October 2009

Win, Or Lose Job

So the scenario has almost completely played out: Joe Girardi’s misuse of his bullpen, and the forces of nature, have combined to push Game Six of the ALCS to Sunday. It is a game that likely will determine whether or not Girardi is still Yankee manager on the 15th of next June.

If the Yankees beat the Angels Sunday Night their intended World Series rotation will be unchanged and they will still be able to throw lefthanded starters against the Phillies at least four times and probably five. Two posts back you’ll see the key southpaw splits for Phils’ lefthanded and switch bats, but the money line remains Ryan Howard’s nightmarish production at home against lefties: one homer, eight RBI, a .178 batting average, a .290 slugging percentage (numbers that suggest they’d be better off starting Eric Bruntlett at first base in those match-ups. Or Miguel Cairo. Or Chris Wheeler).
But if the Yankees lose the Sunday Night game, Girardi is facing a choice of three unpleasant futures:
a) The Angels win Game Seven. It is hard to believe that Girardi, with a year left to go on his contract, would not be the scapegoat for the Yankees’ collapse. It might be one of those old-fashioned quick firings, too, especially if George Steinbrenner is even tangentially involved in the decision, especially with Don Mattingly ‘in play’ as at last a nominal candidate for the Indians’ managerial job.
b) The Yankees win Game Seven. But with the rotation plans scuttled by the extended ALCS and the weather, they have no choice but to open the World Series behind A.J. Burnett on Wednesday and Chad Gaudin on Thursday. CC Sabathia might yet shine on three days’ rest, but he’s not going on two. The Yanks would no longer be favorites, for at least the first two games, and perhaps for the Series. Whereas they still get the opportunity to fire Sabathia and then Andy Pettitte in Philadelphia in Games Three and Four next weekend, to use them both twice in the Series, he’d have to use them both on short rest, and there would be absolutely no way to use Sabathia three times. In short, the extension of the ALCS to a seventh game would move the Yankees from the chance to pitch them each twice in the first five games, to the prospect of having pitched them each only once in a Series that could conceivably be lost in five games.
Presumably that would cost Girardi his job, too – only about a week later.
c) The Yankees beat the Angels and despite the astrayness of the best laid plans, also beat the Phillies. Yet in the back of the minds of everybody who counts at Yankee Stadium is this unspoken doubt that they can be confident that Girardi – entering the last year of his deal and doubtless pushing for an extension – knows how to manage a bullpen. Even Defending World Champion Yankees can change managers (ask Billy Martin and Bob Lemon)  when things start slowly or unhappily the next season.
And yet all of those unhappy events are nearly obscured, if not totally forgotten, if they still put away the Angels in Game Six. Remarkable on how the game turns on such seemingly small things.

LP: Girardi (0-2)

Seriously: you rally back after another wobbly A.J. Burnett start to put up a six-spot when Mike Scioscia takes out John Lackey too soon – and you leave Burnett, whose normal yips could only have been exaggerated by sitting on the bench during the rally, in to pitch the bottom of the seventh? And when you finally go and get him you turn to Damaso Marte? And then Phil Hughes in the middle of an inning?
The Yankees are not in the World Series, clearly and unequivocally, because Joe Girardi has mishandled his pitching staff. It’s as shocking and as obvious as some of the eyechart-defying umpiring in this post-season.
What exactly was the intent in leaving Burnett in, and eschewing the seventh-eighth-ninth format that has served the Yankees so well since late spring? To make him feel better or more confident? Burnett had just rebounded from a first-inning tank job to throw five scoreless. He should’ve felt better or more confident as it was. Instead, he now can reflect on blowing the same game twice.
Even if Girardi and his Yankees survive a second tactical disaster in three games, he may pay for his unpredictable combination of going to his bullpen too soon and then too late. No matter how they do henceforth, the Halos are increasing the Phillies’ chances of winning the World Series. With a game sixth forced, huge crimps develop on the horizon in the Yankees’ rotation, even assuming they win one of the last two. The forecast for Saturday’s game in New York is “rain/thunder/90% chance of precipitation.” Suddenly the prospect of the Yankees having to pitch Andy Pettitte on Sunday, and maybe CC Sabathia in a Monday Game Seven, is very real.
Look what that combination would do to the Yankee plans, assuming they win in a Monday finale:

   Game One, Wednesday, New York: Burnett

   Game Two, Thursday, New York: Gaudin? Chamberlain?

   Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Sabathia*

   Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Pettitte*

   Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Burnett

   Game Six, Wednesday, New York: Game Two Starter or Sabathia*

   Game Seven, Thursday, New York: Sabathia* or Pettitte*

The Phillies would be favored to win the first two games in New York.
To get to the Series the Angels would have to stick to the current rotation, Joe Saunders Saturday and Jered Weaver or Scott Kazmir Sunday (or a day later in the event of rain in New York). So what does their rotation look like in a Series that would seem to pivot on throwing as many lefties as possible at Ryan Howard in Philadelphia?

Game One, Wednesday, Anaheim: Lackey

Game Two, Thursday, Anaheim: Saunders*

Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Weaver

Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Kazmir* or Lackey

Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Lackey or Kazmir*

Game Six, Wednesday, Anaheim: Saunders*

Game Seven, Thursday, Anaheim: Weaver

The gutsy play by Mike Scioscia here would be, use Kazmir on Sunday, bring Saunders back on three days’ rest to pitch in Philly on Monday, and hold Lackey back when the series goes back to California. You get both your lefties in Philly.
A rainout Saturday in New York and a Game Seven win by the Angels on Monday would force the Angels to do that – but also force them to swap Kazmir out:

Game One, Wednesday, Anaheim: Lackey

Game Two, Thursday, Anaheim: Kazmir*

Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Saunders* 

Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Weaver

Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Lackey

Game Six, Wednesday, Anaheim: Kazmir*

Game Seven, Thursday, Anaheim: Saunders*

At least this gives you a lefthander against Howard in your decisive game.
Let’s look at those two critical statistical lines again. Ryan Howard, in Philadelphia, 2009 season, versus lefthanded pitchers:

1 HR, 8 RBI, .178 BA, .290 OBP, .290 SLG. (107 At Bats)

Ryan Howard, not in Philadelphia, 2009 season, versus lefthanded pitchers:

5 HR, 25 RBI, .235 BA, .305 OBP, .417 SLG. (115 At Bats)

THAT TRICK NEVER WORKS
“With Robinson Cano coming up, one swing can change the complexion of this game.”
So said my old pal Joe Buck as Hideki Matsui walked in the 6th inning of tonight’s Game Five in Anaheim. The score was 4-0 Angels, and a Cano homer would’ve scored three runs. And I have now been watching and listening to baseball broadcasts for 43 seasons and not once can I recall ever seeing a pronouncement about “one swing” changing the game, actually being followed by such a swing.

Yankees, Quickly

I know, I know – the Yankees have not even made the World Series yet. George Steinbrenner would file a protest if somebody told him I was already picking them to beat the Phillies.

But I speak to you as a season-long skeptic about New York, who now looks at this team and believes they should’ve swept the Angels, but for some over-managing by Joe Girardi. I still think the Yankees have some holes and I wouldn’t leave my season in the hands of A.J. Burnett and I still don’t like starting CC Sabathia on short rest. 
But one set of statistics should make Phillies fans shudder: 

1-8-.178-.290-.290.

Those are Ryan Howard’s numbers against lefthanded pitchers, during the regular season, in Citizens Bank Park, in 2009. And it’s not a small sample, it’s 107 at bats, and he struck out in 51 of them. And no matter whether Girardi is going to push the envelope on Sabathia and try him on three days’ rest again, or play it safe, there will be two games at home in which Ryan Howard will have to face Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. He has seen nothing like them individually during the post-season, and nothing like them in tandem, conceivably in consecutive starts, during the regular season. The Phillies might as well bench him in those games over Halloween weekend.
It’s not like he’s good against lefties out-of-town, either. Howard’s line this year is 6-33-.207-.298-.356. And he will open at Yankee Stadium against Sabathia, who during the season gave up twelve hits, and no home runs, to lefthanded batters, in fourteen starts. Pettitte has been less dominant than Sabathia against lefty hitters in New York, but even he has only surrendered five homers to them at home.
The other Phillies do not fold entirely against southpaws but they become less imposing. Here are their key lefthanded or switch batters versus lefty pitchers:

Ibanez:   13-40-.285-.359*-.639*

Rollins:     7-22-.230-.266-.425*

Utley:      11-33-.288-.417-.545

Victorino:  2-12-.314*-.385*-.459*

  * better LH than RH

The problem becomes apparent when you consider the way the two ways the Yankees could set up their rotation:

Game One, Wednesday 10/28, @ New York: Sabathia*

Game Two, Thursday 10/29, @ New York: Burnett

Game Three, Saturday 10/31, @ Philadelphia: Pettitte*

Game Four, Sunday 11/1, @ Philadelphia: Sabathia* or ?

Game Five, Monday, 11/2, @ Philadelphia: Burnett, ? or Sabathia*

Game Six, Wednesday, 11/4 @ New York: Pettitte* or Burnett

Game Seven, Thursday, 11/5 @ New York: Sabathia* or Pettitte*

If the Phillies get to the seventh game, and if Joe Girardi plays it conservatively, they will have already had to face starts by three southpaws, and then beat Pettitte in the finale, with Sabathia available in the bullpen. It is absolutely plausible that Girardi will not be conservative at all, and will have already started both Sabathia and Pettitte twice each, with Sabathia gearing up for the start in the decider.

It’s a slightly more daunting task than beating the Rockies with no lefty starters, and then flummoxing a slumping Clayton Kershaw and beating, in a do-or-die game for the other team, a starter who was released by Texas two months ago and on whom you can always rely – he’ll always let you down. And they don’t have a power plug-in for the DH in The Stadium (unless Charlie Manuel were to pull a real rabbit out of his hat, like John Mayberry, Jr.).

I don’t think they can do it. Congrats on that pennant.
PS: For whatever this is worth, Howard went 2-for-14 in the three-game clash at Yankee Stadium in May. The hits were both off Sabathia, and both infield singles to the left side.

Stop Whistling

It has been there all season but its inappropriateness can only truly be appreciated now, perhaps, when Mariano Rivera strikes out Torii Hunter to end the top of the ninth of a dramatic ALCS game in the Bronx.

The whistle sound from a local appliance dealer.
The Yanks made some kind of deal to sponsor a sound effect! For each strikeout by a New York pitcher this year, they play this obnoxious shrill five-note noise over the P.A. system. It’s cheesy. It’s annoying. It’s – and I know how much ground I’m covering when I say this – beneath the dignity even of the Yankees.

Notes From A Sickbed

OK, not that sick. Just enough.

As you watch the rest of the Yankees’ post-season, especially these first two games against the Angels, consider this: What do these guys have in common? Wilson Betemit, Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan, Morgan Ensberg, Juan Miranda, Chad Moeller, Jose Molina, Xavier Nady, Jorge Posada, Cody Ransom, Richie Sexson, and Jason Giambi?
They played first base for the Yankees last season. Where would the Yankees be right now – just from a defensive point of view – if any of them were still playing first base for them, and were reaching for the high-degree-of-difficulty throws of CC Sabathia, Molina, Robinson Cano, et al, instead of Mark Teixeira? Apart from the likelihood the Angels might be leading this game and might’ve won last night’s, I wonder if the Yankees would even still be playing.
Two other notes. Interesting that given my speculation last night that Erick Aybar might have had an auditory awareness problem because he had been dressed “like a teletubby” – as Joe Buck put it – that Aybar went with just an ordinary cap tonight. 
Also, credit to Fox for an intriguing innovation following a Tim McCarver query – a measurement of the speed of pitches as they leave the pitcher’s hand, and, separately, as they arrive at the plate. For A.J. Burnett’s supposed 93 MPH fastball, it was 93 at his hand, and “only” 86 at the plate. It’s pure guesswork, but the differential might explain the concept of the “heavy” pitch catchers and hitters talk about, as one that somehow partially overcomes the aerodynamic drag that affects any object in flight. If another pitcher’s 93 MPH fastball actually hits the glove at 87 or 88, it might  explain the otherwise anecdotal concept of a “heavy ball.”

Blame The Hat

Hate to see pitchers show up their fielders, even on a dumb play. But even in that context, more power to John Lackey. If he’d gone over and thrown either Erick Aybar or Chone Figgins to the ground after their collective moronity in the bottom of the first in the Bronx, I wouldn’t have made a citizen’s arrest.

What Lackey might have done is to check just how thick the hood is, that Aybar is wearing under his hat and over his noggin. I’m not kidding around here; last year a college classmate of mine who happens to be the wife of the owner of the Rays gave me one of the Elmer Fudd Earflap Hats that Tampa Bay and the Phillies wore in the Series, and the first thing I noticed about them was how thoroughly they muffled sound and create an audio disconnect for the wearer. Not quite to the degree earphones or earplugs might, but significantly – and I think it’s safe to assume that the taut headgear Aybar was wearing as he stared at Figgins and they let Hideki Matsui’s pop-up drop between them had the same effect.
It isn’t just a question of volume being reduced, but of the creation of the same fishbowl sense you get when you’re really stuffed up, or if you were to climb in the old “Cone Of Silence” from Get Smart. Your head feels like it’s in a cocoon, and you thus feel very detached from what’s going on around you – and sometimes you adjust accordingly. This is not to excuse Aybar but he might have assumed he just couldn’t hear Figgins calling for the Matsui pop.
As to Figgins, I have no clue. Maybe his ears had frozen off.
Blogging time has been limited here of late but I’ll point out two truths about the Championship Series before they get too far along to make any stupid predictions worthwhile: I still don’t like the idea of starting Sabathia in Game Four (or if the weather is utterly uncooperative, maybe Game Three) but I think the Yankees are the better of these two teams. And as to the Phillies, I’ll point out here the dumbest reason of all time to pick the Dodgers.
In my lifetime, the Phillies have made the World Series on three occasions: 1980, 1993, and 2008. I, meantime, have only traveled to Philadelphia to see a Phillies game in person in three years: 1980 (as a fan, and photographer), 1993 (to do play-by-play for ESPN), and 2008 (as a fan).
I did not go to a Phillies’ home game this season. I was kinda surprised they didn’t send me a bus ticket or something.

How To Lose The American League Championship Series

When Terry Francona managed the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series, his greatest contribution came two years ago this Friday. Down two games to one to the Indians in the ALCS and facing a fifth game in Cleveland, Francona resisted the temptation to start Josh Beckett on three days’ rest and instead stuck to his plan, and Game Four starter Tim Wakefield. Wakefield got lit up like Christmas, and much of Boston was ready for a new manager for their Nine. And then the Sox, buoyed by Beckett’s five-hitter over eight (with eleven strikeouts), won Game Five, and ran the table right through the World Series sweep of Colorado.

And yet Joe Girardi is mulling starting CC Sabathia on short rest in Game Four in Anaheim, then coming back with him on full rest for Game Seven. It is mighty tempting with a horse like Sabathia – as it was tempting for Francona two years ago. And the record book warns Girardi to dismiss the idea despite its obvious siren-like call, and its additional charms (like being able to keep Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen, and Chad Gaudin off the line-up card).
Like all men, Bobby Cox, who by rights should be elected to the Hall of Fame next winter if he goes through with his plan to retire after next season, has had one Achilles Heel that he’s never overcome. Coxy has always been convinced that when all the chips were on the table his starters could do the job on three days’ rest, even as the statistics accumulated, proving they could not.
During Atlanta’s unprecedented, probably unmatchable playoff run of 1991 through 2005, Cox tried the short-rest thing nineteen times. The Braves lost thirteen of those games.
Every defeat has a thousand parents, but at minimum, starting a pitcher prematurely is a very heavy straw meeting a very weak camel. More over, all Cox’s successes came before 1995, when Steve Avery and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were all young and elastic. Cox would go on to try it six more times between 1996 and 2005, and the Braves didn’t win even one of the games. Tim Hudson couldn’t do it, nor Kevin Millwood, nor Greg Maddux, nor Smoltz, nor Glavine – and Glavine tried, twice.
If those stats aren’t a bright enough white line, there’s one more. Cox did it nine times in the World Series, and the Braves won only three of those games. You might get away with it – Beckett did once – but eventually the odds start mounting, and sooner or later it will cost you the playoff series, or the whole ball of wax.
Girardi can point, seemingly with confidence, to Sabathia and say that his personal track record is far more relevant than what Steve Avery did or didn’t do a generation ago. CC’s last three regular season starts of 2008 were each on short rest and all he did was go 2-1 (and give up just one earned run in the loss) and pitch the Brewers into the playoffs. The snag, of course, was that they decided to go to the well again in Game Two of those playoffs against Phillies – Sabathia’s fourth consecutive start on three days’ rest. And by the time Dale Sveum had to come get him with two outs in the fourth, he was out of gas, and the Brewers were essentially out of the post-season. His line was as bad as imaginable:

Milwaukee Brewers IP H R ER BB SO HR BFP

Sabathia L(0-1) 3.2 6 5 5 4 5 1 21


Would he necessarily repeat that in Game Four against the Angels? Nope, not necessarily. But what might the impact be on his Game Seven start? And what if there was no need for one, and Girardi was then faced with the scenario of opening the World Series with him, again bringing him back in Game Four on short rest, with the dream of having him ready for Game Seven?
The more often you try it, the less likely it is to keep working. The last month of 2008 might as well have been the post-season for the Brewers and Sabathia. The first three times, he either won, or pitched well enough to win. Then the fourth time, everything ended. Game Four of the ALCS will effectively be attempt Number Five. There could be a sixth in the Series.
The Braves’ fifteen-year record was six wins and thirteen losses. At one point, it was six wins and seven losses. The time of Lew Burdette shutting out the Yankees twice in four days is more than half a century ago. It might as well have happened before the invention of electricity. CC Sabathia on three days’ rest – a dramatic, romantic concept. And a recipe for dramatic, decisive failure.

The Ball Hit Utley

The “single” that extended the Phillies’ ninth inning in Denver tonight and moved their lead run from second to third actually hit Chase Utley, in the knee, while he was still in the batter’s box. The replay showed the ball’s direction clearly altered as it hit Utley’s uniform. Foul ball. Never mind the dubious call at first base, as Street might have thrown Utley out. He should’ve been sent back to the plate.

For all we know Utley would’ve followed it with a two-run homer. But a playoff game was in part decided by negligent umpiring for the second time in three nights, and that’s bad enough. Yet this is not solely the fault of Jerry Meals (nor, at Yankee Stadium on Friday, Phil Cuzzi). Far be it for anybody to encourage gratuitous call-questioning, but where was Rockies’ catcher Yorvit Torrealba on that play? Where in turn was Jim Tracy? I can understand Huston Street be a little focused on fielding the ball, but where was Garrett Atkins? 
Just like Friday in New York: I was sitting behind home plate. I didn’t see Joe Mauer put up a huge beef on the blown foul ball call in left field. Nor third base coach Scott Ullger. I doubt anybody in the crowd was aware the Twins had a question, let alone an open-and-shut case. 
Sometimes the squeaky wheel cliche is not only true, but also the essence of accuracy.

Nice Prediction, Keith

Cardinals over the Dodgers. Followed by Cardinals rallying tonight to beat the Dodgers in Game Three and then the inevitable great next starts by Carpenter and Wainwright doing in L.A.

The inevitable great next starts by Carpenter and Wainwright will be next April.
Truth be told, a lot of us blew the call on the series. But I’ve been watching Joel Pineiro very closely since mid-season (fantasy league stuff) and about September 10 or so his unhittable and essential sinker stopped doing so. To assume he could be the stopgap in the season-breaking game for the Cards was folly on my part. And Tony LaRussa’s.
And underestimated in the finale, where the heck was Yadier Molina going from second base, with one out and the Cards desperate for a run? Did he lose track of outs? Was he in a hurry to start the off-season?
MEANWHILE IN BOSTON:
Maybe the Red Sox do go out in three or four but at least Jason Bay revived my interest in collecting “You Knows.” Years ago every athlete relied on the verbal crutch to get through many a dimwitted interviewer’s questions, and my first national publicity came when Sports Illustrated featured my little display of the most frequent usage, while I was at UPI Radio in 1980.
Said Jason in a sound bite just played on TBS:
“I think people tend to forget, you know, those guys are trying to get us out. Two guys that are pretty good, that are not just, you know, flipping balls out there underhanded and we’re not getting hits, I mean, you know, I think, you know, not passing the buck by any means, we need to do, you know, a better job offensively but, you know, the guy wasn’t 15-and-whatever he was on the year, because he’s, you know, doesn’t know what he’s doing, you know it’s just, their pitching’s better than our hitting right now.”
Eight in 27 seconds, hardly a record (Micheal Ray Richardson of the Knicks actually managed something like 16 in 32 as I remembered — he was a rehabilitated stutterer who had swapped “you know” in for his other problem, so he was ruled out in favor of somebody who produced about 9 in 20 seconds) but perhaps the MLB mark for the 21st Century.
BABE RUTH AND A BIG CROWD:
As promised, here’s the New York Times follow-up on the September 9, 1928 film just found of Babe Ruth and a crowd of 85,000 at Yankee Stadium. And I hepped!

 

Outfield Defense – Again!

OK, I might have to completely revise my assessment of the Yankees. In the Bronx last night, in one of the ten best baseball games I’ve ever attended, the New York club tied it on Rodriguez’s homer, benefitted from a horrible call in rightfield, staved off bases loaded and none out on Robertson’s pitching, and got the winning run on Teixeira’s parabola off the top of the left field wall.

But they won it because Nick Swisher proved me a liar with a beautifully executed play on an inattentive Carlos Gomez in the fourth inning, and because of how A.J. Burnett pitched in the litmus test for his post-season reliability. As Delmon Young busted it for home on Matt Tolbert’s single, Gomez over-ran second, Swisher threw a dart behind him, and he was retired before Young could cross the plate with what would have been the game’s first run. Burnett walked five and hit two – but wriggled out by giving up only three hits and stranding eight of the runners. My 11-year old nephew, attending the first post-game season of his life, stated with confidence after Burnett got one of his six strikeouts, “that was some slider!”
So the Yankee outfield defense already exceeded expectations in terms of plays back to the infield or the plate, and Burnett probably did the same. Meanwhile the Twins’ chances are not only bad enough, but what is wrong with Joe Nathan?
Saturday I would expect the Cardinals to avoid elimination (and perhaps as my pal Joe Magrane suggests, rally to beat the Dodgers behind the second starts of Carpenter and Wainwright) and the Rockies and Phillies continue to move to their inevitable fifth game back in Philadelphia.
BABE RUTH FILM UPDATE
I’ll go into this in a future post but it appears the Hall of Fame agrees with me, that film is from the A’s-Yankees doubleheader of September 9, 1928, with more than 85,000 in attendance (and probably filmed more for that reason, than for the presence of Ruth).
Some additional notes: I got it wrong, the Yankees began to wear numbers not in 1931 but 1929, thus 1928 is also the latest the film could be. And MLB Productions got it wrong, that is 
not Lou Gehrig following Ruth to the plate, but the lankier, righthanded hitting Bob Meusel. And even the Hal was wrong. Photo ID whiz Tom Shieber was also inspired to look at a panoramic photo that has always been marked “1928 World Series” that, like the Ruth film, showed no holiday or Series ceremonial bunting hanging anywhere in the ballpark. As of now they have re-marked it to date to the A’s-Yanks doubleheader – Shieber also notes that the socks of the visiting players in their picture don’t look like those worn by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1928, but like the A’s.
Socks. And you think I’m nuts.
The Times may be doing more on this little bit of historical sleuthing. In the interim, everybody wanted to correct an impression that MLB Productions was “stumped” by the film – it was more that they were looking to open up the archaeology dig to fans.

AND FINALLY:
Yes, it’s true. Bill O’Reilly and I in the same place at the same time, in the Yankee suites restaurant, and then three rows and seven seats apart. No one was injured, and everybody had a good time.
And to everybody who’s asked about my Dad – thank you, and he thanks you. Got in several hours with him before the Mental Vacation in the Bronx, and several late tonight. They keep throwing him spitballs and curves and he fouls them off as adroitly as Richie Ashburn in his prime. His main issues have all but been resolved, it’s now just a sequence of complications. But he keeps fouling them away and hanging in there. 
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