Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thoughts on the Series

- Congratulations, Phillies and Philly fans. It's been 28 years since your last championship, so you're right on schedule.

The history books will list this as a 4-1 victory, which looks like a blowout, but the series was anything but. Four of the games were decided by 2 runs or less, three by only one run. These were two evenly matched teams, and it could have gone seven games with just a few breaks.

- My Phillies phan phriend Kevin was very upset that umpires and the commissioner waited until after the Rays tied the score in game 4 before suspending it. If it had been a regular season game, they would have suspended it after the 5th inning, when the game became official, which would have given the game and the series to the Phillies. But I think it would have been a travesty to end the World Series with a rain-shortened game, so I think they ultimately made the right choice. It would have been really interesting to know what Selig would have done had the Rays not tied it. Lucky for him, they did, and also lucky for him, the Phils went on to win the game anyway. It was the best possible outcome for Selig in terms of saving face. (Whether his face deserves saving is another matter. I would prefer never to see his face again.)

- That wild pitch/error play in the ninth inning of game three (which led to the famous five-man infield) was clearly the turning point of the series. With the Phils at home, they still would have had the edge in winning the game, but the Rays basically giftwrapped it for them. If the Rays had won game 3, they would have had a 2-1 series lead and who knows what would have happened.

- The biggest disappointment of the series was the play of Scott Kazmir. He was the AL's strikeout leader last year, but this year he started the season on the DL and I don't think he ever fully recovered from his injury. He was inconsistent throughout the season, and in the playoffs, he just didn't have his best stuff. He was wild and threw a lot of pitches in his two short outings. I'm sure he's wishing for a mulligan.

- Cole Hamels is only 24 years old and already a World Series MVP. He played the role of Josh Beckett this year. He pitched a lot of innings this season, so the question remains whether he can avoid the injuries that seem to affect every young pitcher these days.

- The 2002 draft, which produced both Hamels and Kazmir, is looking pretty amazing right now. Among the other players drafted in the first round were B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, and Matt Cain. (This was the famous Moneyball draft, but all the A's got out of it really were Swisher and Blanton; none of their other picks really amounted to much.*)
*They also drafted Jonathan Papelbon in the 40th round but didn't sign him.

- The Phillies will have a much easier time repeating in the NL East than the Rays will in the AL East.
That's about all I have for now about the 2008 season. Upcoming posts in the blog will include book reviews and history lessons to help us pass the time until pitchers and catchers report in early February.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Update on 5-man infield

My most loyal reader (Dad) alerted me to an article in the New York Times about Rays' manager Joe Maddon's use of the five-man infield. Money quote:

The Rays have already tried it twice this season, Zobrist said, against the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 9 and the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 24. Zobrist was the fifth infielder in Seattle, posted behind second base. The strategy paid off, and the Rays used a double play to end the 10th before winning in the 11th.

That's the kind of info it would have been nice for Tim McCarver to mention during the broadcast. Sure, you can't expect him to know everything about every strategy used by the Rays during the season. But he's been in baseball for 50 years--50 years! Did he ever see the strategy employed in any game he's ever seen? He didn't say a thing about that.

Anyway, I have to say that I've never seen the strategy in action, and I love watching something I've never seen before. It reminds me of the famous moment about 10 years ago when the Diamondbacks, nursing a 2-run lead, walked Barry Bonds with the bases loaded to bring home a run. I was watching that live and I remember shouting at the TV, "Wow! WOW!" In that particular case, it was an event that hadn't happened since the 1940s, and though I didn't know that history, I really felt I was witnessing history in the making.

Same with Saturday night's event. I hope something similar happens at least one more time this World Series.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Walk-off hits in the World Series

I just finished watching the Phils beat the Rays in Game 3 of the Series. Lucky, for me I live on the west coast, where it was only 10:48 when the game ended. Gotta hand it to the Phils fans for sticking it out. I didn't see an empty seat in the house. (Insert cheap Los Angeles Dodgers fans joke here.)

A couple of observations:

- I've never seen a five-man infield, and I got the sense that Tim McCarver hadn't either. He's such a useless analyst that he never even bothered to analyze the tactic. The most he could muster was that he had never seen the maneuver in the World Series before. Well what about a regular-season game, Tim? Could you maybe talk about the pros and cons? No? Well then what good are you?

- That had to be the cheapest walk-off hit in the history of the World Series. Carlos Ruiz barely got his bat on that ball.

The final play got me wondering about how often World Series games end on walk-off plays. I actually did some research into this a few months ago for a book project I was working on, but walk-off plays are more common than you think in the post-season. We all remember Kirk Gibson, Bill Mazeroski, Joe Carter, Luis Gonzalez...

But do you remember Jose Vizcaino of the Yankees singling off Turk Wendell to win Game One of the 2000 World Series? Or Alex Gonzales homering off Jeff Weaver to win Game Four for Florida over New York in 2003?

I didn't, until I checked out's amazing Play Index. You can do a search for a bunch of different criteria, but they have a handy link that displays all 103 Walk-Off Hits in Post-Season Play (now 104).

In case you're too lazy to click the link, the all-time leader in career walk-off plays in the post-season is... David Ortiz, with 3. And the greatest post-season in history (based on the number of walk-off plays) was 2004.

Welcome to the club, Carlos Ruiz.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is Game 1 a must-win game?

Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus blogged today about the relative importance of Game 1 toward winning a World Series. He writes:

Winning the first game of a World Series is a strong indicator of future success. The last five World Series have been won by the Game One victor, and all-time, the winner of the first game is 63-40 in the Series.

But is it more important to win Game 2 than Game 1? Let's take a look at the World Series since 1980:

1980: Game 1 winner-Phillies; Game 2 winner-Phillies; World Series winner-Phillies
1981: Game 1 winner-Yankees; Game 2 winner-Yankees; World Series winner-Dodgers
1982: Game 1 winner-Brewers; Game 2 winner-Cardinals; World Series winner-Cardinals
1983: Game 1 winner-Phillies; Game 2 winner-Orioles; World Series winner-Orioles
1984: Game 1 winner-Tigers; Game 2 winner-Padres; World Series winner-Tigers
1985: Game 1 winner-Cardinals; Game 2 winner-Cardinals; World Series winner-Royals
1986: Game 1 winner-Red Sox; Game 2 winner-Red Sox; World Series winner-Mets
1987: Game 1 winner-Twins; Game 2 winner-Twins; World Series winner-Twins
1988: Game 1 winner-Dodgers; Game 2 winner-Dodgers; World Series winner-Dodgers
1989: Game 1 winner-A's; Game 2 winner-A's; World Series winner-A's
1990: Game 1 winner-Reds; Game 2 winner-Reds; World Series winner-Reds
1991: Game 1 winner-Twins; Game 2 winner-Twins; World Series winner-Twins
1992: Game 1 winner-Braves; Game 2 winner-Blue Jays; World Series winner-Blue Jays
1993: Game 1 winner-Blue Jays; Game 2 winner-Phillies; World Series winner-Blue Jays
1995: Game 1 winner-Braves; Game 2 winner-Braves; World Series winner-Braves
1996: Game 1 winner-Braves; Game 2 winner-Braves; World Series winner-Yankees
1997: Game 1 winner-Marlins; Game 2 winner-Indians; World Series winner-Marlins
1998: Game 1 winner-Yankees; Game 2 winner-Yankees; World Series winner-Yankees
1999: Game 1 winner-Yankees; Game 2 winner-Yankees; World Series winner-Yankees
2000: Game 1 winner-Yankees; Game 2 winner-Yankees; World Series winner-Yankees
2001: Game 1 winner-DBacks; Game 2 winner-DBacks; World Series winner-DBacks
2002: Game 1 winner-Giants; Game 2 winner-Angels; World Series winner-Angels
2003: Game 1 winner-Marlins; Game 2 winner-Yankees; World Series winner-Marlins
2004: Game 1 winner-Red Sox; Game 2 winner-Red Sox; World Series winner-Red Sox
2005: Game 1 winner-White Sox; Game 2 winner-White Sox; World Series winner-White Sox
2006: Game 1 winner-Cardinals; Game 2 winner-Tigers; World Series winner-Cardinals
2007: Game 1 winner-Red Sox; Game 2 winner-Red Sox; World Series winner-Red Sox

OK, we have a lot of data here. Here are the World Series records of each winner:

Winner of Game 1: 19 wins, 8 losses
Winner of Game 2: 18 wins, 9 losses

That tells me that it's just about as important to win Game 2 as it is to win Game 1.

Let's delve a little deeper.

How often does the team that loses Game 1 but wins Game 2 win the Series?

Not very often. Those teams have a record of 3 wins, 6 losses (the winners being the '82 Cardinals, '83 Orioles, and '02 Angels)

How often does the team that wins Game 1 but loses Game 2 go on to win the Series?

About even. Those teams have a record of 5 wins, 4 losses (the winners being the '84 Tigers, '93 Blue Jays, '97 Marlins, '03 Marlins, and '06 Cardinals).

I could go on, analyzing home field advantage, quality of starting pitchers, and so on. But unfortunately, all we're going to discover is that, in a seven-game series, EVERY game is important. It's better to win than to lose.

Sorry the conclusion isn't more enlightening than that.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Did the Rays buck destiny by winning Game 7?

Did the Tampa Bay Rays' victory over the Red Sox last night in Game 7 buck history and destiny? As King Kaufman pointed out in his column today, teams that come back after a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7 usually win the deciding game of the series:

Such teams were 11-3 in seventh games before Sunday and they'd won five straight. The last team that failed to complete the three-game comeback had been the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost the N.L. Championship Series to Atlanta on Sid Bream's dash. Before that you have to go back to Cincinnati in the 1972 World Series to find a team that won Games 5 and 6 only to lose Game 7.

However, if you look at the bigger picture, it's not so clear cut. Here's the bigger picture: Do teams that win Game 6 (to force a Game 7) usually also win Game 7? Another way of putting it is, is there momentum in baseball?

Let's first take a look at the World Series.

Number of seven-game World Series: 36
Number of times the Game 6 winner also won Game 7: 18

Now let's take a look at 7-game League Championship Series (since 1985):

Number of seven-game LCS: 14
Number of times the Game 6 winner also won Game 7: 8

To summarize, out of fifty post-season series that went seven full games, the winner of Game 6 basically split its record in Game 7. (I could also go back and look at the Division Series and the LCS before it expanded to seven games, but I suspect the results will be similar.)

Bottom line: Acknowledging that the small sample size may be an issue, there is NO EVIDENCE of momentum when it comes to post-season baseball. What there is evidence of is this: post-season series that go the distance usually feature evenly matched teams, and when two evenly matched teams split the first six games, then the seventh game usually is decided by luck or home field advantage or some element other than "momentum."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Best Ever: Los Angeles Dodgers

Continuing my long running series on the greatest ever position player and pitcher for every franchise, today I'd like to take a look at one of the remaining playoff teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Truly dedicated readers--that means you, Dad--will remember that I've already profiled other playoff teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs.)

I'm going to split the Dodgers into the Los Angeles period and the Brooklyn period. Today we'll take on the L.A. Dodgers.


Contenders: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton. (Apologies to Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser.)

This one isn't as obvious as it seems. The obvious choice is Sandy Koufax, who dominated baseball from 1962 to 1966 and led the Dodgers to three pennants and two World Series. The thing about Koufax is, he was tough. He pitched in immense pain, he often would pitch on short rest, he pitched tons of innings, his team almost never scored runs for him, yet he still pitched brilliantly and won more games than anyone during his heyday. He finished his career with 165 Dodger wins.

Don Sutton and Don Drysdale, by contrast, weren't as dominant as Koufax, but they had much longer careers. Sutton won 233 games with the Dodgers (324 total), while Drysdale won 209. Those differences compared to Koufax aren't trivial. 68 victories (vs. Sutton) and 44 (vs. Drysdale) are very meaningful indicators of greatness, and a case could be made that, because of his longer career and greater durability, Sutton, not Koufax, was the greatest pitcher in Dodger history.

However, I'm not prepared to make that case. I'm going to stick with the obvious choice, Koufax, because of his peak value, his clutch performances (especially in the 1963 and 1965 World Series and in the 1965 and 1966 pennant races), and his absolute dominance for five+ years.


Contenders: Steve Garvey, Mike Piazza, Maury Wills

If Piazza had played with the Dodgers more than six years, he would be the clear choice as the greatest position player in L.A. Dodgers history. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons that, even 10 years later, don't make much sense, the Dodgers shipped him to Florida and thus traded away the greatest hitting catcher of all time. He spent more time as a Met than as a Dodger, and I think when I do this for the Mets, I'll probably pick Mike Piazza as the greatest Met ever. I don't want to choose him for two teams, so I'm going to leave him with the Mets.

That leaves Garvey and Wills. (Full disclosure: Garvey was my favorite player when I was a kid. In Little League, I chose number 6, and I imitated his batting stance. As an adult, I saw him in the Salt Lake City airport and was too nervous to approach him.) Garvey was a hitting machine. From 1974 to 1980, he averaged over 200 hits per year and slugged 20-30 home runs to boot. He almost never got hurt, putting together a consecutive games streak that reached 1,207. He didn't walk much, so his sabermetric numbers don't look so hot today, but during his prime, he was pretty much feared and respected by everybody. In fact, I would guess that most contemporary observers would have expected him to make the Hall of Fame by now. He's not, of course, and I don't think he deserves induction. He just misses the cut.

Maury Wills is another player who has missed the cut for the Hall of Fame. He's an interesting player. He helped reintroduce stolen bases to baseball when he nabbed 104 in the 1962 season, an unheard-of number at the time. Though he didn't play full time until the age of 27, he still amassed 2,134 hits (1,732 for L.A.). The negatives: his on-base percentages were atrocious. In spite of all the steals and hits, he only scored 100 runs in a season twice... partly because his Dodger teammates weren't very good at driving him in, mostly because his best on-base percentage was .355, not good for a lead-off hitter. He was pretty good defensively, winning two Gold Gloves, but nobody ever hailed his defense.

The winner: Since it comes down to Garvey and Wills in my book, it's an easy choice to select Steve Garvey as the greatest position player in L.A. Dodgers history.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blog vacation is over

Sorry for the blog vacation last week. I took the family to Disneyland and Legoland, which means I missed most of the baseball games last week. However, I did watch the last two Sox-Angels games. Those were tense, hard-fought games, and I hope the Rays-Red Sox series at least matches the tension.

It is unimaginably great for the baseball fan in me to see the Rays in the post-season and the Yankees watching from home -- though New York fans and many casual fans would disagree. I mentioned to my wife that there was a possibility that the World Series would feature the Rays and Brewers, and she wondered why anybody would even bother.

Even though TV ratings would stink if the Rays beat the Sox, it's still great for the game when a team can come back from last place in the toughest division in baseball to win at least a share of the pennant. It (temporarily) shuts up all the whiners who claim that their teams "can't compete against the big-money franchises" because they don't have a huge TV deal or they don't have a new stadium.

Not that people will ever stop whining. And guess what? It's going to get worse. With the new Yankee Stadium, the Bombers are going to rake in even more revenue and buy up even more free agents. It's going to make them competitive for at least a generation. But as we saw this year, it doesn't guarantee anything. The Yanks haven't won the World Series since 2000.

As a fan, I lean toward the Red Sox and Dodgers, mainly because of the history and tradition of the two franchises. (They met in the 1916 World Series, when Babe Ruth helped pitch the Sox to its second consecutive championship.) Yet if it's the Rays-Phillies, it could help usher in a new era of parity -- or, at least, perceived parity -- in which more teams, as long as they have smart decision-makers, can compete. That's good for the game.