Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hot stove season, plus "other sports".

As soon as the last bit of confetti was cleared from LaSalle Street after the White Sox celebration, the hot stove season officially began. Not surprisingly, all the media attention has shifted east, with Theo Epstein, the Red Sox, and Manny Ramirez being the topics of choice. While it looks like Epstein will return, Ramirez has reiterated the trade request he made earlier this year. Given his contract, ($57 million due over the next 3 years), the Red Sox will be all too willing to accomodate him. But the only reason we even know about this trade demand is because of a leak in the Boston organization. They are understandably peeved about this, because they will lose leverage. They can get some of it back by picking up most of his salary, but that sort of defeats the purpose of the trade.

Who should trade for Manny? At first glance, I say the OC Angels or the Twins, if most of that salary is paid. The Twins would probably have to give up Scott Baker, one of their top pitching prospects, but that's a good price to pay when getting someone of Manny's offensive caliber. His lack of defense wouldn't be an issue because he would either DH or be covered for in left or right by Torii Hunter's ability. Anaheim would be more willing to take on salary, and given owner Arte Moreno' s strategy for selling the Angels to the Hispanic population, I can definitely see him making a run at Manny. I'm not sure who they could give Boston in return, though if I were Boston I'd ask for John Lackey or Ervin Santana. Given the lack of quality on the free agent market this year, the Ramirez trade will likely be transaction that represents the biggest shift in the balance of power.

I attended the Northwestern vs. Michigan game last night, in the hopes of witnessing another Instant Classic like the 54-51 game from 2000. For a Northwestern fan, last night's game couldn't have been any different. After having shredded defenses with a good mixture of run and pass all season, NU turned into a one-dimensional passing offense; they only ran 17 rushing plays all night. They were also uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball. Basanez threw only his 2nd and 3rd interceptions of the year, but both were a result of poor routes by veteran receivers Shaun Herbert and Mark Philmore. These were the kind of mistakes you'd expect from rookies, and while the players certainly have to take some blame, I'm not letting Randy Walker off the hook either. Whether they were overconfident or nervous is only for him to know, but he did not prepare them well enough for handling the pressure of being a home favorite, something this team is definitely not used to. The coaching staff also made some very questionable play calls. They fell in love with the wide receiver bubble screen at very inopportune times, such as when they were losing by two touchdowns and facing 3rd and 12 in their own territory. Not the time for the bubble screen guys. Why not run the freakin' ball with Tyrell F. Sutton instead of throwing a bubble screen, and when you want to pass, throw it downfield, which actually didn't work out too badly if the receivers actually ran the correct routes.

Sadly, they laid a complete goose egg on national television and for the homecoming crowd, which was one of the best crowds I've ever seen at an NU game. They still have to beat only Illinois to become bowl eligible, but if they want to stay out of the Motor City, they'll have to beat Iowa at home next week. I just can't see them beating Ohio State in Columbus, not with those linebackers.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

World Champions in...Chicago?

Disjointed thoughts about the 2005 World Series Champions, the Chicago White Sox, written at various intervals while watching post-game interviews and highlights...

-What a fantastic closing game to what was surely the most closely contested World Series sweep of all time. A six run differential over four games is not a lot, but as they had done the entire postseason, the White Sox got the big hits when they needed to, and got consistently good pitching and defense. Freddy Garcia really could not have been better for Chicago, striking guys out whenever he put them on, and Politte and Jenks scraped out of jams as well. The big kudos tonight have to go to Chicago's defense, Juan Uribe in particular. His greatest assets are his range and arm strength, and he showed them both with great aplomb on the last two outs of the game, two outs that will live forever in this city's memory. Rowand and Podsednik also shined, showing how advantageous it is to have two rangy centerfield type players in the outfield.

-There was an air of inevitability through the whole game, even when the excellent Brandon Backe mowed through hitter after hitter. As well as the White Sox pitched, the inevitability had more to do with Houston's feeble bats in Games 3 and 4. It shouldn't be that surprising, given that they finished near the bottom of the National League in runs scored, and was the reason they were 15 games under .500 at one point during the season. In this series they left an astounding number of runners on base, and in the end, it was their downfall.

-This will go down as one of the most memorable World Series for me, because it actually happened where I lived! Though I'm no White Sox fan, it's joyous to see this city I love celebrate its first baseball championship since around when my grandparents were born.

-I'm just pulling this out of the air, but I'm willing to bet this is the first title won by a team with minorities at the general manager and manager posts. Congratulations to Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen, as well as Jerry Reinsdorf, for finally breaking the "old boys" network.

-How many different heroes did the White Sox have in each of these postseason games? It seemed like a new one every night. One had the feeling that whomever drove in the game-winning run in Game 4 would get the MVP. Tonight it happened to be Dye. In my opinion, Joe Crede contributed the most to this team in the World Series with his bat and glove, and Freddy Garcia delivered the best pitching. On a night when going to the bullpen early would have been fatal, Garcia delivered like the workhorse he is. Postseason aside, the most valuable member of this team is Paul Konerko. For an offense to work on so thin a margin for error, it needs one player who is able to deliver big home runs and runs driven in. Look no further than Game 2 of the World Series and Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS for proof of Konerko's value. They'd be crazy not to re-sign him.

-Ultimately, this was a championship team built around run prevention rather than run creation, and all the credit should go to Kenny Williams for building a superior staff of pitchers and defenders at a very low price. They could have used another bat to be sure, but who's to argue with these results? In the type of market with mega teams like the New Yorks and Bostons and LAs shelling out major dollars for superstars, the White Sox built a rotation of solid pitchers who excelled at throwing strikes, and put in a relatively cheap team behind them that could field better than anyone else. This was a true Moneyball team--Williams recognized that defense could be had cheaply, and with a pitching staff this good, having a superior defense combined with an adequate offense was much better than an adequate defense and a superior offense. Just ask the Red Sox and Yankees.

So will future champions look more and more like the '05 White Sox and less like the '04 Red Sox? My money says yes, given that Cleveland and Oakland are constructed very similarly, are young, and have very capable GMs. It would not suprise me in the slightest to see the Athletics and Indians duking it out for AL supremacy over the next half of this decade. In the National League, Florida and Milwaukee could be built to win in this way, although admittedly are a couple more pieces away from being truly in the run prevention mold. What about the bloated teams? I reckon they'll keep on signing older free agents to ridiculous contracts. Sign enough of them, and you just may have the '04 Red Sox. But for teams with limited market share, the 2005 Chicago White Sox are a model example of how to build a championship baseball team.

-This title was richly deserved both for the team and the city that waited for so long. The 2005 White Sox will go down in history as turning in one of the best postseason runs in history; only the 1998 Yankees and 1976 Reds can match them. Though this team obviously was not as dominant as those two, it's fitting that they won the way they had all season--by doing just enough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Roy Oswalt left his right arm--and probably the Astros' hopes--in St. Louis. He didn't look right from the outset. His fastball didn't have the same explosiveness, and he certainly wasn't commanding it as well as he did last Wednesday. Oswalt appeared to settle down, and as the game moved through the 3rd and 4th innings, he started setting up his fastball with his breaking ball. Meanwhile, the Astros built a 4-0 lead by nickeling and dimeing Jon Garland. Oswalt completely lost in the 5th. He was all over the place, and just when he looked like he might get out of it, Jermaine Dye golfed a 3-2 breaking ball into center to cut the lead to 4-3. To me, that was the at bat that broke Oswalt. Terrific hitting by Dye to dunk that one. It was telling that on the previous at bat, Tad Iguchi hit a run-scoring single on a high fastball. Oswalt seemed conscious of this, and switched back to the breaking ball for Dye. Didn't matter. In fact, it's a testament to Oswalt's ability that he was able to escape with only 5 runs allowed, considering he left the bases loaded and gritted through one more inning after that. Was Oswalt's meltdown surprising? Not really. The warning signs were there all game, and the Tim McCarver jinx was in full effect. As soon as he mentioned the 260+ innings Oswalt threw this season, he started to lose it. Without those 260 innings, no way the Astros come close to sniffing the playoffs. Sadly, even for a warrior like Oswalt, that's a few too many. I salute him for his masterful game against St. Louis, and for his perseverance in failure against Chicago.

The White Sox, however, couldn't put the game away, not even against Houston's 4th and 5th relievers, Russ Springer and Mike Gallo. Then Ozzie Guillen almost gave the game away. Mistake the first: not bringing in Neal Cotts to start the 8th. Cotts actually is better against righties than lefties, and even if he does falter, Guillen would have had Cliff Politte, the best righthanded setup man outside of Scot Shields, in reserve. Obviously it was Guillen's plan all along to have Cotts in against Mike Lamb, which makes sense given Lamb's horrid record against lefties. But why not start the inning with Cotts, especially since that forces Lance Berkman to bat righty, where he has been decidedly worse? To top it off, Politte was the second-best pitcher in all of baseball when it came to pitching with inherited runners. Politte prevented 12.5 more runs than the average pitcher when it came to stranding inherited runners. This is all the more reason to start with Cotts and bring in Politte to face Lane.

Mistake the second: with Politte already used, Guillen brought in Dustin Hermanson instead of Bobby Jenks. Guillen claimed he hadn't lost confidence in Jenks, but this move speaks otherwise. To top it off, Hermanson hadn't pitched since September, and has an "unstable spine", which is the reason why Guillen made Jenks the closer in the first place. As Louie and Austin can attest, I uttered "I have a bad feeling about this", and lo and behold, Hermanson couldn't crack 87 on the gun, didn't have command, gave up the game-tying hit to Lane, and was lucky not to give up the game, striking out Brad Ausmus only on a questionable call. Fortunately for Guillen, Jenks showed he hasn't lost anything, and El Duque performed yet another exhilarating high wire escape job. Seems like the guy pitches better with the bases loaded. Kudos also to Luis Vizcaino and Damaso Marte, who hadn't even sniffed the postseason until tonight. These guys would probably be front-end guys on most teams; that they're the back-end on Chicago speaks volumes about the pitching staff that Kenny Williams has assembled.

For proof of this superior construction, look no further than Houston, who lost with Ezequiel Astacio, a poor scrub who had no right being in this game. Credit Geoff Blum for going down to get a decent pitch, but Astacio looked flustered from the moment he stepped on the mound. Why wasn't Roger Clemens or Brandon Backe in the game? There's not much point in saving a starter for tomorrow if you're going to be down 0-3. If I were Garner, I would have brought in one of those two guys, preferably Backe, and pitched Pettitte on 3 days rest on Wednesday. These are the kind of things you have to do in a World Series. Guillen demonstrated his willingness to use his whole pitching staff by bringing in Mark Buehrle to close it. When you lose, you want to lose with your best. By throwing Astacio over Clemens or Backe, Garner lost with his worst.

I wouldn't say that Garner lost this team the game, but he certainly didn't help. In retrospect, leaving in Oswalt to finish the 5th was the right move, if only because he was able to get through the 6th. Still, if I'm Garner, I bring in Mike Gallo to retire Pierzynski, then go Qualls in the 6th, Wheeler in the 7th/8th and Lidge in the 8th/9th. You have to win or lose with your best, and Oswalt clearly wasn't at his best. Garner also had a golden opportunity to squeeze in the winning run in the 9th inning with his two best bunters at the plate, Craig Biggio and Willy Taveras. I can understand not wanting Taveras to bunt, since he'd already blown a sacrifice attempt in the 1st inning. But see, that's where Garner pissed me off. He played for 1 run in the first inning (not surprisingly, that's all he got), but in the situation that does call for 1 run, he doesn't play it that way! I would have been very surprised if a veteran bathandler like Biggio wouldn't have been able to get down a squeeze. That the Astros only got two hits after the 3rd inning makes the decision not to squeeze stand out even more.

I lost some respect for Garner with the way he reacted to his team's failures as well. Tossing the stool after the Blum homer may have just been pure emotion, but it's no way to show support for your team. What the hell do you expect from a kid who had a near 6 ERA this season? It's your fault he's out there anyway! Garner knows his team better than I do. Maybe he knows they'll respond better if he reacts this way. From the outside though, it looks pretty bad.

At least Garner knows what his team's problem is--crappy hitting. You can't really expect to win a game when you only get 8 hits in 15 innings. That they showed patience and walked was encouraging, but you need hits to drive those guys in. After the 3rd inning, Houston only got two hits, both by Jason Lane. From inning 4 through inning 15, only one guy could manage to get a hit? Chicago didn't exactly put on a pitching clinic. The Astros simply just couldn't get it done. That's what makes this such a devastating loss for Houston. The fact that they could have won despite Oswalt's meltdown would have given them untold confidence for Game 4. Now they go in with a manager who has seemingly lost confidence in them and with their worst starter on the mound. Brandon Backe, it's up to you.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Why they play the games

Let's say it's last Friday, and I'm on a World Series quiz show...

Host: For 500 points, which batter on the Houston bench would you least likely want hitting in a clutch situation?
Me: Jose Vizcaino!
Host: Ooooh, I'm sorry, turns out you're DEAD WRONG about that one; Vizcaino handled the bat like Tony Gwynn and drove in the tying runs in the top of the ninth against Bobby Jenks! That's okay though, you still have control of the board.
Me: Okay, I'll take "Sluggers" for 300.
Host: Which batter on the White Sox would you say is least likely to hit a home run to win the game when facing Brad Lidge?
Me: Oh, that's easy! Scott "No Homers" Podsednik!
Host: Wrong again, Podzilla jacked no doubter against Brad "Byung-Hyun" Lidge in the bottom of the ninth to win the game!
Me: What in the hell is going on out here!

God, I love baseball. Though I'm pulling for the White Sox, I couldn't help but have a glow about me when Vizcaino, whom I absolutely pilloried as he was walking up to the plate, served me a hot plate of crow, or foot, or whatever. Gotta love the masterful slide by Chris Burke as well. When he rounded third, I figured he would be out by a mile, and while the ball beat him, he made sure Pierzynski had nothing to tag.

Then came mighty Podzilla. Thing about him is that he hit 12 homers last year, so his 0 tally in this year's regular season was definitely odd. This may be a case of regression (or in this case progression) back to the mean. Still, what a clutch hit. He tattooed that triple last night, and tonight he hit the biggest homer of his life. The reaction of the White Sox dugout was priceless. "Podsednik???"

Is Houston's pitching staff in full-out crisis mode yet? Clemens is hurt and not likely to pitch again, their setup men keep letting guys get on base, and Brad Lidge is close to being a basket case. It happened in the worst possible way as well. Pujols jacked the slider, so Lidge smartly came back with the fastball tonight, only to run into Pods. "What have I got now?" Lidge must be wondering. I'm not sure what he's got. Certainly an extremely damaged psyche, especially since Houston had come back to tie it in the previous inning (very similar to NLCS Game 5). That's got to be the ultimate let down.

The irony of Podsednik's homer is that he was trumpeted as the arrival of "small ball" or "smart ball" or "Ozzie ball" in the offseason. But in this game, just like for most of the season, the White Sox relied on the basics--getting a few guys on base, and hitting home runs. Konerko is inching steadily closer to "scary monster" status; previously I thought he qualified only as "scary". Chicago will be nuts to let him go in the offseason. Unfortunately for Houston, they couldn't get guys on ahead of Ensberg's first contribution in the series. Berkman showed again that he's truly the man to be feared. Though he's not quite as good from the right side, he is still an excellent hitter who has turned into a doubles robot. Back in the cozy confines of Minute Maid, some of those doubles should turn into homers.

Second guessing this game would taint it a little bit for me, especially in light of the fact that one of my immediate second guesses (Vizcaino) ended up so well for Houston. These first two games encompassed everything I thought this series could be. Game 2 was much sloppier than Game 1, but exceeded it in drama. Not a bad way to open the series. Given Houston's penchant for drama at home, we could have a real classic on our hands.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Game 1

This is why I don't trust Roger Clemens. As good as he was early in the year, the 43 year old in him started to emerge in the second half of the season. He hasn't looked comfortable at all in the playoffs, and pitching in the cold weather tonight exacerbated the hamstring he tweaked earlier. Though he was unreliable in this game, he's certainly a better option than Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez pitched admirably in a tough situation, but he got into enough jams that showed he's nothing more than an average pitcher at this point in his career.

Chicago should have scored more than the one off of Rodriguez. Tadahito Iguchi continued his playoff slump, going 0 for 5 and leaving 4 men on base. Pierzynski also left on 4; Rowand and Everett each left on 3. Fortunately for Chicago, the bottom of the order picked them up, as it has done all year with Crede, Uribe, and Podsednik all getting key extra-base hits.

Contreras pitched an average game; he only gave up 6 hits and no walks, but 3 hit batsmen count as walks in my book. The interesting stat for me was that he only had 82 pitches in his 7 innings. This shows the Astros killed themselves with their impatience, particularly with runners in scoring position. When Willy Taveras hits two leadoff doubles, Houston must take advantage of it, simply because odds are Taveras won't hit that well for the rest of the series. Unfortunately for them, Morgan Ensberg came up small. Contreras wasn't exactly pounding the strike zone tonight, but the Astros made it easy work for him.

This game turned on the performances of three players: Joe Crede, Neal Cotts, and Bobby Jenks. Crede, as he has been wont to do in the postseason, hit a tie-breaking home run that galvanized the crowd. More importantly, he made three fine defensive plays at third base with runners in scoring position. I'm not sure if a lesser fielder would have made the plays or not, but if I'm Ozzie Guillen, I don't want to know. Crede's excellence in the field underscores the vital role defense plays on White Sox. Though Contreras has good stuff, he only struck out 2 batters tonight. Without guys like Crede, Uribe, Podsednik and Rowand, the White Sox starters would look a lot more pedestrian.

Cotts and Jenks put to rest the absurd notions of rust, as if none of the relief pitchers touched a baseball during their hiatus in game action. Yes, there's nothing like a real game, but in terms of the sheer physicality of it, throwing a baseball on the mound or in bullpen side sessions is the same. I thought that Guillen could have started the 8th with Cotts, but bringing him in to turn around Berkman was the right move, even if Berkman got a single. Frankly, I'd call that a wash, given that Berkman is the one man on the Astros who must be feared. As mentioned before, Ensberg was a dud. He smoked lefties this year, and while Cotts is no ordinary lefty, Ensberg must do better if the Astros are to compete.

Then there's Bobby Jenks. Brad Ausmus should get a gold medal for putting the ball in play, given the way Jenks humbled Jeff Bagwell. Perhaps in years past, a healthy Bags might have been able to launch one of those Jenks missiles onto the Dan Ryan, but not tonight. The kid is unhittable right now, and if I'm Brad Lidge, I study the tape. Jenks showed how to go about things. If you're able to throw 100 MPH on every pitch, then frickin do it. Don't waste time early in the count with breaking balls; wait until it's 0-2 before dropping the hammer. And oh, what a hammer. I was waiting for Jenks to prove himself to me, and he certainly did so tonight.

Still, Phil Garner could have at least given his team a better chance in the game had he brought in someone other than Russ Springer in the 8th. That move made no sense to me. Springer is 4th best in the pen, and with Jenks on the mound, an insurance run spells doom. Why not throw out your best reliever, or at least Dan Wheeler? In past series, both in this playoffs and 2004, Garner showed a propensity for unorthodox (ie, good) bullpen use. For whatever reason, he played it by "the book" tonight, and he lost. Though it seems silly to argue about since Jenks was so dominant, Houston would have at least had a better chance of victory had Garner sent out Wheeler.

In a way, Chicago should be glad they didn't blow the game open in the middle innings against Rodriguez, because the bullpen was able to test its mettle, and send a psychological message to the Astros--you ain't gonna hit us, and even if you do, we've got the leather to back it up.

Quick overview for tomorrow--Buehrle pitching means that Lamb's bat comes out of the lineup, putting Berkman at 1st base and Orlando Palmeiro in left field. Berkman also gets flipped around to the right side, where had significantly less power. The White Sox, on the other hand, generally benefit from facing Pettitte, a left hander. Though Pettitte's performance will be paramount, the Astros must find a way to score 4 or 5 runs in the game. Morgan Ensberg is going to feel the burden. He must be patient and not swing at Buehrle's nibbles. If he waits for the right pitch, he should be able to take care of it, as Buehrle is anything but overpowering. I think Chicago's key player has to be Iguchi. You can't count on Podsesnik to get on every night, and it's critical to have men on base for Dye and Konerko.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

World. Series.

Hard to believe the World Series is in Chicago. This is the first time I've ever lived in a place where a sporting event this big is happening, and the city is definitely ready for it (though it must really suck to be a Cubs fan right now). A couple words about the NLCS: Oswalt rules. He certainly validated all those old adages, like "momentum is as good as tomorrow's starter", and "the best pitch in baseball is a well-located fastball". Oswalt was a fastball machine on Wednesday, throwing strike after strike at 95+ MPH. When that fastball's on, he's nearly impossible to hit. Fortunately for the Astro's the fastball is almost always on. The only thing possibly going against him is how many innings he's thrown, but what's one or two more games? Ok, time to look at these two remarkably similar teams.

Let's cut to the chase...these are not good offensive clubs. Each lineup only has two guys that scare you, and with Chicago, it's really only one. To make matters worse for Chicago, they try to run/bunt their way out of big innings. The best thing that happened to the White Sox against the Angels was Tadahito Iguchi getting HBP in consecutive games, thus preventing Ozzie Guillen from wasting him with a sac bunt in the first inning. Results? Three-run homers on consecutive nights from the one man who scares you, Paul Konerko. Guillen's lineup is actually constructed pretty well. Podsednik and Iguchi both get on base and both are fast, Dye is a decent guy who will hit fly balls and avoid the double play, increasing the odds that opposing pitchers will pitch to Konerko. That's the other thing--he's scary, but not quite scary enough that they'll automatically walk him. The other thing going for the White Sox, as I've said before, is the power at the bottom of the lineup. This is important in tight ballgames, because the opposing pitcher never gets a chance to relax, and Chicago won't necessarily need Konerko up to score a run. I think this will prove crucial against a more fatigued Houston pitching staff.

Houston has a scarier middle of the lineup, but much like the White Sox, they have trouble having anyone on base ahead of them. Biggio (.323 OBP) and Taveras (.321 OBP) just don't cut it. Taveras is presumably at the top for his speed, but the Astros would be much better served with Brad Ausmus and his .346 OBP at the top. That won't happen though, because Taveras's AVG (.291) is higher. When you hit in front of Lance Berkman, the one true dominant hitter (at least from the left side) in this series, whether guys get on via the single or the walk is irrelevant. Just get on. I have a feeling that in this series Berkman/Ensberg will be hitting in a lot of bases empty situations, given the 'Stros's low propensity to walk and Chicago's high propensity for throwing strikes.

Long story short, the Astros have a better middle of the lineup, but the White Sox have more depth. ADVANTAGE: EVEN

We don't know too much about Chicago's bench, and that's a good thing because they all stink. Of course, they'll have to come into play somewhat in the NL park, but not so much if their starters keep on going the way they have. If they have to make one pinch hitting decision, they'll go with Carl Everett, who is a far cry better than anyone else they've got. Chicago had better hope the series doesn't come down to *gulp* Pablo Ozuna. Fortunately for them, they have the homefield advantage, and if the series goes to 6 or 7 games, they won't have to worry about it. Still, I think they could strengthen their bench a great deal by having only 10 pitchers on the roster and keeping a guy like Ross Gload, a left-handed hitter with pop.

Houston's bench, Orlando Palmeiro and Chris Burke in particular, have played well in the postseason. Mike Lamb is the decent left-handed bat off the bench the White Sox don't have. Eric Bruntlett is a good defensive replacement for Craig Biggio in the late innings. In short, the Astros have more weapons, and they use them well. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

This is a matchup of historic proportions. Clemens/Pettitte/Oswalt had arguably the best regular season trio of performances in history. Buehrle/Garland/Garcia/Contreras were arguably the most effective postseason performance in history. The key to this series, as it was in the NLCS, is Game 4, when Houston throws their worst starter (on paper), Brandon Backe against Freddy Garcia. Backe rose to the occasion in the NLCS, but he's really the one guy the White Sox can take advantage of. And as good as Clemens was in the regular season, he has looked shaky at times in the playoffs. He's 43 years old, and he's thrown a ton of innings. Plus, he's never really proven himself as a dominant postseason pitcher. Pettitte had one bad game against the Cardinals, but rebounded well in his next start. Working against him is a White Sox lineup that fares much better against lefties. With the way Oswalt is pitching, however, the White Sox will want to avoid going to Game 7. Honestly, there really isn't too much between these staffs. Chicago's staff shut down a superior offensive club in Boston, and absolutely throttled Anaheim's lineup, which actually is quite similar to Houston's. Houston's staff neutralized the Cards' lineup (similar to Boston's) and Atlanta's (similar to Anaheim), but never showed the level of dominance Chicago's did, unless Oswalt was pitching. It's tough coming to the verdict here. I'm going with ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX, but barely, due to Backe's possibililty as the weak link and the few shaky starts by Pettitte and Clemens.

Another evenly-matched area. Houston has a better front end, but Chicago has 5 reliable guys, and a closer whose stuff may be the best on either staff. I didn't like how Lidge started relying on his slider, and who knows how his psyche will be when he comes into the game for the first time. I felt that Garner should have let him close out the Cardinals series with a 4-run lead. As dominant as Lidge was, I'd rather have the 5 reliable guys with the manager who knows how to deploy them flawlessly. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Defensive efficiency says that Houston ranked 2nd in the NL, but that's before you take into account the ease of playing in Minute Maid park. Park-adjusted, they drop down considerably. However, they are strong up the middle, especially with Taveras in center and Ausmus behind the plate. Chicago is strong all over the diamond, which suits their pitching staff perfectly. No one is really a high strikeout guy, but they stay around the plate, meaning lots of balls go in play. I'm going to go on record now and say that Juan Uribe could make the difference in this series with his glove. I thought he was phenomenal against Anaheim, looking like a vacuum cleaner equipped with a catapult. Having two centerfielders in the outfield doesn't hurt either. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Bottom Line
I think this could go down as one of the best series in a long time, and not because both teams will bunt themselves to death. Fact is, both pitching staffs are so good, it's hard to believe there will be a lopsided game. It sounds scary, but I think this series will be decided by something unaccountable: a bad bounce, a bad call, a slip on the basepaths. I realize I gave the White Sox more advantages up there, but I'm having a hard time convincing myself that they truly are the better team. Maybe I don't trust those 4 complete games. But then again, the Astros pretty much are the Angels, at least when it comes to the lineup. The White Sox should be able to hold Houston to 3 runs a game. Now the question becomes, will the Astros hold the White Sox to 2 runs a game? If this were say, July or August, I say yes. As crazy as this sounds, I'm doubting Pettitte, Clemens, and Lidge. Pettitte isn't a dominant pitcher; he's one of those "keep you in the game" types. I have no doubt he'll do that, but as mentioned above, the White Sox love hitting against lefties. Clemens....I don't know. I have yet to see a dominant performance out of him. He often has trouble getting ahead of batters, which plays directly into the hands of Chicago. And as I mentioned before, Lidge will have to prove himself to me.

These teams are so evenly-matched it's ridiculous. All those White Sox advantages up there are slight. I wish I could cop out and make conditional picks, like if it goes 7 games, the Astros will win. But I won't. I'm sticking my neck out here. I say White Sox bust out against Pettitte. I say the White Sox will get a similar performance out of their starters, because they are once again facing a lineup with guys at the top who can't get on base. I say someone from the bottom of Chicago's lineup will drive a stake through Houston's heart in Game 1 or Game 2. Ultimately, I think I'm being influenced at how well the White Sox played against Boston and Anaheim. They were supremely confident, and made all the right plays at the right times. They put on clinics. Houston doesn't look clinical unless Oswalt is one the mound. Unfortunately for them, he'll only be available for Game 3 and Game 7, if necessary. I don't think they'll get that far. WHITE SOX WIN 4-2.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Pujols the Great

I wasn't at Minute Maid Park tonight, but even through the television the sense of anticipation was palpable. As soon as Eckstein scrapped out that base hit, my first thought was "Pujols is in the hole." My second thought was "HAHAHAHA!" And then my third thought was "This could be something very special". Austin got home from rehearsal right after Edmonds worked his walk. "Good," I said. "You're just in time."

"Don't swing at the slider," I thought. By this point I was rooting for the Cardinals because, well, I hate the Astros, and also because I wanted this LCS to last longer since the ALCS was so abbreviated. Pujols swung at the first-pitch slider, and looked bad. Almost the same pitch he struck out on against Pettitte earlier in the game. "Now he'll get the high heat," I thought. Pujols is too good of a hitter to throw him the same pitch twice in a row, right?

Lidge didn't throw the high heat. Like Frankie Rodriguez had done in the other series, Lidge became overly enamored with his slider. It's easy to be tempted when you possess such an astounding breaking ball. Located correctly, they are unhittable. Thing is, breaking balls are fickle. No matter how many times you snap a slider, your next one could roll off your hand the wrong way or the wrist might not snap at the exact right moment, and you're left with beachball. Lidge didn't throw the heat, and Pujols did what all monstrous hitters are supposed to do with hanging sliders--terminate them with extreme prejudice.

What a majestic home run. The cozy dimensions of Minute Maid's left field made it seem a lot longer than it really was...not that 412 feet is anything to sneeze it. It wasn't the distance so much as the grand arc it traced. The impact of truly special home runs can be felt before they even reach the apex. In this apartment, the impact was manifested by three guys reduced to screaming and jumping up and down in amazement and admiration, even though none of us have a true rooting interest in the series.

Even in the midst of the screaming, I thought about how much the tide turned in the series. There is no way to overstate the devestation the Astros must be feeling right now. One strike away against David Eckstein! Now they find themselves in the same situation as last year, travelling to Busch with a 3-2 advantage. I'd argue they're in even worse shape now, because at this point last year, they'd grabbed the momentum thanks to a Jeff Kent walk-off. What will they do now, after having suffered such a wrenching loss?

Perhaps "they" should be reduced to "he." What will Roy Oswalt do? He alone has the power to erase the impact of the homer and to silence what will surely be bedlam at Busch Stadium. Perhaps Phil Garner will be able to inject some life into the clubhouse, but I have a feeling that the Astros will go as Oswalt goes. He needs to make a statement early in the game on Wednesday, say, by striking out Pujols in the first inning. What will Garner do with Lidge, whose psyche must be shattered? Do you go to him in Game 6, showing confidence in him, or do you pull an Ozzie and try to wring 9 innings out of Oswalt? It's certainly not out of Oswalt's reach. He threw 243 innings this season and completed 4 games. Seeing how Houston will handle this situation makes Game 6 all the more compelling.

Finally, some more words about Albert Pujols, not that any of them will suffice. The statistics all show that he has a good chance of going down as the greatest hitter in the history of the game, a blend of average and power that only Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, and Musial can match. His gaudy offensive numbers have masked his development as an all-around ballplayer as well. He now plays with Gold Glove quality at first, and was 16 for 18 in stolen base attempts this season. But Game 5 showed why they put all that emphasis on his bat. Even after having been dormant the entire game, even while facing the hardest-throwing closer in the game, even knowing that failure would mean elimination, his bat delivered. No matter what may happen the rest of this postseason, or even for the rest of his career, Pujols will be defined by this blast.

Unless, of course, he does it again.

Monday, October 17, 2005

What a weekend

It's times like these when the analyst in me goes to sleep and the fan busts out. I can't help but stand up and cheer both the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox. Game 4 of the NLDS was absolutely riveting, and pretty much everything you'd expect from two closely matched teams. The Astros can thank their bullpen for this victory, as four pitchers combined to shut down St. Louis's dangerous lineup. The game-ending double play brought me out of my seat. It was the most immaculate turn I've ever seen, especially in such a pressure situation. If you get a chance to see the replay again, watch Adam Everett's transfer and throw. It's enough to make me wax on about the beauty of human bodies in motion, but at the time all I could do was jump up screaming because it was so exciting. The ump even made the correct call!

The umpiring, unfortunately, is sure to steal away some attention. For the record, the home plate umpire had a horrible strike zone, and I don't blame La Russa for getting angry. I'm surprised he allowed himself to get thrown out; I'm guessing he thought he could fire up the team, or something. It seems like all he accomplished was to piss off the home plate enough to ring up Jim Edmonds on a pitch that missed by about a foot. I'm sure Edmonds had a naughty word or two for the umpire, but to toss him in addition to La Russa was ridiculous, especially on such a horrible call. St. Louis almost received poetic justice when 3-2 count pinch-hitter John Rodriguez hit the ball 415 feet; unfortunately for St. Louis, Minute Maid's centerfield runs about 435, and Willy Taveras was there to make a fine play.

As beautiful as the double play was (here comes the analyst), it probably shouldn't have happened. Earlier in the inning Albert Pujols had shown why the "5-tool player" moniker truly applies to him, when he smartly went from 1st to 3rd on a Larry Walker single, setting up 1st and 3rd with no outs. Houston had no choice but to bring in the infield, which meant that Pujols should have been overly cautious on any ball hit in the infield. He wasn't, however, and Morgan Ensberg gunned him at the plate. It looked like Pujols strayed too far off the bag and felt like he wouldn't be able to beat Ensberg back to third. Or perhaps he just decided to use his adrenaline and hope to force Ensberg into a bad throw. If it were a tie game, I can see taking that risk and forcing the defense to make a bad play. In a trailing situation however, I think Pujols was reckless. Of course Larry Walker just about made up for it by smartly advancing to 3rd on the throw home, but the ensuing double play proved just how valuable a single out can be.

I'm finding it hard to come up with words about the White Sox. It's difficult to call them a dominant team, because they only had one blowout in the series, and no shutouts. But when your bullpen only has to throw seven pitches in four games? I can't think of any other word to describe it. Even though the White Sox pitchers gave up some runs, there was an air of inevitiability whenever they were on the mound in the late innings. Even with stirring in the bullpen tonight, I just knew that Contreras would make the right pitch and get the right play from his defense. He looked done in the dugout during the top of the 9th, and I was surprised Ozzie sent him back out there. But Guillen proved his rapport with his staff is the best in baseball, and Contreras rewarded the decision with three incredibly easy outs.

So the World Series will come to Chicago for the first time since 1959. It's quite exciting to be living here, and I'll try my damndest to get the $125 upper deck tickets for Game 1 or 2. I shouldn't tantalize myself with that possibility, because it probably won't happen. But if it did...hoo boy...especially if Chicago ends up playing Houston. I'll be rooting hard for an Astros victory tomorrow night, because I desperately want to see the titantic pitching matchups that would result. There's no better time to be a baseball fan than when two teams with stables full of excellent pitchers play for the championship. I can't wait for Saturday.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

ALCS Game 2

Boy, what a shame that last night's Chicago/Anaheim game had to end with a bad call. Yeah, I think it was a pretty bad call. Obviously, there was no real way for the umpire to tell if the ball hit the dirt, but he should have been decisive in his call. The crew chief, who was at 3rd base, confirmed the call the home plate umpire made. I feel good that there was a consultation. Honestly, we can't expect every call to be correct. However, we should expect each call to be enforced professionally, whether correct or not. The umpire's behavior last night was amateur.

It's not like that call caused the winning play to cross the plate, however. That job fell to Joe Crede, who deposited a fat 0-2 offering into the leftfield corner. What a horrible, horrible pitch by Kelvim Escobar, who had pitched brilliantly before that fateful pitch to Crede. His splitter was unhittable last night...why on earth would he throw Crede a 2-seam fastball? Especially one that was belt high and right down the middle? You have to wonder if catcher Chris Paul, normally the 3rd string catcher, had anything to do with that pitch call or if it was Scioscia from the dugout. That's the thing--Crede is a fastball hitter! Why throw the one pitch that he's most likely to hit on 0-2?

The bad call somewhat obscured Mark Buehrle's masterful game, although I don't even know if that's fair, when articles about said obscurity are plastered all over Buehrle looked like Tom Glavine in his prime, changing speeds, hitting his spots, and living up to his reputation as the most efficient pitcher in baseball. 99 pitches, 71 strikes. Beautiful.

When your starter pitches that well, you should win the game going away. Not the White Sox! A series of baserunning blunders and more questionable bunt calls by Ozzie prevented any chance at a big inning. Hey, third base coach! You don't send a guy home from third base with NO OUTS, especially if he's LYING ON THE GROUND. Why have Tadahito Iguchi bunt in the FIRST INNING? They played for one run in the first--they got it--and didn't get another until the ninth! In playoff games, your object should be to go for as many big innings as possible! Iguchi had a .342 OBP this year, one of the tops on the team! Bunting gives you about a .005 OBP! Joe Crede is lucky he had the game-winning hit, or else he would have been guilty of the worst gaffe of all of them. On a liner like that, you're not going to score anyway, and even if he catches it, you're still going to score from second on a 2-out hit, because you'd be running on contact! There is NO EXCUSE for getting doubled off second base. Trust me, it happened to me, and my coach never let me hear the end of it. Aggressive baserunning should be used when it forces the defense to make a mistake. Even if the ball had dropped, Crede would have stopped at third, and there would have been no chance to force a bad throw.

The Angels? Stupid sacrifice call in the 8th. Adam Kennedy hit .300 and had a .354 OBP this season. What's more, he only grounded into 5 double plays in 460 plate appearances! Why are managers so frightened of the double play? Kennedy has a 1/3 chance of getting on base, and a 1/92 chance of grounding into a double play. If Kennedy were a weaker hitter, then I would endorse the bunt call in the late innings. But even in that situation, you can't have a .354 OBP guy bunt! Tell me again why he's hitting 9th in the order? And why Orlando ".309 OBP" Cabrera hits 2nd? Cabrera should be the guy hitting 9th, and he should be the guy bunting.

Where are you Vlad Guerrero? I love you, but you're coming up just as small as A-Rod in the playoffs. It seems like he's hitting scared. I don't know whether to credit the pitching or his approach. I didn't watch him at all during the season, so I have no real comparison. All I know is, he'd better wake up soon, because the Angels can't rely on Molina and Anderson every night. They can be pitched to. Supposedly Vlad cannot be pitched to, but now I'm not so sure. Pitches he should be driving out of the park are being driven into the ground.

No way I can write anything about the NLCS, though thankfully it will receive my full attention tonight at the Baseball Prospectus bash. Damn you MLB, for scheduling simultaneous playoff games! All I can say is, I'm guess Andy Pettitte's cutter wasn't cutting, and Reggie Sanders is a beast. That is all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

ALCS Game 1

For all my blather about "advantages", LAnaheim showed little ill effects of their magical baseball tour. Last night's game confirmed that these teams are just as evenly matched as suspected. Both starting pitchers were solid, giving up only a couple of solid hits each. Anaheim's "big inning" consisted of two singles and three balls that never made it out of the infield. Credit to Orlando Cabrera for busting up a potentially inning-ending double play. White Sox starter Jose Contreras deserved a better fate, but then again, he should have gotten a few more strikeouts with men on base.

Paul Byrd pitched well for the Angels, keeping Chicago off-balance by changing speeds, but the White Sox may well have small-balled themselves into oblivion. First of all, Scott Podsednik continued his sorry streak of basestealing in the playoffs, getting thrown out by a good margin. There was a pitchout on, but frankly, that almost makes it worse. Either the Angels know the White Sox steal sign, or Podzilla has become predictable in his stealing patterns. The green light needs to be changed to bridge out, dead end, or some other more effective signage. When Podsednik gets on base, he needs to stay there. Chicago's best chance to score is multi-run homers from Dye and Konerko while Podsednik and/or Iguchi are on base. Last I checked, you don't need to be on second base to score on a home run.

The White Sox also fell victim to bunt mania throughout the game. Jermaine Dye, who hit 31 homers in the regular season, tried to bunt his way onto first in the 6th and failed. Podsednik failed at a sacrifice bunt attempt in the 8th. Most costly was Aaron Rowand's failed sacrifice in the 9th. Yes, the 9th inning is the best time for a sacrifice bunt to tie the game, but it shouldn't be automatic, especially with K-Rod on the mound throwing hard-to-bunt filth. Wouldn't it be better to take some pitches and try to work a walk, thus achieving the goal of moving the runner up while at the same time putting the winning run on base? If a hitter falls behind quickly, then revert to the sacrifice. But if he gets ahead in the count 2-0, then he is much more likely to walk, or even better, get a hit! It seems to make more sense to wait for a bunt attempt until a hitter falls behind 0-1 or even 0-2 or 1-2. The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't bunt with 2 strikes, because a foul would produce--gasp--a strikeout! But a player's batting average when behind in the count 0-2 and 1-2 is usually about 150 or 200 points lower than when he is ahead. That's the perfect time to sacrifice!

It doesn't pay to play in fear of the strikeout, or the double play, especially with a fast man at bat like Rowand. You play to win the game, right? The Yankees showed on Monday that K-Rod was vulnerable. Sooner or later he's going to throw a slider that hangs a bit too much. Why not let Rowand wait and see if that pitch comes rather than throwing away his at bat from the outset? I concede that I probably wouldn't be bringing this up if the bunt had worked and the White Sox had scored, but last night proved that even the "safe" play isn't a sure thing. I hope that sometime I'll see some decision made by a manager who plays out of desire to win rather than fear of losing.

I'd also like to mention that Thursday night, I'll be attending a Baseball Prospectus event at the Giordano's 3 blocks from my apartment. Thank you, serendipity! A few BP writers will be there to talk baseball and the NLCS will be on. Combined with the pizza, it's sure to be a good night. I'll be sure to bring up the whole sac bunt when down 0-2 and 1-2 thing, and yes Nate, I will bring up the EqA issue about a particle of light stealing 3rd base. I'll include all their relevant answers in my writeup of NLCS Game 2.

NLCS Preview

If not for last year's ridiculous ALCS, the 7-game 2004 NLCS between St. Louis and Houston would have been remembered in popular perception as one for the ages. It was, but most people don't think of it, especially since the Cards were swept out of the World Series. The two teams have achance to do it again this year, with both sides fielding dissimilar, yet very evenly matched squads.

Berkman and Ensberg provided most of the offense against Atlanta, and will have to do the same against St. Louis. Both should be able to hit all of the Cards' pitchers, even Carpenter. It will be critical for Taveras and Biggio to get on base to maximize the damage. St. Louis is still St. Louis, and Reggie Sanders waking up makes them all the more formidable. The series may rest on players like Sanders and Jason Lane of Houston. A hot week from a role players could tip the balance, much like Sanders did against San Diego. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Neither team has a secret weapon, but both have plenty of pinch hitting options, as Chris Burke's game winner in NLDS Game 4 proved. The Cardinals have more proven players who showed they could produce during the regular season. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Mark Mulder's health has to worry St. Louis. Their rotation is deep enough to be able to withstand losing him, but the team would certainly be worse for it. Mulder will likely pitch as much (and as well) as his pain will let him. Consider him a wild card. Roger Clemens followed up his shaky start in NLDS Game 2 with some legendary relief work. He has another chance to shake the label of postseason choker, and we'll see if his stint in the 'pen will light his competitive fires. St. Louis must take advantage of Brandon Backe's start, as he is the weakest pitcher on both starting staffs. Three aces to one, however, means ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

The 'Stros bullpen was terrific in the Atlanta series, and they had plenty of time to mend following Sunday's marathon. Brad Lidge remains the most formidable weapon, with his exploding stuff and his ability to pitch more than one inning. Isringhausen, on the other hand, looked pretty shaky for St. Louis, and they will feel the loss of Al Reyes more acutely in what will be a tightly contested series. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Both teams rated at the top of the National League in run efficiency and both have extremely strong defense up the middle. Edmonds and Taveras are the two best defensive centerfielders in the NL; same goes for catchers Yadier Molina and Brad Ausmus. The two excellent defenses should keep the games taut and exciting. ADVANTAGE: EVEN

Bottom line
It's another race that's too close to call. It's the time of year where no team has any real weakness, and opponents must attack each others' strengths, to go all Sun Tzu on you. I feel Houston, with its pitching staff, is in the best position to do that. It is not hard to envision 6 or 7 innings of 0-2 run ball in 6 of 7 games from Houston's starters, followed by scoreless relief work by Lidge and Dan Wheeler. Of course, Chris Carpenter is perfectly capable of matching that performance, and St. Louis's offense will likely have a bust-out game against one of Houston's big three. All that said, the closest thing to a weakness on either team is St. Louis's bullpen. Berkman showed he can get the clutch hit when needed, and Farnsworth was better than anyone in St. Louis's 'pen this year. It's a close call, but I say Berkman beats the St. Louis bullpen, while Lidge will be able to shut down the Cardinals. ASTROS WIN 4-3.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

ALCS Preview

Boy, my parents sure picked the wrong weekend to come visit and prevent me from watching baseball. I missed most of the Houston/Atlanta epic, and only saw the last few innings of Angels/Yankees games 4 and 5. I don't like commenting on what I haven't seen or heard; all I can offer is, regarding Frankie Rodriguez's adventures in Hanging Slider Land on Monday night, FOR GOD'S SAKE K-ROD, THROW A FREAKIN FASTBALL! I'd also like to take this opportunity to claim my prediction of the Braves/Astros series was correct, because they played the equivalent of 5 games! Ok, maybe not. But to my credit, I was only way off on the Boston series. Now, to preview the ALCS.

Two similar lineups, in that they both have only one real danger, and lack super-high OBP guys. The Angels are much more left-handed, but like Chicago, lack a true lefty thumper, though Casey Kotchman could fit the bill if Mike Scioscia were smart enough to play him. Garret Anderson used to be that lefty thumper, and though he had a sub-par regular season, he seems to be catching fire at the right time. Bengie Molina has also picked the opportune time to get hot. These two hitters now offer Vlad a modicum of protection. Paul Konerko isn't quite on the same level as Vlad, but the White Sox have more power in the lineup around him. Over half of Chicago's runs against Boston came via the longball. Not appreciating the top-to-bottom power in Chicago's lineup was the primary factor in my own underestimation of their offense. Such power allows for them to get the runs they need in short bursts, and not have to rely on getting on base and generating chances every inning. Against a team with pitching like the Angels, that is a major advantage. LAnaheim, meanwhile, doesn't have as much pop. A lot more has to go right for them to score 4 runs in an inning than it does for the White Sox. For that reason, I'm saying ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX, though it's a virtual dead heat.

This is no real contest. Chicago's bench players are horrible, while LAA has plenty of options. While keeping Kotchman out of the lineup is bad, it at least makes their bench quite impressive. ADVANTAGE: ANGELS

Aside from the fact that the Chicago starters pitched better in the regular season, they also have the advantage of being well-rested and being scheduled normally. Then there's Bartolo Colon. In the midst of writing this entry, I found out he's off the ALCS roster. Presumably Ervin Santana will replace him. Santana performed admirably against the Yankees, but he'll have to show me a lot more before I consider this anything less than a devastating blow to Anaheim's staff. Contreras continued to be absolute money, and there's no reason to think he'll change against the light-hitting Angels. Add Buehrle's consistency (and LA's vulnerabilty to lefties) to the mix, and it winds up with ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

The Angels have the best 'pen in baseball, but are they ever stretched out. The reason why K-Rod refused to throw a fastball is that he's been unable to locate it consistently since returning from injury in the mid-summer. He's been relying completely on his otherworldly slider since then. That's usually fine, but if he hangs it like he did last night, he could be in for some trouble. Kelvim Escobar, who has become a 2-inning bridge, was used extensively in the New York series as well. Chicago's bullpen, meanwhile, pitched out of tough spots consistently during the Boston series. Who knows if Ozzie Guillen will go to Damaso Marte again, but even if he doesn't, Neal Cotts was one of the best lefty relievers in the league. Bobby Jenks, despite his previous success and stuff, is still an unknown quanitity. ADVANTAGE: ANGELS, but not as much as it would have been had they won in 4 games.

Chicago's defense is slightly stronger, although both teams have plus defenders at key positions (see Division previews for details). The White Sox also had the second best defensive efficiency in the majors, while the Angels were also in the top third, checking in at 10th. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Bottom Line
Normally, I would tend to go with the bullpen difference in this kind of matchup, but it would surprise me very much if the Angels' 'pen was at full strength by the end of this series. I fully expect it to go 6 or 7 games based on how closely matched these two teams are. It's likely that a lucky bounce or a hanging breaking pitch will determine this series. I have a gut feeling that the Angels are a slightly better team, but they are at quite a disadvantage in regards to the uncertainties in their starting rotation and the possible fatigue of their bullpen. I've also become a believer in Jose Contreras. His splitter might be the most unhittable pitch in this series, and he's pitching twice. Mark Buehrle is as solid as they come, and the Angels are particularly vulnerable to lefthanders. Colon's loss will ripple through the entire Angels pitching staff, and it may force Jarrod Washburn to make a start while under the weather against a team that pounds lefties, and it means that Paul Byrd will start at least 2 games. With all the uncertainty the Angels face, combined with Chicago's masterful pitching and fielding in the division series, means that I'm going with WHITE SOX IN 6.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Wha Happen???

Where to begin? OK, let's start out by marveling at Chicago's complete dominance. I'll roll out the old managerial cliche "every phase of the game", because it's true--Chicago was better in every phase of the game. You don't need any park-adjusted normalized statistics to show that. Could the Red Sox have played better? Certainly. But I think most of the credit for Boston's futility at the plate should go to Chicago's pitching. I completely underestimated the staff's ability to pitch in high pressure situations, figuring that Boston mojo from last year would translate itself into fraying nerves and hanging breaking balls from the likes of Freddy Garcia and Bobby Jenks. Boy, did they prove me wrong. Looking back at my preview, I feel quite stupid. I knew how vulnerable Boston's pitching staff was; that even Chicago's relatively toothless lineup would be able to plate 4-5 runs a game against them. Yet I was, to some extent, still seduced by that Fenway mystique, that idea that after last season, there's no way BoSox would lose at home, at least during the ALDS. I figured, even before the series began, that there'd be a game 5 in Chicago and the White Sox would wilt under the pressure. Wrong again.

Chicago is now on a roll, and everything Ozzie touches turns to gold. El Duque was probably not the best option in a bases loaded jam, but damned if he didn't turn in one of the best performances of his life. After that, it's just more props to Bobby Jenks. This team really reminds me of the '02 Angels and '03 Marlins, teams with solid pitching and defense whose bats caught fire at the right time. Getting the extra rest and homefield advantage means the Sox have the inside track to win the pennant.

In the Bronx, the Big Unit turned out to be a colossal bust. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was his back, but Randy Johnson did absolutely nothing to justify his contract. The sole reason the Yankees signed him was to give them an automatic victory in the playoffs. The New York comeback was as predictable as clockwork, but then again, so was their bullpen's collapse. Aaron Small actually didn't pitch all that badly, but the good karma that followed him around was washed away last night. All of the garbage-time runs the Angels scored after going up 8-6 further exposed the soft underbelly of this Yankee club. For $210 million, Bubba Crosby should not be your centerfielder, nor should a washed-up Al Leiter and a never-was like Aaron Small be your first men out of the bullpen. Today's rainout doesn't affect this series all that much, but if it does end up going 5 games, whoever wins it will be at a serious disadvantage in ALCS Game 1.

Looking to the NL tonight, the Padres could steal a game against Matt Morris, St. Louis's weakest starter, if Woody Williams can keep the Cardinals confined to the caverns of PetCo, that is. That's not as easy as it sounds with Williams, as he managed to allow half of his 24 home runs at home, which truly astounds me. St. Louis has the advantage at PetCo anyway, because of Jim Edmonds's superior defense in centerfield, and LaRussa's ability to sub in a plus defender like So Taguchi in the later innings.

Atlanta throws fireballing young righthander Jorge Sosa, whose weakness is his control. At this point, he's still just a thrower, and most of his walks happen because his pitches just have too much spin on them (kind of like Matt Clement). That's not a good recipe against a lineup whose centerpieces are Lance Berkman (.411 OBP) and Morgan Ensberg (.388 OBP). Look for some big innings tonight, unless Sosa can find a strikeout groove and strand the runners he puts on. Roy Oswalt was his usual stellar self this season. Houston has to be the favorite in this game.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Day 3, abbreviated

Well, I had a nice long entry ready to go, and then my Firefox crashed. Go figure. Fortunately, not much of note happened today. Some quick summing up.

-That's Mike in the hockey post down below. He asked if he could post hockey-related entries, and I said "hell yeah" or something like that. Check him out hya. By the by, if anyone else wants to post stuff on here, just let me know.

-The NLDS's are boring, and that makes me sad.

-The Padres really stink; the Cards won without even trying. Mark Mulder didn't pitch great, and heavily benefitted from his D turning double plays. This is why defense is important.

-The Smoltz/Clemens duel fizzled. This was Roger's fault.

-Smoltz was a step ahead of the Houston batters all night. He pitched ahead in the count, and while he wasn't dominant, there was no chance Houston was going to hit him hard.

-Clemens was the exact opposite. He couldn't throw a first-pitch strike to save his life, meaning he had to groove fastballs, which consequently got smoked. Clemens isn't doing anything to reform the perception that he's an average playoff pitcher at best. But who can blame the guy at this point? He's friggin 43 years old.

-Jeff "The Natural" Francoeur walked! And he took the count to 3-2 twice! That's how wild Clemens was!

-Looking to tomorrow...once again, work screws me out of seeing the Sox/Sox game. Ominous sign for Boston--Aaron Rowand is 10 for 14 with 4 homers off Wakefield in his career. On the other hand, Boston's at home, and Fenway will be full-throated. If the White Sox win this, I will be seriously impressed with them.

-If the Yankees lose tomorrow, no way they can win the series. Randy Johnson v. Paul Byrd in the Bronx? If they lose tomorrow, they don't deserve to win the series. But hey, their defense and bullpen are so bad it just might happen.

Sorry for the disjointed nature of this entry. Will be back after tomorrow's games with real prose all up in your hibachi.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Welcome Back Hockey

Welcome back, hockey fans.

*cricket, cricket*

Well, for those of you who are still here, welcome back. The hockey season started last night in dramatic fashion, with all 30 teams playing in 15 different cities in North America. Most everyone we remember from the Old NHL is still around, but almost all of them have different addresses. The new kids are solid hockey players who are going to add a lot of depth to the league. A lot of emphasis has been put on Sydney Crosby, but you're probably going to see more production out of Alexander Ovechkin in Washington.

The rules changes have opened up the game tremendously. ESPN put up a great set of stats on Sportscenter this morning, and I wish I could find it somewhere online, because it would be great to reproduce here, but the bottom line is this: penalties are up, scoring is up. The game is just more fun than it used to be.

I was able to watch the Rangers and Flyers play on OLN last night, and I was surprised to see how strict the officiating was. Kudos to Kerry Fraiser, the game's head official and one of the best referees in the game. Frasier has never been afraid to call the game as he sees it (just look back to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals to prove that point -- Frasier called a penalty on the trailing Flames with just over a minute left in the game).

More penalties means more power play opportunites which ultimately leads to more goals. I should point out that power play percentage is not necessarily higher than it has been -- there are just more opportunites and thus, more goals.

In every arena in the NHL, the phrase "Thank You Fans!" is pained just inside each blue line. However, the real message from the league should have been something closer to "We're sorry" or "Please, watch hockey games." The harsh reality of the situation is that the sport has taken a major hit that will take years to recover from.

The Stanley Cup remains the ultimate prize in sports. It always has been and always will be the most recognizable trophy in any sport. Now, all that remains is to make the fight for the cup respectable again.

There is a lot of difficult work ahead, but Wednesday's games were a great start.

Day 2 Wrap-up

Due to various commitments, I couldn't see a whole lot of the games today. Paid half attention to the Astros/Braves game at work, saw only the last 2.5 innings of Sox/Sox, and caught a good deal of OC/NY. Not a whole lot to write about, but I probably need to tone it down a bit anyway.

Morgan Ensberg reads my blog! Or at least he got the message--he's the fulcrum of Houston's offense. He proved it today, knocking in half of Houston's runs. Tim Hudson choked in the worst way possible, walking 5 batters and making sure Atlanta played from behind the entire game. Atlanta's bullpen also got exposed in this game. Farnsworth is their only real shutdown guy, and I doubt Cox is going to deploy him creatively. Smoltz really needs to pitch well tomorrow.

Speaking of creative deployment, how about Ozzie Guillen? I applaud him for bringing in Bobby Jenks during the 8th inning. This is what more managers need to do. You want your best pitcher facing the other team's best hitters, and that's exactly what Ozzie did. Even better, he let Jenks pitch the 9th, knowing full well that tomorrow is an off day. While luck has certainly been a factor in Chicago's remarkable 1-run game record (I think the graphic said 33-19), just as important is Guillen's impeccable use of his bullpen.

Graffanino's error was splashed all over SportsCenter, but let's not forget that the reason the Red Sox had the lead in the first place was a hideous misplay in left by Podzilla. Any ball that falls short of the warning track should be caught, especially by someone with Podsednik's speed. He got a horrible jump on the ball. Anyway, Graffanino got a bit overanxious trying to turn two. Let's give some credit to Iguchi, though. Wells had his curveball snapping tonight, and the home run pitch was not a bad one. Tad made like Vlad and croquet malleted it into the bullpen. Great piece of hitting, and Wells shouldn't hang his head over it. Red Sox fans can take heart with the performance of Jon Papelbon. He may have to save them in either Game 3 or Game 4...maybe even both! Boston was a .500 team on the road this year and had the majors' best record at home. So I'm not ready to move away from my prediction yet.

More defense. The Yankees played horrible defense tonight, and gifted Anaheim the game, wasting a gritty performance by Chien-Ming Wang (though John Lackey matched him). The Angels showed up again with their horrible lineup, although Scioscia did at least move the hot Bengie Molina behind Guerrero. I wasn't a huge fan of the sac bunt festival in the 7th inning, but you can't argue with the results, I suppose. Scioscia did use his bullpen very well. Instead of saving Scot Shields for the later innings, he brought him in for an out when the Angels needed it most, so they wouldn't fall behind by more than 1. He then used Kelvim Escobar wisely, as the former starter was able to cruise through two innings and bridge to Frankie Rodriguez. God, what a slider.

Joe Torre, on the other hand, did a horrible job with his bullpen. His worst decision was leaving in Al Leiter to face Molina. Having Leiter face Anderson was fine, but I nearly spluttered when I saw him trot back out to face Vlad. Why not Gordon? Hell, why not Rivera? There's an off day tomorrow, and Friday's game is at night! Vlad kills whomever he faces, but Molina absolutely slaughters lefties, to the tune of .648 SLG! I guess Genius Joe left his big book of stats back home in Bayonne, or wherever the hell he lives, and Molina righly punished him for his stupidity. This is the playoffs! Every run counts! How stupid would he have felt if there had been a man on for Posada's 9th inning homer and they had lost by 1? Not very smart indeed.

Some rules for winning in the playoffs:

-Play good defense
-Pitch only your top 2 (top 3 if you're lucky enough) relievers UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY

The Yankees violated these two rules and got burned. Boston violated #1 and got burned. Atlanta only has one good reliever, so they're automatically unable to comply with Rule #2. Flambe. The 5 runs the Atlanta bullpen surrendered were the winning margin. The rules seem pretty damn obvious, but they're of vital importance, especially to the Yanks and Red Sox, as both teams have quickly found out that they won't be able to outslug their opponents.

Tomorrow I'll finally be able to watch a National League game and write extensively on the senior circuit, which has been getting short shrift. I'm hoping there will be a lot to write about, as Clemens faces off against Smoltz. Clemens is an inner pantheon Hall of Famer, and Smoltz could get there too, especially now that Eckersley is in. Quite enticing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Observations of Day 1

Thoughts on the first day of the playoffs. I was only able to watch the LAA/NYY game, and had to rely on sporadic, at-work radio listening for the other two. This is probably reflected in the length and quality of these comments. Too bad I have a job.

In the Battle of the Clergy, the Cardinals pulled rank on the Padres (HONK HONK). Jake Peavy didn't pitch very well, and now he's out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken rib. Apparently he aggravated an injury suffered while celebrating their division title. Ladies and gentlemen, the 82-80 San Diego Padres! While Peavy takes most of the blame, the Pads were also exposed as a bad defensive team. They sieved away 4 runs thanks to a wild pitch/passed ball and a blunder by first baseman Mark Sweeney, though the play was ruled a hit. To beat St. Louis's lineup, a team needs great pitching and flawless fielding. San Diego had neither. The Cards had a scare when Carpenter left the game, but it turned out to be just cramps. Probably just as well; he had thrown a lot of pitches up to that point, and LaRussa needs to keep him as fresh as possible. St. Louis's bullpen struggles were a bit alarming, but not all that suprising. Frankly, it was probably good for Isringhausen to get that out of his system before the stakes get any higher.

Wow, guess the Pale Hose took offense to my prediction! Today's explosion exemplifies the random beauty of baseball. Even Scott "No Homers" Podsednik can hit a homer sometimes! This is just one of those crazy anomaly games that generally stirs up the sports media into making grand statements about the massive implications this game will have. All I can say is, remember when the Red Sox lost last year's ALCS Game 3 19-8? Didn't seem to bother them too much. There's something to be said about momentum, but momentum sure as hell doesn't have anything to do with Mark Buehrle hanging a slider tomorrow.

All that aside, the White Sox were very impressive today. Contreras looks the part of postseason #1...his forkball was absolutely filthy. You have to wonder what kind of career he would have had if he weren't, you know, Cuban. Chicago has to be feeling good about itself, as they throw Buehrle tomorrow, who has been their best pitcher for the past four years. Boston isn't particularly well-equipped to hit lefties, and will need production from Renteria and Varitek. Another strike against Boston is that the White Sox do most of their hitting against left handers. Of course, the way the first game went, that means Wells will pitch a no hitter through six.

One more observation from the game. Despite his homer, Podzilla is now a liability. Since returning from injury last month, he has stolen bases at a 50% clip, which is horrendous. Unless he wants to run his team out of 1 or 2 runs per game, his green light needs to change to red. You've got problems when Varitek throws you out handily.

Bartolo "I Sort of Look Like Chico Marx, in a Bloated Way" Colon was a bit unlucky tonight. He happened to throw his one mistake of the night right after allowing 3 pretty dinky hits. They all count, however, and Colon could have proven his Cy Young candidacy by striking out Robinson Cano. He ended up with 6 strikeouts and only 1 walk over 7 innings, which is the kind of performance you'd expect. Anaheim fans and Yankee haters shouldn't be worried about him.

Do worry, however, about the lineup. Scioscia defies all logic with his batting order. Orlando Cabrera, .310 OBP? Ok, that's cool, you hit 2nd. Darin Erstad, .371 SLG? Fine, fine, you hit 5th. Adam Kennedy, .356 OBP? You suck, you hit 9th. Casey Kotchman, .484 SLG, good for second on the team? Sorry rookie, you're riding the pine. We'd rather have Steve Finley (.374 SLG) in there. There is no hope for the Angels winning if Scioscia doesn't get Kotchman more at bats. And no, pinch hitting against Mariano Rivera doesn't count. Finley needs to sit, Rivera needs to play left, Anderson needs to play center, and Kotchman has to DH. Alternatively, put Kotchman at first, Figgins in center, and Dallas McPherson, who slugged .449, at third. There's just no way a guy who slugs .371 can protect Guerrero! And there's no way there will be enough guys on base in front of him if a .310 OBP guy is 2nd and the .356 OBP guy is 9th! Such poor lineup construction is inexcusable.

The Angels were terrible at the plate tonight. Give credit to Mussina for keeping them off balance, but Anaheim just plain sucked. They let every fastball go by and chased Mussina's junk all night. I particularly didn't like Chone Figgins. He's a sterotypical rally-starter--good OBP of .354 and 62 steals in 79 tries. Yet Figgins looked uncharacteristically tentative out there. He must be more assertive tomorrow, because something tells me Scioscia won't be switching Kennedy and Cabrera in the batting order anytime soon.

The Yankees? Wasn't too impressed. If Mussina had been pitching in Yankee Stadium, a couple of those long fly balls would have been out of the park, and the Yanks only hit a couple balls hard off of Colon. Mariano Rivera didn't have his best stuff tonight; his control was off. It was probably just rust, as he was only used 5 times since September 20. He looked supremely pissed after the game though. He realizes too that he's no longer invincible.

Looking ahead to Game 2 of this series, it's a battle of two young pitchers, although John Lackey has certainly been there before. Chien-Ming Wang is the type of pitcher Guerrero should feast on, since Vlad can hit a homer on a ball in the dirt and Wang is a sinkerballer. At one point, you have to think Wang will get overconfident, think "There's no way he'll be able to get this one", and that's when Vlad will take him deep. Lackey is the key, however. He was 2-0 against the Yankees this year, striking out 12 in those two starts. If he can get the game to the 7th with the Angels on top, it will be lights out.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros

This one's a rematch of the best division series of 2004. A lot has changed since then--the Astros lost two huge bats, but made up for it with otherworldly pitching. The Braves lost some of their pitching clout, but made up for it with their bats. I expect this to be closely contested and exciting, just like last year.

Andruw Jones should not win the MVP. Yes, he hit a lot of home runs. So did Cecil Fielder, and he didn't win the MVP. Same with Adam Dunn. He's not going to win the MVP. Fact is, Jones (.299 EqA) is a pretty one-dimensional hitter, and he can be pitched to. Chipper Jones (.323) remains the best hitter in a good Atlanta lineup with no weaknesses. Aside from the Yankees, they have the best-hitting infield in the playoffs. Houston relies upon Lance Berkman (.317) and Morgan Ensberg (.311) to carry their offense. Think of them as the poor man's Ramirez and Ortiz. Both have great power and plate discipline. Berkman's OBP has been well over .400 his entire career. Craig Biggio (.271) and Jason Lane (.273) had decent years, but nothing to scare you. Beyond those 4 players, pickings are slim. Houston's lineup is at its best when Orlando Palmeiro plays left field with Berkman shifting to first and kicking out the anemic Mike Lamb. ADVANTAGE: BRAVES

Houston doesn't have much here at all. Eric Bruntlett (.247) is adequate as a late game replacement, but there isn't a guy who can be considered a good option as a pinch hitter. Of course, their starters go so deep into games, that usually isn't an issue. The Braves can go much deeper on the bench, with perpetual prospect Wilson Betemit (.271), Adam Laroche (.262) and utility man Pete Orr (.255) as viable options. ADVANTAGE: BRAVES

Starting Pitchers
This really isn't fair, is it? It's not an exaggeration to say that Houston may have the best front three of all time (this season anyway). Only 6 pitchers this year posted SNLVAR over 7.5. Well, Clemens (9.4), Pettitte (8.5) and Oswalt (7.6) are half of them, and Chris Carpenter is the only other in the playoffs. Atlanta has a strong front two with John Smoltz (6.9) and Tim Hudson (5.3), but beyond that there is the untested Horacio Ramirez (3.4) and either Jorge Sosa (4.2) or John Thomson (1.7). Nope, it really isn't fair. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Brad Lidge (4.634 WXRL) gets all the press, but his setup man Dan Wheeler (3.395) enables Houston to shorten games even more. Chad Qualls (1.910) gives them good depth. Atlanta's bullpen has been a mess all year. Kyle Farnsworth (2.069 WXRL in only 27 innings with Atlanta) has performed extremely well as the closer, but there isn't a dominant setup man behind him, only a smattering of mediocrity. Bobby Cox needs to deploy Farnsworth creatively (ie, not just in the 9th inning) or it could spell defeat for Atlanta. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Andruw Jones actually posted his worst defensive year since his 1996 rookie season this year, although "worst" for him is still above average. This year it was shortstop Rafael Furcal (+22 FRAA) who put up the ridiculous numbers. Add Marcus Giles (+9), and you have the best double-play combo in the playoffs. Houston has defensive standouts up the middle and on the left side of the infield. Centerfielder Willy Taveras was outstanding at +16 FRAA, and catcher Brad Ausmus put up his usual +8. Morgan Ensberg was at +8 FRAA; combined with his .311 EqA, he's the best all-around player on the team. Though both teams have quality players and no real woofers in the field, Houston enjoys a healthy advantage when it comes to defensive efficiency, ranking first in the National League, while Atlanta is only 11th. I'm a bit skeptical of this. Houston's ridiculous pitching probably means there aren't as many well-hit balls they have to field, and Minute Maid has a particularly small left field--when you hit it out there, it's either a homer, which doesn't effect efficiency, or an out. Nevertheless, I'll give Houston the nod here. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Bottom Line
I'm looking forward to this series more than any other, National League purist that I am. Thursday night's matchup of Clemens v. Smoltz has the potential to be a classic. Everyone knows that Houston can pitch well enough to win, so the question is whether they can hit enough to win. Morgan Ensberg may very well be the determining factor. Berkman's brilliance is a given, but Ensberg has to pick up where Carlos Beltran left off last postseason. Ensberg's regular season suggests he can. I think this series will be taut, low scoring, and come down to the 9th inning of game 5. Just like I did last year, I'm taking Houston's bullpen over Atlanta's. ASTROS WIN 3-2.

San Louis Cardinals v. Saint Diego Padres

This one's a laugher, right? Yeah, probably. Thing is, the Padres don't have that bad of a team. If they were matched up with similar team, say, the Braves, they would have a good chance of winning. Unfortunately for them, the Pads are stuck playing the Cards.

It's not quite the Murderer's Row it was last year, what with Scott Rolen's injury and with a decline in Jim Edmonds's numbers (.340 EqA in 2004; .307 EqA this year). Albert Pujols (.343) is still the man, however, and he has solid support in the surrounding lineup with Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders. Though this says more about the competition, St. Louis's lineup remains the best in the National League. San Diego's hitters don't get much recognition because they play in such an extreme pitcher's park, but they actually have a solid group with no weaknesses. Brian Giles (.328) is the only real danger, however; the other hitters range from .248 to .282. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

The solid play of John Rodriguez (.291), Hector Luna (.266), and So Taguchi (.257) allowed the Cardinals to overcome numerous injuries this season. The Padres bench may be even better--all five players had a .260 EqA or better, with Mark Sweeney (.314) leading the way. I'm calling this one even only because the St. Louis bench proved it could do the job when pressed into starting service. ADVANTAGE: EVEN

Starting Pitchers
Chris Carpenter (8.7 SNLVAR) gives the Cardinals the ace they sorely lacked last postseason, and Mark Mulder (5.3) is a solid second starter. Jason Marquis (4.2) and Jeff Suppan (4.4) are good back end guys who won't lose the game for you. San Diego has a stud in Jake Peavy (6.6), but thena bunch of mediocre pitchers whose ERAs were helped by cavernous PetCo Park. Carpenter faded down the stretch a bit, so it's not hard to imagine Peavy winning a duel between the two, but San Diego's lack of depth will undo them. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

The Cardinals pen took a hit on Monday, when it was announced that Al Reyes (2.741 WXRL) would miss the playoffs. The Cards can still go four-deep and have a solid closer, but the Padres can go five-deep, and setup man Scott Linebrink (3.752) and closer Trevor Hoffman (3.769) form one of the best combos in the league. ADVANTAGE: PADRES

The Cards have positive FRAA everywhere except right field, and are especially strong up the middle. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds went for a ridiculous +20 FRAA and catcher Yadier Molina was +18. The Padres are the opposeite, with no plus performers, and weak up the middle, with shortstop Khalil Greene (-12) and centerfielder Dave Roberts (-13) being the main culprits. This is borne out in the defensive efficiency stats--St. Louis was right near the top of the NL rankings while San Diego was in the bottom third. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Bottom Line
The Cardinals are the most complete team in the National League, and have the experience to know not to take San Diego lightly. The Pads won't embarrass themselves, but there will be no mistaking the better team when the series ends. CARDINALS WIN 3-1.

See, look, I posted this before the game started! Houston/Atlanta preview goes up tonight, as well as observations about today's games.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of the Orange County of the State of California v. New York Yankees

Another series with two very dissimilar teams, although the differences here are not quite as pronounced. You have to wonder if the Yankees will be thinking back to the 2002 ALCS, though admittedly, most of the current roster wasn't around back then.

New York's lineup could be the most dangerous in all of baseball. It is ridiculously top heavy: A-Rod (.348 EqA), Giambi (.347), Sheffield (.313), Jeter (.303) and Matsui (.301) are as good as it gets. Posada (.280) and Cano (.272) are solid as well. Bernie Williams is a major hole, however, as is Ruben Sierra, whom Torre inexplicably plays. The optimum Yankee lineup would have Tino Martinez at 1B with Giambi DHing, but we haven't see that too often. LAnaheim can't compete with that firepower, but Vlad Guerrero (.334) has some nice complementary parts in Casey Kotchmann (.291), Chone Figgins (.274) and Bengie Molina (.280). ADVANTAGE: YANKEES

What does $210 million buy you? A cruddy bench, apparently. Put Tino in the starting lineup, and you don't have a bat over .232 on the bench, though there's no shortage of lefties. The Angels have a solid, but not spectacular bench. Figgins's versatility means that guys like Dallas McPherson (.260) and Jeff DaVanon (.253) can get into the starting lineup often and stay fresh off the bench. ADVANTAGE: ANGELS

Starting Pitchers
Randy Johnson recovered from a slow start to post a respectable 5.6 SNLVAR. No one else on the staff even comes close to that, although Shawn Chacon might have if he had pitched with the Yankees the whole season. Chacon and Aaron Small are unknown quantities. They've both pitched very well in limited playing time, but can they make it happen in the playoffs? It's possible, but not likely. Mussina has looked done over the past month. LAnaheim, on the other hand, has a bonafide ace in Bartolo Colon (6.6 SNLVAR), and depth with John Lackey (5.5), Jarrod Washburn (5.6 and a lefty) and Paul Byrd (4.1). ADVANTAGE: ANGELS

This is strength against strength. The only closer-setup combo better than New York's Mariano Rivera (5.203 WXRL) and Tom Gordon (3.306) is the OC's Frankie Rodriguez (major-league leading 5.617) and Scot Shields (4.548). The big diference is that Anaheim's pen goes deeper, with Kelvim Escobar posting 1.528 in limited time, and Brendan Donnelly and Esteban Yan were respectable as well. Beyond Rivera and Gordon, there's Tanyon Sturtze, who's about as good as Donnelly, and then nothing. ADVANTAGE: ANGELS

Stop the presses! For the first time in his career, Derek Jeter posted a positive FRAA (+8)! Unfortunately, everyone else on the Yankees is average or worse. FRAA is a bit too kind to Bernie Williams, but is pretty harsh on A-Rod. In terms of defensive efficiency, New York ranked 22nd in the majors. The Angels have a very strong defensive infield, with Darin Erstad's +13 FRAA undoubtedly making all the other infielders look good and post above average numbers. The outfield is above average, although Steve Finley provides a nice late-game replacement. ADVANTAGE: ANGELS

Bottom Line
As good as New York's lineup is, I think Anaheim will be able to outpitch them. John Lackey was a top 5 starter in the AL after the All-Star break, and I expect him to continue that. The 2005 Angels are, well, a lot like the 2002 version. They'll ride their arms to victory, and this time they have frickin Vladimir Guerrero as well. PREDICTION: ANGELS WIN 3-2.

PS: I'm tired. National League tomorrow. But wait, Cards/Pads starts tomorrow. Don't want to let that affect my pick. Cards in 4. Details tomorrow.

Chicago White Sox v. Boston Red Sox

This is a fascinating series because the teams involved are as diametrically opposed as you can get. We're talking matter/anti-matter here. The White Sox were among the best at run prevention, and the Red Sox were among the worst. The Red Sox were the best offense in the majors, the White Sox were among the worst. Red Sox? Possibly the most popular team in the country. White Sox? Not even the most popular team in their city. Red Sox? Highly publicized championship drought. White Sox? Largely forgotten championship drought that has lasted even longer than the Hub's more famous curse. Ok, enough of that crap.

I almost did a double take when looking these lineups up and down. Every single starter for the Red Sox has an EqA .285 or higher, the lone exception being Edgar Renteria. Even he checks in at a league average .261. David Ortiz rocks it at .335 with Man-Ram checking in at .324. Meanwhile, Chicago only only has one batter, Paul Konerko, who would crack the White Sox lineup (.299). Jermaine Dye (.275) is the only other above average hitter. Everyone else is within 5 points of .260, and Juan Uribe and A.J. Pierzynski are significantly worse. ADVANTAGE: RED SOX

The White Sox have one of the worst benches in the league. Their best hitter off the bench is Willie Harris, with an EqA of .239. The guys who get the most PT off the bench? Pablo Ozuna (.225) and Timo Perez (.188). Ouch. Boston, on the other hand, can deploy Kevin Youkilis (.286), John Olerud (.285) or Kevin Millar (.274), depending on the pitching matchup, and has a respectable backup catcher in Doug Mirabelli (.250), who will catch when Wakefield starts. ADVANTAGE: RED SOX

Starting Rotation
This is where Chicago can claim utter superiority. Tim Wakefield, you've got the best SNLVAR on Boston? 4.5? Sorry, not good enough for the White Sox rotation, who throw Jose Contreras (5.1), Mark Buehrle (5.7), Jon Garland (6.0) and Freddy Garcia (5.1). The big wild card for Boston is Curt Schilling, who had a SNLVAR of 7.7 last year, but has been ridiculously in effective this year, pitching at replacement level (0.0). No matter how you slice it though, Chicago has strong, deep rotation, and Boston...doesn't. Boston's only saving grace may be that the White Sox have struggled to hit right-handers this season. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Once again, the Red Sox find themselves at a major disadvantage here. Mike Timlin (2.245 WXRL) is the only guy who could sniff playing time in Chicago's pen, which goes five deep. Mike Myers (a respectable 1.148) is rendered essentially ineffective, because the White Sox only have 2 lefthanders in their starting lineup, and both of them suck anyway. Boston has to hope that Jon Papelbon doesn't wilt under the pressure. Of course, Chicago could say the same thing about rookie closer Bobby Jenks, but Jenks has almost been a full win better than Papelbon. Still, I don't fully endorse Jenks as top reliever. Even Mariano Rivera had to play deputy at one point. Ozzie had better hope Jenks doesn't blow it. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Using FRAA, Chicago only has one major hole, and that's Tadahito Iguchi (-14 FRAA at second base). Boston is very weak up the middle, with Reneteria at an anemic -21 FRAA, Graffanino at -3, and Johnny Damon at -5, which is probably entirely a result of his pop gun throwing arm. This all shows up in the defensive efficiency rankings. The White Sox were 2nd in the majors, and the Red Sox were 23rd. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Bottom Line
It's very, very tempting to pick the White Sox. They have the pitching, the defense, and the homefield advantage. But...their hitting is just so bad! It's bad enough that even the Red Sox medicore pitching will be able to shut it down. If the White Sox had one...just ONE big left-handed bat, I would pick them. But they don't have one. There isn't much between these two teams, but Boston's offense will come out tops, with MVPapi leading the way. RED SOX WIN 3-2.

Playoff Stats Primer

Before the actual previews a brief (OK, lengthy) description of my methods. When evaluating teams last year, I relied mostly on VORP, which is a cumulative metric based on value measured in runs. It's a good tool for evaluating a player's contribution over the course of a season because it accounts for positional value and durability. When it comes to the playoffs, however, those factors don't matter as much, if at all, because of the small sample of games that we're dealing with--at the most, 19 games, which doesn't tell you anything about how good a team actually is. I decided to focus on rate stats this year, at least on the hitting side. One of the best rate metrics is EqA (explained here), not only because it has a higher correlation with runs scored than any other rate stat, but also because it is intuitively easy to understand. A batter with a .260 EqA is exactly league average. EqAs over .400 equate with the best 15 or so seasons ever. Below .200 is just like Mendoza territory. EqA takes baserunning into account as well, giving a full perspective of his offensive abilities and converting it to a scale that can be read just like that old familiar stat, batting average, allowing for easy comparison. So when you see a number after a guy's name, that's his EqA.

A player's defense is notoriously hard to evaluate because it is greatly affected by the other players on his team. A shortstop and second baseman can help or hurt each other when turning a double play, or a top notch first baseman can scoop balls out of the dirt that otherwise would have been errors. Individual defensive metrics (such as FRAR or FRAA) should not be heavily emphasized. However, when you lay out a team's defensive alignment and compare their FRAA, it can be instructive. For example, if there's a negative FRAA guy (aka, below average) on a team full of positives, you can be sure he's pretty bad. Even with all of his teammates with good gloves couldn't help him out. Same goes for the converse situation. To clarify, looking at a complete layout of FRAA allows you to pick out a team's weak spots relative to itself. Defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play turned into outs, says more about the overall quality of a defense and is best used when comparing one team to another.

I moved away from pitcher VORP this year and looked at Support Neutral Value Added. Support neutral means that the pitcher's value is evaluated outside the context of both his defense and his run support. I specifically looked at SNLVAR, which also adjusts for the quality of opposition. It's a great way for quickly determining how good a pitcher is compared to other pitchers. It separates the great (Roger Clemens and his 9.4 SNLVAR was the best in baseball) from the merely good (Barry Zito's 5.5 SNLVAR was good for 20th). For arbitrary purposes, let's say that a SNLVAR above 6.5 qualifies as an "ace" starter--using that cutoff there were 12 aces in baseball this year. Sounds about right to me.

For similar reasons, I chose to use Reliever Expected Wins Added (among other things) to evaluate relief pitchers. The great thing about WXRL is that it takes into account the importance of situational pitching. Bases loaded with 1 out in the 8th in a tie game is always more important than bases empty with 2 outs in the 9th when leading by 3 runs. WXRL gives more credit to pitchers who perform well in the former situation than it does to pitchers who perform well in the latter. WXRL shows that on some teams, the best pitcher is not always the closer, and that the guy who got 1-2-3 in the 7thg is more deserving of recognition than the guy who gives up 2 runs and still gets credit for a save. WXRL also reveals a manager's usage patterns--guys with high WXRL are the guys a manager has turned to in a tight spot. Best of all, WXRL takes the emphasis off ERA when evaluating relievers. Small sample size issues abound with reliever ERA, and ERA does not factor in high leverage situations. Pitcher A has an ERA of 3.00 but most of his allowed runs result in his team losing the lead. Pitcher B has a 3.75 ERA but gave up most of his runs in blowouts where his team was already losing, while performing well in high pressure situations in close games. Wouldn't you rather have the pitcher with the higher ERA? I sure would.

Hopefully all of this will add up to better predictions, although I admit that predicting the results of a 5 game series is rather silly. Most predictions try to determine the outcome of each individual game. As last year's playoffs showed you, that is a nearly impossible task. My predictions will reflect which team is better in an Eastern thought, holistic sense, with the margin of victory reflecting the degree of difference. I won't try to say who will win, but I'll certainly try to say who should.