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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mad Rush to Replay

Game 2 of the World Series featured two more controversial calls, one "against" each team. As things turned out, the score prior to the botched calls was the score when the game ended, which doesn't necessarily mean the outcome of the game wasn't influenced, but does dull the pain a little. No Phillies fan should argue that umpiring was the reason why they lost. A. J. Burnett was masterful. Mariano Rivera was himself. And, perhaps, Charlie Manuel left Pedro in the game just a shade too long.

Like most baseball fans, I've been dissatisfied with the umpiring this postseason and tempted to endorse increased use of instant replay. But I want to point out that instituting replay would not be as simple as some proponents suggest.

Exhibit A:

In an press release this morning, the umpires admitted that Chase Utley had been safe on the double-play in the top of the eighth (the second controversy of the evening); however, they declared that the double-play in the bottom of the seventh, begun when Ryan Howard backhanded a line drive, remained inconclusive. I concur. Although Buck and McCarver acted as though Howard had clearly grabbed the ball on a short hop, the replay was not all that obvious.

Even had it been, what would the ruling have been?

The replay showed clearly that Howard (probably assuming he had caught the ball on a hop) made a couple steps toward first. He only turned to throw (wildly) to second once he heard the umpire declare his catch an out. I'll point out, first of all, that, regardless, he should've continued on to first, as tagging the bag would've forced Posada and given the Phillies the third out. In the heat of the moment - perhaps a little shocked by the call - he made the split-second decision to throw to second, to force the lead runner instead, who was still in the process of advancing to third on the play.

Let's say that a replay revealed, conclusively, that Howard caught the ball on the short hop. That doesn't change the fact that the umpire's ruling on the field altered Howard's course of action. What should the umpires do? Rule the batter out? The runner out? Everybody safe? Whatever the were to choose, the post facto decision would seem to portray an advantage to one team or the other. The Yankees would argue that everybody should be safe because Howard's throw pulled Rollins off the bag, while the Phillies would argue that there should be at least one out because Howard would've touched first base had he not heard the umpire yell "out."

In a scenario like this, the on-the-field ruling, mistaken or not, can, at least, be defended as unbiased.

Exhibit B:

Let's imagine a scenario similar to the one made infamous in the ALDS between the Yankees and Twins, when Phil Cossi ruled a Joe Mauer hit to the opposite field foul, when it proved clearly to be fair. The ruling in this particular case might've been easy. Since there was nobody on and the ball ricocheted into the stands, the umps could've just put Mauer on second base. However, the ball could've just as easily remained in play. What if there had been men on first and second? Fast guys, for arguments sake, like Denard Span and Orlando Cabrera. What would the ruling be then?

Because there was less than two outs and Melky Cabrera had a legitimate shot at making a catch, the runners would not have taken off on contact, nor would they have advanced after the ball landed, because Cossi immediately gestured for a foul ball. Similarly, Cabrera would not have attempted to track the ball down, nor made a throw into the infield. Therefore, though replay might reveal that Mauer deserved a hit, there would be no clear way for the umpires to determine where the runners, including Mauer, would've ended up, or where the Yankees might've had a play.

The Yankees would argue, clearly, that it wasn't hit that deep, Melky was perfectly positioned to play the ball off the wall, and he would've made a strong throw to the cut-off man, forcing Span to hold at third (after all, he wasn't running until after the ball landed and would have to be conservative with nobody out). The Twins would argue that the ball was destined to bounce over Cabrera and rattle around in the corner, thus allowing O.C. to score from first.

What's the right call?

Do they split the difference, putting Mauer on second, Cabrera on third, and giving Span a run? Neither team would be quite satisfied. Nor would we, as fans. Suddenly we'd be facing something that baseball (unlike football) has never condoned, a situation in which presumed outcomes, instead of actual plays, could dictate the result of a game, or even a playoff series. What might have been among the most exciting moments of the ALDS would instead be reduced to a prolonged review process and a slow-motion walkthrough, Span touching the plate at a leisurely jog rather than with a sprint and a slide.

I could go on, no doubt. (What happens if the umpire's decide to reward a run after a disputed play which had originally resulted in the third out? Do they make a player come back onto the field just to touch the plate?)

I don't blame people for wanting the umpires to "get it right," but I can also understand why Bud Selig views increased replay with skepticism. No matter what adjustments or limitations are given to instant replay, there will always be plays which come down to somebody's subjective opinion of what "right" is. I, personally, would prefer that that person were not sitting in a temperature-controlled luxury suite in front of a bank of High Definition televisions with a cup of hot coffee, a headset, and a joystick.

Baseball isn't perfect. Such is life.

The Season For Suits: NL Central

It wasn't that long ago that the offseason work of baseball's General Managers was confined to about an eight-week stretch, running from the Winter Meetings sometime around the beginning of December to the end of January. But in recent years, it seems, their work begins even before the playoffs are over (Atlanta has apparently resigned Tim Hudson, both Houston and Cleveland have announced new managers) and extends deep into Spring Training (at the beginning of 2009, you may recall, several key players - Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson, etc. - didn't sign until after pitchers and catchers had reported). In a series of "Season For Suits" articles, I hope to preview what you can expect over the next five months from your favorite well-dressed men who act as baseball's middle management. I begin, for no particular reason, in the NL Central:


St. Louis Cardinals (John Mozeliak)

Mozeliak inherited the GM role from the very popular Walt Jocketty and, as such, was faced with some early criticism from those who expected he would never be able to fill Jocketty's shoes. The Cardinals success in 2009 should quiet his critics, if only for a time. Mozeliak greatly improved his squad over the course of the season, acquiring Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, John Smoltz, and Julio Lugo, seemingly perfectly positioning the Cards for a run deep into the postseason. Although it didn't work out that way, Cards fans have to be very proud of the team their organization fielded for them.

Unfortunately, Mozeliak won't have any time to rest on his laurels. He already accomplished his first order of business, wrapping up Tony LaRussa for another year, putting to rest rumors that the legendary manager was feuding with the organization and considering a move. Now, there is the question of personnel, starting with those guys he signed in July and August. Holliday, DeRosa, and Smoltz are all headed to free agency, as are Troy Glaus, Rick Ankiel, and Joel Pineiro, leaving St. Louis with more unanswered questions than either of their primary rivals, the Cubs and the Brewers. At the very least, between now and April they will need to designate a left-fielder, a third-baseman, and two starting pitchers. They have promised to actively pursue resigning Holliday. If they could accomplish that, they could probably get away with an in-house solution at third, as David Freese tore up Triple-A and looked good in his September audition. But if Holliday, who will likely have two suitors in New York and one in Boston, proves too expensive, Mozeliak's winter could be very challenging.

As usual, the Cardinals will look for inexpensive reclamation projects to send to Dave Duncan's school for thirty-something castaways. Smoltz may be interested in attending a second semester and Braden Looper looks like he could use a refresher course after a significantly down performance in Milwaukee. Other good matches include Doug Davis, Jon Garland, Justin Duchscherer, and Carl Pavano.

Chicago Cubs (Jim Hendry)

High expectations going into the season overshadowed the fact that the Cubs accomplished something they had not done since 1972, securing at least three consecutive winning seasons. Last winter, Hendry made two major acquisitions, Kevin Gregg and Milton Bradley. Both were unmitigated disasters in 2009, while the very popular Mark DeRosa, sent to Cleveland for prospects, ended the season on the Division Champion Cardinals.

There weren't many bright spots for the Cubs this season. Derrek Lee had his best season since 2005. Randy Wells contended for Rookie of the Year. Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, and Ryan Dempster all pitched fairly well, but all missed time with injuries, and none won more than twelve games.

The good news is, the Cubs have a lot of talent signed for next year. It's expensive talent and, this season at least, it was underperforming talent. But the odds would suggest that they will be better in 2010, even if they just stand pat. The only significant free agent they stand to lose is Rich Harden. Assuming the new ownership has pockets as deep as what Hendry has grown accustomed to, he will have some serious flexibility for pursuing his needs. He will have to decide whether to prioritize center field, second base, the back-end of the rotation, or middle-inning relief. In each and every case, the Cubs have modest in-house options (Kosuke Fukudome, Mike Fontenot, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija, etc.), so Hendry shouldn't be pressured if ideal candidates don't present themselves. He needs to resist the temptation to add more big, bad contracts to the collection the Cubs have already stockpiled.

As a Cubs fan, I can say I would really like to see them reel in a true center-fielder, but there aren't many on the market. Mike Cameron might make a good fit, if they could sign him to a one-year deal (with an option). A relatively cheap, defense-oriented guy like Coco Crisp might also be tempting.

Late in the season everybody assumed that the Cubs would dump the unpopular Bradley prior to next season, but the signing of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo may indicate that they are considering giving the highly-talented switch-hitter a second chance. Certainly, his value on the trade market has never been lower.

Milwaukee Brewers (Doug Melvin)

The Brewers have been, over the last five years, one of the best run franchises in the league, and they enter 2010 with many solid pieces in place. However, Melvin's window for chasing a championship with the current core of players won't be open for a whole lot longer. The Brewers best player, Prince Fielder, will be a free agent after 2011, as will Rickie Weeks, J. J. Hardy, and Dave Bush, followed by Corey Hart in 2012.

From my perspective, it looks like the time is now. The only hole in the Brewers lineup going into 2010 is center-field, where Mike Cameron is becoming a free agent. Cameron loves Milwaukee and is a popular clubhouse presence, so re-upping is hardly out of the question. They may also consider promoting somebody like Lorenzo Cain or Chris Duffy.

The point is, Melvin needs to focus his attention this offseason on pitching. Things are not as bad as they seem. Although the Brewers were last in the National League in rotational ERA this season, they will enter 2010 with a healthy David Bush and (hopefully) Chris Capuano. Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, and Carlo Villanueva will all have an additional year under their belts. Several prospects, most notably Jeremy Jeffress, are rising rapidly through the ranks. And, for what it's worth, they still have Jeff Suppan.

What the Brewers really need (as C. C. Sabathia proved in 2008) is a veteran workhorse to insert into the front of their rotation, taking the pressure off Gallardo, especially, and everybody on down. Easier said than done, right? There aren't a whole lot of those pitcher in the game and John Lackey is the only one on the free agent market this season. As a Boras client, he's probably out of their price range.

However, what Milwaukee does have is a plethora of young talent, both major-league ready and in the lower rungs of the system. As it stands, Weeks, Hardy, Casey McGehee, Alcides Escobar, and Mat Gamel will be fighting for three starting positions on the infield. Angel Salome and Jonathan Lucroy may be ready to share major-league catching duties as soon as next spring. Scouts around baseball are fawning over the raw skills of Jeffress, Brett Lawrie, and Cutter Dykstra. Melvin could part with two or three top prospects (and other couple middle-tier guys) without totally gutting the system, and that might be all it takes to land Roy Halladay.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bad Umpires vs. Good Players?

I set out this morning to write an homage to Cliff Lee, but in all honesty, words fail me. There was nothing I could say which was tantamount to the apathetic look on his face when he caught Johnny Damon's pop-up in the sixth inning or the sense of inevitability which followed his nonchalant tag of Jorge Posada in the following frame. As he patted Posada on the ass, almost as though it was a second thought (which actually secured the out), he seemed to be saying, "I'm sorry. I know I've made y'all look silly on baseball's biggest stage this evening. I can't help it. You'll get 'em next time, Tiger."

There were a couple moments in the ninth when it appeared that he used the gesture of blowing on his cold hands to disguise a yawn. He was just "getting his work in," playing catch, completely immune to the anxiety-provoking aura of the World Series and the cutthroat mentality of a sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd. In the bottom of the seventh, when it was still a very close game, many Yankees fans, each of whom endured the rain and cold, and must have paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for their seats, had already departed, recognizing that a two run deficit against this guy was frankly insurmountable.

Instead, I'd like to direct your attention to a column by Bill Baer at Baseball Daily Digest, responding to some fascinating excerpts published by Deadspin yesterday, from Tim Donaghy's unpublished prison confessional (Donaghy, the former NBA ref and degenerate gambler, it must be said, is not a source which inspires confidence). Baer makes the excellent point, one which has implications upon the rash of bad calls which have sparked debate this postseason (including some suggestions that the umpires have displayed big-market biases): MLB umpires do not have nearly as much power over their game as NBA referees.

Last night, when it appeared at times that Gerry Davis's strike zone for Cliff Lee was shrinking, while that for the Yankees, especially in the eighth and ninth, was expanding, it was completely without consequence. Throughout the playoffs, there have been an unusual number of "suspicious" calls, yet in almost every case they have had little or no impact on the outcome of the game and the series. And in many games their have been bad calls going in both directions. Let's face it, if Bud Selig's office was (like David Stern's according to Donaghy) endorsing certain teams in playoff series based on a quest for higher ratings (and I wouldn't put it past them), than they would've wanted Boston to beat the Angels in the ALDS and the Dodgers to beat the Phillies in the NLCS, neither of which came close to happening. No amount of favorable umpiring could've overcome the dominance displayed by Los Angeles and Philadelphia in those series. And no amount of New York favoritism could've overcome the dominance of Cliff Lee last night. In a game which resists cheating (short of Black Sox-style conspiracy), it seems unlikely that Selig, the umpires, or anybody else would risk their reputations for a desired outcome which would still be very much in question.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Parking Lot Bombs!

In a little over a week, regardless of how competitive and entertaining the World Series is, we will be faced with the longest, coldest stretch of the year. No matter where you live, those twelve or so weeks between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training are chilling. So, when you need a little baseball fix this offseason, remember this page. Here are a dozen of the most aesthetically-pleasing homers of 2009.

Albert Pujols (STL) vs. Roy Oswalt (HOU) - April 11 - 442 ft.

The season was only a week old, but one already had the feeling that King Albert was up to something special, even for him.

Alfonso Soriano (CHC) vs. Chris Young (SDP) - May 13 - 443 ft.

There weren't a lot of highlights in Alfonso's season, but this leadoff blast reached Waveland Ave. in a hurry.

Justin Upton (ARZ) vs. Hayden Penn (FLA) - May 20 - 457 ft.

Upton had already charted two pretty competent seasons, but in 2009, still only 21-years-old, he arrived, showing us exactly why he was one of the most anticipated prospects in the history of the game. This particular game was his cotillion, as he drove in six runs and launched a pair of bombs, including this moonshot.

Raul Ibanez (PHI) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (NYY) - May 22 - 477 ft.

Hopefully this is just a preview of what we'll be seeing in Yankee Stadium this coming week. Ibanez's blast was the longest homer hit in an American League park in 2009.

Nelson Cruz (TEX) vs. Shawn Kelly (SEA) - July 10 - 459 ft.

The "upper tank" at Safeco Field does not get reached very often. This was the longest homer hit in Seattle this season.

Pablo Sandoval (SFG) vs. Josh Banks (SDP) - July 10 - 462 ft.

Kung Fu Panda hit several tape-measure shots this season, but this was the longest, and it was all the more exciting because it gave his team a large lead in a game which Jonathan Sanchez would eventually turn into a no-hitter.

Mark Reynolds (ARZ) vs. Brad Lidge (PHI) - July 28 - 481 ft.

Taking "TGIF" to a new extreme, Reynolds pounded the Phillies closer, in whose season-long slump, this moment probably represented rock-bottom.

Andrew McCutchen (PIT) vs. Logan Kensing (WAS) - August 1 - 400 ft.

This line-drive shot was McCutchen's third homer of the night and thus the highlight of his sensational rookie campaign.

Prince Fielder (MIL) vs. Kevin Hart (PIT) - August 17 - 410 ft.

There are two kinds of highlight-reel homeruns. The more common kind is the ball which travels a very long way. Probably the more shocking kind, however, is the ball that isn't hit particularly far (as homeruns go) but reaches its destination very, very quickly.

Albert Pujols (STL) vs. Jason Bergmann (WAS) - August 28 - 457 ft.

We could easily make a reel of just Pujols' 450+ ft. drives in 2009. He hit three grand slams that traveled at least that distance, but I opted instead for this walk-off monster.

Ryan Howard (PHI) vs. Tim Hudson (ATL) - September 18 - 473 ft.

Something you'll only hear in Atlanta: "That bounced off the 'Meet Chipper' sign that is above the awning on the main level of the chophouse."

Wladimir Balentien (CIN) vs. Daniel McCutchen (PIT) - October 2 - 495 ft.

This was, quite simply, the longest homerun of 2009.

*Distances are based on calculations at Hit Tracker.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Keys to the Toolshed

ESPN's Buster Olney is reporting that former Washington National's manager, Manny Acta, has been offered a managerial job by both the Indians and the Astros. He has elected, according to ESPN, to take over the reigns in Cleveland (good choice).

Why, one might be inclined to ask, is a 40-year-old who never advanced past A-ball as a player and has a lifetime winning percentage of .385 suddenly in such high demand? There must be something underlying Acta's tenure with the Nationals which impressed the Indians and Astros front offices, because he damn sure isn't getting this job based on his results.

I'm guessing it had something to do with his familiarity with adversity. Acta's Nationals were not only plagued by mediocrity on the field, but were subject to a constant stream of distractions off it. Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Wily Mo Pena, and Dmitri Young, unfortunately, made headlines for a variety of extracurricular activities, and the front office was plagued by scandal as well, culminating in a rash of firings and the resignation of GM Jim Bowden last March.

From my perspective, Acta appeared composed throughout, striving always to make the best of a bad situation. Faced with a stream of questions designed to extract criticism, Acta always took the high road. When he had to, on separate occasions, demote Milledge and Dukes, talented players who were supposed to be at the core of the Nats' rebuilding process, he always expressed a great deal of respect for their talent and work ethic, and assurance that they would be back in the bigs very soon. When his already piecework bullpen absolutely imploded early in 2009, due to injuries and generally shoddy construction, Acta did not pass the buck, laying blame on players or the front office, which would've been easy to do. He juggled the remaining pieces, admitted that he had not found successful roles for all his pitchers yet, but urged the remaining corps to rise above expectations. Although he wasn't around to see it, that is exactly what happened. After going 12-for-30 in save opportunities during the first half, the Nats were 21-for-28 the rest of the way, despite the fact that they never added a bonafide lockdown reliever (Mike MacDougal definitely does not count).

In Cleveland, Acta will again be handed a team in disarray. Many of the franchises most popular and longest tenured players - C. C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, Cliff Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco, and Rafael Betancourt - have been unloaded in an effort to slice payroll and rebuild the farm system after disappointing finishes in the last two campaigns. But the Indians are still carrying some bloated contracts (Travis Hafner, Jack Westbrook, Kerry Wood), so huge free agent acquisitions, never a big part of the Indians' philosophy, are probably not in the offing. The teams core of promising young talent, represented most clearly by Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona, and Asdrubel Cabrera, has not lived up to the potential demonstrated during the team's 2007 run to the ALCS. The front office will be looking especially for somebody who will motivate them, both to perform and to lead.

The good news for Acta and, perhaps, one of the reasons he appealed to GM Mark Shapiro, is that the Indians, like the Nationals, are very young, with lots of room for maturation. Hafner, Wood, and Westbrook are the elder-statesman on this team. Each is only 32. With the exception of Hafner, nobody projected to be in next year's Opening Day lineup is older than 27. The vast majority of the roster will be under control for several years to come, so Acta has a promise of stability he certainly never experienced in Washington, where the turnover rate was almost humorously high.

Cleveland's Probable 2010 Roster:

CF Grady Sizemore (27)
SS Asdrubel Cabrera (23)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (27)
DH Travis Hafner (32)
1B Matt LaPorta (24)
3B Jhonny Peralta (27)
LF Michael Brantley (22)
C Carlos Santana (23)
2B Luis Valbuena (23)

RHSP Fausto Carmona (25)
RHSP Justin Masterson (24)
RHSP Anthony Reyes (28)
RHSP Jake Westbrook (32)
LHSP David Huff (25)
LHSP Aaron Laffey (24)

C Lou Marson (23)
1B/3B Andy Marte (26)
OF Trevor Crowe (25)

CL Kerry Wood (32)
RHRP Chris Perez (24)
RHRP Jensen Lewis (25)
RHRP Joe Smith (25)
LHRP Rafael Perez (27)
LHRP Tony Sipp (26)
LHRP Jeremy Sowers (26)

In addition to the litany of fresh-faced players listed above, the Indians have several prospects on the verge, including RHSP Carlos Carrasco (25), SS Jason Donald (25), and OF Nick Weglarz (21). Shapiro will probably attempt to add some depth and take a little pressure off his youngsters by signing a couple of inexpensive, cagey veterans this offseason. Don't look for him to make a splash with Matt Holliday or John Lackey. He will be looking for role players with good "intangibles." Orlando Hudson, Placido Polanco, or Doug Davis might be a good fit.

Clearly, many teams looked at Washington as a team destined to fail and not as a reflection on Manny Acta. The same will not be true of Cleveland, where there is stability in the front office and many strong pieces already in place. He will have a season, maybe two, to work out the growing pains, but it will not be an extremely long leash. If the Indians aren't headed back to the playoffs by 2012, expect Acta to be once again looking for a job, at which time he probably won't be an any position to be choosy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Angel Ethic

Regardless of how the series turns out (and with a so-far utterly untouchable C. C. Sabathia looming, it is hard to get too optimistic), I'm glad it didn't come down to a "Grady Little." Obviously, Angels management and their fan base have far more loyalty to Mike Scioscia than the Red Sox ever had (or should have had) to Little. But one couldn't help thinking, as the Yankees rallied for six runs with two outs in the 7th inning of Game 5, we're seeing a train wreck which won't soon be forgotten and the blame for which will fall on the manager. Scioscia made two somewhat surprising decisions in the inning. First, he pulled John Lackey. Lackey had, certainly, worked his way into trouble. After getting two quick outs he got rattled by what he thought was a strikeout of Jorge Posada and proceeded to walk the bases loaded. Nonetheless, it was clear this was not a result of fatigue, but merely a little mental blip and an eroding strike zone (I will add, the pitch that upset Lackey, although clearly over the inside corner and above the knees according to FOX's Pitch Trax, continued to be called a ball for both teams for the remainder of the game).

I was certainly on the edge of my seat, but I saw no reason why Lackey couldn't get Texeira out. Moreover, whether you were going to stay with Lackey or not, the situation dictated a right-handed pitcher. Over the course of the season, Texeira demonstrated very little difference in his platoon splits, but during the last two weeks he has clearly been more comfortable as a right-handed hitter. His only postseason extra-base hits have come as a righty, as have half of his total hits, despite significantly few at-bats against lefties. Plus, A-Rod loomed in the on-deck circle, so a right-handed pitcher would be appropriate in the event the inning was extended.

Darren Oliver has been great this postseason and all year, but he got beat by Texeira. C'est la vie. Giving A-Rod the free pass was clearly the right move. Hideki Matsui, professional hitter that he is, put a good swing on a decent pitch down in the zone and drove home another run. And, thus, Scioscia made another suspect decision. He took out his left-handed specialist, the guy who he had deemed best suited to handle a bases-loaded situation in a must-win game only minutes earlier, despite the fact that another left-handed hitter, Robinson Cano, was coming to the plate, and he was to be followed by a switch-hitter, Nick Swisher, who, again, had no significant variance in his platoon splits. Scioscia elected to bring in Kevin Jepsen, Cano smoked a triple to right-center, and the Yankees took a two-run lead.

Thankfully, the Angels once again demonstrated their incredible resilience, immediately striking back for three runs in the bottom of the 7th and, narrowly, holding on for the remaining frames, thus Mike Scioscia's unconventional pitching changes have evaded intense media scrutiny. The fact is...they were utterly defensible moves. Mark Texeira has torched John Lackey over the course of his career (19-for-49, 2 HR, 11 RBI). Scioscia knew it. Texeira knew it. I'm certain Lackey knew it (he doth protest too much). Robinson Cano - little known fact - actually hits lefties just as well as righties, and he especially likes Mr. Oliver (to the tune of 6-for-8 lifetime).

So the only real question was why he went with Darren Oliver in the first place, instead of going directly to Jepsen. I can only surmise that Scioscia decided to ride the hot hand. Oliver hadn't given up a run in his last nine innings, six of them in the postseason, and had a 1.80 ERA dating back to the beginning of September. Not only that, but Oliver, at the age of 39 is clearly the Angels most experienced reliever. He's pitched in each of the last four postseasons and had a 3.09 postseason ERA before last night's drubbing.

My point is, Scioscia is not, like Grady Little, a pure "gut" manager. He would never rationalize a critical decision with baseball superstition or his sixth sense. He, like Girardi, in fact, utilizes all the data he has at his disposal, makes an informed interpretation, and is willing to live with the consequences. Good on 'im.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the road, again.

The Phillies are playing like defending champions. While the Dodgers never quite loosened up in the NLCS, Philadelphia was relaxed and confident from the outset. Once again, the deciding blow came in Game 4, when they got to the Dodgers closer, Jonathan Broxton. After that, victory was a foregone conclusion.

Although my rooting interest was resoundingly with the Dodgers, a team which I've watched mature and thrive during the four years I've been living in SoCal (see the evidence of my deep-seeded affection for Russell Martin's boys in blue here, here, and here ), after Game 4 I realized that it was in my own best interests, in the long run, to get this series over quickly. There appeared to be no way that L.A. was going to beat Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee, even at home, if it came to that. And, for the sake of my mental health this winter, I need the Phillies to beat the Yankees (assuming that, as seems inevitable now, New York is indeed the American League representative in the World Series). Three months of offseason coverage dominated by fawning over Jeter, hypocritical A-Rod forgiveness, and general Bronxcentric self-congratulation and greed-mongering could bring on a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder unlike any I've experienced since the "Bartman incident."

So, the good news is (and there isn't a lot of it, at least not unless the Halos put a hurtin' on A. J. Burnett this evening), the well-rested Phillies stack up against the Evil Empire as well as about any team in baseball. They went to Yankee Stadium in late May and won two out of three. They might've swept if it hadn't been for one of Brad Lidge's patented meltdowns. Now, of course, the regular season doesn't mean a whole lot at this point and in late May the Yankees had only just begun playing well (they had won nine straight going into the Phillies series). All I hope to suggest is that the Phillies (unlike many potential opponents) have had some recent success against the Yanks in New York and thus might be able to muster a little extra confidence.

There are other reasons to be optimistic as well. Thanks to the brevity of the NLCS, Philadelphia will be able to throw a very well-rested Cliff Lee in Game 1, and, presumably, Game 5 as well. In his last three starts against New York, including one at Yankee Stadium earlier this year, Lee has allowed only three earned runs in nineteen innings (1.89 ERA). In his last six starts with six or more days of rest, Lee is 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA. Philadelphia can also bring Cole Hamels back for two starts. Hamels, despite his up-and-down 2009 campaign, pitched well in that series in New York in May, giving up only two earned in six innings. In his only other career start against the Yankees he allowed just two earned in seven innings.

Unfortunately, I can't suggest that the Yankees struggle against left-handed pitching generally. As a team, they were almost exactly equal in their winning percentages and hitting splits against righties and lefties in '09. As individuals, only Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada suffer significant dropoffs (50+ pts.) in OPS against lefties, which were easily compensated for by significant gains for Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui (surprising, right). What one can postulate, however, is that good left-handed pitching (for both teams, to be fair) might make the short right-field porches in both Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park slightly less of an issue, as it will turn the switch-hitters (Texeira, Swisher, Posada, and Cabrera) around and sap Damon, at least, of some of his power.

Some other good news for...everybody with a soul. The Phillies have a limited history of success against C. C. Sabathia. Rollins, Victorino, Howard, and Ruiz have all hit well over .350 against him, though none has had more than seven at-bats. Raul Ibanez, who did face Sabathia more than forty times during his tenure in the AL, has compiled a very respectable .525 SLG and 851 OPS against him. If the Yankees clinch before Game 7, you can bet Girardi will again schedule The Big Sleep for three starts in the World Series. It will be crucial that the Phillies find a way to get to him on at least one occasion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

BBA Awards Ballot: MVP (NL)

There have been some nice moments in the BBA Awards so far. Voters have shown a strong inclination to look past the standings. Of the four player awards thusfar, none has gone to a player on a playoff team. Most recently, Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke grabbed the highest honor for pitchers, despite the fact that neither won more than sixteen games.

The MVP, however, is the one award I believe should take into account team success, as well as individual numbers. This isn't to say that Ryan Braun and Adam Lind aren't legitimate candidates just because they played on losing teams, merely that when they are compared to men with similar statistics on winning teams, they fall slightly behind.

I also believe that the MVP award should go to a position player. Not that Greinke and Lincecum aren't extraordinarily "valuable," but pitcher's have their own award and there needs to be some credit given to those guys that grind it out every day, both at the plate and in the field. As such, defense is also a major factor when it comes to my MVP voting, which is why I favor stats like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which account for fielding as well as hitting.

Unfortunately, the MVP races aren't very close this year. Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer are, deservedly, runaway favorites. I believe that, were anybody else to win, it would be a bit of a travesty, so the main question for me was how to fill out the rest of my ballot and which league provided the most interesting group of second and third tier candidates to discuss. There were some very interesting arguments to be made on both sides, but my discussion of the AL is just going to have to wait until November. Here is my NL ballot:

10. Adrian Gonzalez - 1B - San Diego Padres
.277/.407/.551, 90 R, 40 HR, 99 RBI, 1 SB, 4.3 UZR, 6.4 WAR
9. Derrek Lee - 1B - Chicago Cubs
.306/.393/.579, 91 R, 35 HR, 111 RBI, 1 SB, 3.4 UZR, 5.3 WAR
8. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B - Washington Nationals
.292/.364/.525, 110 R, 33 HR, 106 RBI, 2 SB, 17.9 UZR, 7.1 WAR

The bottom third of my ballot was reserved for players whose teams were bad, but whose seasons weren't. The Padres, Cubs, and Nats would've been much worse off without the efforts of these gentlemen. Z-pack and D-Lee both bounced back to prove they were still superstar-caliber players after mediocre, injury-plagued seasons in '08. Zimmerman deserves Gold Glove consideration for his efforts at the hot corner. Gonzo improved his power numbers for the fourth consecutive season, despite playing in spacious Petco Park (28 of his dingers came on the road). He's still just 27. The Padres have him signed through 2011 for an amazingly affordable rate ($11.25 Million total for the next two seasons). He will likely be the cream of the 2012 free agent class.

7. Matt Kemp - CF - Los Angeles Dodgers
.297/.352/.490, 97 R, 26 HR, 101 RBI, 34 SB, 3.2 UZR, 5.1 WAR
6. Troy Tulowitzki - SS - Colorado Rockies
.297/.377/.552, 101 R, 32 HR, 92 RBI, 20 SB, -0.6 UZR, 5.5 WAR
5. Pablo Sandoval - 3B - San Francisco Giants
.330/.387/.556, 79 R, 25 HR, 90 RBI, 5 SB, -4.6 UZR, 5.1 WAR

Three superb youngsters hold down the middle third of my ballot. Tulowitzki and Kemp are just 25, while Kung Fu Panda is merely 23. All three elevated their already impressive games in '09. Andre Ethier had slightly better power number and some memorable walk-off hits for the Dodgers, but Kemp was really what made their offense tick. He's probably a lock for 30/30 for the next several years and he has become one of the league's finest centerfielders. Tulowitzki defensive wizardry wasn't quite up to the standard he set in 2007, but he still made just nine errors, trailing only Jimmy Rollins. He took a major step forward on offense, however, becoming the Rockies top hitter. He joins three Rs - Rollins, Ramirez, and Reyes - among premier shortstops going into 2010. The depth of the Giants offensive problems are probably best demonstrated by the fact that Pablo Sandoval batted third in the order, got over 600 plate appearances, racked up an OPS of 943 (7th best in the NL), and still scored only 79 runs. New San Francisco mantra: "Strand-a Pand-a."

4. Hanley Ramirez - SS - Florida Marlins
.342/.410/.543, 101 R, 24 HR, 106 RBI, 27 SB, 0.3 UZR, 7.3 WAR
3. Chase Utley - 2B - Philadelphia Phillies
.282/.397/.508, 112 R, 31 HR, 93 RBI, 23 SB, 12.0 UZR, 7.7 WAR
2. Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers
.299/.412/.602, 103 R, 46 HR, 141 RBI, 2 SB, 0.2 UZR, 6.7 WAR

These guys have all been in this position before and, probably, will be again, looking up at King Albert.

Ryan Howard got a lot of press this year for slimming down and playing better defense, but Prince Fielder did the exact same thing, bringing his UZR up to average from -8.5 in 2008 (which was the best of his career until this season). Howard and Fielder appear, superficially, to be very similar players, but Fielder walks more and strikes out less, perhaps contributing to his much higher averages, and he doesn't suffer the annual month-long growing pains in April. Fielder is still just 25 and is consistently underrated. In my mind, he is already a superior player to Howard, Texeira, Gonzalez, and Morneau.

1. Albert Pujols - 1B - St. Louis Cardinals
.327/.443/.658, 124 R, 47 HR, 135 RBI, 16 SB, 1.2 UZR, 8.4 WAR

What more needs be said? He's the best player in baseball, has been for about five seasons now and it doesn't look like he's becoming the least bit complacent.

Honorable Mention: Ryan Braun LF (MIL), Ryan Howard 1B (PHI), Andre Ethier LF (LAD), Jayson Werth RF (PHI), Justin Upton RF (ARZ)

AL MVP Ballot (had I swung that way): 10. Franklin Gutierrez CF (SEA), 9. Derek Jeter SS (NYY), 8. Mark Texeira 1B (NYY), 7. Kevin Youkilis 1B/3B (BOS), 6. Victor Martinez C/1B (BOS), 5. Chone Figgins 3B (LAA), 4. Ben Zobrist 2B/SS/RF (TAM), 3. Evan Longoria 3B (TAM), 2. Miguel Cabrera 1B (DET), 1. Joe Mauer C (MIN)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Redemption Song (Verse II)

I'm not thrilled with the outcome, but it would be hard to be disappointed with last night's game. Both the Yankees and the Angels demonstrated the confidence and tenacity of champions. One couldn't help but feel that, although it was just the second game of the series, there was a whole season riding on the outcome. Of course, the Angels path isn't insurmountable even now, but that fickle mistress, Momentum, is unmistakably partial to wins like these.

When Chone Figgins came up with a man in scoring position in the 11th inning, it seemed almost inevitable, fated that he would break his 0-for-18 drought. But, of course, when A-Rod stepped to the plate in the bottom of the inning, Destiny again reared its ugly head.

One has to wonder: what was Fuentes thinking? The count was 0-2. He had just located a pair of fastballs which seemed to catch A-Rod a little off his guard. Now the closer had at least three opportunities to throw his wicked slurve, his so-called "out pitch," which was working quite well, he proved, during the remainder of the inning. He didn't have to throw it for a strike. He could test it out a bit. Keep it down and away. Three chances to get A-Rod to either chase away (something he'd done, conspicuously, in his previous at bats), or drop an unhittable bender on the outside corner at the knees. Something he'd have no choice but to spit on.

And that wasn't the only option. Fuentes could've elevated the fastball, brought it up to eye level, or run it way inside, try to saw him off. If he bloops one into left field for a single, so be it? If he walks him, so what? Then you match up, lefty vs. lefty (or switch-hitter), against the next five hitters in the Yankees lineup.

What the situation defiantly does not call for is a fastball at the letters; one of those that runs towards A-Rod, looking like a kickball on the outside half of the plate. Not many of the Yankees have opposite-field power. Even Texeira looks like pretty much a dead-pull hitter from either side of the plate. But A-Rod, he can definitely reach the short porch. He can reach any porch, anywhere, if you throw him a meatball like that. He didn't even put that great a swing on that ball, with his wet gloves, rain and all. On a clear night, he probably blasts that pitch over the bullpen. Shame on you, Fuentes. Shame on you.

Friday, October 16, 2009

BBA Awards Ballot: Cy Young (AL)

Much to my surprise and glee, the BBA Rookie of the Year in the NL went to Andrew McCutchen. Check it out. The BBA voters weren't at all swayed by Chris Coghlan's high batting average or the gaudy ERA of J.A. Happ, resoundingly supporting McCutchen, who garnered twelve of the twenty first-place votes and 65 total points. Tommy Hanson finished second with 50 points and Happ third with 27 points. Let's hope the BBWAA is as thoughtful in their selections. On the AL side, the BBA went with Andrew Bailey (48 pts.), followed by Rick Porcello (36) and Elvis Andrus (28).

I've had a hard time deciding in which league to cast my Cy Young ballot. In the end, laziness got the better of me. I, like most people, believe Chris Carpenter, Tim Lincecum, and Adam Wainwright belong on the NL ballot, but deciding upon their order was going to require a parsing of hairs which frankly exceeded my patience this weekend. Instead, let's check on the AL, where things are slightly more cut and dry:

3. Justin Verlander - Detroit Tigers

19-9, 3.45 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 240 IP, 269 K/63 BB, 8.2 WAR

I wouldn't have a terrible problem with Felix Hernandez or C. C. Sabathia in this spot, but Verlander sold me on his candidacy with three excellent starts to finish the season, when the Tigers needed him most. I'm also partial to pitchers who go deep into games (see Halladay, Roy). Verlander was certainly that. He led the league in innings (and also strikeouts). Fourteen times Verlander pitched in the eighth or beyond. He threw three hundred more pitches (3931) than anybody in baseball, the highest total for a pitcher since 2005. It's worth noting that Verlander has been willing to take this kind of "abuse" despite the fact that he has yet to sign his first big deal. The Tigers Ace is still two years away from free agency. Hopefully, Jim Leyland won't destroy his arm before he gets a crack at a Sabathia-sized payday.

2. Roy Halladay - Toronto Blue Jays

17-10, 2.79 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 239 IP, 208 K/35 BB, 7.3 WAR

It will surprise exactly nobody that I'm placing Halladay higher than the average voter. He's been my favorite pitcher and one of my favorite players for years. However, this isn't exactly favoritism to the detriment of rationale. Halladay did lead all of baseball, again, in complete games (9) and shutouts (4). His K/BB ratio (5.94) also led both leagues and his pitches per plate appearance (3.52) was tied for lowest in the AL (with Nick Blackburn). He was third in the AL in ERA, second in innings pitched, tied for fourth in wins, and fifth in strikouts.

In my mind, what really separates Halladay from the other excellent American League pitchers of 2009 is the quality of his competition. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays finished 1, 3, and 5 in the AL in scoring this season. Roy Halladay had to make 15(!) of his 32 starts against those three teams. He went 6-7 (2.97 ERA) against them. He went 11-3 (2.62 ERA) against everybody else. The strength of his competition pushes him ahead of bigger winners like Sabathia, Verlander, and Hernandez. If he had, say, two more starts against the Royals and the A's instead of New York and Boston, he'd likely be sneaking up towards #1 on most ballots.
1. Zack Greinke - Kansas City Royals

16-8, 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 229 1/3 IP, 242 K/51 BB, 9.4 WAR

Greinke probably punched his ticket with the BBWAA when he won his sixteenth game. (Fernando Velenzuela remains the only starting pitcher to take home a Cy Young with less than sixteen wins, something Tim Lincecum fans would probably rather not hear.) In truth, Greinke should win it regardless. He had a downright dominating season, posting the best ERA in the AL since Pedro's legend-making 1999 season (18-6, 1.74). And, of course, his win total was probably considerably suppressed by playing for the Royals. Six times Greinke went seven or more innings allowing one earned run or less and didn't get a win. A dozen times he registered a quality start and ended up with a loss or no decision.

It's great to see this kind of comeback story as well. As recently as 2006 Greinke was suffering from such severe depression and social anxiety that he had to take some time off from the game and seek professional help. In an interview with the Kansas City Star he described an amazing form of psychological transference where he believed his unhappiness was the result of being a hitter trapped in a pitcher's body:

"I thought that was why I hated baseball. I thought it was because I wanted to hit...At least once a month I'd be crying to myself while I'm going to bed with a bat in my hand, just swinging it...I was waiting for a bad season. I was even hoping I'd have a bad season so I could be a hitter or be done with baseball period...As soon as I started taking the medication, I started feeling better and I really didn't have any desire to go back to being a hitter anymore."
(Kansas City Star, 2/22/07)

Talk about a ringing endorsement. Pharmaceutical companies are salivating. A baseball player hasn't sold this many pills since Rafael Palmeiro hawked Viagra (oh yes, that did happen). Seriously though, one has to applaud the Royals for their patience and support, and for having the wisdom to sign Greinke to a four year, $38 Million contract right before his breakout season.

Honorable Mentions: Felix Hernandez (SEA), C. C. Sabathia (NYY), Jon Lester (BOS)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Riddle of Chinandega or The Vengeance of Vicente?

This afternoon the Dodgers will send to the mound the first of two members of their rotation who were formerly Phillies. By setting Vicente Padilla up for two starts in this series (something which surprised a number of fans and pundits), Joe Torre is banking on the fact that Padilla has something to prove to a community which publicly humiliated him and a team that shunned him.

In the not so distant past, Philadelphia fans considered Padilla and Randy Wolf to be beacons of hope. In 2003 they combined to win 30 games. Even though neither of them had yet reached the magical age of 27, both had already made an All-Star team.

Padilla, at the age of 25, had back-to-back fourteen win seasons. However, in '04 and '05, when the Phillies thought he would mature into a true Ace, he suffered nagging injuries and went a mere 16-19 with a 4.63 ERA and a staggering 110 walks in 262 innings. In consecutive offseasons he was involved in car accidents in his native Nicaragua, one of which tragically killed a friend. Rumors persistently circulated in the Philadelphia papers that Padilla had a serious alcohol problem, that he was standoffish with teammates, and that he was prone to throwing at opposing players for no apparent reason.

2005 was, especially, a difficult season for the Phillies, even though they were playing for a playoff berth on the last day of the season. Ryan Howard arrived in grandiose fashion, winning Rookie of the Year, but that was overshadowed by the fact that their resident slugger, Jim Thome, played in only 59 games. Chase Utley became a full-time starter and garnered MVP consideration, but their biggest off-season acquisition, Kenny Lofton, managed to start only 110 games and scored just 67 runs (despite hitting .335). Most disappointing, Padilla and Wolf, expected to be the stalwarts of the Philadelphia rotation, both spent significant time on the D.L. and were only sporadically effective when healthy.

For months, local sportswriters took to calling Padilla the "enigmatic Nicaraguan." On any given night he was capable of baffling good teams, but he was equally likely to give up four dingers in three innings to the lowly Diamondbacks, as he did on August 28th. After Padilla got lit up on Fan Appreciation Night, the Philadelphia Daily News called him "a perfect example of the kind of player who should be purged this winter." Which was, it turned out, exactly what happened.

Pretty much the first move by the Phillies new GM, Pat Gillick, who would become the architect of the 2008 World Champions, was essentially giving Padilla to the Rangers (for a "player to be named later" named, forgettably, Ricardo Rodriguez). Nobody seemed to notice that despite Padilla's unimpressive overall numbers, he pitched excellently in the second half of 2005, going 6-4 and registering a 3.40 ERA in his last 15 starts.

Padilla continued to confuse and aggravate his managers and teammates in Texas. He won 15 games in '06 and 14 again in '08, but only six in '07, and never posted an ERA below 4.50. The Rangers were frustrated by his inconsistency, his questionable dedication, his suspiciously bloodshot eyes, and his love for the beanball (Padilla has 50% more hit batsmen in his career, at the age of 31, than Tom Glavine, at the age of 43). In early August, after Padilla gave up three homers to the lowly Athletics, the Rangers released him outright, eating the nearly $4 Million remaining on his contract. And so, the Dodgers took a free roll with Philadelphia's least favorite "enigma."

Some other notes on former Phillies:

Randy Wolf was an All-Star in '03, but from 2004 to 2006 Wolf accrued a 4.81 ERA and averaged only five wins and sixteen starts a season.

Technically, Jim Thome is still playing under the contract he signed with the Phillies. The White Sox picked up the $13 Million option for '09, probably partially thanks to the fact that the Phillies paid a significant portion of Thome's salary from '06 to '08. Although he hasn't played a game for them since June of '05, the Phillies still paid $53 Million of the $98 Million Thome has earned over the past seven seasons.

Best in the Booth (2009 Edition)

Obviously, I watch a fair amount of baseball. What sets me apart from many of my equally baseball-obsessed brethren is that I not only watch games pretty much every day for the entire season, but I watch pretty much all the teams. Sure, every year there are a few teams that I get especially interested in (this season it was the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Brewers, Giants, Rays, and Rangers), but I can confidently say that I see a broadcast for every team at least once or twice during the year. In addition to becoming intimately familiar with the league itself (fortunate, in my opinion), I also become familiar with the temperaments and tendencies of each franchise's dedicated broadcast teams (unfortunate).

The sports broadcasting industry is, in general, shamefully replete with incompetence. Those of us for whom watching and discussing sports is merely a hobby have a very hard time forgiving the ineptitude and apparent lack of preparation and dedication consistently demonstrated by men whose job it is to know at least as much as we do ("This is your job!" I scream at the television at least once a week when a supposed expert reveals his gross ignorance by completely misrepresenting baseball history, players, teams, or even the rules of the game). Worse yet, it seems that the commentators who have the least to say (of consequence) are most inclined to fill the airwaves with constant streams of inanity (the soundtrack in hell may be Rex Hudler's description of the "hit and run"). Some days it gets so bad that I have to watch on mute. Sadly, by the end of the season, my evaluation of the broadcast teams is largely a matter of recognizing who angered me the least. And so, the award goes to...

3. WGN/CSN Chicago - Hawk Harrelson & Steve Stone

They aren't perfect, far from it, but I occasionally found myself watching meaningless blowouts and following a rather disappointing Sox team largely because of the pleasant interaction between Stone and Harrelson. It was a dramatic change from the days of Harrelson and Darrin Jackson, who quite palpably disliked each other. Whereas Jackson brought out Hawk's worst tendencies - blatant homerism, constant complaining about umpiring, managing, and player salaries, etc. - Stone does a great job of distracting him from his own judgment by reminding him that he was once himself a ballplayer, and a fairly good one (a well-paid one, too, for the era). Harrelson and Stone are at their best when they analyze pitching sequences from the perspective of both hitter and pitcher simultaneously. Stone tells you what pitch(s) he would expect the pitcher to throw and why, then queries Harrelson about what the hitter would be expecting and what kind of approach would be appropriate. On good days, the outcome of any at-bat seems like the denouement of a Platonic dialogue between The Pitcher and The Hitter. On bad days, Hawk still screams quasi-profane hillbilly euphemisms at everybody on the field...which is, in its own right, rather entertaining in small doses.

2. MLB Network - Matt Vasgersian, Bob Costas, Victor Rojas, Joe Magrane, Jim Katt, Al Leiter, Mitch Williams, Harold Reynolds, Sean Casey, Dan Plesac, Clint Hurdle, etc.

The MLB Network hit the ground running in many ways. While it is still clearly struggling to attract sponsors as a fledgling network in a floundering economy, the programming has been relatively strong. The live broadcast games on Thursday and Saturday nights were no exception. MLB combined experienced play-by-play analysts with inexperienced, but thoughtful (and often funny) former players. The teams varied from week to week, so the relationships were fresh and sometimes even provocative. It was a simple, unpretentious formula which was watchable even on weeks that the pairs (or trios) weren't necessarily clicking. They were able to train the rookie color commentators on the fly, with the knowledge that they wouldn't have to rely on any one of them every week, and nobody had to continue suffering through a bad relationship (i.e. Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips at ESPN). Also, unlike the other national broadcasters - ESPN, FOX, and TBS - MLB showed games from all thirty franchises and their commentators usually evidenced a strong knowledge of the whole league. I expect even more from the MLB Network next season, as the replace some of the dead weight (I'm looking at you, Bill Ripken) and refine their expectations. Nonetheless, it was an impressive inaugural season.

1. KCAL/FSN Prime Ticket - Vin Scully, Eric Collins, and Steve Lyons

Yes, he's still the best. Scully understands baseball broadcasting to an extent none of his colleagues can hope to equal. Somehow he has never shown reluctance towards evolutions in broadcasting technology or the game itself, constantly adapting his own style to the changing world around him. Scully's broadcasts are elegantly sprinkled with anecdotes from his own treasure trove: about players and coaches, current and historical, and from both teams on the field. Despite his decades long association with the Dodgers, Scully still never displays blatant nepotism. A great deal of credit also goes to the research staff, because Scully effortlessly integrates the most fashionable trivia and statistics. The Dodgers road broadcast team, Collins and Lyons, doesn't hold a candle to Scully, but is still better than the vast majority of the league.

Honorable Mentions: Orel Hershiser (ESPN), Ralph Kiner (SportsNet NY/WPIX), Frank Viola (NESN), Bob Carpenter & Rob Dibble (MASN)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BBA Awards Ballot: Rookie of the Year (NL)

The BBA Manager of the Year Awards were today. Check it out. And, thanks to some abbreviated Division Series, there is no baseball for a couple of days, so it's as good a time as any to post my thoughts on the NL Rookie of the Year. Several of the major media outlets, particularly ESPN, have been resoundingly supporting Chris Coghlan, who is a legitimate contender, and, moreover, have been creating the impression that there are only three good candidates: Coghlan, J.A. Happ, and Tommy Hanson. These are certainly three reasonable choices, but they are hardly the only ones. One should not treat ROY voting like MVP voting. There shouldn't be any bonus based on team performance. Coghlan, Happ, and Hanson played on winning franchises and that seems to be the only thing significantly separating them from another set of reasonable choices, including Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, and Randy Wells.

First off, here are some statistics for the three primary hitting and pitching candidates (apologies for the crappy formatting):

Tommy Hanson 11-4 2.89 21 128 8.18 1.18 660 2.6
J.A. Happ 10-4 2.99 23 144 6.36 1.26 735 1.8
Randy Wells 12-10 3.05 27 165 5.66 1.28 680 3.0

Chris Coglan .321 850 504 9 47 8 6.97 2.4
Garrett Jones .293 938 314 21 44 10 7.56 2.6
Casey McGehee .301 859 355 16 66 0 5.99 2.1
Andrew McCutchen .286 836 433 12 54 22 6.64 3.4

WAR or Wins Abover Replacement is a stat I will be leaning heavily on (although not exclusively) in my discussion of MVP, Cy Young, etc. because it takes into consideration defense, ballpark, run support, level of competition, and position scarcity.

3. Randy Wells - Chicago Cubs

Wells didn't get as much press as Happ and Hanson, but as you can see, he won just as many games and was very much their equal as a pitcher. He also got the most starts and threw the most innings (as a starter) of the trio, and led the way in WAR. Wells made 18 quality starts this season (66.7%) for the Cubs, but took a loss or a no decision in 7 of them. Perhaps more tragically, his teammates never bailed him out. He was 0-7 in starts that he allowed four or five earned runs (impressively, he never allowed more than five). Happ, on the other hand, made fourteen quality starts (60.9%) and lost only two of them. Three times he went less than six innings and still secured a win. He allowed four or more runs on five occasions and lost only two of them.

I don't mean to imply that Happ wasn't great this season and doesn't deserve serious consideration for Rookie of the Year, but I think Randy Wells was minutely better and got very little attention because his record was depressed by the sad status of his team.

2. Tommy Hanson - Atlanta Braves

He allowed three homers and six earned runs in his first start. After that he never allowed more than one homer and four earned runs in any of his next twenty starts. Over the course of that stretch he had an ERA of 2.59. The Braves only allowed him the throw more than 105 pitches on two occasions and yet he consistently pitched deep into ballgames (57.1 QS%) while striking out hitters in bunches (nine starts with more strikeouts than innings pitched).

Hanson stabilized the Braves rotation and was a critical factor in their late-season run (6-2, 2.56 ERA in August and September). It is possible that I'm giving him a bit of a boost because his potential is so much higher than either Wells or Happ, but the fact is, he matched or surpassed most of their numbers with less opportunities.

1. Andrew McCutchen - Pittsburgh Pirates

This makes me at least the second BBA member to support McCutchen (see the other ballot). And, like him, I may be swayed by the fact that I watched McCutchen play as much or more than any other rookie in 2009. That said, his WAR indicates that it isn't a purely subjective opinion. McCutchen put up very good offensive totals in a putrid lineup (30th in MLB!!!) and played solid defense in center field (10 A, 2 E, -0.8 UZR [I expect this will go up significantly in his first full season]). Like most rookies, he was a bit streaky. After hitting .330 with 18 RBI in his first twenty games, the league adjusted to him a bit and he went .240 with 5 RBI in his next twenty. The good news for Pirates fans is that McCutchen also demonstrated the ability to make adjustments and he finished the season on an absolute tear, hitting .354 with 17 R, 6 SB, 9 XBH, and a 962 OPS in his final 21 games.

I certainly wouldn't blame anybody for voting for Coghlan, but, like Hanson, McCutchen really exudes that unquantifiable "entertainment factor" (i.e. 4-for-6, 4 R, 3 HR, 6 RBI on 8/1 or 1-for-3, 3 R, 2B, 3 BB, 3 SB on 8/11), You are willing to watch Pirates games just to see what he does, which is lucky for Pittsburgh, because reinforcements do not appear to be on their way.

AL ROY (If I were so inclined): 3. Brett Anderson, 2. Andrew Bailey, 1. Elvis Andrus

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Won't you help to sing?

When A-Rod hit it, I thought Carlos Gomez might catch it, but as the ball carried, disappearing well into the Yankees bullpen, with it likely the Twins hopes of a Division Series upset, one thing became evident: this is A-Rod 2.0. The original A-Rod was good, even great, but he had some glitches. The most glaring of them, of course, was his modest postseason record, especially since joining the Yankees. The original A-Rod was often overcome by his own expectations. One could see the burden in his body language during critical at-bats in '06 and '07. It got so bad that in Game 4 of the '06 ALDS against Detroit, Joe Torre dropped the Five Hundred Million Dollar Man to eighth in the Yankees batting order. A-Rod responded by going 0-for-3.

He's been in the league now for 16 seasons. His numbers are awe-inspiring. A year ago he surpassed 500 HR and won his 4th MVP. His place in baseball history is assured. Some of his exploits could almost be described as epic, but he's still haunted by five failed Octobers, by his lone postseason homerun, and by the fact that, despite everything else, for the cross-section of fans and sportswriters who jealously despise him, this is the self-justifying evidence that he isn't equal to them or their idols: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, etc.

To whom do I refer? Why, Barry Bonds, of course, circa 2002. That October, you may recall, Bonds silenced many of his remaining critics by going on a record-breaking playoff tear that included 8 HR and 16 RBI...despite the fact that he was walked nearly 40% of the time. His OBP in the seven-game World Series against the Angels was .700.

Unfortunately, for those of us who jealously despise A-Rod (or at least the team he represents), he looks primed for his own redemption song. Perhaps he is flourishing in the loose, jovial atmosphere created by new teammates A. J. Burnett, Nick Swisher, and C. C. Sabathia. Perhaps he is benefiting from the resurgences of Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui, and the additional clout of Mark Texeira. Perhaps, after a most turbulent offseason, plagued by bad decisions, scandal, heartbreak, and injury, he no longer has any auspice to perfection.

Whatever it is, the burden has been lifted, so that, like the mature Bonds, he appears not only confident, but almost sybilline, several steps ahead of everybody else on the field. In the sixth inning of Game 2, with Nick Blackburn still on the mound, pitching excellently and cautiously, A-Rod kept things simple. He waited on the curveball, a good one, a pitcher's pitch, down in the zone, and simply drove it hard into the ground, splitting the left side of the infield. He didn't overswing, he didn't imagine the left-field bleachers, he simply tied the game and trusted his teammates to follow. In the ninth, with Texeira on first, he changed his approach. He stayed patient, worked the count, passed on a Joe Nathan offering that might've induced a double play, then, with the count at 3-1, A-Rod knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt - he knew it while he was standing on deck watching him warm up - that Nathan would do what good closers always do, especially with men on base and nobody out, regardless of the hitter at the plate.

It's what Mo would've done. It's what Eck would've done. It's the reason why we have legendary footage of Albert Pujols and Joe Carter rounding the bases while Brad Lidge and Mitch Williams walk, heads down, towards the dugout, holding back tears. It's what closers are supposed to do. They challenge. And Joe Nathan reminded himself, as he had many times before, that he was one of the best in baseball, and that A-Rod, despite all his success, had never taken him yard. Ego soothed, he delivered a challenge fastball, thigh-high.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The best deal in baseball?

Last December the Indians, Mariners, and Mets combined for a massive trade that distributed eleven players among the three teams. It wasn't treated as a blockbuster because the biggest name involved was the Mariner's incumbent closer, J. J. Putz, who was headed to New York, presumably as a very expensive set-up man for K-Rod, solidifying the Mets bullpen, which had been HORRIBLE in 2008. Although there were several valuable role players and a couple of B+ prospects among the rest, nobody would've expected any of the player involved to finish anywhere near the top 20 in Wins Above Replacement/Runs Above Replacement, the hottest new multi-factor metric born in the sabermetric community and intended to evaluate pitchers and position players on the same scale, with attention to offense, defense, ballpark and league adjustments, durability, and position scarcity.

Don't ask me to explain the formula. I can't.

What I can do is observe it that it yields some convincing results. Pujols does very well. As does A-Rod. Same for C.C. Sabathia and Tim Lincecum. No surprises there. But WAR/RAR rated Chase Utley as the #2 most valuable player in 2008, combining excellent hitting with superior defense at a premium position. All things considered, the top 12 from 2008 probably won't surprise anybody:

#1 Albert Pujols 8.9 WAR
#2 Chase Utley 8.1
#3 Chipper Jones 7.67
#4 Hanley Ramirez 7.57
#5 C. C. Sabathia 7.5
#6 Tim Lincecum 7.5
#7 David Wright 7.43
#8 Roy Halladay 7.4
#9 Cliff Lee 7.2
#10 Lance Berkman 6.8
#11 Mark Texeira 6.77
#12 Carlos Beltran 6.72

The 2009 results, on the other hand, might blow your mind a little:

#1 Zack Greinke 9.4
#2 Ben Zobrist 8.5
#3 Albert Pujols 8.4
#4 Joe Mauer 8.2
#5 Justin Verlander 8.2
#6 Tim Lincecum 8.2
#7 Chase Utley 7.7
#8 Derek Jeter 7.4
#9 Hanley Ramirez 7.32
#10 Roy Halladay 7.3
#11 Evan Longoria 7.26
#12 Ryan Zimmerman 7.1
#13 Felix Hernandez 6.9
#14 Prince Fielder 6.7
#15 Cliff Lee 6.6
#16 Javier Vazquez 6.6
#17 Adrian Gonzalez 6.4
#18 Jon Lester 6.2
#19 Dan Haren 6.1
#20 C. C. Sabathia 6.0
#21 Chone Figgins 5.9
#22 Franklin Gutierrez 5.8
#23 Adam Wainwright 5.7
#24 Ubaldo Jimenez 5.7
#25 Matt Holliday 5.6

You will note a couple of things even about the players whose inclusion in the top 25 isn't much of a surprise. Guady homer, RBI, or win totals don't overwhelm this metric. Sabathia (19-8) and Wainwright (19-8) finish in back of guys like Lee (14-13) and Haren (14-10). Prince Fielder's 141 RBI well behind Utley and Ramirez. Miguel Cabrera (5.5), Mark Texeira (5.2), Ryan Howard (4.9), Chris Carpenter (5.6), and Josh Beckett (5.3) all finish just outside the top 25.

There are a couple things going on here. WAR/RAR, with pitchers especially, gives us a good sense of the "luck" factors (ballparks, opponents, run support, etc.). The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays finished 1, 3, and 5 in the AL in scoring this season. Roy Halladay had to make 15(!) of his 32 starts against those three teams. He went 6-7 (2.97 ERA) against them. He went 11-3 (2.62 ERA) against everybody else. The strength of his competition pushes him ahead of bigger winners like Sabathia and Hernandez, and better ERAs, like Carpenter and Wainwright.

As far as position players, defense figures it should! The posterboy in this case is Franklin Gutierrez. Which brings me full circle. Gutierrez was one of those players the Mariners landed last December. You see, the Indians, Franklin's former franchise, were loaded with outfielders. They had Grady Sizemore entrenched in center, Gutierrez's natural position. They had Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo fighting for at-bats from the corner spots and Matt LaPorta, the prize of the recent C. C. Sabathia deal, slugging his way towards the big leagues as well. So, Gutierrez was expendable. Or was he?

It isn't so much that Sizemore, Choo, and LaPorta aren't good players, as is Francisco, who is now with the Phillies, but Gutierrez proved this season in Seattle that he is something very special. His hitting has been steadily improving over the past couple of seasons. His OBP jumped thirty points in 2009 to a respecable .339. He's provides a moderate speed/power combination. This year he hit 18 HR and stole 16 bases. Next year, at the magical age of 27, he may be a 20/20 threat. Still, as a hitter, Gutierrez's upside is probably akin to Mike Cameron. There's nothing wrong with that. Cameron has been a very likable everyday starter for well over a decade, but as good as he is in center field, Gutierrez is even better. Gutierrez's Ultimate Zone Rating (28.5) was 10 points higher than any player at any position this season, 16 higher than the next best centerfielder (B. J. Upton, 12.7). It was the best UZR by an outfielder since Andruw Jones netted a 30.0 in 2005. Now Franklin benefited from maximum playing time. Only Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, and Vernon Wells played more innings in center, and none by much, but his UZR/150 was still significantly higher than the his best competition. He was at 19.2, Upton at 10.8, and another Mariner, the shortstop, Jack Wilson, was at 15.3.

In a roundabout way I am trying to highlight the impressive job Jack Zduriencik has done in his short tenure with the Mariners. He dealt an expensive, replaceable closer (in other words, a closer) and got arguably a top 25 player in return. The Mariners paid Gutierrez just $450,000 this season. He won't be a free agent for three more seasons. And, because so much of his value is wrapped up in defense, he probably won't get as much in arbitration as he deserves. Moreover, that's not all Zduriencik landed!?! He got a couple of low-end prospects, Ezequiel Carrera and Maikel Cleto; a solid fifth outfielder in Endy Chavez; a young, cheap potential back-of-the-rotation starter in Jason Vargas; a 23-year-old first basemen name Mike Carp, who hit .315 in his cup of coffee this September; and a journeyman reliever, Aaron Heilman, who he turned around and sent to the Cubs for Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson, both young and cheap, the former of whom he used to go get Jack Wilson.

Prior to becoming the Mariners GM, Zduriencik was most famous for being the Scouting Director for the Brewers from '99-'06 who drafted Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, J. J. Hardy, Manny Parra, Andrew Bailey, Dana Eveland, Mat Gamel, and Ben Sheets. It represents a rare stretch of extremely successful drafting. Mariners fans are hoping Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin represent the beginning of a similar era in Seattle. The Mariners haven't had a first-round stud since Jason Varitek in 1994 (they did get Adam Jones as a compensation pick in 2003, as well as J. J. Putz and Rich Harden in later rounds in 1999).

BBA Awards Ballot: Manager of the Year (AL)

My new BBA membership has me all riled up to discuss regular season awards, so I'm going to put my playoff ranting on hold for the morning at least and address the Manager of the Year ballot in the American League. For the record, as a member without an affiliation, I will choose one league for each award.

While I'm actually more of a National League fan, I've got some strong opinions about AL manager in '09. As much as possible I am trying to distinguish between the job done by the on-field manager and that done by the GM. So, although I think Don Wakamatsu did a great job in Seattle, especially managing his pitching staff, I'm not ready to give him credit for the prioritization of defense which led to the acquisitions of Franklin Gutierrez and Jack Wilson, as well as the long-overdue ousting of Yuniesky Betancourt. I also think that Joe Girardi earned his stripes in New York this season, but, of course, he was handed a behemoth of a team and he was fairly fortunate. Despite preseason uncertainties 8 of the 9 top Yankee hitters got 500+ plate appearances (only Posada got less and he still managed well over 400). 80% of the Opening Day starting rotation made 30+ starts (with Chien-Ming Wang being the only exception). So, the argument for Girardi, I think, stems from his dealings with off-the-field pressures and his Tony LaRussa-like construction of a dominant bullpen as though from thin air (remember how bad things were out there in April and May?!?). It was an impressive job, but it still leaves him just outside my top three.

3. Terry Francona - Boston Red Sox

As the opening paragraph suggests, overcoming adversity is perhaps the quality I most admire in a manager. Only on very rare occasions do teams get exactly what the expected from every member of their opening day roster. Injuries, unexpected ineffectiveness, and chemistry problems test both the depth of an organization, the creativity of the GM, and the perceptive tenacity of the field manager. Theo Epstein is a GM extraordinaire (the V-Mart deal was a midseason coup), but to say that is sometimes to underestimate the contribution Francona has made in the Red Sox exceptional run since he took over in 2004.

This season's team looked much different than any during his tenure. No Manny. No Schilling or Pedro. Much noted declines from Varitek, Lowell, and Big Papi. The 2009 Red Sox were going to feed off of the next generation of BoSox: Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Papelbon, and Lester. And, as might be expected, it wasn't a perfect transition. Pedroia and Lester got off to slow starts. Youkilis battled nagging physical issues and perhaps even more nagging mental ones. A rotation that was expected to be very deep faltered early and their top winner from 2008, Dice-K, made only three quality starts, all of them in September.

Francona handled everything superbly. He stuck with Big Papi through two hellish months and was rewarded with an excellent performance in the final four. He forced Youkilis into a short spell on the DL and regular days off to keep him fresh. He didn't allow Dice-K to rush back. After the acquisition of V-Mart, he managed a delicate rotation of stars (or former stars) at C, 1B, 3B, and DH. He resisted the temptation to overuse the flamethrowing rookie, Daniel Bard (perhaps he'd been watching what was happening with Carlos Marmol, who Lou Pinella tortured with long, stressful appearances in '07 and '08). He waited an extra month to bring Clay Buchholz back and got excellent results in the second half.

Francona remained always the picture of calm during the most stormy season of his managing career.

2. Mike Scioscia - Los Angeles Angels

I certainly won't argue that Scioscia doesn't get enough credit. The discussions of him in the Orange County media would make you think he was still calling games and blocking the plate, a kind of idyllic Pete Rose player-manager, with none of the baggage. He hawks refrigerators and pizzas and building supplies and second mortgages. Scioscia has proved himself again and again, and thus his legend grows. Only Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa have more local reknown and influence over the macro- and micro- workings of their organizations.

The postseason commentary will certainly stress the unfortunate death of Nick Adenhart, as it should. What that disguises is that even before the Adenhart tragedy, Scioscia was facing a challenge that was almost entirely new. From 2001-2008, the Angels never finished lower than sixth in the AL in ERA; never above 4.28. Year after year, Scioscia put together rotations, bullpens, and defense that assured that his ballclub could stay in every game, even if they only scored three or four runs. During Spring Training, it looked like there would be more of the same. Scioscia was returning all five starters from last year's division-leading rotation and had Adenhart and former 18-game winner, Kelvim Escobar, waiting in the wings. Yet, of those front seven, only Jared Weaver and Joe Saunders made more than one start in April. Ervin Santana and John Lackey tried to rush back and combined for an 8.00 ERA in eight starts in May.

Meanwhile, despite K-Rod move to New York, Scioscia still had most of the key pieces to his great bullpens of '07 and '08: Scot Shields, Jose Arrendondo, and Justin Speier. They combined for an ERA above 6.00 in '09. The primary Angels slugger, Vladimir Guerrero, missed 35 games in April and May. There was no way this team should been anywhere near .500 after the first two month.

Yet, in the middle of May, even after getting swept by the division-leading Rangers, they were 18-18. They held on strong to that .500 record until mid-June (29-29), when they began a stretch of fifteen interleague games, of which they won twelve, and never looked back.

With his pitching in tatters, Scioscia decided he was going to have to score lots of runs. And so, whereas in the past he had resisted playing defensively-challenged power-hitters like Mike Napoli, Kendry Morales, and Juan Rivera everyday, he finally handed them starting jobs and they hit 79 HR and drove in 252 RBI. With the help of Bobby Abreu, he made slick-fielding, slap-hitting middle infielders, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, into .300 hitters who were on base over 35% of the time. And he let everybody run wild, just like he always had. Six players netted double-digits in stolen bases.

Now, the reformed Angels are headed into October with some offensive thunder AND their pitching staff. Lackey racked up a 2.89 ERA in his last seven starts. Santana was at 2.84 over his last ten. Neither Shields, Speier, or Arrendondo made the postseason roster. In their places sit Kevin Jepsen (2.93 ERA, 43 IP, 42 K since July 1), Jason Bulger (2.48 ERA, 58 IP, 60 K since May 1), and Matt Palmer (2.74 ERA in 46 IP as a reliever). For most of the last decade, Scioscia has been credited with a particular "style" of AL baseball. This year he broke his own mold. That's worthy of serious consideration.

1. Ron Washington - Texas Rangers

I know, you were expecting Ron Gardenhire. And you aren't wrong, Gardenhire faced some serious adversity, went without the dominant rotation which had defined his tenure in Minnesota, and squeaked into the postseason with a lineup that included Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Brendan Harris. However, Mr. Washington still had a better record (by 1/2 game) and he dealt with all of the above, but without the strong template to start from.

Let's face it, if I had told you at the beginning of the season that the 2009 Rangers were going to finish behind the Angels, the Twins, and the Blue Jays in runs scored, you would've been guessing that they won closer to 40 games than 90. Josh Hamilton was putrid, and hurt. Chris Davis was worse, though healthy. No Texas player made 145 starts. Among players with 100+ plate appearances, only Michael Young (.374), Julio Borbon (.376), and David Murphy (.338) posted OBP above the league average (.335). Four regulars posted OBP under .300. Sure, eight players had 17 or more homers, but this is in Arlington, the ballpark that made power threats out of Gary Matthews Jr. and Rusty Greer. Royce Clayton hit 14 HR there, twice!!! Much more telling is the fact that no Ranger drove in 90 and only Ian Kinsler scored more than 80.

Yet they won 87 games. The Texas Rangers were a pitching and defense team!!! Much credit will be given to Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux for the reformations of Scott Feldman, Dustin Nippert, and Kevin Millwood. And that's probably just. However, Washington still oversaw that development and managed a staff that suffered prolonged injuries to its closer (Frank Francisco), two of its middle-of-the-rotation starters (Matt Harrison & Brandon McCarthy), and a primary set-up man (Eddie Guardado). Washington also dealt with the transition of Young to third base, he and Omar Vizquel assured that Elvis Andrus was a gold glove caliber shortstop in his very first season, and he juggled crazy platoon situations at catcher, first base, and in the outfield. He had to figure out what to do exactly with a strange roster than included five corner outfielders (Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Marlon Byrd, Murphy, and Borbon), three designated hitters (Hank Blalock, Chris Davis, and Andruw Jones), no true centerfielders, and only one backup infielder (Vizquel). As a prize for leading his division at the All-Star Break, management, dogged by financial problems, made no deadline deals and pretty much allowed the Angels to storm to another AL West title.

Washington isn't going to win this award, either from the BBA or the BBWA, but I think he's as legitimate a candidate as anybody and hopefully will be fronting the Ranger for many years to come.

Honorable Mention: Ron Gardenhire (MIN), Joe Girardi (NYY), Don Wakamatsu (SEA), Cito Gaston (TOR)

And, just for posterity, if I had voted for the NL version of the award, my ballot would've been pretty conventional: 3. Joe Torre (LAD), 2. Jim Tracy (COL), 1. Tony LaRussa (STL).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bold Predictions ('09 Postseason)

Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies are all about southpaws, on both sides of the ball. The combo of left-handers, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, who will pitch three of the five games, match up very well against a Rockies lineup which is very left-handed. Brad Hawpe hit just .243 (775 OPS) against lefties this season, worse even than fellow lefty outfielders Seth Smith (.259, 868) and Carlos Gonzalez (.276, 809). Jim Tracy has a difficult decision to make. Hawpe is the most established hitter outside of Todd Helton in the Colorado lineup, but he had a very mediocre second-half, capped off by a terrible September (.194, 2 HR). Meanwhile, both Gonzalez and Smith excelled down the stretch.

Worse yet for the Rockies, the Phillies lefties will exploit their third base platoon. Ian Stewart doesn't hit lefties (.178, 664), but Garrett Atkins has had the worst year of his career and is only hitting .268 with a 790 OPS against southpaws. Even Helton, although he still hits lefties to the tune of a .311 average, has only one homer against a left-hander this season.

Meanwhile, Jorge De La Rosa's injury will sting even more every time Jason Hammel and Jason Marquis have to face the lefty-laden Phillies lineup. De La Rosa allowed a stingy 568 Opponents OPS against lefties this season, compared to 747 for Marquis and 785 for Hammel. Those Jasons will have to face five straight left-handed (or switch) hitters at the top of the Philadelphia order: Rollins (728 OPS v. LHP), Victorino (787), Utley (877), Howard (1088), and Ibanez (859).

All this should suggest that I'm sticking with conventional wisdom and picking the reigning champs. They also have home-field advantage and Colorado was not that good (27-26) away from Coors Field this season.

Phillies in four.

Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees

Lest you believe that I'm going to stick for too long with the conventional wisdom, I'm going to come right out and say this: the Yankees are going to lose to the Twins. I don't know why, I don't know how...well, actually...

Fans in the Bronx should be very pleased the Girardi elected to go with two games of A. J. Burnett, rather than two games of Andy Pettitte, despite Pettitte being one of the New York darlings. Several of the Twins have hit Pettitte very hard over the course of their careers. Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and Brendan Harris all own OPSs over 1000 against him. The combined OPS for all Twins players is 946 against Pettitte, only 669 against Burnett. (It is, by the way, only 584 against Sabathia.)

So, the Twins rough up Andy Pettitte in game three at the Metrodome. That's still only one win. Only a couple of days ago I had a long post which detailed how much better the Tigers faired against the Evil Empire than the Twins, which included C. C. Sabathia's long history of success in Minnesota. Nevertheless, I like the fact that the Twins have absolutely nothing to lose, while the Yankees are overwhelming favorites, not only to advance, but to win the World Series. The Yanks have been playing loose since June, but I don't expect that to continue. These are not your older brother's Yankees. The last time the Yankees went to the playoffs, in 2007, the dynamic duo of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada combined to hit .156 with one extra-base hit, a double, and zero RBI. A. J. Burnett has never thrown a pitch in the postseason. C.C. Sabathia has an ERA of 7.92 in 25 playoff innings. Andy Pettitte hasn't won a postseason start for the Yankees since 2003. And, of course, there are the infamous struggles of "April-Rod." The last time Joba Chamberlain took the mound in the postseason, he was greeted by a swarm of locusts (well, actually, they were midges, but you get the picture). Looming on the horizon are two teams, the Red Sox and Angels, which have had their way with the Yankees in the playoffs for most of this decade. They aren't exactly the Chicago Cubs, but this is a team that needs to unload some baggage, and that usually doesn't bode well.

Minnesota in four (that's right, they don't even take it back to New York).

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

This is certainly the series I'm most looking forward to. Two of my favorite franchises, both with very exciting rosters, and two the sport's greatest managers squaring off. I'm never willing to rule out a Joe Torre team in October and the Dodgers are quite underrated, despite leading the NL in wins, but the two-headed monster of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is pretty hard to argue against, particularly in a five-game series.

You'll probably see these numbers a lot on TBS this evening, but that's because they're pretty incredible. Carpenter is 5-0 against L.A. on his career with a 2.20 ERA. The particular set of players on the Dodgers current roster hits only .216 against him, with a 626 OPS, and Manny and Thome are the only Dodgers ever to homer against him. They both did it before they joined the Dodgers. In his last four starts against L.A., dating back to '06, Carpenter has allowed three earned runs in 29 innings (0.93 ERA). And, let us not forget, Carpenter is battle-tested in October (5-1, 2.53 ERA). Tony LaRussa has sent his Ace to the mound eight times in October and come away with seven wins. The only time Carpenter failed to secure a victory was in Game 6 of the '07 NLCS against the Mets and even then he scattered just two runs over six innings.

It's not going to get much better tomorrow night. In Wainwrights last three starts against the Dodgers, he's allowed just three runs in 22 IP (1.23 ERA). Manny Ramirez is 0-for-5 against him. Matt Kemp is 2-for-8, both singles. The good news is that Ethier, Furcal, Russell Martin, and James Loney have all hit him fairly well.

I'm betting on St. Louis in five.

Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels

The Angels have lost to the Red Sox in four straight postseason series, including each of the last two years. This Angels team, however, is better than probably any of the previous squads which faced Boston. The problem is, Boston may be better as well.

Largely because they went 1-9 against the Yankees, people haven't noticed how good the Red Sox have been in the second half. At one point in September they won seven straight and ten out of eleven, with six of those games coming against the Angels and the Rays. Then they finished off the season with a four-game sweep of the Indians. After the All-Star Break, the Red Sox featured five regulars who hit over .300, five guys who hit 11 or more homers, and eight guys who drove in 30 or more runs.

Much will continue to be made of Big Papi's "poor" season. Don't listen to it. From June 1 on, Big Papi hit 27 homeruns, that was tied (with Adam Lind) for the most of any player in the AL during those four months. Over that span he also drove in 81 runs, trailing only Bobby Abreu and A-Rod (who need 7 RBI in his final game to pass Papi). His OPS over that span was 904.

The Red Sox lineup, especially if Jed Lowrie is healthy, may be even deeper than the Angels and the Yankees. And, it gives opposing managers fits, because of its perfect balance. Theo Epstein has carefully designed a team well-suited to playing matchup baseball in critical games. Francona has at his disposal when making out his lineup card, three excellent lefties (Ortiz, Drew, & Ellsbury), four excellent righies (Youkilis, Pedroia, Bay, & Lowell), and three switch-hitters (V-Mart, Varitek, & Lowrie). He also has additional pop on the bench in the form of Casey Kotchman (L) and Rocco Baldelli (R). Francona is similarly loaded with balance on his pitching staff, with two rightes (Beckett & Matsuzaka) and two lefties (Lester & Buchholz) in the rotation, as well as three lefties (Okajima, Saito, & Billy Wagner) and three righties (Bard, Ramirez, & Delcarmen) in his late inning relief corps.

The Angels will run wild on Martinez and Jason Varitek. The Red Sox will exploit Mike Napoli. So one of the keys to this series will be keeping men off base. That may be why Terry Francona elected to start Clay Buchholz ahead of Dice-K, who love to put runners on base, then ignore them. The Red Sox have four regulars with OBPs over .380 and all nine hitters with OBPs over .330. The Angels also have nine guys over .330, but only two guys above .370, Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu. While Boston's team OBP was consistent throughout the season, the Angels went from a season high of .379 in July, to .360 in August, and .340 in September, not a good trend.

Boston in five.