of seconds — less than it is now — then it’s a ball to the batter. Period. If the plate umpire or the base umpires can’t manage a ten-second countdown between pitches, then the aforementioned booth umpire can do it.
…There isn’t much in the way of deep analysis to do with Game Three. Andy Pettitte didn’t pitch well by his standards, but the offense helped him out, including Andy himself. Phillies pitchers were wilder than they’re accustomed to, both with walks and hit batters, and the Yankees finally got a look into the bullpen, and they saw that it was good — looking into it, that is, not the bullpen pitchers themselves. Nick Swisher came back to himself. Jorge Posada stranded a bunch of runners but got a key single. We’re still waiting on Melky, Robbie and Teixeira. Joba Chamberlain pitched his first solid inning in recent memory. Phil Hughes didn’t. Girardi seems convinced that Damaso Marte is back to his pre-injury, 2002-2007 form — I will never cease to be bugged that the Yankees were smart enough to sign Marte as a free agent (out of the Mariners system, where he was a starter), smart enough to move him to the bullpen and make something out of him, and dumb enough to trade him for Enrique Wilson, one of the worst hitters ever to wear a Yankees uniform, worst even when you cut him some slack for being a utility infielder.
When Hideki Matsui came up to pinch-hit for Chamberlain with two outs in the eighth, I said, “This is a kind of low-leverage situation to use Matsui in, but then at this point in the game, a high-leverage probably isn’t going to come up. Girardi might as well just go for it and hope for a solo home run.” Moments later, Matsui made the move pay off, giving the Yankees an extra bit of cushioning which would make Hughes’ failure to contain postseason superman Carlos Ruiz a bit less of a cause for tension. The only drag about THAT was that it momentarily pushed Girardi into Coffee Joe mode and he got Mariano Rivera into a game that he should have been kept out of.
On the topic of subjects for another day, if the Yankees are determined to keep just one from the expiring Johnny Damon/Hideki Matsui duo of imminent 36-year-olds, I’m beginning to wonder if the right answer isn’t Matsui, regardless of the roster limitations a pure DH brings.
BLANTON TO START GAME FOUR
This is how chess is played: the Phillies have a paper advantage on the Yankees in starters because Joe Blanton > Chad Gaudin, but CC Sabathia > Joe Blanton. Move and countermove. Of course, it could have been CC Sabathia ? Cliff Lee, but Charlie Manuel didn’t feel comfortable with that. Maybe with tonight’s loss he’ll rethink that decision, but I’ve not heard anything of the sort. Thus Sabathia goes on short rest, and he’ll have to perform to make the chess move good. It might not matter: in four career starts against the Yankees, Blanton is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA. The last time was in June, 2008, so we probably shouldn’t become over-stimulated by this particular bit of trivia.
SOMETIMES 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…
Without taking anything for granted (we all remember 2004), it seems as if we’re on the way to a Yankees-Phillies World Series. While I’m sure that some will be sorry that we won’t get JOE TORRE STRIKES BACK headlines, I’m happy that we likely won’t have to rehash all that stuff, or subject any of the people involved to the indignity of it all.
After all, Torre is no traitor — the organization chose to go in a different direction (this is the politest way of summarizing the events that led to Torre’s departure) and he helped direct the club to its most sustained run of success since the 1970s, if not the dynasty years of the 1950s and ’60s. While I was critical of his work in the later years of his tenure, an organization needs change and that can leave personnel who once seemed integral in the dust trying to keep up. When that happens, and it has happened to great leaders (Winston Churchill comes to mind), it does nothing to invalidate all the positive contributions that came before. Things change, we know that; not everyone is adaptable, and even those that are adaptable will eventually reach the point at which they are no longer flexible.
As I said, we won’t have to deal with that. Instead, what we should have to deal with, if things go the way they should, is the defending champs trying to achieve something like mini-dynasty status — pull the Yankees out of the equation and there haven’t been too many repeat winners in baseball history — against a Yankees team that, in many ways, really hasn’t been here before. Holdovers from the last Yankees World Series team include Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. That’s just five players out of 25. The rest are virginal, at least in a Yankees uniform (Burnett was on the 2003 Marlins but was hurt; Johnny Damon was with the 2004 Red Sox). Though the Yankees are a highly compensated, veteran team, and shouldn’t be rated the underdog in any matchup, they are undoubtedly the upstarts in a confrontation with the Phillies.
The Phillies would also make the most legitimate competition for this Yankees team. The Dodgers are comparatively light on offense (on one of the NLCS broadcasts, Buck Martinez called them the best offense in the National League, not sure where that came from) and their pitching staff has fallen into disarray in October. The Phillies have a team that was built to play in Yankee Stadium II, loaded with left-handed and switch-hitters who can take aim at the short porch in right field, as well as a rotation stocked with lefties who can keep Yankees hitters away from it. Sure, their bullpen is a mess, has been a mess, will be a mess, but that pile of southpaws on both sides of the ball covers a multitude of reliever sins.
All this, however, is premature. For today we wait while the NLCS tries to resolve itself. Perhaps this speculation is premature. It’s difficult not to jump ahead, given the dominance of Tuesday night’s performance by CC Sabathia.
ALL IS FORGIVEN
Given the umpiring throughout the postseason, and particularly in last night’s game (an embarrassment, though the ball-strike calls were shockingly good), it seems to me that Don Denkinger has less and less to feel bad about. Sure, he helped give away a World Series game, but it was just one play. His professional descendants are mucking up inning after inning. Baseball games continually interrupted by instant replay is a horrifying notion, but something has to change.
MORE OF ME AND OTHER PEOPLE
Baseball Prospectus is holding another roundtable chat tonight around Game 5 of the NLCS. I should be there, assuming this kidney stone I’m still dealing with doesn’t send me off to cower in a corner somewhere. For more info or to submit a question, here there be linkage. Hope to see you then. Desperately.