Thoughts on the latest installments from this wild playoff season, live from Montreal, where schadenfreude is alive and well.
It’s possible (maybe even likely) that no change Joe Girardi makes with his lineup will make the Yankees hit much better.
The postseason creates unique player-evaluation challenges for managers, even analytically inclined managers. Let’s use Robinson Cano as an example. The Yankees second baseman who also typically doubles as the team’s best hitter is in a huge slump; his 26 straight hitless at-bats makes that the longest such streak in Yankees playoff history and also the longest for a single postseason. Still, as Baseball Prospectus author Paul Sporer noted, Cano hit .615 over the final nine games of the regular season (24-for-39). Add those two samples up and you get a .369 batting average.
Of course Cano’s current hitless streak carries a lot more weight, given that it’s come in the playoffs and that captain Derek Jeter is out after breaking his ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1. So Joe Girardi must now figure out if this is just an extreme case of small-sample misery, or if there’s something deeper at work here, be it a swing-path issue, a hidden injury, or some deep-down lack of confidence or fortitude that’s causing Cano to choke. Even if you arrive at the most likely conclusion that it’s just statistical noise, a manager must then try to guess when that kind of slump might stop, and what it might take to end the slump (short of simply waiting, which again probably makes the most sense). The good news: The Yankees are resorting to trying to bunt with sluggers like Cano. But they are starting to take ill-advised risks in the name of manufacturing runs, such as sending 40-year-old Raul Ibanez in a hit-and-run situation, then having him get gunned down at first.
The Yanks don’t have anything approaching a viable Plan B for Cano, a player who was closer in regular-season value this season to Miguel Cabrera than Cabrera was to Mike Trout. Since you can’t replace Cano, you shift to other pine candidates such as Curtis Granderson (3-for-26 with 14 strikeouts in this year’s playoffs, but probably not benchable versus a righty batter unless Brett Gardner magically became completely healthy overnight) or Nick Swisher (4-for-26, one extra-base hit in this year’s playoffs, at times horrenderous defense, and the lowest postseason OPS for any player with as many plate appearances, save for Alfonso Soriano).
Which brings us back to our pal Alex Rodriguez, who’s now 0-for-18 with 12 strikeouts against righty pitchers this postseason. Small-sample noise, or the sign of something bigger? Rodriguez’s .717 OPS versus right-handed pitching this year, combined with the closing stretch of 51 games (just under one-third of a season), in which he hit just five homers, and overall concerns about his age (37) might point to the bench as the most logical spot for A-Rod against Verlander in Game 3. On the other hand, maybe you see that the Yankees are leaving the comfort of Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch, thus negating part of the advantage of starting a lefty batter over Rodriguez. Or you see that A-Rod was 4-for-6 with two homers against Justin Verlander this year, then wage a holy war in your own mind between the overwhelming (and probably correct) urge to write off those six at-bats as way too small a sample to matter, versus allowing for the idea that maybe Rodriguez sees a certain kind of pitch better than others do (say, ultra-fast fastballs like Verlander’s, or a nasty curve like Verlander’s), and make a decision accordingly. You must also recognize that the playoffs don’t allow all the time for regression toward the mean the way the regular season does.
So when you get right down to it, how people evaluate the decision to start A-Rod or Eric Chavez in Game 3 will likely boil down to one game, maybe three or four at-bats. That microscopic sample, which would likely be examined while failing to consider the dozens of other variables that could be in play, might then be used to pass judgment on Girardi’s soundness as a manager. And that’s before we get to a manager’s off-field contributions, many of them either difficult or impossible to objectively quantify.
Can of corn, right?
Justin Verlander has help.
As tempting as it may be to heap all the blame on the Yankees’ slumping hitters, Detroit’s starting pitchers deserve their share of credit, too. Anibal Sanchez limited New York to three hits Sunday night, striking out seven and shutting out the Yankees over seven innings. That made it four straight games in which Tigers starters hadn’t allowed a single earned run — a streak of 29 innings pitched overall. As much press as Verlander gets for being the best pitcher in the league two years running, the Tigers probably wouldn’t be where they are without the three starters they’ve acquired in trade over the past three years. Max Scherzer (11.1 Wins Above Replacement over the past three seasons) led a haul that also included Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth, more than justifying the December 2009 trade of Curtis Granderson. Doug Fister (57-to-5 strikeout rate with Detroit last year following the Tigers’ deadline deal with Seattle; 137 strikeouts vs. 37 walks this year) and Sanchez have ably filled out the rest of the team’s front four. The Yankees haven’t scored a single run in the first two games of the LCS outside of Jose Valverde’s four-run meltdown in the ninth inning of Game 1. A Verlander versus Phil Hughes matchup in Game 3 back in Detroit gives the Tigers a golden opportunity to seize a 3-0 stranglehold on the series.
The Tigers may have finally figured out their bullpen mess too.
It was bad enough when Valverde ceded a two-run homer to Ichiro in the ninth inning of Game 1, wiping out the Tigers’ chance for a shutout. That Tigers manager Jim Leyland stuck with Valverde after that and watched him give up a game-tying homer to Raul Ibanez, given Papa Grande’s loss of command and nosedive in velocity both in the playoffs and late in the regular season, speaks to most managers’ slavish adherence to bullpen roles, particularly those of closers. After Phil Coke blazed through the Yankees order Sunday in locking down a two-inning save, reporters asked Leyland if he’d settled on a new closer. The Tigers skipper denied the idea, saying he’d go with the best matchups on a night-to-night basis. With setup man Joaquin Benoit having his own struggles this season with the long ball, the Tigers aren’t exactly flush with trustworthy bullpen arms at the moment. All the more reason to tailor each of these non-elite relievers’ appearances to specific opposing batters and situations.
Please stop with the attendance tropes.
You want to write a meaningful piece about attendance and stadium atmosphere? How about the next time a player says something like, “This is a very easy place to play now” (Quintin Berry, in reference to Yankee Stadium), don’t just take him at his word. First, find out how Quintin Berry could possibly be such an expert on Yankee Stadium fan-related park effects, given he’d never played a playoff game or even a regular-season game at the new yard in the Bronx, or the old one. Then see if we can find evidence that smaller opposing home crowds or even quieter stadiums lead to higher winning percentages for road teams. Without actual statistical proof, obsessing over a team’s attendance shortfalls still boils down to concern trolling. And that’s leaving aside the unsavory notion of judging private citizens based on how they choose to spend, or not spend, money.
You could argue that no unit on any team has improved more in the past year and a half than the Cardinals’ bullpen.
When the Cardinals traded talented young outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto last summer, there appeared to be three motivations in play: (1) appeasing powerful manager Tony La Russa, (2) the notion that Rasmus might never fully make good on his substantial potential, for reasons ranging from the holes in his swing to possible makeup issues (which may well have been La Russa’s imagination more than anything), (3) addressing the Cardinals’ major need for big-league-ready arms, specifically in the bullpen. Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski did give St. Louis’s relief corps a lift down the stretch and into the playoffs last year. But the biggest improvements for the team’s pen were largely organic, with talented young pitchers such as Jason Motte and Fernando Salas taking on higher-leverage roles and thriving in them.
This year, Mitchell Boggs has been the token in-house improver, taking on eighth-inning set work, with in-season trade pickup Edward Mujica frequently tackling the seventh. Overall, the new bullpen group has been excellent so far, with a 1.76 team ERA. After the Giants jumped on Lance Lynn for four innings in a chaotic fourth inning Sunday night, the St. Louis pen came through with 5⅓ innings of no-run, no-hit ball.
Carlos Beltran: playoff hero to everyone except Mets fans (and they’re wrong).
The switch-hitting outfielder’s 14th career playoff homer in 29 games helped push the Cards to their 6-4 win over the Giants Sunday. At this point, Beltran’s .370/.481/.824 career playoff line ranks with baseball’s all-time legends, even Babe Ruth.
Still, there’s a pocket of Mets fans who believe Beltran was a colossal bust in New York, with much of that problem the result of getting frozen on a terrific curveball by then-closer Adam Wainwright. This is insane. Though he did hit a relatively modest .278 between the 2006 NLDS and NLCS, Beltran also rang up a .422 on-base percentage and .556 slugging average for those two series, clubbing a two-run homer that drove in the only runs of the game in the Mets’ 2-0 Game 1 NLCS win over St. Louis. It’s certainly possible that Beltran’s playoff heroics prove to be as big an aberration as Cano’s nasty struggles and that a larger sample of at-bats could help even things out. But for now, you can’t ding Beltran for his postseason output in any one place not even in Flushing, Queens.
The Giants’ starting pitching was once their overwhelming strength. It isn’t anymore.
Tim Lincecum’s woes have been well documented, and The Freak has found new life pitching in middle relief. The latest concern is Madison Bumgarner. The team’s nominal no. 2 starter this October got spanked for six runs on eight hits in just 3⅔ innings Sunday, forcing Bruce Bochy to dig into his bullpen depth. Bumgarner’s previous start wasn’t much better, a 4⅓-inning affair in which the big lefty yielded four runs to Cincinnati. Bumgarner has now allowed four or more runs in seven of his past nine starts, counting the playoffs and late regular season.
soon? In the relatively near future?
Irrespective of how the game ended or of the Yankees’ more pressing offensive problems, you can’t let a call like Jeff Nelson’s safe ruling on Omar Infante trying to scramble back to the bag at second happen unless your priorities are ludicrously off-base. A call that could be reversed in 30 seconds with the simplest replay technology is unreviewable by the current laws of the land. Pull a teeny-tiny sliver of the $12.4 billion you’re getting from the latest record TV contract to implement the needed technology and assuage the umpires union if you must. But don’t keep selling us this bill of goods, which allows any 3-year-old with a Twitter account to see through a blitz of GIFs how you have absolutely zero credibility in this area.
At a time when so many other things are going so well for baseball, the sport’s pathological resistance to changing the way games get officiated remains one of its biggest black eyes.