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Lessons Learned in MLB Division Series

When the playoffs began, it seemed as though the prevailing attitude was a mix of how unbelievably awful the umpiring was to how unbelievably awesome Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum were.

These were all legitimates praises and concerns but as the umpiring improved to the point where they weren’t making national news, it was still apparent that quality pitching was king as each series came to a close.

Now with the Division Series wrapped up, I wanted to take a quick look to see how each one played out and if any sort of predictive value can be estimated as we move forward.

Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees:

Watching this series it became apparent that quality platoon splits can be vital in a short series. New York’s tandem of using Marcus Thames against opposing lefties while Lance Berkman saw action against righties was successful for the most part. Both came up with key home runs that helped push the Yankees ahead while the Twins were left at a disadvantage with players like Jason Kubel and Jim Thome against opposing left-handers (Kubel is .236/.313/.352 in his career vs. left-handers; Thome is .238/.339/.424). Looking over the limitations of the Twins lineup, it wouldn’t be fair for me to ignore the contributions of right-handed hitters like Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Danny Valencia but having another right-handed OF/DH bat with the ability to slug around .450 would have made a difference.

Looking at the Yankees starters both Andy Pettite and Phil Hughes surprised me with their dominating performances. Kudos to Hughes for keeping his fly balls in check, he only allowed six while averaging 9.4 per start. In Game 1, CC Sabathia struggled to get his sinker down and relied heavily on his curveball rather than his slider to get left-handers out. It will be interesting to see how Sabathia follows up on Friday.

I can’t help but think how much differently this series would have played if Cliff Lee became a Twin (Minnesota fans can blame Seattle’s GM, Jack Zduriencik, for not seeing Wilson Ramos as a cornerstone major league catcher) and if Justin Morneau would have positioned his head differently in his slide into second base against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 7. As this article at Fangraphs states: it’s ridiculous to play the game of blaming “mental blocks” and “big city intimidation” when comparing the recent playoff history between these two teams. Players come and go, lineups change and timely injuries all have to be factored in.

As the Yankees move forward, it will be interesting to see how AJ Burnett will be factored in. Assuming like everyone else, Joe Girardi will pencil him in as the fourth starter but I have a feeling he’ll be skipped unless the Yankees find themselves up 3-0 in the series.

Also, I’m interested to see how the Yankees utilize their bullpen against the Rangers. Despite doing his best Tom Gordon 2004 impression, Kerry Wood’s regular season walk rate of 6.23 did rear its ugly head last Saturday in the final game against the Twins as he struggled with his command. It would be wise to find some high-leverage situations for Joba Chamberlain. His slider has been very effective this season and he would match well against right-handed hitters Michael Young, Vlad Guerrero and Nelson Cruz.

Finally, announcers still love Mariano Rivera… Of course, Rivera has earned the right of having his postseason career celebrated but how successful can he really be now that he has morphed into a pitch-to-contact closer? Just a thought…

Cincinnati Reds vs. Philadelphia Phillies:

So far, it’s been nothing but pitching that has the Phillies named as National League favorites. \ Halladay was near-perfect and Cole Hamels has, so far, been successful in erasing his 2009 postseason performance from the minds of Phillies fans.

Looking over Roy Oswalt’s performance, he kept a lot of his pitches up and hovering over too much of the plate. Brandon Phillips’ first-inning home run was off a 2-1 slider – that refused to slide and stayed in the middle of the plate; a few batters later he threw that same slider to lefty Joey Votto but was luckily fouled off. Despite being credited for three runs in five innings, things could have been much worse but Oswalt did regain his command toward the end and was able to spot his pitches on the outer part of the plate.

The Phillies can still be brought down by quality left-handed pitching. Dusty Baker’s decision to not start Travis Wood would probably be second guessed (although I’m not sure how well that would have changed things if he was penciled in to start Game 1 against Halladay). Collectively, the Phillies hit .260/.330/.411 against southpaw starters this season. Despite Aroldis Chapman’s nightmarish Game 2 appearance, Reds left-handers held the Phillies offense to zero earned runs, while only walking one batter and striking out seven in 6.1 innings pitched. However, the Phillies offense has been in a rut as of late with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley leading the team batting average with .273 apiece.

As the Phillies move forward, I’m expecting their rotation to continue dominating. However the Giants have hit well against the Phillies in six games with a line of .290/.324/.463 to even up at three wins apiece.

Joe Blanton will be added to the mix but he may only make two total appearances provided they make it to the World Series. Blanton has only faced the Giants once this season at home on Aug. 18. He pitched well going 6.1 innings and walking none while striking out seven. He did, however, give up two HRs, one to Andres Torres and another to Pat Burrell.

Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants:

The goat of this series has to be Atlanta second baseman Brooks Conrad. If Martin Prado didn’t injure his hip and tear an oblique muscle, Conrad would have been relegated to pinch-hitting duty (he did post a respectable line of .250/.324/.487 in 177 plate appearances). Yet the Braves did score among one of the worst defensive teams in 2010 and putting Conrad up as their poster boy probably isn’t fair but that’s what happens in a high-pressure short series.

The Giants displayed a rotation arguably as good as the Phillies' front three. Tim Lincecum didn’t throw a no-hitter but his Game 1 performance easily ranks up there with Halladay’s gem. Matt Cain keeps surprising me as I always keep calling for the Giants to trade him from my position as arm-chair GM. Luckily for Giants fans this postseason, I don’t have Brian Sabean’s office number among my saved contacts.

Jonathan Sanchez seems to be have been the recipient of a little luck this season but I wouldn’t have known it based on his Game 3 performance. Sanchez’s miniscule ERA of 1.01 during the month of September was aided by a 94 percent strand rate and a BABIP at .202. In seven innings he kept the Braves to just two hits while only walking one and striking out 11. Sanchez was able to keep his fastball away from right-handers while commanding his curveball to get left-handers out.

Overall the Giants bullpen was effective but Sergio Romo’s inability to command his slider is worrisome. Romo did make two appearances before Bruce Bochy decided to hand Game 4's slim lead over to Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez before Brian Wilson recorded the save. The Giants do have a stable of very capable bullpen arms so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

The Braves deserve a lot of credit. For reasons of keeping this article somewhat manageable, I’ve tried to mostly focus on the winning teams but the Giants easily beat out their Georgian opponents in just about every facet.

Moving forward, Sanchez will be a cornerstone in this rotation as they face the Phillies. Sanchez does come with a high BB rate (4.47) and his fly ball rate of 43.7 percent does tell us that he could fall into trouble but he is scheduled to start in San Francisco so that should help. Lincecum’s filthy changeup should give the Phillies all kinds of fits. He tends to throw this pitch almost equally to righties and lefties and with the Phillies ranking near the bottom against changeups in terms of pitch values provided by Fangraphs, things could get hairy for the favored Phils.

Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays:

I’ll admit to being on the fence concerning both of these teams, both were evenly matched and I wasn’t surprised to see this go five games.

In terms of individual players, the Rangers do have an advantage at the top of their rotation with Lee and CJ Wilson slightly edging out Tampa Bay’s David Price and James Shields. Cliff Lee was excellent in both of his starts while I admit to being surprised by how effective Wilson was on the road.

Looking at advanced numbers, I did applaud Joe Maddon’s decision to start Shields in Game 2. Shields ended 2010 with an excellent K/BB ratio of 3.74, his home runs allowed were a bit out of line this season with a HR/FB percentage of 13.8 percent coupled with a manageable fly ball rate of only 38.5 percent. In his Game 2 start, Shields abandoned his troublesome curveball and managed to hold the Rangers offense with a combination of fastballs away and excellent changeup. The major mistake Shields made was a fastball over the middle of the plate in the fourth inning to Ian Kinsler, he crushed that for a solo home run. The next inning played out pretty much how Shields could expect it: catcher Matt Treanor got hit by a mishandled change, Elvis Andrus gets a fastball over the middle of the plate and shoots a groundball into the outfield. Shields is then pulled for Chad Qualls and watches as the umpires blow a check swing call against Michael Young allowing him to see another pitch which he clobbers over the center field wall for a home run.

Watching Texas advance to the ALCS is pretty remarkable given how different this team is compared to Opening Day. In April, the Rangers started with Scott Feldman and Rich Harden at the top of their rotation while Chris Davis manned first base (at least until Justin Smoak would be ready) and the catcher position was a battle between Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden.

The Rangers did make a lot of gutsy moves throughout the season. Lee was vital in making them a championship team and the decision to stabilize their position at catcher with Bengie Molina was necessary. Also, right-handed bats for hire like Jorge Cantu and Jeff Franceour can be debated (although I like to think of them more as pawns keeping left-handed pitchers honest) but the gutsiest has to be the decision to make Wilson a starter.

As Game 2 progressed, Wilson got stronger. He will struggle with his command at times since many of his pitches tend to tail down or come in (especially against left-handed hitters). Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the Yankees match up against him. In his career, Yankees have hit .233/.353/.329 obviously these are skewed since he was brought in as a left-handed reliever in most of these situations. During this season, in three total starts, the Yanks have fared a bit better with a line of .300/.408/.350.

One last observation, the Rangers need to change batting spots between Young and \ Kinsler. Young is obviously having trouble handling pitches away. In 20 at-bats, Young has only three hits (including his controversial home run) and it would serve the Rangers offense a bit better to have Kinsler further up, especially if Andrus struggles.

And, finally, these umpires sure blew a lot of calls!

Looking at the Division Series as a whole, I feel as though I should address the blown calls that were alarmingly frequent during the early stages of play. After Young’s home run sailed over the center field wall in Game 2 at Tampa Bay, a chorus of voices calling for “instant replay” could be heard.

If Major League Baseball did implement some sort of “Instant Replay”, similar to what is used in the NFL, would it have corrected these obvious mistakes? I don’t want to dwell too long on this subject since this topic seems better served in a more comprehensive study but let’s take a look at the top five blown calls during the Division Series (in no particular order):

1. Greg Golson’s “trap” during Game 1 between the Yankees and Twins

2. Young’s “check swing” which replay clearly showed was a strike out but led to a two-run home run immediately afterwards in Game 2.

3. Utley’s “hit by pitch” against Chapman in Game 3.

4. Buster Posey’s “stolen base” in Game 1.

5. Berkman’s “ball three” pitch against Carl Pavano which later led to a decisive two-run home run in Game 2.

If there was a rule allowing managers to “challenge” the ruling of the assigned umpires, I’m sure a limit would be placed on how many times this could be used in a game. Since it’s hard to imagine the kind of penalty placed upon a manager if the ruling isn’t reversed (the NFL doesn’t play as an easy comp since no time clock plays a role in baseball), let’s just say each manager is given only one opportunity to challenge.

Obviously, Greg Golson’s trap would have been challenged since that was the final out of the game (no point in giving the Twins “four outs” since the next batter, Thome, would have represented the tying run), but I’m not sure that the other calls would have warranted a single challenge: Young’s check swing occurred in the middle of the game with the Rangers up 2-0. Posey’s stolen base occurred in the fourth inning with no outs (Burrell went down swinging during the play). Utley’s grant to take first would have been up to Ramon Hernandez to argue and ask for the Reds to challenge. And, lastly, the non-call against Berkman would have remained the same since I doubt instant replay will ever ask a home plate umpire to review balls and strikes.

Realistically, I have a hard time seeing where instant replay would fit. Under the scenario I just offered, only one out of the five major “blown calls” would have had a probable chance of being reversed. It’s obvious blown calls do put a blemish on the game and with everything further amplified as we narrow down to less teams, I don’t see a quick fix except for umpires to keep trying to look for ways to improve and correct their mistakes.

Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.

Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.


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