From Worst to the World Series
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?