After the whole zoo scene on the subway I finally arrived at Shea, picked up my official NLCS program and started making my ascent into the upper deck to meet my brother John at our seats. The official program, which cost $10, was going to be my only means of keeping score at the game so I was a little disappointed to see that they had squeezed seven miniature scorecards into the middle of the book, making it a very intricate and difficult task for someone like me who was trying to keep a full scorecard of just the one game that I was at, and very convenient for a mouse with good penmanship to keep score of all seven games.
Making my way through the hordes of Mets fans that were all over the concourse of Shea Stadium, I eventually met John at our seats which were straight behind the right handed batters box, in the second to last row of the stadium. I had never sat this high up at a baseball game and I couldn’t have been happier (well, if we were in the last row I might’ve been a little happier). We had the entire stadium right in front of us and if we turned around to look behind us we had a majestic view of the New York City skyline lit up on a cloudless night.
This was my first ever playoff game at Shea (I had been to two at Yankee Stadium, Game 1 of the ’96 World Series and Game 2 of the this year’s ALDS with the great Jay Jaffe himself) and the place was buzzing as the Mets took the field and 25-year-old John Maine began his warm-up tosses. David Eckstein stepped to the plate a couple minutes after 8 PM and as he looked over Maine’s first pitch for a strike, the 56,349 fans in attendance went wild. When he swung at the next pitch and looped the ball into centerfield to be caught by Carlos Beltran, I realized that the angle at which we were watching the game from up so high was going to make every batted ball tough to determine because I thought Mini-Me David Eckstein had smoked one that was going to leave the park (and every time somebody fouled a pitch off into the 3rd base stands it looked at first like a shot up the middle). Chris “The Coach’s Son” Duncan then worked a full count without taking the bat off his shoulders and promptly grounded out to second (there would be many of these). Albert Pujols was up next. After going 0-for-3 against him the previous night, Pujols had ripped the Mets’ future Hall of Fame pitcher and 290-game winner, Tom Glavine saying that “he wasn’t good at all” and that he “did the same thing he always does. Throw a changeup and fastball and that’s it.” Well, he was certainly wrong about one thing, as Glavine had thrown about four or five looping curves to Pujols in the game. And the guy has been using the same repertoire and pitching-strategy for most of his long, successful career so even though Pujols is probably the best hitter in baseball his quote only made himself look like a fool and probably gave Glavine a good snort. Well, when the new Mean and Angry Pujols took his spot in the batters box the crowd was booing their lungs out at the very sight of his awkward looking batting stance. Whereas in the past, Shea fans had booed Pujols just because he was so good, now we were booing him because was an asshole. It felt better this way. Albert launched Maine’s first offering into right field and from my vantage point I thought it was hit into another dimension, but Shawn Green made his way under it and the ball fell into his glove at the warning track. The retirement of Pujols and the Cards in order caused the anxious, chilly crowd to go into a frenzy after which I said to my brother, “I think I lost my voice already.” In the middle of the first inning.
There was much more screaming, jumping, and fist-pumping to come in the bottom half, though. The Mets’ leadoff firecracker Jose Reyes got the New York offense started with a lined double to rightfield on ace Chris Carpenter’s fourth pitch of the evening. Paul Lo Duca sac-bunted Reyes to third and this seemed like a good play because they were facing the Cardinals’ and probably the National League’s best hurler, but it turned out to be a wasted out as Beltran looked at a strike and then four consecutive pitches outside the zone for a walk and his pal Carlos Delgado smashed a three-run homer into the bleachers in left-centerfield to give the Mets a 3-0 lead. Carpenter looked a little shaken as 7 out of his next 10 pitches were balls but he escaped further trouble retiring Shawn Green and Jose Valentin to end the inning.
The youngster Maine got himself into trouble quickly in the Cardinal half of the second by walking Juan Encarnacion (.317 OBP in the regular season) to load the bases with nobody out after he had let Jim Edmonds reach on a walk (at least according to the umpire’s “strike zone”) and our heroic slugger but atrocious fielder Delgado bobbled a Scott Spiezio grounder. After inducing a pop-up for the first out, Maine gave up a 2-run double to Yadier Molina, he of the .209 EqA this season. We could see this wasn’t going to a pitcher’s duel. But the crowd got behind the kid and he managed to strand runners on second third, striking out the pitcher Carpenter and getting lucky on an Eckstein liner to second base.
Maine’s troubles were far from over, though. After the Mets pieced together a double and single to go up 4-2, Maine found himself bowing to the Red Birds’ two best hitters after dueling with them. He had struck out Chris Duncan to lead the inning off, fell behind Pujols 3-1 after which Pujols fouled off three straight pitches before Maine lost him. As Edmonds stepped up to bat, my brother pulled out some stat sheets he had printed out for both teams. As I started looking for Edmonds’ numbers this year, Maine got right ahead of him with two strikes. At about the same time Edmonds took two balls to make a 2-2 count I remarked “Edmonds had a weak year, he only slugged .471” and the smooth-swinging lefty launched a parabola over the centerfield fence to tie the game, almost on cue. Maine would only make it through 4 innings on the night, leaving for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 4th. Although he only gave up 2 hits, he let 5 men reach by way of the walk, and gave up 4 runs (3 earned).
By the time the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the 5th inning, the temperature had gone down considerably since the first pitch (I didn’t have a thermometer on me but the other upper deck fans and I were visibly starting to freeze our asses off) and with the score still tied at 4-4 we needed something to get excited about. Carlos Delgado would once again provide that for us. With a full count, Carpenter threw a 94-mph dart that Delgado launched into deep left field. Chris Duncan had his eye on it and started edging closer to the wall as the crowd stood up in anticipation. He gave it one last look, leaped, and it was over the fence for Delgado’s second opposite-field homerun of the game. The crowd went into euphoria. Jumping up and down and giving high fives to strangers, I could feel the place shaking. As Delgado was mobbed by his teammates in the dugout, the elated crowd started to chant for him, “Car-LOS, clap, clap, Car-LOS, clap, clap” but before he could make a curtain call (or at least I didn’t seem him do one from up on the roof), David Wright put the first pitch in play and got on by a Ronnie Belliard fielding error. Shawn Green singled and everything was looking beautiful for us Mets rooters. But Carpenter found his composure and retired the next two. Eh, no biggie, the Mets had the lead and they had one of their biggest strengths, the bullpen, taking over the rest of this match.
At this point, the cold was starting to become unbearable and even though I had worn four layers of clothing, I needed to take a walk to get my blood flowing and also get some hot chocolate. After a short wait on the line for the concession stand, I was told they were out of hot chocolate and I should go down to the next concession to get some. So I did. I waited on the line for about 5 minutes and was assured that they still had hot chocolate by the lady working there. When I finally made it to the stand I said “two hot chocolates please” only to notice that the two tall, inconsiderate assholes standing on the line next to me had just ordered 10 (yes, I said 10) hot chocolates and the concessionaires were in the process of filling this insane order. Well, of course on the ninth hot chocolate that they were filling up they announced “that’s it there’s no more.” The people on line started grumbling loudly and a riot was about to ensue but I had to get back to my seat as I didn’t pay $75 bucks to watch the game on a mini-television. Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano combined to keep the Cardinals scoreless in the 6th and the Mets added another run to their lead when Jose Reyes scored from first on a Lo Duca double to left field off of Josh Hancock. Randy Flores relieved Hancock and ended any troubles with two 4 to 3 putouts in a row to end the inning.
The top of the 7th is when the craziness began. This was to be the inning that would drive all the sports talk radio fans mad the next day. With a two-run lead, Mets manager Willie Randolph went to his new favorite toy, former Met-enemy Guillermo Mota. “Why aren’t they bringing in Heilman?” my brother asked me, to which I responded that Mota was pitching well for the Mets lately and told him how the Mets statheads prompted GM Omar Minaya to acquire Mota and have him rely more on his changeup. Mota quickly got two outs on only 4 pitches and Albert Poo-Holes came up to bat once again to a chorus of boos. Mota fell behind the slugger, 3 balls and no strikes but this was followed by another battle where both competitors refused to give an inch. Mota followed with a strike that Pujols looked at and then the probable MVP fouled six straight Mota offerings, slapping souvenirs all over the park, before he ended the duel with a single. This was followed by a four-pitch walk to Jim Edmonds and a rare Willie Randolph mound visit for a pep talk. As Joe Sheehan points out, Mota would get ahead 0-2 on the next hitter Scott Spiezio, but fail to finish him off:
Mota pulled it together in a hurry. He got ahead of Spiezio, a good fastball hitter, 0-2 by pulling the string on a pair of change-ups. At 0-2, he threw a fastball inside that Spiezio hooked foul down the right-field line. Three pitches thrown, two on which Spiezio had looked helpless, one that he hit very hard. You probably want to stick with the first, right?
It’s never clear who makes a decision like this, but we do know that the fastball Mota threw was not only a peculiar choice of pitch, but it was horribly located. Paul Lo Duca was set up over the outside edge, perhaps even off the plate. Mota put the fastball over the inside half, and Spiezio jerked it over the right-field fence, and although robbed of a homer by Shawn Green, settled for a game-tying two-run triple.
The Mets were one pitch away from ending the game. The Cards would have been down two with six outs left, with the bottom of the lineup up in the eighth and Billy Wagner ready for the ninth. Instead, for want of a change-up, or for any kind of location on the fastball, the Cardinals now had their first real chance to make this a series. Their bullpen held on, Taguchi had a Bucky Dent moment, and now there’s no guarantee that Shea Stadium will see another baseball game this year.
The at-bat by Spiezio was eerily similar to the one he had in the 2002 World Series with the Angels, when Felix Rodriguez tried to sneak a fastball by him with the Giants up 5-0 in the seventh. Spiezio homered on that one as well, triggering a six-run comeback that put the Angels on track for a championship. Spiezio has a remarkable track record in these situations; Fox reported that he was 13-for-19 in his postseason career batting with runners in scoring position…right before he hit a double to go to 14-for-20. It’s not predictive, and it’s not reflective of a particular skill, but it is an eye-popping number that has meant an awful lot for his teams.
Nobody in the park had any idea where Spiezio’s shot had landed. When LaRussa came out to argue the play, instead of the scoreboard screen showing a replay of what just happened they put up a Mets logo and left it there, not wanting to help the umpires out in any way. The umps eventually ruled it a triple, but Spiezio had tied the game against the mighty bullpen of the Mets and his own pen would hold down the Mets in the 7th and 8th innings, making for a Billy Wagner entrance into a tie game in the top of the 9th. The lead off hitter would be a non-descript, good-field no-hit Japanese import named So Taguchi. Taguchi had come into the game in the bottom of the 8th to replace shaky-fielding Chris Duncan out in left field. At the start of that inning, the Cards’ left field spot was vacant as Taguchi had gone down into the tunnel to prepare for a possible pinch-hit appearance in the 9th. LaRussa called down to him to get out onto the field and there was a short pause as everybody stood around waiting for number 99 to make his way out there. The apprehensive crowd didn’t know what the short pause was for and then the PA announcer called out “now playing left field for the Cardinals, number 99 So Taguchi” and there was a sound of “Huh? Who cares? Let’s get this over with!” all throughout the stadium as it was now nearing 11:30 pm and getting colder.
Billy Wagner got ahead of Taguchi 0-2 before the outfielder worked a full count (this seems to be a common theme) and then hit a 98 mph fastball over the fence in left field and knocked the wind out of everybody in the ballpark. This is the same So Taguchi who had hit only 2 homeruns all year in the regular season and none since June 21st. But this was the playoffs. Taguchi now had 2 at-bats in the playoffs and 2 homeruns (he also hit one against the Padres last week). Two doubles and a single later and the Mets were now losing 9-6 and the ballpark was hemorrhaging Mets fans. Roberto Hernandez got the last out of the inning and ended the horror but this game was over. Even with a 3-run lead, La Russa wasn’t going to take any chances with Carlos Delgado so he brought in lefty Tyler Johnson. Delgado hit .226 against lefties this season and showed why as he flailed at 2-2 pitch for the first out. Adam Wainwright came in to finish off the Mets with two groundouts (Shawn Green ended the game with the 14th 4-to-3 putout of the evening).
I wasn’t as upset about the loss as most of the other fans at the game. From my seat perched high atop Shea Stadium I certainly enjoyed the baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I surely would’ve preferred to see my team win this playoff game that I had paid a lot of money to attend and froze my ass off to sit through and watch. But, it was surely a fun game with a lot of excitement and this is baseball, you can’t win them all. In baseball, as in life, things don’t always work out perfectly. Sometimes in baseball, as in life, a So Taguchi comes along and bops a homerun off the hardest thrower on your pitching staff...
One facet that I highlighted in my NLCS preview at Baseball Prospectus was the vulnerability of the Mets' two big sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, to lefthanded pitching. Last night, with Jeff Weaver beginning to falter in the sixth inning, I figured Tony La Russa would call the number of either Tyler Johnson or Randy Flores, his two southpaws. Neither of them is any great shakes, but combined with Weaver's track record of being tattooed by both sluggers and the fact that he was around 100 pitches, the move seemed academic.
But La Russa left Weaver in to face Beltran, and Beltran jacked a two-run homer for the game's only scoring. On the whole it was a tight game with good plays and other strategic decisions that could have negated the impact of Beltran's home run. One can certainly argue that neither Johnson nor Flores is a very experienced, top-flight reliever, that Weaver was in a groove and hadn't allowed much in the way of hard-hit balls, hadn't reached 100 pitches, and had handled both Beltran and Delgado before. The non-move wasn't indefensible, and it's not as though the rest of the game didn't have moments that merit scrutiny.
But since I'd keyed on that particular set of matchups, I did find the decision somewhat out of character. I was surprised enough about this sequence of events to bang out a quick piece for BP, trying to understand La Russa's thought process and showing how just about every piece of matchup data favored him making the call to the bullpen. Here's a taste:
We spend a lot of time around these parts preaching the gospel of avoiding slavish devotion to LOOGY matchups mainly because they often involve the deployment of an organization's 14th- or 15th-best pitcher in a high-leverage situation; it's more constructive to take your chances with a better pitcher regardless of handedness, even on a staff as relatively threadbare as the Cards' is. Weaver's been on a roll for the last six weeks--3.22 ERA in 44.2 innings coming into that frame--enough of a roll that you probably have to credit Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan for helping him make adjustments and regain some of his former confidence. But Weaver simply doesn't have a track record of success against the Mets' two most dangerous hitters.
Meanwhile, La Russa appears to have lost some confidence in his southpaws because they contributed their share of gasoline to the near-massive flameout of September. Flores was dinged for seven runs in 5.1 innings of September action, retiring just 16 out of 30 batters--he was scored upon in five of his last eight appearances. Johnson's also been shaky, charged with four runs in 6.1 September innings; though he retired 19 out of 26 hitters, he surrendered a pair of homers and took the loss in both of those games amid the seven-game losing streak that put the noose around the Cardinals' neck.
Still, like every other Cardinal, the southpaws got a new lease on life in the Division Series against the Padres; La Russa called their number a combined total of six times in the four games, and though both pitchers occasionally hiccuped, as a unit the Cardinal bullpen did the job.
The piece hasn't been up an hour and it's already burning up my inbox. This should be fun.
A few years ago, I did a research piece for this site on a 19th-century ballplayer named Tony Suck who more than lived up to his name. I set out to find the most futile hitters in major-league history, using OPS+ and drawing an arbitrary cutoff of 200 plate appearances. Doyle, with an OPS+ of 11 (100 is league average) based on a career line of .161/.201/.191, was the second-worst of all qualifiers; only John Black, at 6, was worse. That finding was both gratifying and infuriating. Does pointing out how badly a guy sucked make the fact that he broke your heart any less painful?
Today I learned something about Doyle that I didn't already know. My former Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri reveals in an ESPN Page 2 piece that it took special dispensations to get Doyle on the roster for the postseason:
As a 23-year-old rookie in 1978, Doyle shuttled between the Yankees' big club and their Triple-A team five times and hit .192 with zero RBI in 52 at-bats. The Yankees kept Doyle in Triple-A for that league's playoffs, making him ineligible for the major league postseason. With standout second baseman Willie Randolph manning second base in the Bronx, though, that hardly seemed to matter.
But just before the end of the season, fate intervened, as an injury felled Randolph for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees lobbied the league and the Royals, their ALCS opponents, to allow Doyle onto the postseason roster. Doyle responded by going 2-for-7 with a run knocked in, as the Yankees knocked out Kansas City. After the Dodgers also granted Doyle special permission to play in the World Series, the Yankees started Fred Stanley at second in Game 1, an 11-5 New York loss. Doyle returned for Game 2, but the Yanks lost again, falling behind 0-2 in the series. Doyle went 0-for-4 in Game 3 and was on the bench for Game 4, both Yankee wins to square the series.
But in Game 5 and Game 6, Doyle and light-hitting double-play partner Bucky Dent took over. Batting in the No.8 and 9 spots, Doyle rapped out six hits and scored four runs in the two games, while Dent went 6-for-8 with two runs scored and three RBI. On a team that featured Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and other stars, the two little guys loomed largest.
Grr. The Dodgers certainly didn't think they were sowing the seeds of their own demise by agreeing to allow Doyle on the roster, but it just goes to show that October can make for some unlikely heroes.
Those heroes are the stuff of Keri's piece; "The Replacement Killers" (great title) examines a handful of scrubs who shone in a spotlight yielded due to injury. Leading off the piece is a personal favorite, Mickey Hatcher, who went 7-for-19 with a pair of homers and five RBI in the 1988 World Series, helping the upstart Dodgers shock the mighty Oakland A's. Reviewing a set of Dodger World Series DVDs recently, I was struck by how hilariously amped Hatcher appeared:
If the recent past has colored our view of the A's, led by Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, as juiced-up wonders, then it's only fair to admit that after watching this, one comes away with the sense that the Dodgers weren't skimping on the pharmaceuticals either. They look greenied to the gills from the moment Steve Sax, after getting drilled in the back by fearsome A's hurler Dave Stewart, sprints to first base in the home half of Game One's first inning. Indeed, what looked like a mismatch on paper between the heavily favored A's and the underdog Dodgers turns out to be one going in the opposite direction because of the super-energized play of Dodger scrubs such as Mickey Hatcher (who runs the bases with abandon, arms aloft, after homering) covering for the absence of injured Kirk Gibson.
My affection for Hatcher goes back nearly a decade before that series. In August of 1979, on a road trip to California in the back of my parents' station wagon -- the kind with the faux wood grain down the sides, of course, to preserve the illusion that those mechanics at Chevrolet carved the chassis out of oak -- I heard Vin Scully call a game for the first time, his distinctive voice cutting through the tedium of our nighttime travels. Hatcher, a week into his major-league career, went 3-for-3 with two walks and hit his first major-league homer, a solo shot off of Tom Griffin to lead off the fifth. Accompanied by homers from Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, and Derrell Thomas (who hit a grand slam), they smoked the Giants 9-0, with Don Sutton completing his 50th career shutout. Damn straight you could look it up.
Anyway, Keri not only relives the exploits of Doyle, Hatcher, and Buddy Biancalana -- Buddy Biancalana! -- he catches up with them today while pointing to D'Angelo Jiminez, Alexis Gomez, Scot Spiezio and other potential rags-to-riches stories on this month's rosters. Someday, you too might be cursing some of those names. Good times.
Early Wednesday afternoon, a small airplane crashed into an apartment building on the Upper East Side of New York City. Initial fears that this was somehow a terrorist-related incident have fortunately proven unfounded, but the latest news reports -- now on the local TV stations as well as ESPN -- are that the plane belonged to Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle, who was piloting it.
Last month the New York Times ran an article on Lidle's burgeoning interest in flying:
When the Yankees fly, the pilots are not only in the cockpit. There is another pilot in the main cabin, where the players sit. He is probably studying his hand-held Global Positioning System receiver, tracking the weather and noting the plane's precise speed and altitude.
He is Cory Lidle, who has been a major league pitcher for nine years and a pilot for seven months. He earned his pilot's license last off-season and bought a four-seat airplane for $187,000. It is a Cirrus SR20, built in 2002, with fewer than 400 hours in the air.
A player-pilot is still a sensitive topic for the Yankees, whose captain, Thurman Munson, was killed in the crash of a plane he was flying in 1979. Lidle, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 30, said his plane was safe.
From the ESPN report:
A small plane piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into a 50-story condominium tower Wednesday on Manhattan's Upper East Side, killing at least four people, authorities said.
Lidle died in the crash.
The twin-engine plane came through a hazy, cloudy sky and hit the 20th floor of The Belaire -- a red-brick tower overlooking the East River, about five miles from the World Trade Center -- with a loud bang, touching off a raging fire that cast a pillar of black smoke over the city and sent flames shooting from four windows on two adjoining floors.
Unbelievable. Regardless of your feelings about the Yankees or Lidle's performance and comments regarding the Yanks' lack of preparation in the postseason, this is just sad, sickening, and downright surreal, a cruel coda to what's already been a crazy week in Yankeeland.
I recall vividly that the Times' article's mention of Munson sent chills up and down my spine, and today's news invokes the memory of hearing that horrible Munson news back in August of 1979, when I was nine. Despite the fact that I was on the other side of the aisle as a Dodger fan, the Yanks, Munson included, had my respect. Even then I sensed their seductive appeal; I remember sending away for team sets of Topps' 1979 baseball cards, $3 apiece, and once I got the Dodgers, I bought Yanks, Red Sox, and Reds sets, less because I liked the teams than that they were concentrated with superstars.
Like most nine-year-olds, I wasn't on close terms with death, but Munson wasn't even the first active ballplayer whose demise I'd experienced. That grisly distinction belonged to Lyman Bostock, who was murdered late in the 1978 season. But what really hit home was when the Yankees, playing at home two days later, were on NBC's Game of the Week, and there was a moment of silence at the outset of the game in tribute to Munson. All of the Yanks were at their positions, but as the TV cameras showed, the catcher's box behind the plate was empty.
Even then, it hit me: death equals loss, a void. It's the emptiness, the absence of the player you admired, the friend whose laugh used to light up your parties, the grandparents whose loving phone calls no longer come. Ultimately if we're lucky we have fond memories of a time when that space was filled and the world felt whole. If our luck continues to hold, we gradually find a way to re-fill that space so that the world may feel somewhat closer to whole again.
Cory Lidle played for seven teams in his major league career, reaching the majors with the Mets in 1997. He had gone to camp as a replacement player during the 1995 strike, a fact that may have had something to do with the reason he bounced around so much and often found himself engaged in verbal fisticuffs with his teammates. It was only a couple of months ago, just after Lidle had been traded to the Yankees, that former Phillies teammate Arthur Rhodes called Lidle a scab and said, "The only thing that Cory Lidle wants to do is fly around in his airplane and gamble. He doesn't have a work ethic. After every start, he didn't run or lift weights. He would sit in the clubhouse and eat ice cream."
As the premature passing of former umpire Eric Gregg illustrated, there's always another side to the story of those who are are mocked or vilified in the sports pages or the stat lines, a human side that puts the battles on the field and in the locker room into proper perspective. Cory Lidle may not have been a consensus choice to start Game Seven of a playoff series, but there's no question his untimely death touches a lot of people in the game and on its periphery. My condolences to all of you out there affected by this, as well as to Lidle's family, friends, and teammates.
Weaned across town in a culture where an October berth is almost taken for granted, Willie Randolph managed the Mets to the postseason in just his second year on the job. Thanks to a hot start, the team's first place finish was a foregone conclusion by Memorial Day, but Randolph managed to keep the Mets sharp throughout the summer patching over injuries, and resting his big guns down the stretch. He played a big role in Reyes' great leap forward, he coaxed career years out of left-for-dead role players like [Endy] Chavez, [Jose] Valentin, and [Darren] Oliver, and he demonstrated a deft touch with running a bullpen. He even found a way to keep [Paul] Lo Duca fresh for the entire season, a challenge that's befuddled even Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Even more impressively, Randolph spun a disadvantage -- the injuries to the rotation -- into an advantage in the first round, demonstrating an unflappability that Joe Torre would be proud of.
There's a school of thought which says that due to all of the injuries the Cardinals sustained, this might rank as one of Tony La Russa's finest managerial seasons. That he and his staff were able to patch this team into the NLCS despite a sub-.500 Hit List Factor, the second-lowest of any playoff team ever (the 2005 Padres at .483 are the worst; the 1987 Twins were .0001 higher than this year's Cards), is definitely noteworthy. However, it's difficult to maintain such a sanguine view of the job La Russa has done in light of the team's near-collapse, given the Genius' insensitive reaction to [Jim] Edmonds' woes and his failure to integrate [Anthony] Reyes into the rotation early enough to save himself the trouble of being served Cream of [Jason] Marquis every five days.
Still, we are talking about a manager with 11 division flags, four pennants, and a World Championship to his credit, not to mention three straight berths in the NLCS. La Russa not only was able to guide his reeling team past the much hotter and more heavily favored Padres last week, but savvy enough to go for the kill by starting his ace in Game Four. It would hardly be out of character if he pulls off another surprise here.
Despite the fact that the Mets ended the Dodgers' season and stand to up the misery index in the Bronx with every additional October win, I'm pulling for them over the Cardinals mainly because of the contrast between skippers; I gained a lot of respect for Randolph last week, whereas my distaste for La Russa has only increased of late. Hell, I even have it on good authority the man likes to sneak the occasional ham sandwich despite fronting as a vegetarian.
Late note: Reyes is on the St. Louis roster and Marquis is not; since that information wasn't in by publication time I had to account for both contingencies in my writeup.
Anyway, the preview is free, so check it out.
Item 2: sharing space on the BP bill today is Alex Belth's touching, personal remembrance of Buck O'Neil. It's Mr. B. at his best. Go.
Item 3: Joe Torre is returning. On Sunday the situation looked grim, and as late as that evening there were still rumors all over the Internet that his firing was imminent. But by the time Brian Cashman had professed his desire for Torre to stay, it was pretty clear that an overly hasty removal of the manager simply to appease George Steinbrenner's rage would have plunged the organization into chaos, likely signaling a return to power of the Tampa mafia at the expense of the GM's neck. Sadly, I can't actually share all that I know on this topic without violating confidences (sorry to be a tease), but even an amateur Kremlinologist with a Yankee org chart could have fingered the loyalists who might whisper in the Boss' ear that Joe Must Go.
That said, I'm not 100 percent convinced that keeping Torre was absolutely the right thing to do; it was the hotheaded rush to judgment -- particularly to anoint notorious hothead Lou Piniella -- that angered me. I'd be sad to see Torre go, but I'd be devastated to see the toppling of the team's Age of Reason and culture of accountability.
At least one writer has argued that the latter has already been damaged. Joe Sheehan has suggested that Torre's handling of the Alex Rodriguez situation, inciting the drama by talking to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated instead of defusing it as he's so expertly done for the past decade, then throwing his star third baseman under the bus in the elimination game by batting him eighth, was the nadir of his tenure and perhaps a fireable offense. Derek Jeter's complicity in this charade -- a team captain unwilling to show leadership by standing up for his teammate -- was utterly contemptible as well. At some point, Torre needed to bar the clubhouse door and bitchslap his players, saying words to the effect of: we're a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team, we don't point fingers, we don't kick each other when we're down, we pick each other up because ultimately everybody will need to help carry the load if we're going to win the whole thing instead of being catcalled from the back pages of the tabloids. Anything less than that was hearkening back to a Yankee tradition that had more to do with bloated egos, internecine power struggles and clubhouse disharmony of the late '70s than some hallowed pinstriped ideal.
What concerns me isn’t that the Yankees lost. What concerns me is that they and their manager set themselves up for a free ride going into the playoffs. After a season of laying all failures at the feet of Alex Rodriguez, and going so far as to inspire and participate in a Sports Illustrated story that furthered that storyline, the Yankees absolved themselves of responsibility. Complicit with the media, they washed their hands and let Rodriguez carry the water for their performance.
At just about any point along the way, one of the two most visible Yankees -- Joe Torre or Derek Jeter -- could have come forward and said what should be obvious: Alex Rodriguez is a great, great player, and in the worst season of his career he’s a star. Defining his season by his lowest points is doing him a disservice, and the constant focus on his play is an insult to the other members of the team. Whatever Rodriguez’s performance issues, such as they were, his overall contributions were valuable. Beyond that, he’s one of the game’s model citizens, with barely a controversy to his name in a time when so many others have been tainted.
That statement, completely true, would have done more to alleviate the pressure on Rodriguez than anything else. They didn’t do so, instead allowing petty nonsense like his desire to please people (heaven forfend) and his performance is varied subsets (in Boston, in the playoffs, against a small handful of pitchers, in 20 at-bats in July) to substitute for real information. They didn’t defend their teammate, and by allowing, even stoking, the situation, they absolved themselves and every other Yankee of blame for their fortunes. If they lost, it would be Rodriguez’s fault, no matter how the rest of them played.
...As far as Jeter goes, any claims to a captaincy or leadership skills are and will remain in doubt. His refusal to provide a full-throated defense of the player whose willingness to take his Gold Gloves to third base allowed the illusion of Jeter’s defensive prowess to grow to a point where he could get his own hardware is as much to blame as Torre’s sudden open-mouth policy. He could have stopped this with 50 well-chosen words. He didn’t, and it’s fair to wonder why.
There's only one person who can change the dispassionate climate surrounding the Yankees, and it's the reluctant captain, Derek Jeter. But if he hasn't been willing to embrace A-Rod by now, it's hard to believe anything is going to change.
...But the bigger problem is A-Rod's addled state of mind, the steady erosion of confidence that made him look clueless at the plate during stretches of the 2006 season, when he was guessing so badly that he was missing sliders by a couple of feet. And that surely is tied to his relationship with Jeter.
It is no news bulletin that A-Rod wants to be liked, accepted, loved, however you want to say it, by his teammates, especially Jeter. And the captain hasn't budged on the matter...
...Jeter sets the tone for everything the Yankees do, so where he got tons of credit, and rightfully so, when they won, he has to take some of the blame now for allowing the A-Rod mess to seemingly suffocate this team. He has kept A-Rod at arm's length, apparently all because he can't get past the famous Esquire article of five years ago in which A-Rod allowed his jealousy and self-esteem issues to first show publicly.
Torre is a rotten tactician, though watching opposing managers I suspect he pulls fewer rocks than the average skipper. Despite this, when I consider the list of managers above and contemplate the alternatives -- Joe Girardi, who lost his job in Florida because he clashed with the front office and yelled at the owner? Lou Piniella, who maneuvered himself into the Tampa Bay job and then spent three years bitching about the club? -- I can see the Yankees taking a step back into a less rational time.
Still, Torre's day may be at an end. All managers, even the great ones, reach a point where they have been in one place too long, gotten too comfortable, too satisfied with their own judgments, too predictable with the players to keep them motivated.
...In the final analysis, it's the manager's job to get the most out of his players. Not only did Torre fail to do that with Rodriguez (not that Rodriguez needed all that much help), but he actively undermined him. Rodriguez is one of the best players in baseball, and certainly among the most talented. The Yankees organization has devoted major resources to obtaining and paying him. It is not for any manager, even a future Hall of Famer like Torre, to lightly throw that player away. Now, though, possibly as a parting gesture, Torre has put the Yankees in a difficult position. He's alienated Rodriguez from the team, or at minimum from the manager. Both cannot return.
At this moment, Rodriguez is staying as well, and I can't disagree there. Getting full value for A-Rod isn't likely, and the Yanks are better off being big boys and figuring out how to make the combination work instead of falling victim to the craven impulses of a bloodthirsty mob. Besides, as Peter Abraham points out, "[I]t does Cashman no good as a negotiator to say, 'Yes, we want him out.'"
Meanwhile, everybody and their mother has a plan on how to fix the Yanks' aging, expensive and largely inflexible roster. I'm in no mood to rush my own fixes into the blogsphere, largely because my winter plate is full of similar responsibilities for three other teams for Baseball Prospectus 2007. Rest assured I'll be weighing in on the Yanks soon enough.
Item 3A: speaking of rumors, Jon Weisman offers a handy guide to interpreting those of the Hot Stove variety. Read, take a deep breath, and read again.
Item 4: as for the rest of the playoffs, I've been laughing like hell with that Tommy Lasordatough-lovecampaign for fans to watch the playoffs even after their teams have been eliminated, and I fully intend to follow suit.
"You guys can't handle October without your Indians? So your team's been knocked out, big deal! Buncha babies! But you're baseball fans, right? Get outta there. I live for this, you live for this, and the whole world lives for this. To the TV!"
* A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate (EqK9), which accounts for park and league differences * A good closer, as measured by Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL), which accounts for the degree of difficulty (runners inherited and run margin) of a reliever's appearance * A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA)
In other words, Silver and Perry couldn't find any offensive measures which were significantly indicative of postseason success:
More remarkably, all three of these characteristics relate to run prevention, rather than run scoring. That does not mean that offense is of no importance in the playoffs. But there is a lot of noise in the postseason record, and offense did not produce enough signal to emerge through it. The reasons are too complicated to get into here, but have to do with what happens when good offenses face good pitching. Pitching does have some tendency to dominate these match-ups, whether they occur in the regular season or in the playoffs. Because "plus pitching" versus "plus hitting" duels occur more frequently in the post-season, we tend to notice the effects more then.
In any event, this "secret sauce" is fairly pungent. The two teams that rated most favorably in these categories in the 2005 playoffs were the White Sox and the Astros, who met in the World Series. The formula also predicts the success of some surprise World Series winners like the 1990 Reds and 1979 Pirates. Conversely, of the ten post-season teams since 1972 that rated worst in the "secret sauce" rankings, none advanced beyond their LCS.
Here are statistical totals and relative rankings of the eight playoff teams in those "secret sauce" categories:
Yes, the top-ranked Twins ended up being swept by the A's, and the Cardinals bounced the Padres, but there's more historical weight behind the methodology than a single season's results. Note that the disappearance of Mariano Rivera, who was limited to one inning in Game One, took away the Yanks' biggest advantage over the Tigers, and that the Twins' Joe Nathan and the Padres' Trevor Hoffman were similarly neutralized, being held to two-thirds and one inning, respectively.
• Mike Carminati's article about early and late clinches among playoff teams wasn't specifically designed to address the pitching/hitting divide, but it did reveal a rather alarming dropoff in offense, no matter when a team sewed up a playoff berth:
OBP SLG OPS Reg .338 .407 745 Post .312 .369 681
I'd love to have the data to present a more detailed breakdown by level of scoring (teams in the various quartiles perhaps), but even those two lines ought to hit you like a ton of bricks: teams in the postseason generally don't hit as well as they did in the regular season, and it's not because they suddenly turn into sissies. It's because there's a higher concentration of good pitching in the postseason.
The Tigers, who led all of baseball in run prevention at just 4.17 runs per game, topped the Yankees, who led the majors in scoring at 5.74 per game. They limited the vaunted Bronx Bomber lineup -- one which included a current or former All-Star at every single position -- to 14 runs over a four-game span and just six in the last three games; two of those were merely window dressing in the ninth inning of Game Four. They hung 20 straight zeroes on the Yanks, from the fifth inning of Game Two through the sixth inning of Game Four. Thanks to Jeremy Bonderman's five spotless innings at the start of the finale, the Tigers came within three outs of a "hidden no-hitter," as the Yanks failed to record a base hit between Jorge Posada's double to lead off the seventh inning of Game Three and Robinson Cano's leadoff single to start the sixth in Game Four.
For the series, a team which bashed to the tune of .285/.363/.461 (leading the majors in OPS by 13 points) was held to a pitiful .246/.303/.388 showing. You can point a finger at poor, poor, pitiful Alex Rodriguez (1-for-14), who admitted afterwards that he sucked, but you can't avoid dishing out responsibility to Gary Sheffield (1-for-12), Robinson Cano (2-for-15), Hideki Matsui (4-for-16, with zero walks), and Johnny Damon (4-for-17, with just a .278 OBP for the series), to name a few names. Take away Damon's three-run homer in Game Two and Posada's two-run afterthought in Game Four, and you've got a team that went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position against the Tigers, with all of those hits in the first game. Pundits from coast to coast will bloviate on how this proves some kind of moral failure on the part of these players, and a certain portion of Yankee fans will support a jihad against those they deem weren't clutch, including manager Joe Torre, around whom the vultures continue to circle.
But that kind of shutdown isn't a coincidence. Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and company stuffed the bats up the Yanks' asses. They did their homework (Bonderman supposedly had a tipster suggest his plan of attack, and I'll wager $20 that the Detroit Deep Throat was Curt Schilling, who's owned the Yankees for the better part of the past decade), they had their mojos working (Rogers' curveball gave him a knockout punch against a team that had dominated him for over a decade, while Zumaya's and Verlander's fastballs proved impossible for most for the Yankee hitters to catch up with), and they didn't just throw strikes, they threw unhittable strikes. Looking over the pitch-by-pitch data (gathered from Sportsline.com's play-by-plays, with the help of Peter Quadrino), a few things stand out:
The Tiger pitchers not only threw a higher percentage of strikes (k%) than the Yankee pitchers, they threw more strikes on balls that weren't put in play (k/nBIP%) and got significantly more called strikes on pitches taken (k/take%). Think about that last one for a moment; the notoriously hacktastic Tiger hitters, who struck out 2.90 times as often as they walked unintentionally this year, took more called balls than the patient Yankee hitters, who struck out only 1.75 times as often as they walked unintentionally. Why? Basically, because the Tiger pitchers were hitting their spots more often than the Yankee ones. They didn't make the Yankee hitters swing and miss more often (swing%), but they deceived the Yankee hitters on pitches they didn't swing at, and thus far we haven't heard much rumbling about Eric Gregg-type strike zones. The Tiger pitchers earned it.
Bonderman needed just 40 pitches to get through the first five innings on Saturday, and only seven of them were balls. Even when the Yanks tried to wait him out, they found themselves in the hole; of the nine first pitches they took in that five-inning span, six were called strikes. And when the Yanks did manage to make contact, it was weak contact. From Games Two through Four, they went just 17-for-73 on balls in play (.233) and slugged just .288 on those balls. For purposes of comparison, the team's numbers during the regular season on balls in play were .319 and .403.
The Yankees, meanwhile, exhibited the mediocrity of a pitching staff that's become a latter-day hallmark, one that allowed an unremarkable 4.74 runs per game, sixth in the AL (to finish out the comparisons, the Tigers, at 5.07 runs scored per game, were fifth in the AL). Chien-Ming Wang pitched well in Game One, and Mike Mussina didn't embarrass himself in Game Two, though he did very slowly cough up a three-run lead. But Randy Johnson pitched like a 42-year-old with a herniated disc and a shortage of cartilage in his knees, surrendering five runs in 5.2 innings, and Jaret Wright was an unmitigated disaster in an elimination game, failing to survive the third inning intact. The latter threw Ball One to nine of the 15 hitters he faced, including five of the first six in the second inning, when he surrendered three of his four runs. In all, the Yankee starters were charged with 15 earned runs in 22 innings, a 6.14 ERA. The relievers were charged with six runs in 12 innings, a 4.50 ERA. The failures of the rotation beyond Wang meant the neutralization of one of the Yanks' biggest assets; Rivera wound up with his mug on the side of a milk carton.
Hitting, particularly in a lineup as good as the Yankees have, gets all the glory. Chicks dig the long ball, and MVP voters drool over the guys with the big RBI totals. But hanging zeroes on an opponent is just as important, and it's not like the Tigers did that with a bunch of guys they rounded up at the bus station. Bonderman and Verlander were first-round picks, the former the bounty of the three-way deal which sent Jeff Weaver to the Bronx and Ted Lilly to Oakland (insert groan here), the latter only the #2 overall pick in the 2004 draft. Both are 23 (Bonderman turns 24 later this month). Rogers, for all of his baggage and his perceived character flaws, has lasted 18 years in the majors, winning 207 games with an ERA 10 percent better than the league average. Their catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, has already has coaxed a World Championship out of a green pitching staff (the 2003 Marlins, another Yankee killer) and is headed to the Hall of Fame. Ultimately, you have to tip your cap to the work they did. Congratulations to the Tigers on a job well done.
Actually, it could; this morning marks the beginning of the annual Blame Game in Yankeeland. The Associated Press is citing a New York Daily News report based on anonymous sources within the Yankee organization that manager Joe Torre will be fired, drawn, quartered, doused in gasoline, set aflame, shot out of a cannon, then vaporized by an intercontinental ballistic missile. His ashes will then be gathered, pressed into a high-density pellet and smashed with a diamond-encrusted titanium hammer personally wielded by George Steinbrenner as the Tampa mafia sacrifices 72 virgins in unison, using their blood to anoint Lou Piniella the new Yankee manager while Satan himself massages his nipples in the background.
Or something like that.
The Daily News article in question appears to be this one by T.J. Quinn (thanks to Derek Jacques for the pointer):
Several sources within the organization said there has been a widespread feeling that Torre has been increasingly disengaged from the team, and that his failure to get out of the division series yet again, despite his autonomy, is more than Steinbrenner can stand.
...Members of the organization now speak of a Torre who they think is distracted by his outside interests, his family, his Safe at Home Foundation. All are admirable pursuits, but a Yankee's only mandate is to shave frequently and win constantly. When Torre took over the team in 1996, sources said, he was a manager and little else.
Blah, blah, blah. The Torre Out/Piniella In meme is an old favorite, one that got a lot of airing after the Yanks were eliminated in the first round last year, and one which Fox "sideline reporter" Ken Rosenthal was hyping by the middle innings of Game Four. In his guise as a writer for Fox Sports and the Sporting News, Rosenthal long ago surpassed Peter Gammons as the league leader in scoops, but that doesn't mean you should buy what he or any of the other breathless pundits pushing this are selling. The bottom line is that until the Yankees call a press conference to announce a change, all we're talking about is an echo chamber based on what tabloid-minded types and irate fans WANT to see happen rather than what will happen, a mixture of bullshit, bloodlust, and mob mentality.
Take a deep breath and hope that the tenor of the past decade, the Yankees' Golden Age of Reason, will prevail. And if it doesn't, Yankee fans should be far more irate about that than about being bounced out of the postseason by a hungry young team whose pitchers had everything working for them for three straight days.