Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The 2004 ALCS, what really happened?

The ALCS is remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports, with the Boston Red Sox defeating the nemesis New York Yankees after falling into a 3-0 hole in a best of 7 series. More specifically, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, and Curt Schilling are remembered as leading the Red Sox charges as Alex Rodriguez, et. al of the Yankees lineup went cold after the first three games. I’m a diehard Red Sox fan and maybe even a bigger Yankees hater. So what about this doesn’t sit right with me? Well, maybe as a product of having watched so many full seasons of baseball, what catches my eye from a baseball player is consistent production, not a hot start, or a hot finish in a pennant race, and certainly not one at bat or play. And the concept of consistency for me also applies on the smaller scale. For instance, in a close game where a certain hitter gets himself out 3 times with RISP and then redeems himself by hitting the game winning homer in the ninth, he is usually described as being the hero of the game. One for 4 with a home run is not bad at all but I wouldn’t exactly consider that player the difference maker for that game. Speaking of short series in general, there is very little that one can learn of a player by looking at a short playoff series. A power pitcher’s potential for domination and usually someone putting up extraordinaire stats in a 7 game series is a talented player, but other than that such a sample size is largely useless for gauging the production level of a player. Now, given that statistical fact, I do believe that players who are the most responsible for leading their teams to postseason victories should have some recognition, because after all the postseason is the culmination of a team’s work for the year. A player who goes out and produces under the bright lights should receive credit for their achievements. If occasionally an Adam Kennedy has to be written on some hardware than so be it. Worse than the award giving, the media often settles on a specific play or player as the difference maker in a series without a gritty tough out who got on base at a .400 clip and gave everyone else the chance to drive him in. I would now quickly like to look back at some stats from the ALCS and try to determine who I think were the difference makers. First the individual games will be relived to see if some players lost some credit due to events in the later innings being more memorable, and then some conclusions from the overall stats for the series will be made.

Game 1 (Yanks 10, Sox 7):
Hardly a classic slugfest, NY jumps out to an 8-0 lead with Mike Mussina perfect through 6 innings with 8 k’s. On the other side, Curt Schilling (who severely aggravated a lingering ankle condition in his last inning of an easy win in the ALDS) is sent to the hill. A question seldom heard is why Schilling was sent to the hill to begin with. For sure the big man’s competitive desire is nearly second to none, but with the Red Sox having an embarrassment of starting pitchers available at this point, one has to wonder if a few days more of rest would have made more sense. As it was, Schilling didn’t pitch as bad as his 3 ip, 6er line suggests, but without the overpowering fastball, NY hitters were able to wait longer on the offspeed stuff and make contact with nearly every offering. Come the 7th inning Leskanic and Mendoza have contributed scoreless innings and Wakefield has also pitched an inning allowing 2 runs. The BOS offense comes to life finally in the 7th, eventually forcing Torre to quickly replace Mendoza with a less than ideal replacement, Tanyon Sturtze, who quickly gives up a 2 run homer to Jason Varitek to pull BOS within 3 runs. The first hit of the 7th inning (and game for BOS) was a double by Mark Bellhorn, who takes part in a freakishly unlucky event later in the series. A Manny Ramirez single continues a rally with 2 outs, putting men at first and third (Manny keeping things going ahead of Ortiz becomes a reoccurring theme in this series), bringing Ortiz to the plate for the biggest at bat of the series thus far. Ortiz launches one to deep left, missing a game-tying home run by inches, but also it is a ball the inconsistent left field Hideki Matsui should have caught, instead allowing it to become a triple to put the tying run at third where Mariano Rivera (the replacement for Gordon) will strand him. Matsui is the hero of the game so far for NY, amassing 5 rbi in the contest. The game is more or less decided in the bottom of the frame when Mike Timlin is hit around and allows 2 runs. Keith Foulke comes in to start his series-long high wire act and “induces” a line drive out by Jorge Posada with another runner in scoring position. In the ninth a 2 on, one out rally dies with a double play ball by Bill Mueller (who will see a similar pitch in game 4 in a somewhat crucial spot).
From this game the Yankees hitters, Mussina, and Rivera were commended for their performances. Mussina did pitch brilliantly at the start, but in my eyes his start ended up being mostly mediocre. With an 8 run lead and a low pitch count starting the 7th one would expect him to be able to give the already weary NY bullpen a rest. The top of the NY order was in deed very productive, but Posada, John Olerud, Miguel Cairo, and Kenny Lofton combined to go only 3 for 13 with 2 walks. This major dropoff in production after the top 5 in the NY order was exploited by BOS again and again in the series. Meanwhile, thanks to a handful of replacement level relievers and natural starters in the pen, BOS was able to stay close and also not burn through any important relievers. Ortiz and Varitek were hitting stars for BOS despite the loss.

Game 2 (Yanks 3, Sox 1):
BOS looked for a favorable Pedro Martinez / Jon Lieber matchup to pull them into a series tie before traveling on to Fenway Park. Instead Lieber pitched absolutely brilliantly, 7+ innings, 3 hits, 1 run. Pedro Martinez labored through 6 innings in an unfriendly environment giving up 4 hits, 4 walks, and 3 earned runs. The big blow came off the bat of Olerud, who remained a tougher out than the rest of the bottom of the NY lineup, despite his advancing age. No scoring was done off the bullpens as Timlin, Embree, and Foulke all pitch for the second consecutive day, but importantly none pitch complete innings. It is not a bad start by Martinez, but a better one was needed in this game. Gordon and Rivera are once again used to finish for NY. Gordon struggles as he enters in the 8th with a running on first and no one out and promptly allows a double to that Varitek player again. Damon, who has up to this point done nothing in the series strands him 90 feet away after taking a called 3rd strike after Rivera comes on. This is the second night in a row Rivera is relied on for more than an inning, typically a rarity during the regular season, mostly because Gordon continues to struggle. Torre shows that he basically only trusts Gordon and Rivera in the bullpen, but even his trust in Gordon is wavering. Ramirez once again comes through in a spot where needed by doubling with one out in the ninth but that’s all the great Rivera will allow.
Jon Lieber won this game for NY. The big hitters in the NY order who are often looked at as being unstoppable in the first 3 games of this series contribute very little in this game. Aside from the Olerud blast both lineups are very quiet. If more damage had been done against a wild Martinez or if Mussina had pitched a little longer in game 1, then perhaps a tired Gordon/Rivera would not have been needed again. These are the kind of small variables often overlooked in examining only the later games of the series. I know at this point if I am a NY fan I am very happy with the performances of Leiber, Olerud, and Rivera and also some pretty good but not dominating production from the middle of the lineup. As a BOS fan I am very disappointed with the complete no-show thus far of Johnny Damon and a lack of offense spread out through the rest of the lineup.

Game 3 (Yanks 19, Sox 8):
After a rainout where the pitching staffs get a much needed rest, they show how rejuvenated they are by allowing a combined 27 runs. The game was close early as both starters, Bronson Arroyo and Kevin Brown were hammered for 10 runs in a combined 4 innings pitched, but the mediocre bullpen pitchers for BOS quickly allow the game to get out of hand. Javier Vazquez eats up innings for NY and the ghost of Paul Quantrill contributes an inning as well, but surprisingly Gordon is also used. This is both because of an extremely thin NY staff and just an undying theme of overuse of some pitchers by Joe Torre. Wakefield “saves” the BOS pitching staff by only allowing 5 runs in 3.1 innings in a lost cause game instead of saving himself to start in game 4. This move, absolutely classy by Wakefield, is often praised since the BOS bullpen would rebound to not get hammered later in the series and Derek Lowe would take Wakefield’s spot to win 2 games in the series, but at the time one has to wonder what was Francona thinking? Lowe was pounded time and time again in 2004, and NY against him was no exception. Wakefield, however, had very good success against the fastball hitting NY lineup in his career up to that point but instead was wasted in this game, in my opinion. Why not let Lowe eat up the innings and have Wakefield fresh for a game 4 start against the underwhelming Orlando Hernandez? The answer most likely was that the players are more in control of the leadership than Francona and thus the player who least valued a personal opportunity, Wakefield, ended up being the one to pitch in the blowout. I see this as being similar to Schilling’s start in game 1, a manager totally in control of the moves might not have started a hurt pitcher in game 1 when so much starting pitcher was available.
The first half of the series is now over. Where do we stand? The Red Sox are down 3-0 but it might be the smallest 3-0 hole in history. The Yankees have used Gordon and Rivera (the only competent relievers on the team at this point) mercilessly in winning the first 3 games, only Lieber has shown very much as a starter for them, and if BOS can win game 4 then Schilling and Martinez are ready to go once again against the inferior NY starters, but this time in Fenway.

Game 4 (Sox 6, Yanks 4, in 12 innings):
This game featured a solid start by Lowe and a run through a minefield by Hernandez to keep the game close. Timlin’s shaky relief work continues as the go ahead run for the Yankees goes across under his watch, helped along by a Bellhorn misplay. The game is 4-3 NY ahead entering the 7th inning. Rubber-armed Foulke who has had a light workload so far for him goes 2.2 innings of scoreless shutdown relief. For the Yankees, Gordon is barely available now so Torre goes to Sturtze first (who actually pitches very well in 2 scoreless innings), but this is where it all goes wrong for NY. Was it the stolen base heard around the world that turned the tide? In my opinion, not so much. Let’s picture the situation here through the eyes of Torre. Your team is up 3-0 in a best of 7 series against the one team who you never have trouble beating, this other team has one ace significantly injured, the other ace you have beaten in most starts the last few years, you have the best closer in the history of baseball on your side, and you’re winning in the 8th inning with the best pitcher in the BOS bullpen done for the night. Torre is no dumb manager though, this is panic mode for NY now. Their pitching staff is so thinly spread right now that Torre looks for Rivera to pitch a full 2 innings, the 3rd straight time he will have gone more than an inning in a row. Rivera gives up a leadoff hit to Ramirez (let me say again he has been incredible thus far in the series) but nothing more in the 8th. In the 9th Rivera is so on fumes that he walks perhaps the worst hitter in the BOS lineup and then gives up a ringing game tying hit to Mueller on the same type of pitch that usually breaks a lefty’s bat but it is lacking something now and Mueller gets very good wood on it. Once the game is tied, who else should come in to pitch for NY now, except Gordon again. Two innings worth (!!!) Gordon, Sturtze, and Rivera have now been used well beyond what should be ever be expected for them so Torre has to pray his starting staff does the work from here on out. The NY offense famously now forgets how to score, as Embree and Leskanic combine on 3 scoreless innings. An often forgotten play, however, is when Orlando Cabrera makes a sensational catch on a would-be go ahead hit by Alex Rodriguez. This play was right on par with the rally off Rivera in the 9th in terms of importance in my book. Once Gordon is done with his second inning, the only thing left for Torre is Quantrill, who has been injured and overused nearly all season, and who immediately gives up a single to Manny and a game winning home run to Ortiz to send it to game 5. Ortiz was huge in this game to deposit the bp fastball by Quantrill into the bullpen, but let’s not forget Manny’s line: 2/3 with 3 walks. Manny has been the perfect #3 hitter this series thus far. Damon pulls another 0-5 at the top of the lineup with Cabrera not contributing much more than Bellhorn had previously in the #2 spot. Manny is taking the responsibility all for himself for getting Ortiz up to the plate with the chance to do some damage. Now BOS has gotten the series back to their co-aces. Pedro is all ready to atone for his merely good start in NY, this time facing Mussina.

Game 5 (Sox 5, Yanks 4, 14 innings):
In my opinion one of the most intensely played baseball games in history, the extra inning frames leap out at you, but most of the scoring occurred more early on in this game. Mussina once again pitched well, but perhaps not long enough, 6 ip, 2er. Pedro once again struggled to finish hitters off and allowed 4er in a very adventurous 6ip. A moment that cements my opinion of Francona as a manager occurs in the 6 inning. After hitting Rodriguez (Martinez’s second hbp of the inning), Martinez walks Sheffield to set up a bases loaded at bat by Matsui, who has owned Martinez lately about as much as you can own him. Martinez is pitching on nothing and BOS is already down 4-2. Showing Grady Little how it is really done however, Francona allows our Matsui killer (Mike Myers) to stay in the bullpen as Matsui absolutely rips a pitch from Martinez into right where it is caught by Trot Nixon. Hit anywhere else the BOS season is effectively over, but as happens often in this series, Francona shows how lucky one manager can be. Torre on the other hand has little choice but to go back to Gordon/Rivera after a cameo by Sturtze. Long story short, the middle of the BOS lineup cuffs them around and ties it up in the 8th. Into extra innings it’s a battle who is more rundown, the pitchers or the hitters. For all the talk of the NY hitters disappearing in this spot, an inch or two in any direction gives NY the lead in the top of the 9th off of Foulke on a ball that Tony Clark hits into the right field corner with a runner on. Instead of staying in play the ball is a ground rule double and NY comes up short with the bottom of the lineup. Later in the 10th off a fresh Arroyo, Sheffield launches a hanging offspeed pitch foul. No doubt BOS has the pitching advantage at this point however. A very deep pitching staff assembled by the BOS higher ups provides Arroyo as a situational righty, Myers and Embree as key lefties, and another normal starting pitcher, Wakefield, to go the last 3 innings. NY is forced to counter with Heredia, Quantrill, and Loaiza, probably none of which would make many postseason rosters that year. Loaiza is very lucky to get through 3 scoreless while Wakefield dominates his frames. Ortiz finally makes him pay in the 14th after maybe the single most amazing feat in the series, fouling off several good pitches before making good enough contact at a decent pitch inside. There are not many at bats of this intensity or duration ever in games that go this long. It bears mentioning how rare also the scrambling of NY was in these two games. A team with a 3-0 edge in the series is so afraid of their own pitching that the two games are managed in desperation mode by Torre. And now once a trip back to NY is necessary, there is nary a fresh arm. Boston has the ever-ready Foulke still good to go along with the equally rubber-armed Arroyo who was only used in one inning in game 5.

Game 6 (Sox 4, Yanks 2):
Truly a unique game for many reasons. Most remembered for Schilling on the mound with blood coming through the sock, mowing down the NY hitters, I remember more the shear absurdity of what happened in the game. Lieber, with one last effort trying to show how valuable he was to the NY front office, pitched very well once again. Only 9 baserunners in 7.1 innings, but 4 of them scored in the 4th inning, and this is all BOS would need. After Varitek broke the 0-0 tie with an rbi single, Bellhorn deposited a Lieber offering about 1 foot over the wall into the left field seats. I don’t think this play is recognized for its importance or unlikelyness. Schilling pitched very well but a few times was helped on well hit drives to the outfield by a stiff breeze blowing in on a cool night. Bellhorn, not known for his opposite field power as a left handed batter, hit his drive straight into this wind. The ball cleared the wall by such a small margin that it was even initially called in play after hitting off a fan and falling to the warning track. Truly a remarkable accomplishment this home run was given the pitching of Lieber in the series, the skills (or lack thereof) of the inconsistent Bellhorn, and the conditions on that night. Arroyo once again assumed the role of setup man to retire the heart of the NY order in the 8th, after another desperation type play by Rodriguez despite the fact that NY was still leading the series. Foulke walked 2 in the 9th but escaped perhaps in the part due to the absence in the lineup now of the injured Olerud, with Clark in his place instead. Now moving into the deciding game 7, Torre was forced to name Brown as his starter with Vazquez in for early relief if necessary, two starters struggling very badly, while Francona had the fresh and ready Lowe.

Game 7 (Sox 10, Yanks 3):
This game was as much of a blowout as it seemed. Boston was all over first Brown and then Vazquez while Lowe pitched exceptionally well for BOS. Timlin and Embree closed the door for BOS after an ill-conceived relief appearance by Martinez resulted in 2 runs for NY. The hitting star of the game was no doubt Damon, who went 3-6 with a grand slam off Vazquez in the 2nd inning. Damon is therefore frequently labeled as a star of the series. How can this be? Up to this game he had contributed absolutely nothing to the BOS offense while collecting more at bats than anyone. His stats for the series will be shown below. The result of this game was essentially being decided in the previous games in my opinion. Francona was able to rely in a host of starting pitchers and unimportant yet reasonably effective relievers to get through the long middle games, while Torre was short on starters and thus was forced to overuse the bullpen in reaching for a win in games 4-6. This was one of the most important truths of the series. Francona had many interchangeable parts at his disposal in the form of back of the rotation starters/long relievers, while Torre’s team was not built for a grueling long series.

Series in a nutshell for the Red Sox:
David Ortiz provided the most offensive output for the Sox in this series, but was awarded series MVP more probably for the game-winning hits he produced. Often lost though was the importance of Manny Ramirez batting in the #3 spot, as he batted .300 with a .400 obp in the series. Orlando Cabrera was also lost in the shuffle, batting a surprising .379 with a .424 obp. Johnny Damon’s final line for the series was .171/.216/.343 with one giant memory erasing grand slam.
The pitching numbers for both teams are pretty ugly in this series due mainly to the strength and depth of both teams’ offenses. In fact the BOS team whip was an incredible 1.6 for the 7 games. In order to try to examine the value of the individual BOS pitchers, one could subtract their whips from the team whip. Once this is done the pitchers who come out ahead are Lowe (-0.90), Schilling (-0.41), and Foulke (-0.44). Schilling and Foulke seem to get more attention for their accomplishments in this series but no one on BOS pitched better than Lowe in the series, quite a surprising result for the pitcher who would not have been used in a spot of any importance if Wakefield hadn’t taken one for the team in game 3.

Well I really wanted to re-examine this series for any lost stars for BOS not remembered too well by the media. I found that Ramirez contributed steady offense aside Ortiz while Varitek had a number of important hits as well. Cabrera hit very well too, but was not able to wrestle the #2 spot away from Bellhorn for very long. As for pitching goes I think that Lowe’s appearances were really the best pitching for BOS, but Foulke and Schilling are also rightly honored for contributions even if I would have started the series differently had I managed.

This was kind of a side project I wanted to look at before starting the blog in earnest. I plan to scour (and other places) throughout the season looking for articles written based on ignorant premises or ones that overlook more talented lesser known players. My point here was that there are many different ways of looking at things that happen on a baseball field. Often writers are more concerned about the more “interesting” angle to take on what happened as opposed to a more accurate one. As a baseball fan, I find production and talent to be the most interesting topics, so hopefully this will be a blog filled with talk of the Jake Peavy’s, Travis Hafner’s, and Jason Bay’s of the baseball world, as opposed to the Johnny Damon’s.

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