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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.

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