September 30, 2003

Minnesota 1, Mystique and Aura 0

What a way to start the playoffs!

Obviously I skipped class yesterday. There was just no way I could mess up a perfectly good day of baseball with school. I apologize to my classmates, my teachers, my mother and anyone else who might care about my education.

Yesterday was like a combination of Christmas Morning and the first day of March Madness, with back-to-back-to-back playoff games, starting at noon. Leading off Day One of the post-season were my beloved Minnesota Twins, facing off against the New York Yankees, in Yankee Stadium.

The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog, Johan Santana, got the start for the Twins and was doing very well through four innings:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT

4 3 0 0 2 3 0 59

Johan got into a little bit of a jam in the bottom of the third inning, but worked his way out of it by striking out Jason Giambi on three straight pitches. The Twins even gave him a 1-0 lead to work with, when Cristian Guzman scored from third base on a sac fly in the top of the third inning.

Then, in Minnesota's half of the 5th, I saw Rick Reed warming up in the bullpen and I started to get worried. Johan was cruising along, he was only at 59 pitches and, as far I could tell, there was nothing wrong with him. When the inning ended, I caught a glimpse of Reed walking in from the bullpen right before ESPN went to a commercial.

I asked everyone I could get a hold of what the heck was happening. When ESPN came back from commercial, Jon Miller decided it was more important to read some lengthy ESPN promo than to tell his audience what was actually going on. He simply said, "We have something to tell you about in the game, but first..." and then read what seemed like a 10 minute commercial for something that I can't remember.

When he was finally done reading his script, the Twins took the field in the bottom of the 5th. Johan was missing and Reed was on the hill. This is about the time I really started to panic. The Twins were up 1-0, but Santana was obviously not right and now Rick Reed (Rick Reed?!) was in to pitch to the New York Yankees.

Not only was Rick Reed horrible this season (5.07 ERA in 135 innings), he was especially horrible against the Yankees:

GS     W     L      IP       ERA

2 0 2 8.1 11.88


As Reed got the first batter he faced (Aaron Boone) to ground out, I got word from a "source" that Johan Santana left the game with a cramp in his right leg, due to dehydration. According to my source, Johan had some trouble with his nerves before the game and was actually throwing up yesterday morning. This shocked the hell out of me, not only because Johan seems like the last guy who would be nervous, but also because he had pitched so damn well for four innings.

Reed got two quick outs, gave up a double to Alfonso Soriano and was quickly yanked in favor of J.C. Romero.

When Reed first came in, I just assumed Ron Gardenhire would ask him to pitch multiple innings, which seemed like a recipe for disaster. To Gardy's credit though, he obviously had a different plan. He simply wanted Reed to pitch to the three straight right-handed hitters that inning (Boone, Rivera, Soriano) and then he brought Romero in to face Nick Johnson, who grounded out to first base for the final out of the inning.

Normally, a starter having to leave the game after just four innings is going to cripple a team in the playoffs. Fortunately for the Twins, MLB decided to put an extra off-day between Game One and Game Two of this series, which gave the Twins a chance to blow out the entire bullpen in the first game and still have everyone ready to go in the second. And that's exactly what the Twins did.

After getting Johnson for the last out of the 5th, Romero stayed in and gave up a single to Derek Jeter leading off the 6th, before retiring Giambi, Posada and Williams to end the inning. I was amazed Romero was able to be effective at all, because he's been very poor this season and he was incredibly wild yesterday.

Romero stayed in to pitch to Hideki Matsui in the bottom of the 7th and walked him, at which point Gardenhire went to Latroy Hawkins, Minnesota's best reliever this year.

Latroy Hawkins has been a Minnesota Twin his entire career, since they drafted him in the seventh round of the 1991 draft. He first joined the major league club in 1995 and then spent the next several seasons as one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. From 1995 to 1999, Hawkins' yearly ERAs were 8.67, 8.20, 5.84, 5.25 and 6.62. He was a staring pitcher that entire time and somehow managed to start a total of 98 games during that span, including 33 in both 1998 and 1999.

Mercifully, the Twins moved him into the bullpen in 2000 and he had the first decent season of his career, pitching 87.2 innings with a 3.39 ERA. They kept him in the pen for 2001 and gave him the closer job, which he failed at miserably. Hawkins went 1-5 with a 5.96 ERA in 51.1 innings, blowing 9 of his 37 save opportunities, before the job was given to Eddie Guardado.

Free from his closer-duties, Hawkins went back to being a setup-man last season and had a great year. He pitched 80.1 innings with a 2.13 ERA and was one of the best relievers in the American League. Despite his great season, I did not trust him one bit. I'm sure it was mostly because, as a Twins fan during the 1990s, I had seem him fail so many times before that I just couldn't get it through my head that he could potentially be a good pitcher.

In an entry breaking down Minnesota's potential playoff-roster last year, I said the following about Latroy Hawkins (September 10, 2002):

"Latroy Hawkins is still Latroy Hawkins, which means I wouldn't have him pitching anywhere near a close playoff game."

Much to my chagrin, Hawkins was brought into several close playoff games last year, including Game Five of the Oakland series, when he was matched up against AL MVP Miguel Tejada in an incredibly important situation.

Here's what I wrote the day after the big Hawkins/Tejada showdown in Game Five (October 6, 2002):

"Ron Gardenhire decided that Latroy Hawkins should probably come into the game, so Romero was taken out and Latroy "Aaron Gleeman wouldn't trust me with a lead less than the Gross National Product" Hawkins came into the game to face Tejada.

"Here comes Donnie Moore."

Latroy threw 8 straight fastballs (most of which were between 96-98 MPH) to Tejada and somehow (thankfully!) struck him out to end the inning.

Latroy had a really great season (80 IP, 2.13 ERA, .217 Opp BA) and he really has a great fastball, but for some reason (possibly because he has a career ERA of 5.38 in over 700 IP) I just don't trust him in any sort of important situation.

I have to give him credit though, he got a really key out from one of the best hitters in baseball."

Something about that strikeout of Tejada and the way Hawkins had complete confidence in his stuff, even in a pressure-packed situation, gave me an entirely different feeling about Latroy Hawkins. He was no longer a guy I couldn't trust who happened to be having a good year, he was a completely different pitcher than the one who had been so bad, for so long.

That newfound trust I had in Hawkins carried over into this season and it snowballed with every outing. Hawkins was, once again, great out of the bullpen. He pitched in 74 games for the Twins this year, throwing a total of 77.1 innings with a 1.86 ERA. He held opponents to a .239 batting average and had a fantastic 75/15 strikeout/walk ratio. In less than a year, he went from someone I had absolutely zero confidence in to the one guy I wanted on the mound in a tight spot.

Yesterday against the Yankees, he once again found himself in one of those spots. After Romero walked Matsui to lead off the 7th inning, Gardenhire called on Hawkins. He gave up a single up the middle to Aaron Boone to put runners on first and second with no outs. Then he got Ruben Sierra to tap back to him, getting the force at second base and putting runners on the corners with one out.

At this point, it was 3-0 Twins with one out in the 7th inning and Alfonso Soriano was at the plate as the game's tying-run. Just as he did against Tejada last season, Latroy Hawkins showed complete confidence in his ability to simply overpower one of the league's best hitters. He pumped 95 MPH fastballs into Soriano again and again, finally getting him to strike out swinging on the fifth pitch of the at bat.

With two outs, Nick Johnson came to the plate, once again as the tying-run. Hawkins kept pumping those fastballs in at 94, 95, 96 MPH, but Johnson wouldn't give in. With the count at 1-2, Johnson took ball two and then fouled off four straight pitches. With the ninth pitch of the at bat coming up, I wanted Hawkins to "give in" and throw Johnson an off-speed pitch. Thankfully, he didn't. Latroy threw a straight fastball right by Johnson, who swung at it and missed for strike three, ending the inning and the threat.

Hawkins came out again for the bottom of the 8th inning. He got Jeter to ground out to second base and then struck out both Giambi and Posada swinging. After eight innings of play, the Twins led 3-0 and Latroy Hawkins' work was done:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT     STR

2 1 0 0 0 4 0 27 21

27 pitches, 21 of them strikes, almost all of them fastballs.

He dominated some of the best hitters in baseball by simply overpowering them with one pitch. And he was able to bridge the gap from the bottom of the 7th inning to the bottom of the 9th, at which point Eddie Guardado took over.

Of course, after Hawkins dominated for two innings, Eddie had to come in and make things "interesting."

Bernie Williams lined the very first pitch Guardado threw into right field for a single. Hideki Matsui lined the second offering from Guardado into deeeeep left field. When it first left the bat, I thought it was an out. When it got to the outfield, I thought it was a home run. And I think it might have been, but Shannon Stewart did this...

It was an amazing catch, saving at least a double and perhaps even a homer. He somehow managed to get all the back to the wall, make a great leap for the ball and catch it, all while avoiding a Jeffrey Maier wannabe who nearly took the ball away from him.

With that catastrophe averted, Guardado got ahead Aaron Boone with a first-pitch strike, the first pitch he threw that wasn't hit very hard somewhere. On the next pitch, Boone lined a hit hard down the left field line for a double, putting runners on second and third, with one out.

Guardado simply didn't have it. He was throwing strikes, but they weren't fooling anyone, and he was getting hit hard. Fortunately for him, Ruben Sierra was the next man he faced. He got Sierra 1-1 and then threw the third pitch high and outside. Sierra, never known for his plate discipline, took a lazy hack at what would have definitely been ball two, popping it up to Jacque Jones in right field for the second out of the inning.

Alfonso Soriano came to the plate next as the tying-run, and he hit a high chopper up the middle that Luis Rivas nearly made a nice play on. Soriano beat it by a step and Bernie Williams scored from third for New York's first run of the game. Runners on first and third, two outs, and suddenly Nick Johnson was up as the game-winning run.

I don't know how exactly he did it, but Guardado somehow got Johnson to hit a ground ball to third base, which Corey Koskie fielded cleanly and heaved over to first for the final out of the game.

Twins 3, Yankees 1.

If you would have told me about this game and I hadn't watched it, I would have had a hard time believing you. First of all, Johan Santana left the game after four innings and was relieved by Rick Reed, yet the Twins didn't lose. The Twins also had to get four outs from J.C. Romero, who has been terrible this year. Then Eddie Guardado came in, had absolutely nothing, and had to rely on a great defensive play by Shannon Stewart (seriously, a great defensive play by Shannon Stewart) in the bottom of the 9th inning to help save the game.

Not exactly how I envisioned a possible Game One victory taking place, but I sure am happy to have it.

A couple of other notes on the game...

While Stewart made that great catch for the Twins, New York's defense was very poor. As I discussed in some length during my preview of this series, the Yankees have the worst defense of any of the playoff teams and one of the worst in all of baseball. It certainly showed yesterday.

The Twins got several "infield singles" on plays that certainly could have been made. The first run they scored came courtesy of some aggressive baserunning by Cristian Guzman, who was able to beat a throw from Matsui into third base. Actually, the throw beat him to the bag, but Aaron Boone missed the tag.

Guzman then scored on a short fly ball to center field, beating the throw from Bernie Williams with relative ease, despite the fact that Bernie uncorked it from just behind second base.

The second and third runs of the game were almost all because of New York's sub par D. With Matthew LeCroy, perhaps the slowest runner in baseball, on first base, Torii Hunter hit a line drive single into center field. Bernie Williams ran over to cut it off, but the ball skipped under his glove. LeCroy, who had already stopped at second, came all the way around to score, and Hunter went sliding into third with a "triple." But wait, it gets better.

As Hunter was sliding into third, Soriano cut the throw off from the outfield and decided he was going to try to throw Torii out. The throw sailed over Boone's head, allowing Hunter to sprint home for what was essentially an inside-the-park homer.

If Matsui makes a better throw or Boone makes a better tag, the Twins don't score the first run. If Bernie doesn't completely botch the play in center field, they may not have scored the second and third runs. The Yankees could very easily have won the game 1-0.

Okay, enough about the Twins and Yankees. Here are a few thoughts on the other two games from yesterday...

When you make a whole bunch of statements and predictions about a playoff series, like I did in all of my series previews, you often find that many of your comments turn out to be completely wrong or at least fairly irrelevant. I mean, you can say one team is good at this or another team should be able to take advantage of that but, more often than not, stuff will happen that you did not predict at all and the stuff you did predict will turn out to be a non-factor.

But yesterday, it seemed like a lot of the topics I discussed in the previews were very relevant...

In talking about Florida's offense in my Marlins/Giants preview, I said the following:

"You've got a team full of right-handed hitters who don't do nearly as well against righties as they do lefties, and they are going up against one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, who dominates right-handed (and left-handed) batters. Oh, and they'll be seeing him twice this series if it goes the distance. Throw in the fact that it is very likely both of Schmidt's starts will come in Pac Bell, where he is 15-6 with a 2.31 ERA over the last two years, and the Marlins could be in serious trouble."

Here is Jason Schmidt's line from yesterday afternoon:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT

9 3 0 0 0 5 0 111

Schmidt dominated Florida's hitters, holding the Marlins to just three lousy singles all game. He needed just 111 pitches for the complete-game shutout, throwing 74% of them for strikes.

In that same preview, I talked about whether or not I would pitch to Barry Bonds:

"If I were a manager facing Barry Bonds in a playoff series, my decision would be an easy one. Whenever it was even remotely possible, I would walk him. I wouldn't do it in the first few innings when the bases were empty or with the bases loaded, but he'd be getting four wide of the plate in just about every other situation.

I just don't think it is worth the heavy risk you take throwing him something close to the strike zone and the rest of the San Francisco lineup is not incredibly strong. Without Bonds' totals included, the Giants are batting .262 as a team, with a slugging percentage of just .400. I would simply make those other hitters beat me."

Jack McKeon and the Marlins did exactly that yesterday, walking Bonds 3 times in 4 plate appearances. They forced the other hitters in San Francisco's lineup to beat them, and they did. With the score 1-0 Giants in the bottom of the 8th, Bonds came up to the plate with two outs and no one on base. The Marlins promptly intentionally walked him, which is a pretty extreme case of not pitching to someone, but one that I agree with in that situation.

After getting the walk, Bonds took off for second base and made it, when Chad Fox's throw over to first was in the dirt. Then, with Bonds on second courtesy of the "steal," Edgardo Alfonzo hit a deeeeep drive to center field, over the leaping Juan Pierre. Bonds came around to score and it was 2-0 Giants. Obviously Florida didn't score, so the one run would have held up, but a little insurance in a tight ballgame never hurt anyone.

Some stuff I said in my preview of the Cubs/Braves series also seemed fairly important last night:

"It is going to be up to Atlanta's offense to put tons of runs on the board, like they have all season. I just don't see them doing that against Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and even Zambrano.

If Chicago can put together any sort of offense in this series and if Dusty Baker can effectively manage the bullpen, I think the Cubs will surprise a lot of people. If I were Dusty, I would shorten things up so that the only guys seeing the light of day in anything resembling a close game are Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski. That gives him a lefty, a righty and a closer, which should be plenty in the post-season, especially with Chicago's starters."

And what happened last night? Well, Kerry Wood shutdown the powerful Atlanta offense, pitching 7 great innings before tiring in the 8th. Then, Dusty Baker went to the bullpen used three relievers to finish the game - "Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski." They were even in that same order!

I also said the following about Atlanta's pitching-staff:

"This feels very strange coming out of my mouth, but I really think the Braves do not have enough quality pitching. Ortiz has 21 wins this year, but he hasn't been that great, as his 3.81 ERA shows.

In the bullpen, it is John Smoltz and a whole lot of iffy guys. The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign."

Russ Ortiz was all over the place all night and the Cubs eventually touched him up for 4 runs in sixth inning. Actually, only 3 runs were in when Ortiz left the game, at which point Ray King came in and immediately gave up a run-scoring single to Kenny Lofton.

Repeat after me: "The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign."

That's all for today. Can you believe all of that happened and it was just the first day of the playoffs? Man, I love baseball! Enjoy today's games and I'll see you here tomorrow...

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

September 29, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Marlins - Giants


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
San Francisco 100 61 .621 755 638 .583 .271 .7219
Florida 91 71 .562 751 692 .541 .266 .7039

San Francisco 4.69 .264 .338 .425 180 281 593 980
Florida 4.64 .266 .333 .421 157 292 515 978

San Francisco 3.96 .250 .321 .386 136 259 546 1006
Florida 4.27 .258 .325 .396 128 300 530 1132

I got the magic stick

I know if I can hit once, I can hit twice

I hit the baddest chicks

Shorty don't believe me, then come with me tonight

And I'll show you maaagic

(What? What?) Maaagic

I got the magic stick

--- Lil Kim and 50 Cent, "Magic Stick"

Here now, the aforementioned "Magic Stick":

                     AVG      OBP      SLG     AB/HR

2001 .328 .515 .863 6.52
2002 .370 .582 .799 8.76
2003 .341 .529 .749 8.67

2002 Post-Season .333 .597 .978 5.63

Barry Bonds has just completed what I believe to be the greatest 3-year run in the history of baseball. And stuck in the middle of those three extraordinary seasons was one of the greatest post-seasons in baseball history too.

While leading the Giants to within one win of a championship, Bonds got on base 60% of the time last October and, when he was actually pitched to, hit a home run every 5.6 at bats.

Say what you want about Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez or Carlos Delgado or Manny Ramirez or Jim Thome - they are all great, great hitters. But none of them change the entire face of a game like Barry Bonds does.

When Bonds comes to the plate this post-season, the opposing team will have two options:

1) Put a runner on base.

2) Risk a hit 35% of the time and a home run 15% of the time.

It's really that simple. If you don't pitch to him, there is a zero percent chance of him hitting a ball into McCovey Cove. On the other hand, if you do pitch to him, there is a chance he might actually make an out, but there is also a very good chance the at bat will end with a bunch of guys on rafts diving for a baseball.

I really don't know which approach the Florida Marlins will take. In last year's playoffs, Bonds' first-round opponent, the Altanta Braves, decided they would pitch to him. He walked "only" four times in five games...and also hit 3 homers.

The other two teams the Giants faced, St. Louis and Anaheim, decided they'd feel safer just not dealing with Barry. He walked a total of 23 times in 12 games during the NLCS and the World Series. And, of course, when the Cardinals and Angels did pitch to him, he did plenty of damage (5 homers in 28 at bats).

To be honest, if I were a manager facing Barry Bonds in a playoff series, my decision would be an easy one. Whenever it was even remotely possible, I would walk him. I wouldn't do it in the first few innings when the bases were empty or with the bases loaded, but he'd be getting four wide of the plate in just about every other situation.

I just don't think it is worth the heavy risk you take throwing him something close to the strike zone and the rest of the San Francisco lineup is not incredibly strong. Without Bonds' totals included, the Giants are batting .262 as a team, with a slugging percentage of just .400. I would simply make those other hitters beat me.

Now, obviously every team Bonds plays, whether in the regular season or the post-season, has a plan to not deal with him in key situations. The question is whether or not the Marlins have decided to pitch to him in the questionable spots. Personally, I'm hoping they do pitch to him on occasion, just because I enjoy watching baseballs orbit into the October night sky.

It would seem at first that the Marlins, with two tough lefties in their starting rotation, are better suited than most teams when it comes to actually pitching to Bonds. I say it would seem that way "at first" because...well, it's not actually that way at all.

When the Marlins put lefties Mark Redman (14-9, 3.59 ERA) and Dontrelle Willis (14-6, 3.30) on the mound in Game Three and Game Four, they'll be going up against the following:

Bonds vs LHP

2002 .384 .976
2003 .363 .790

Bonds' batting average and slugging percentage have actually been significantly better against lefties than against righties in each of the last two seasons.

Despite that, throughout the season opposing managers have summoned their lefty-specialist from the bullpen to face Bonds in the late innings of close games. I suspect if you polled most managers and most casual fans, they would answer that yes, putting as many lefties as possible out there against Bonds is a good idea.

In theory, it is a good plan. But plans against Barry Bonds don't work, even in theory. Interestingly enough, San Francisco has built a lineup that is actually able to offset Bonds being stifled by left-handed pitching, even though that isn't actually the case.

Here's how San Francisco's everyday players compare against righties and lefties, using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, which I feel is a more accurate snapshot of a hitter's value than simple OPS (on-base % + slugging %):

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C Benito Santiago .972 1.031 + 6%
1B J.T. Snow 1.110
Andres Galarraga 1.201 + 8%
2B Ray Durham 1.001 1.267 + 27%
SS Rich Aurilia .893 1.177 + 32%
3B Edgardo Alfonzo .959 .909 - 5%
LF Barry Bonds 1.643 1.659 + 1%
CF Marquis Grissom .920 1.335 + 45%
RF Jose Cruz Jr. .970 1.205 + 24%

The one spot in San Francisco's lineup that produces less against left-handed pitching is third base, and even that spot declines by only 5%. Everywhere else, they increase their production against southpaws.

Marquis Grissom leads the way by being 45% more productive offensively against lefties. That may seem like an unbelievable increase, but consider Grissom's splits:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .280 .298 .409
vs LHP .364 .399 .657

That's about as big a split as you'll see from a right-handed everyday player. And he's not alone.

Rich Aurilia increases his production by 32% against lefties, Ray Durham goes up 27% and Jose Cruz Jr. rises 24%. Benito Santiago goes up a modest 6%, while the first base platoon of J.T. Snow and Andres Galarraga is about 8% better against lefties.

This is a lineup built to destroy left-handed pitching. Here are the team-totals:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .257 .330 .402
vs LHP .285 .365 .500

Using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, San Francisco's hitting against lefties is about 16% better than it is against righties. Their batting average goes up 28 points, their OBP goes up 35 points and their slugging percentage increases by nearly 100 points, which is huge.

In fact, the Giants have the highest team slugging percentage in all of baseball against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, their .402 SLG ranks just 25th.

It's really pretty interesting. The Giants have a team with a left-handed superstar who is so good that he lures other teams into putting left-handed pitching on the mound. They have built the team around that superstar and, whether by coincidence or design, have surrounded him with hitters who absolutely feast on lefties. When you add in the fact that Bonds himself is hitting like .370 with an .875 slugging percentage against lefties in the last two years...well, it's not a very encouraging sight for a team relying heavily on two left-handed starters, like the Florida Marlins are.

While the Giants are perhaps the most extreme team in baseball when it comes to their hitting against righties and lefties, the Florida Marlins are very similar.

Florida's everyday lineup features one left-handed hitter, one switch-hitter, and six right-handed hitters. Their top bench-player (whichever one of Miguel Cabrera and Jeff Conine doesn't start) is also right-handed. As you might expect from an offense with all those righties, they have been much better against left-handed pitching this season:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .258 .325 .406
vs LHP .292 .357 .469

It's not quite the same gap that the Giants have (a 16% difference), but it's significant. Using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, Florida is about 12% better offensively against left-handed pitching.

By having a lineup that includes 75% right-handed hitters (not counting the pitcher), I think Florida is perhaps even more vulnerable to good right-handed pitching than San Francisco, who typically start two lefties (Snow, Bonds) and two switch-hitters (Durham, Cruz Jr.) against righties.

This could be a major problem for the Marlins in this series, because they will be facing one of the top right-handed pitchers in all of baseball right away, in Game One.

San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt finished the year 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA in 207.2 innings. He struck out 208, walked just 46, and allowed only 14 homers. His splits against righties and lefties were fairly even.

Here are the numbers the Marlins should be concerned about, his numbers against righties:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .204 .240 .335

Wow. He gave up just seven homers in 358 at bats against righties and had an amazing 113/15 strikeout/walk ratio against them.

So, you've got a team full of right-handed hitters who don't do nearly as well against righties as they do lefties, and they are going up against one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, who dominates right-handed (and left-handed) batters. Oh, and they'll be seeing him twice this series if it goes the distance. Throw in the fact that it is very likely both of Schmidt's starts will come in Pac Bell, where he is 15-6 with a 2.31 ERA over the last two years, and the Marlins could be in serious trouble.

The one area where I think Florida might have a chance to hurt Schmidt is with their running-game. Schmidt has not had a ton of steal attempts against him during the last few years, which is probably a sign that he is at least decent at keeping an eye on runners. However, when someone does try to steal, they are usually successful.

Here are his stolen base against numbers since joining the Giants in the middle of the 2001 season:

          SB     CS       %

2001 4 2 67
2002 12 2 86
2003 17 0 100
TOTAL 33 4 89

Add in the fact that Benito Santiago threw out just 18.5% of attempted steals this year and I think Schmidt is definitely susceptible to teams that want to run.

And, if there is one thing the Marlins can do offensively, against righties and lefties, it is run. They stole 150 bases this season, the most in all of baseball. Juan Pierre led MLB in stolen bases with 65 (at a 77% clip). Luis Castillo and Derrek Lee each stole 21, followed by Juan Encarnacion at 19 and Ivan Rodriguez at 10.

In looking at their stolen base numbers though, I was absolutely shocked to see what Luis Castillo has done this year:

             SB     CS      %

Pre-2003 229 84 73
2003 21 19 53

Castillo stole 50, 62, 33 and 48 bases from 1999-2002, leading the league in both 2000 and 2002.

I guess I had just been looking at Florida' team stolen bases numbers all season, figuring Castillo and Pierre were both racking up steals left and right. Turns out Pierre was, but Castillo has really struggled. Not only did he steal just 21 bases, his lowest total in a full-season, he did so while being caught 19 times, which is a horrible "success" rate.

Castillo stole 14 bases while being caught 9 times in the first-half and then went 7/17 (41%) after the All-Star break. I haven't seen him play enough in the second-half to say either way, but it wouldn't surprise me if there is something physically wrong with him. For the most part, he is still hitting (.320 in the second-half, although just .244 in September) though, and much of his hitting is based on speed too, so who knows?

Castillo is one of the best on-base threats in the league and his ability to steal bases would be a huge asset for the Marlins in this series, particularly against Schmidt. If he's not completely healthy though, running him is a mistake, which means Pierre should probably be the only chicken running around with his head cut off.

I think the Marlins have a very tough task ahead of them in this series and I would make them the biggest underdog in the first-round, even bigger than the Twins, who are going up against the mighty Yankees.

Florida is starting the series with two right-handed starters, Josh Beckett (9-8, 3.04) in Game One and Brad Penny (14-10, 4.13) in Game Two. I suspect they would likely have had Redman or Willis in one of those two spots (and maybe both) if they'd had an opportunity to set their rotation how they wanted it, but the way the Giants hit lefties, I think it's a good thing they didn't.

The way I see it, the Marlins absolutely must take at least one of the first two games of this series, in San Francisco, because they have almost no shot of winning both games in Florida, at least not with two lefty starters on the mound. Taking Game One against Schmidt is going to be a very tough task and, with the way they hit righties, taking Game Two against Sidney Ponson (17-12, 3.75) is only going to be slightly easier. Still, I think Game Two is the one the Marlins have the best shot at winning.

Game Three, against lefty Kirk Rueter (10-5, 4.53), and Game Four, against rookie right-hander Jerome Williams (7-5, 3.30), would also seem to be very winnable games for the Marlins. Unfortunately for Florida, those are also the two games they will send their lefties to the mound.

The good news for the Marlins is that I really don't think they'll have to face Jason Schmidt twice in this series. The bad news is...

Giants in four.

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2003 Playoff Preview:

Cubs - Braves


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
Atlanta 101 61 .623 907 740 .600 .284 .7179
Chicago 88 74 .543 724 683 .530 .258 .7096

Atlanta 5.60 .284 .349 .475 235 321 545 933
Chicago 4.47 .259 .323 .416 172 302 492 1158

Atlanta 4.57 .257 .327 .401 147 309 555 992
Chicago 4.22 .241 .324 .372 143 248 617 1404

It's amazing how much the style and strength of a team can change in just one year.

Last year, the Atlanta Braves won 101 games and the National League East division on the strength of their pitching-staff. They had Greg Maddux (16-6, 2.62 ERA), Tom Glavine (18-11, 2.96) and Kevin Millwood (18-8, 3.24), along with baseball's best bullpen. They were just 10th in the National League in scoring, but they were able to win because their pitching was the best in the league.

Fast forward to this season, and the Atlanta Braves have once again won 101 games and the NL East division. This time however, everything is reversed. They led the NL in runs scored and were just 9th in the league in runs allowed. Taking it even further, their bullpen went from the best in the league to perhaps the team's biggest weakness.

Last season, Atlanta relievers had a combined ERA of 2.60, the lowest in the National League. This year, they have a 4.01 ERA.

Last season, Atlanta relievers were worth a combined 91.5 "Adjusted Runs Prevented" according to Baseball Prospectus, which, again, ranked them first in the NL. This season, the Braves' bullpen was worth -9.0 (yes, negative 9.0) "Adjusted Runs Prevented," which ranks them 10th in the National League.

It's really an amazing and amazingly fast shift, and I am not quite sure which style gives Atlanta a better shot in the post-season.

My gut reaction is that having strong starting pitching, a great bullpen and a poor offense would be better for the post-season than having average starting pitching, a weak bullpen and a great offense. But I really have no idea for sure. I do know that, for the better part of the last decade or so, the Braves have relied upon strong pitching and mediocre offense, and their playoff results are mixed, to say the least.

In my preview of Atlanta's first-round matchup with the Giants in last year's playoffs, I asked the following (September 30, 2002):

The question will be, can the Atlanta offense score enough runs?

That is no longer an issue for the Braves, who feature the National League's most dangerous lineup and even have a good bench for the first time in a long time.

By going up against the Cubs, the Braves will be getting a taste of their own medicine from years past. Chicago has one of the NL's best pitching-staffs and a particularly strong starting rotation, just like Atlanta had for so many years.

Here are the starters Atlanta will see in this series:

                       IP      ERA      SO

Kerry Wood 211.0 3.20 266
Carlos Zambrano 214.0 3.11 168
Mark Prior 211.1 2.43 245
Matt Clement 201.2 4.11 171

Wood and Prior (my pick for NL Cy Young) ranked 1-2 in the NL in strikeouts and Clement and Zambrano ranked 10th and 11th. Clement is the old-man of the group at 29, while Wood is 26 and Prior and Zambrano are 23 and 22 respectively.

Four right-handers who throw some serious gas. They also have some flamethrowers in the bullpen, with their three top relievers, Kyle Farnsworth, Joe Borowski and Mike Remlinger, combining to strike out 241 batters in 213.2 innings. Not coincidentally, the 2003 Cubs set the all-time major league record for team strikeouts in a season, with 1,404.

What should be interesting about this matchup is that, while the Cubs strikeout more batters than any team in baseball history, the Atlanta Braves struck out just 933 times this season, the fewest in the National League.

I'm not exactly sure who is at an advantage in this situation, if anyone. The Cubs obviously rely on getting lots of strikeouts, which won't be easy to do against the Braves. On the other hand, the Braves offense also relies on not striking out much and making contact, which will be very hard to do against Chicago's pitching-staff. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

The way things are setup right now, the Cubs will be facing Russ Ortiz (21-7, 3.81 ERA) in Game One, followed by Mike Hampton (14-8, 3.84) and Greg Maddux (15-11, 3.97) in the second and third game. After that, the Braves could either go back to Ortiz on short-rest in Game Four and Hampton on short-rest in Game Five, or they could go with rookie Horacio Ramirez (12-4, 4.00) in Game Four and then come back with Ortiz on full-rest in Game Five.

I'm guessing they'll go with Ramirez, because he's been good this season and they will likely want Ortiz on full-rest for a potential deciding game. If the Cubs do get to face both Hampton and Ramirez in this series, I think that gives them an advantage, because Chicago has done very well against left-handed pitching this season.

2003 Cubs

vs Right .254 .317 .412
vs Left .276 .343 .429

That's a team-wide increase of 22 points of batting average, 26 points of on-base percentage and 17 points of slugging percentage when lefties are on the mound.

If Dusty Baker plays his cards right, he could throw out a lineup featuring the following numbers against lefties:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG

Sammy Sosa .333 .440 .571
Eric Karros .366 .441 .545
Moises Alou .346 .399 .567
Mark Grudzielanek .360 .444 .470
Ramon Martinez .346 .391 .494
Aramis Ramirez .285 .322 .562

Those are some scary numbers, particularly when you consider that all six of those guys are right-handed and that righties hit .278 off Hampton and .277 off Ramirez this season.

This feels very strange coming out of my mouth, but I really think the Braves do not have enough quality pitching. Ortiz has 21 wins this year, but he hasn't been that great, as his 3.81 ERA shows. Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, but he is nearing the end of the line and his ERA was right up around 4.00 too. And Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez going up against those six lefty-bashers that Chicago can put out against them doesn't look good.

In the bullpen, it is John Smoltz and a whole lot of iffy guys. The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign. Heck, even Smoltz is a little questionable because he is coming off of a recent injury.

Meanwhile, Kerry Wood twice and Mark Prior once in a 5-game series is pretty nasty, no matter how good the offense they are facing is. Is there one pitching matchup in this series that favors the Braves? Wood versus Ortiz? Zambrano versus Hampton? Prior versus Maddux? Clement versus Ramirez? I don't see one, which means it is going to be up to Atlanta's offense to put tons of runs on the board, like they have all season. I just don't see them doing that against Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and even Zambrano.

If Chicago can put together any sort of offense in this series and if Dusty Baker can effectively manage the bullpen, I think the Cubs will surprise a lot of people. If I were Dusty, I would shorten things up so that the only guys seeing the light of day in anything resembling a close game are Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski. That gives him a lefty, a righty and a closer, which should be plenty in the post-season, especially with Chicago's starters.

In the Boston/Oakland series, I went against the old baseball cliche and picked the good hitting over the good pitching. This time, I think I'll side with the pitching...

Cubs in five.

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September 28, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Twins - Yankees


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
New York 101 61 .623 877 716 .600 .280 .6977
Minnesota 90 72 .556 801 758 .531 .262 .7106

New York 5.41 .271 .356 .453 230 304 684 1042
Minnesota 4.94 .277 .341 .431 155 318 512 1027

New York 4.41 .266 .313 .408 145 323 375 1119
Minnesota 4.68 .269 .318 .428 187 302 402 997

My Beloved Twinkies vs. The Evil Empire

The Homer Hanky vs. Mystique and Aura

$65 million vs. $160 million

The Land of 10,000 Lakes vs. The Big Apple

Minnesota Nice vs. Bronx Cheers

David vs. Goliath

In the first round of last season's playoffs, another "David" - the Anaheim Angels - faced off against the Goliath that is the New York Yankees. In my preview of that series, I suggested that Anaheim's ability to make contact at the plate would serve them well against a sub par Yankee defense.

Here's exactly what I said at the time (September 30, 2002):

"The Yankees' pitching and defense is their main weakness and I think the Angels are the perfect team to exploit it.

You see, statistically, the Yankees have the worst defense among the eight playoff teams. Basically, they convert less balls in play into outs than the other teams. They can generally "get away" with it because their pitchers strike so many guys out. The Yankees were 2nd in the AL in strikeouts, which means they don't allow as many balls in play for their defense to deal with as most teams.

But if there is one thing the Angels hitters can take advantage of, it is a team that struggles when the ball is put in play. The Angels simply do not strikeout. They whiffed only 805 times this entire season, which was far and away the lowest total in all of baseball. In fact, they were the only team with less than 920 strikeouts.

So, the Yankees rely on their pitching staff's ability to limit the amount of balls put into play, thus limiting the effect their sub par defense has. But one thing the Angels do is put the ball in play. It is really an interesting contrast. A team that racks up big strikeout totals and a team that doesn't strikeout. A team that has trouble converting balls in play into outs and a team that hits the most balls in play in all of baseball.

We should be seeing a lot of bouncing ground balls that get by the outstretched gloves of Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano. We should be seeing a lot of balls flying past Bernie Williams and bouncing into the gaps."

And that is, if I may say so myself, exactly what we saw. The Angels didn't strike out, they forced New York's defense into a position where they needed to make lots of plays, and the end result was a whole lot of hits for the Angels. Anaheim struck out just 18 times in four games, they hit .376 as a team in the series, and scored an average of nearly 8 runs per game.

Fast forward now to this season. The Yankees once again come into the post-season with the worst team defense for converting balls in play into outs of the eight playoff teams. In fact, their team "Defensive Efficiency" is even worse than it was last season:

2002      .7079

2003 .6977

While last season the Yankees had the worst Defensive Efficiency of the eight playoff teams, their overall ranking was a somewhat respectable 18th out of the 30 MLB teams. This season, they not only have the worst Defensive Efficiency of the eight playoff teams, there are only a total of three teams in all of baseball worse than them. So, if last year's Yankee defense looked susceptible to an attack by an offense like Anaheim's, this year's team looks even more like it could be killed by an onslaught of balls in play.

And, at first glance, last year's Angels team and this season's Twins team have quite a bit in common. When I think of the 2002 Angels, I think of a group of hitters who went up there hacking and didn't hit tons of homers, but who relied on high batting averages and the ability to smack tons of balls into the gaps.

This current Twins team seems to be very similar offensively. They aren't particularly patient at the plate and they don't really have a whole lot of home run power, but they can lace singles, doubles and triples all over the field with the best of them.

In fact, take a look at how the two teams compare offensively:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG      HR    2B+3B

2002 Angels .282 .341 .433 152 365
2003 Twins .277 .341 .431 155 363

Almost identical, across-the-board. So, if you go by those numbers and each team's offensive reputation, it would seem like the Twins are a good bet to exploit New York's defense in much the same way Anaheim did last season.

Except for one thing - the Twins don't put the ball in play nearly as often as the Angels did. And that is, after all, the real reason why Anaheim's offense was so well suited for dismantling New York's defense. Take a look at how often each team struck out:

                     SO      AB%      PA%     SO/G

2002 Angels 805 14.1 12.7 4.97
2003 Twins 1027 18.2 16.3 6.34

Yes, the Twins don't have much home run power and yes, they hit lots of singles, doubles and triples. But they also strike out quite a bit. While the Angels had over 100 fewer strikeouts than any other team in the American League last season, the Twins had the 6th-most strikeouts in the AL. On a per-game basis, the 2003 Twins struck out 28% more often than the 2002 Angels did.

Basically, it doesn't seem as though the Twins are as well suited for exploiting New York's poor defense as last year's Anaheim team was. Because of that, I wouldn't expect the Twins to be able to simply bash the Yankees into submission like the Angels did. That means the Twins are going to have to outplay the team with the best record in the American League in all facets of the game, which has been a whole lot easier said than done for them lately.

When I first realized the Twins would be playing the Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs, I wrote an entry describing the dominance the Yankees have had over the Twins during the last two seasons.

Here is a little bit from that entry (September 19, 2003):

"The Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees played each other seven times this season. The Yankees won all seven games. In 2002, the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees played each other six times. The Yankees won all six games. In fact, in order to find the last time the Twins beat the Yankees, you'd have to go all the way back to May 10th of 2001.

The last two seasons against the Yankees have been so ugly for the Twins that it is something most Twins fans, myself included, have just sort of tried to forget about. If you pretend hard enough that it never happened, it starts to feel like the truth after a while, you know?

During their last 13 meetings, the Yankees have outscored the Twins by a total of 90 to 36. New York has beaten Minnesota with pitching, holding them to 3 runs or fewer in 10 of the 13 games, and they've beaten them by simply bashing the hell out of them, scoring 10+ runs in 4 of the 13 games."

Of course, all of those 13 losses took place a long time ago. I don't think what happened last season is particularly relevant for either team and even the seven straight losses this season were so long ago that both teams are playing much differently than they were back in early April.

In Minnesota's case, they struggled quite a bit in the first-half of the season. After their last loss to New York, they were 9-10 and they went into the All-Star break at 44-49. The Twins are 46-23 since the All-Star break and, prior to resting all of their starters against the Tigers in the final series of the year, they reeled off 11 straight wins.

Even beyond the wins and losses, the Twins' personnel is much different. Joe Mays and Rick Reed combined to lose 4 of the 7 games against the Yankees this year, and neither of them is likely to see much action in the playoffs (Mays won't see any, since he's injured). In addition to not having to start Mays and Reed against the Yanks, the Twins also have this young left-handed pitcher named Johan Santana who looks like he might be pretty good one day. If you've read this blog, you might have heard of him about...oh, I dunno, 50,000 times?

I remember a time not too long ago when I had a "FREE JOHAN SANTANA" watch on the left side of this page and I spent countless words begging the Twins to put him into the starting rotation. They finally did, he went 11-2 as a starter, and now he's starting Game One of the playoffs, against the New York Yankees.

Because of what can only be described as a "unique" schedule, the Twins and Yankees have an extra off-day between Game One and Game Two. That means each team's #1 starter can start Game One and then also start Game Four on full-rest. It also gives each team the option of going with their #2 starter in Game Two and then again in Game Five, on short-rest.

I've heard some say that this gives an unfair advantage to the Yankees, who can now start Mike Mussina twice on full-rest and have the option of skipping their #4 starter, David Wells, altogether. It is certainly an advantage for New York, but I actually think it is potentially a bigger positive for the Twins.

While the Yankees are starting Mussina twice on full-rest in Game One and Game Four, the Twins can do the same with Santana. And, like New York, they have the option of starting their #2 starter, Brad Radke, on short-rest in Game Five. That would allow them to skip their #4 starter, who likely would have been Kenny Rogers. So really, which team is better off? The one that gets to skip David Wells (15-7, 4.14 ERA) or the one that gets to skip Kenny Rogers (13-8, 4.57 ERA)? I'd certainly rather have Wells on the mound if I had my choice.

If both teams do decide to skip their #4 starters, that means they will be going with 3-man rotations, both consisting of two right-handers and one lefty. The Twins will go with Santana in Game One and Game Four, Radke in Game Two and Game Five (on short-rest) and Kyle Lohse in Game Three. Meanwhile, the Yankees would be going with Mussina in Game One and Game Four, Andy Pettitte in Game Two and Game Five (on short-rest) and Roger Clemens in Game Three.

I love the possibility of Santana and Radke starting four of the five games. They are Minnesota's two best starting pitchers and they have both been excellent since the All-Star break. Santana is 8-1 with a 3.13 ERA and Radke is 9-1 with a 3.24 ERA. I am even fairly confident that Radke will be effective starting on only three days of rest.

I do not, however, think that starting Kyle Lohse in Game Three is a good decision. First of all, Lohse gives up a lot of homers (28 in 201 IP), which is not a quality you want in a pitcher against the Yankees. Second, he has struggled against the Yankees this year, going 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in two starts against them. And third, he throws the baseball right-handed and struggles against left-handed batters, which is playing right into New York's strength.

2003 Yankees

vs RHP .272 .357 .458
vs LHP .266 .354 .441

When they go up against left-handed pitching, the Yankees, as a team, lose 6 points of batting average, 3 points of OBP and 17 points of slugging. 3 points of AVG and 6 points of OBP is obviously nothing huge, but 17 points of SLG is fairly significant. That said, sometimes team numbers against righties and lefties can be misleading because, for example, New York's totals are impacted by guys who are no longer on the team.

So, instead of looking at their team-totals, I think it would be better to examine the performances of the players who will likely get the bulk of the playing time in the series.

Many people use OPS (on-base % + slugging %) to measure a hitter's offense, but I rarely do so, mostly because OPS is a very flawed stat, in my opinion. For one thing, it simply adds OBP and SLG together, weighing them equally. In reality, OBP is far more important to run scoring than SLG is. Because of that, I believe a more accurate snapshot of a hitter's offense is actually (OBP x 1.7) + SLG.

Here is a breakdown of New York's everyday players against righties and lefties, using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG:

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C Jorge Posada 1.198 1.188 - 1%
1B Jason Giambi 1.329 .976 - 27%
2B Alfonso Soriano 1.078 1.178 + 9%
SS Derek Jeter 1.078 1.240 + 15%
3B Aaron Boone 1.041 .832 - 20%
LF Hideki Matsui 1.071 .950 - 11%
CF Bernie Williams .996 1.110 + 11%
RF Karim Garcia 1.062
Ruben Sierra .922 - 13%
DH Nick Johnson 1.226 1.248 + 2%

If the Yankees end up going with a right field platoon of Karim Garcia and Ruben Sierra (and they may not, depending on the health of David Dellucci), that will mean, of their 9 spots in the lineup, 5 of them are worse against lefties. But really, Jorge Posada and Nick Johnson are essentially the same against righties and lefties, meaning you've really got four spots that decline against lefties, three that increase, and two that stay the same.

Of course, the declines (27%, 20%, 13% and 11%) are a lot bigger than the increases (15%, 11% and 9%), so I definitely think the Yankees are a better offense when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound. All of which is why I would have gone with Kenny Rogers in Game Three, instead of Lohse. Rogers is left-handed, he doesn't give up as many homers and I think he has been a more consistent pitcher than Lohse this season.

While the Yankees are slightly better against right-handed pitching than they are lefties, the Twins have one of the most extreme "splits" in baseball. Minnesota's everyday lineup features quite a few left-handed hitters (Mientkiewicz, Pierzynski, Koskie, Jones) and they have struggled quite a bit against southpaws this season. Here are their numbers:

2003 Twins

vs RHP .286 .349 .440
vs LHP .255 .323 .406

That is a huge drop-off. They lose 31 points of batting average, 26 points of on-base percentage and 34 points of slugging percentage.

The Twins had the 5th-best team OPS (on-base % + slugging %) against right-handed pitching in the AL this year. Against lefties, they ranked just 10th in the league. They won 61% of the time when a right-handed pitcher started the game for the other team and only 46% of the time facing a left-handed starter.

We might as well do the same thing for the Twins, just to see exactly what we're dealing with here:

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C A.J. Pierzynski 1.098 1.018 - 7%
1B Doug Mientkiewicz 1.126 1.084 - 4%
2B Luis Rivas .988 .695 - 30%
SS Cristian Guzman .909 .861 - 5%
3B Corey Koskie 1.270 .864 - 32%
LF Shannon Stewart 1.052 1.165 + 11%
CF Torii Hunter .959 1.034 + 8%
RF Jacque Jones 1.073
Dustan Mohr 1.072 N/A
DH Matthew LeCroy 1.033 1.110 + 7%

The majority of the spots in Minnesota's lineup go right in the tank when lefties are on the mound. Koskie's production declines by 32% and Rivas' goes down 30%. Pierzynski, Mientkiewicz and Guzman are all about 4-7% worse against lefties. The right field platoon (Jones/Mohr) remains about the same, while Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter and Matthew LeCroy are 11%, 8% and 7% better against lefties, respectively.

In all, you've got two huge declines, three small declines, three small increases and one spot with essentially no change. Of course, that assumes Ron Gardenhire will have the sense to bench Jacque Jones when a left-handed starter goes for the Yankees, which is anything but a safe assumption. Jones is about 16% worse against lefties, which would make the Twins lineup even more anemic.

In looking at these two teams, I think the Twins are lucky that this series is five games and not seven. If it were a 7-game series with normal scheduling, they would be looking at facing a left-handed starter in at least 3 of the 7 games. As it stands now, they are likely going to only have to face Andy Pettitte, in what may be two of the five games, and the second of those two starts would be on short-rest. For the Twins, the less they see of David Wells, the better. Not only is Minnesota significantly worse against left-handed pitching, Wells has dominated them this season, going 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA against them in two starts (both complete-games).

It seems obvious to me that the New York Yankees are the better team here. They have a much stronger offense and their starting pitching is significantly better than Minnesota's too. The Twins likely have an edge in the bullpen and in overall depth, but the bullpen usage is tightened up in the post-season anyway, and the Yankees still have that Rivera guy in there the last time I checked.

In looking at the likely pitching matchups for this series (Santana vs. Mussina, Radke vs. Pettitte, Lohse vs. Clemens), I think the Yankees have the edge in each one. As good as Santana is, Mike Mussina is just as good, and he has tons of post-season experience and a long history of dominating the Twins. And as good as Brad Radke has been in the second-half, Andy Pettitte has been just as good (10-2, 3.24 ERA) and he, like Mussina, has a ton of post-season experience. The third pitching matchup is Lohse versus Clemens, which, quite frankly, is a no-brainer. Even a potential 4th-starter matchup of Rogers and Wells favors New York.

That's not to say the Twins can't win this series, because they can. To do so, they are going to have to play their best baseball of the season and their starting pitching must come up big for them.

I think Minnesota's chances of winning this series hinge on two major things:

1) Winning Game One

If the Twins can win the first game, they are guaranteed two games at the Metrodome, and I think that is huge. Of course, winning Game One against Mike Mussina, in Yankee Stadium, in a very tough task. Mussina is 20-2 (yes, 20-2) against the Twins in his career, including 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA against them this season. He was also 10-4 with a 3.04 ERA at Yankee Stadium this year.

Going up against Mussina will be Johan Santana, who has never started a playoff game in his life. Santana was very good against New York this year, pitching a total of 5.1 innings against them without allowing a run, while striking out 10 batters. That said, those numbers came in relief appearances, not starts, and the Yankees would seem to me to be the type of team that could give Johan some serious problems.

They are packed with very patient hitters up and down the lineup and the one area of Johan's game that can be a struggle at times is his control. He has improved dramatically in that area this season and has cut way down on his walks, but he often finds himself behind in the count (2-0, 3-1) and is forced to fight back. Now, he obviously has had a ton of success "fighting back" in counts this season, but doing so against the Yankees and the tremendous power they have in their lineup is an entirely different story. Which leads me to...

2) Keeping the ball in the ballpark

Quite simply, the fewer home runs that are hit in this series, the better it is for the Twins. Not only does New York have a ton of home run power while the Twins do not, the Twins pitching-staff also has trouble giving up home runs. That's a recipe for disaster against Giambi, Posada, Soriano, Johnson and the rest of the Bronx Bombers, who hit the 4th-most homers in all of baseball this year.

As a team, the Twins served up 187 homers this year, 42 more than Yankee pitchers allowed and 7th-most in the AL. 7th-most is not so severe, but the three starting pitchers New York is sure to see in this series were especially homerific...

                         HR        IP    IP/HR

Santana/Radke/Lohse 77 572.2 7.44
Everyone Else 110 889.0 8.01

Radke served up 32 long balls in 212.1 innings pitched and Lohse gave up 28 in 201 innings. Even Santana had trouble keeping the ball in the park, allowing 17 homers in 158.1 innings.

Limiting the amount of homers New York hits is going to be a major factor in this series and a major factor in simply keeping these games close, at which point the Twins might be able to use their depth and their bullpen to their advantage.

You take a few pitchers with a propensity for giving up homers and you put them into the post-season and match them up against the New York Yankees and I am just afraid that equals Home Run Derby, just like it did when these two teams met earlier in the year.

So, as much as it pains me to say this...

Yankees in four.

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2003 Playoff Preview:

Red Sox - Athletics


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
Oakland 96 66 .593 768 643 .588 .254 .7263
Boston 95 67 .586 961 809 .586 .287 .7005

Oakland 4.74 .254 .327 .417 176 317 556 898
Boston 5.94 .289 .360 .491 238 371 620 943

Oakland 3.97 .246 .311 .376 140 248 497 1017
Boston 4.99 .263 .325 .414 153 327 488 1141

I guess this series is sort of like the Sabermetric Super Bowl or something.

On one side, you've got the A's, led by Mr. Moneyball himself, Billy Beane. On the other side, you've got the Boston Red Sox, led by The Boy Genius, Theo Epstein, with help from Bill "The Godfather of Sabermetrics" James and Voros "DIPS" McCracken.

The sad thing about this matchup for me, and I suspect many sabermetrically inclined baseball fans, is that one of these two sabermetric-darlings will be knocked out of the playoffs in round one. Of course, I guess that makes the good news that one of these two teams will be playing in the ALCS.

But which one will it be? Ah, that's the big question. On one hand, you've got the Red Sox, who, if you believe everything HBO has to say on the subject, are cursed forever. On the other hand, as great as Billy Beane and the A's have been over the last few years, the next time they get out of the first-round will be the first time. Has there ever been a first-round tie, with neither team advancing? Nah...

Of course, this isn't just a series us "statheads" can get all excited about. It is also a matchup of the best offense in the American League against the best pitching in the American League. You've got Pedro, Manny and Nomar versus Hudson, Zito and Tejada. I think this is not only the most evenly matched first-round series, it is also the most compelling matchup.

I always enjoy seeing the old baseball cliche that "good pitching beats good hitting" tested, and this series will certainly do that. If ever there was a matchup of good pitching versus good hitting, this is it.

The Red Sox led baseball in almost every hitting stat that matters. They scored 961 runs, 54 more than the second highest scoring team, the Atlanta Braves. They also led baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and extra-base hits. The only major thing that they didn't lead MLB in was homers, where they finished second with 232, 5 behind the Rangers.

Meanwhile, the A's led the American League in ERA and their 3.63 team-ERA was second to only Los Angeles' 3.17 in all of baseball. The A's pitching-staff also led the AL in opponent batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. They had 3 pitchers finish in the AL's top-10 in ERA and their closer, Keith Foulke, led the league in saves.

Of course, part of Oakland's great pitching comes from the fact that they play in a very friendly ballpark for pitchers. At the same time, there is reason to believe this Red Sox offense may not be quite as scary as the overall numbers would have you believe, at least not in the post-season anyway.

Check out Boston's offense at Fenway and on the road:

          RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      HR      2B

Fenway 6.56 .316 .392 .527 111 216
Road 5.29 .263 .328 .456 123 155

When the Red Sox leave Fenway, they go from an extraordinary offense to merely a good one. Their batting average drops nearly 20% and their on-base percentage and slugging percentage each drop by about 15%. Most importantly, their runs per game drops about 20%, from 6.56 per game to 5.29.

There is no doubt that this current Boston offensive-attack is perfectly designed for playing half their games in Fenway Park. The only problem for now is that they will no longer be playing half their games in Fenway Park, at least not if this series (or the next one) goes the distance.

Games 1, 2 and 5 of this series will be played in Network Associates Coliseum, which, as I said earlier, is one of the top pitcher's parks in the league. It's got huge foul territory, a spacious outfield and a very obvious lack of a gigantic green wall down the left field line.

For the first two games of the series, the A's would seem to have a big edge. Not only are they playing at home, where they are 57-24 on the year, and not only is Boston's offense significantly worse on the road, the A's will be starting Tim Hudson (my pick for AL Cy Young) and Barry Zito, two of baseball's best pitchers. Of course, the Red Sox have this guy named Pedro starting Game One, so Oakland's advantage in the opening two games probably isn't quite as big as it seems.

After Pedro goes in the first game, the Red Sox have an interesting setup. They will go with Tim Wakefield in Game Two, followed by Derek Lowe in Game Three, at Fenway Park. Their likely Game Four starter is John Burkett, although I suppose there is a chance that, depending on how the series stands at that point, they could go with Pedro on short-rest.

The reason that is an "interesting setup" (aside from the fact that Burkett stinks) is that Lowe is the pitcher they would almost certainly classify as their #2 starter, yet he isn't pitching until the third game. I suspect the Red Sox reason for this is that Lowe has been significantly better at Fenway this year than he has been on the road.

          GS        IP      ERA

Fenway 17 115.0 3.21
Road 16 88.1 6.11

Normally, I would dismiss a split as severe as that as somewhat fluky, but Lowe is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball, which leaves a lot of room for the effect a ballpark could have on him. Maybe they forget to cut the infield grass at Fenway when he pitches or maybe he just likes pitching with the shadow of a wall over his shoulder, who knows. Whatever it is, it has made a huge difference this season and it also made a significant difference last year (2.10 ERA at Fenway, 3.04 on the road).

By the way, Pedro Martinez has a 1.57 ERA on the road this season and he is likely to get two starts this series, both away from Fenway. Be afraid, be very afraid.

If the Red Sox can get out of Oakland with one win in the first two games, I think they will take a commanding advantage in the series. Their offense is incredibly strong at Fenway and it looks as though they'll be going up against Ted Lilly in Game Three. As well as Lilly has pitched in the second-half (7-2, 3.00 ERA), the thought of Ted Lilly + Boston's offense + Fenway Park cannot be an appealing one for an A's fan.

I still haven't heard definitively whether or not Mark Mulder has any chance of playing in the first round, but I'm going to assume he won't. Without Mulder, the A's could either go with Hudson on short-rest in Game Four and Zito on short-rest in Game Five, or they could give the Game Four start to rookie Rich Harden. I love Rich Harden as a prospect and I think he has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. That said, he's got a grand-total 74.2 major league innings under his belt and he has been very hittable this season. If the A's throw him into Fenway Park for Game Four, he may not come out alive.

I suspect Oakland will go Hudson - Zito - Lilly - Hudson - Zito, in which case you've got two starters going on short-rest against the best offense in the league in the final two games of the series. I guess it's "pick your poison" either way, with a rookie in Fenway or guys on short-rest. Mulder being injured really is a gigantic loss for Oakland.

If Boston is able to win one of the first two games in Oakland and is even only able to split in Boston, they would still be coming back to Oakland, with Pedro Martinez going in Game Five. In that situation, I simply refuse to go against Pedro, whether he ends up pitching against Barry Zito on short-rest, Tim Hudson on full-rest or Walter Johnson on rest-in-peace. Pedro is still Pedro and I'll only believe he loses a deciding game when I see it, and even then I will be skeptical.

Red Sox in five.

Red Sox Websites:

The Sons of Sam Horn

Bambino's Curse

Out of Left Field

Universal Baseball Blog, Inc.

Portland Sox Fan

El Guapo's Ghost

Musings from Red Sox Nation

The Joy of Sox

A's Websites:

Elephants in Oakland

Barry Zito Forever

Baseball Gal's Ramblings

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