Baseball BeatOctober 20, 2008
From Worst to the World Series
By Rich Lederer

The Tampa Bay Rays pulled off the "Improbable Dream" by beating the Boston Red Sox, its American League East rival, four games to three in the ALCS to advance to the World Series. The "worst to first" Rays will now face the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the NLCS in five games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The latter series seems as if it took place last month.

Although FOX may not be happy about the World Series pairing, my sense is that baseball fans are thrilled. The Rays will be gunning for their first World Championship and the Phillies, the first professional team to lose 10,000 games, will be shooting for the club's second World Series victory in over 125 years. In a year in which the Chicago Cubs seemed destined for the October Fall Classic, the lovable losers-turned-World Series champs will either be the Rays or the Phillies.

Before delving into a World Series preview, I'd like to cover the highlights (and lowlights) from last night's exciting finale between the Rays and Red Sox.

  • ALCS MVP Matt Garza (2-0, 1.38) impressed the baseball world by overpowering Boston twice in the seven-game series. The 24-year-old right hander limited the Sox to eight hits and two runs while striking out 14 batters over 13 innings. Garza mixed a mid-90s fastball with a couple of nasty breaking balls while working into the eighth inning of Game 7. After allowing a solo home run to Dustin Pedroia, the second batter of the game, Garza didn't give up another hit until Jason Bay singled with one out in the seventh. In between, he commanded the strike zone, struggling against Pedroia (HBP and BB) only.

  • During the pre-game "analysis" on TBS, Dennis Eckersley said, "It's hard to beat a pitcher like (Lester) twice in a series." Sure, if you happen to make that comment *before* the series begins. But, it's no more difficult to beat a pitcher like him a second time once you've beaten him the first time. As a result, Eck's statement was one of those cliches that former players-turned-analysts like to perpetuate.

  • Speaking of the announcers, Buck Martinez made way too big of a deal about James Shields' 4-5 record after a Tampa Bay loss in the early going during Game 6. Talk about small-sample size? Besides, what was the team's record after a loss? What was his ERA (and other pitching stats during those games)? Who were the opponents? Where were the games played? What is his career record in such situations? Moreover, Shields was 4-5, not 1-8 or 0-9. Geez. And to think statheads don't know what they are talking about? What about non-statheads when they use stats? Now, THAT is lethal.

  • While on the subject of statistics, I wish Chip Caray and his fellow announcers would let us know when we should rely on certain numbers and when we should "throw them out." I get easily confused. Throw out the regular season stats in the postseason (but only when they tell you). Throw out the numbers from certain matchups, such as the fact that Kevin Youkilis was 1-for-14 in his career against Garza as he dug into the batter's box for the third time in Game 6. After Youk popped out to shortstop Jason Bartlett, he was 1-for-15.

  • Going into a commercial break, Caray termed Game 7 "pivotal." Yup, the teams either pivot home or to the World Series.

  • When home plate umpire Derryl Cousins exited Game 6 with an injury, crew chief Tim McClelland took over his duties. Not surprisingly, the announcers tried to make a big deal out of these umpires' strike zones. Ron Darling took the cake when he said, "Cousins called that pitch a strike and McClelland didn't." That pitch? I didn't know that any two pitches were the same. Identical pitch types, speed, spin, and location. Yeah, right.

  • Darling graduated from calling Hideki Okajima a "situational" lefty when the latter entered Game 2 of the ALCS to a "crossover" reliever in Game 6. I guess those two innings Okajima pitched convinced Darling that the southpaw was more than a LOOGY. A quick check of the facts would have prevented the Yalie from putting his foot in his mouth as Okajima had appeared in 130 career games and thrown 131 innings. He worked in five of seven Championship Series games, including three stints of two innings each.

  • If Jason Varitek stays back on that relay throw from Pedroia, there is a chance that he would have been able to tag Carlos Pena out. Then again, he may have gotten run over a la Pete Rose and Ray Fosse. As my brother Tom texted me, that's an "occupational hazard." I quickly typed, "Yup, look what happened to Buck Martinez." Tom responded, "Bain dramage."

  • Regarding plays at the plate, Bay displayed a pretty weak arm when he tried to throw out Willy Aybar at home on Rocco Baldelli's single in the bottom of the fifth. The throw had nothing on it and the ball must have bounced three or four times before Aybar crossed the plate with what turned out to be the winning run.

  • The strikeout, throw 'em out double play that ended Boston's hopes in the top of the sixth increased Tampa Bay's win probability from 65.9% to 74.3% according to Fangraphs. You can stay abreast of these changing circumstances live via play-by-play logs and in-game box scores. It's a great way to teach yourself about win probability added and the impact of leverage.

  • Based on WPA, the stars of Game 7 were Garza (.263), David Price (.204), and Aybar (.169). Mark Kotsay (-.182) and Varitek (-.177) hurt the Red Sox the most. I sent my colleague Sully the following text message, "Sad you have nobody better than Kotsay and Tek in those situations." If Boston had a legitimate RHB on the bench, manager Terry Francona could have used him to pinch hit for Kotsay, perhaps forcing Joe Maddon to take Price out after walking Bay to open the ninth. But, unfortunately for the Red Sox, Tito didn't have that option available to him.

  • With respect to Price, as Tom asked, "how many times will the No. 1 pick influence the postseason a year later?" Think about that for a second. The team has to pull a Tampa Bay and go from worst record to a playoff spot from one year to the next. That is a rare occurrence in and of itself. Add the fact that the player chosen also needs to go from high school or college ball to the majors and have an impact at that and we're talking about an extremely low probability.

  • Now that Price has a win and a save under his belt, I don't think it is inconceivable that the pride of Vanderbilt will become the "go to" guy in Tampa Bay's bullpen in the World Series. It makes you think of Francisco Rodriguez and his impact in the 2002 World Series. Price also makes me think of Steve Carlton. His slider is filthy.

  • Hypothetical question: Had the Red Sox beaten the Rays and Price been charged with the loss, how much heat do you think Maddon would have taken for sending his prized rookie out to the mound in the ninth inning? As it turned out, the city of Tampa Bay spent the evening partying, but can you imagine the second guessing had Maddon's decision gone awry? It would have ranked right up there with Grady Little's decision to stick with Pedro Martinez in the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS and haunted Maddon for the rest of his (shortened) career.

  • I bet Andrew Friedman is glad he's with the Tampa Bay Rays rather than his former employer Bear, Stearns & Co., don't ya think?

  • Comments

    Further, Price was the first pick in the 2007 draft, not the 2008 draft, meaning the Rays had to be the worst team in 2006, also, to secure the #1 pick.

    Great article. One quibble though, Tampa Bay is not a city. The team plays in St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay encompasses Tampa, St. Pete and the surrounding area.

    Lou Pinella came to Chicago for a more realistic chance to win, I guess he don't know Cub history!

    So what is the lethality of the people who are convinced they are stat-heads who just cherry-pick the numbers but insist their methodology is objective. Oh wait, that sounds like many a stockbroker...

    Rev, stockbrokers and stat-heads who cherry-pick the numbers and insist their methodology is subjective also suffer from extreme short-term thinking.

    Those who have a greater focus on the long-term are less likely to cherry-pick numbers to suit their own biases as they will use numbers as only one tool in decision-making. There's also human factors, external and internal opportunity costs and other issues that short-term thinkers speed past, blinded by their own agendas.

    Wow - you're truly saying that it is just as easy to beat Lester the second time? Really? There are actually too many points that fly in the face of that ridiculous statement, but let's start with...
    1. They can now gameplan as to what of Lester's pitches worked and those that didn't - Upton and Longoria were pitched 100% differently and the results showed.
    2. up to that piint, Lester had not lost two games ina row in his MLB career.
    3. Just as you were so quick to point out that no two pitches are exactly the same, vis a vis the Darling comment (which of course is assinine to split hairs over the point he was making - the same basic pitch is being called differently), no pitcher has the same game on a game by game basis -- wow, maybe that's why a pitcher who no-hits a team can still actually lose to them later on.

    TH: Let me see if I can defend my "ridiculous" and "assinine" (sic) statements while addressing your sensible and intelligent comments.

    1. OK now, Boston can "gameplan" but Tampa Bay can't. Lester can adjust to the hitters but the Rays can't adjust to him. I got it. Nice cherry picking on Upton and Longoria. I wonder what happened to the scouting report on Aybar?

    2. The fact that Lester had not lost two games in a row was neither here nor there prior to Game 7. Yesterday is yesterday. Today is today. If a pitcher has never lost three in a row, does that mean he is a lock to win after losing two straight?

    3. I never said that the Rays were going to beat Lester a second time because they beat him the first time. If anything, you made my point. Every game is separate and should be treated as such. The fact that TB beat Lester in Game 3 didn't make beating him easier or more difficult in Game 7. That was my point in a nutshell, and I stand by that irrespective of the outcome of Game 7.

    It certainly wouldn't surprise me to see Price become a go-to guy. Look at the Twins this year. Jose Mijares went from a September callup buried in the bullpen for two weeks to being the pitcher called upon to hold onto a one-run lead in the eighth inning of a one-run game in the final week of the season to finish off a three-game sweep of the White Sox. He also pitched in the seventh and eighth innings of the 1-0 loss to the White Sox in the one-game playoff. Managers don't take long to move a reliever up in the pecking order when the rest of the bullpen is struggling. Especially when the reliever has nasty stuff.

    As for Maddon's decision to go with Price (or even to stick with Garza as long as he did) I often think how much criticism Tom Kelly would have endured had Jack Morris given up a run or two in the 10th inning (or the 11th inning considering the Twins had no one warming up in the bullpen while they were scoring the winning run) in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. You're a genius if it works, you're an idiot if it doesn't. No real pressure there on those managerial decisions, huh?

    Now that you opened the door to analyzing the analysts, I wish I had kept track of the number of times Buck Martinez talked about a player's "confidence." I'm guessing the "Confidence"-Counter would have been somewhere in the triple digits--and most mentions came AFTER someone did something well. Batter gets a hit? It must be confidence! Pitcher strikes him out? It must be confidence. Selecting on the dependent variable? It must be a TV baseball analyst!

    For the #1 overall pick to have an impact on the playoffs the after he was drafted the team would have 2 seasons to improve from the worst record. TB selected Beckham based on last years record. Price was the result of having the worst record in '06.

    I'm not sure why there were that many people who thought Maddon using Price in the 9th was "risky".

    As a Red Sox fan, had Balfour come in, I would have been hopeful in the 9th. With Price out there, and all the lefties we had due up, I figured we were finished unless Price suddenly lost command of all his pitches. As it turned out, he did walk Jason Bay, but that was on a 3-2 count and only after Bay should have been called out on a check swing 2 pitches earlier. Price pumped in strikes to JD Drew. He was working with a 2-run lead and was already acclimated to the pressure having to face Drew with the Bases Loaded the inning before. Starting a 9th inning with the bases clear and a 2-run lead is a lot easier for him then asking Balfour to step in with Game 5 still haunting him.