Kudos to Tony La Russa

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me griping about Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during Game Two. La Russa made quite an impact on the game in various ways, and in retrospect, I don’t think I should have been directing my ire at him.

Balls and Strikes: La Russa felt that home plate umpire Jerry Meals wasn’t calling a fair strike zone, referring to “two different strike zones” in a mid-game interview with the TBS broadcasters. Cameras caught La Russa barking at Meals several different times throughout the game. The complaining seemed to have an effect as Meals’ strike zone was more Cardinal-friendly as the game progressed.

I made a few snarky tweets about La Russa on Twitter, but I honestly had no problem with his complaining. Dayn Perry (@DaynPerry) put it best:

Have my probs with TLR, but he’s always got an angle. Don’t like it? Blame umps for caving or ur mgr for not being as skilled a bitcher.

Meals’ strike zone did appear to change — should La Russa be faulted for using Meals’ lack of confidence in his own calls to carve a slight edge for his team? We would be applauding Charlie Manuel if he was the one yelling from the dugout. The ire should have been directed at Meals, and at Major League Baseball for letting a mediocre umpire call an important post-season game.

Pitching Changes: Fans hate pitching changes, and for good reason: they completely mess with the flow of a baseball game. For the same reason, I hate the commercial “policy” with football, where they will kick off, go to commercial, and then play the first down. The break just feels unnecessary.

La Russa used four pitchers to face four batters and get three outs. In the eighth inning, Marc Rzepczynski hit Chase Utley with a pitch and was immediately lifted for right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Boggs got Hunter Pence to ground into a fielder’s choice for the first out. La Russa went to the mound for a second time, lifting Boggs for lefty veteran Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes threw three pitches to strike out Ryan Howard. Out came La Russa; Rhodes exited. Right-hander Jason Motte entered, retiring Shane Victorino on a fly ball to center.

For those at home, the inning went like this:

  • (end of previous inning) Commercial break
  • Chase Utley at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Hunter Pence at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Ryan Howard at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Shane Victorino at-bat
  • (end of inning) Commercial break

Given that roughly five minutes elapses between the end of the previous at-bat and the start of the next, fans were treated to about 25 minutes of advertisements and, generously, five minutes of actual game play. As a fan, that is just awful. But the fault shouldn’t lie with La Russa — he was just doing what any good manager does, which is putting his team in the best possible position to succeed. Whether he actually did or not is debatable, but he didn’t act nefariously.

Instead, the blame should go to Major League Baseball, which sets up the framework that allows for five-minute breaks in between pitching changes. There are plenty of solutions to this problem. For one, a team could be allowed to make only a fixed amount of non-injury-related pitching changes per inning. Or any pitching changes beyond the first would not allow the new reliever to have warm-up pitches on the field, negating the commercial break. But nothing happens if fans don’t speak up to the right people and in the right medium. Change in baseball happens at a glacial pace, so if fans really hate the current set-up, they need to speak by making phone calls and sending letters and emails to the powers-that-be, instead of making sarcastic comments on Twitter (as I did). Even better, speak with your wallet: don’t subscribe to MLB.tv or MLB Network (et cetera) until the requisite changes are made.

One thing is certain: La Russa did not do anything wrong by making three pitching changes in one inning.

Hit-and-Run: All right, after devoting many words to defending La Russa, I get to criticize him here.

Albert Pujols had singled to lead off the top of the ninth inning against Ryan Madson, bringing up Lance Berkman. Pujols has been dealing with a bad heel (so painful that he took a cart to the team bus after the game), so why would you make him run the bases unnecessarily? To be fair, Berkman isn’t a strikeout waiting to happen, but there is no way Pujols was going first-to-third on anything in front of an outfielder. With the count 3-2, La Russa put Pujols — bad heel and all — in motion. Berkman hit his fourth foul ball of the at-bat and Pujols returned to first base. On the eighth pitch, Berkman swung and missed at an 84 MPH change-up for the first out of the inning. Pujols was in motion again, and Ruiz fired to second base.

Ruiz’s throw reached second base at about the time Pujols reached the halfway point between first and second. Pujols engaged in a half-hearted run-down before being tagged out for the second out of the inning.

La Russa managed rather well to that point. I’ll never understand why he chose to hit-and-run with Pujols at first base. What makes it more mind-boggling is that La Russa pinch-ran for Pujols last night with Gerald Laird (Gerald Laird!), acknowledging his first baseman’s ailment. Overall, though, La Russa had a solid game and shouldn’t have taken as much grief as I saw on ye olde Internets.

Phillies BABIP’d to Death, Drop Game Two

Throughout the month of September as we looked ahead to the post-season, you heard myself, Ryan Sommers, and Paul Boye reference the mythical “small sample variance” as our biggest fear, more so than anything else. That variance was on display in Game Two of the NLDS tonight.

Rafael Furcal tripled to start the game, but Cliff Lee kept him there with a strikeout, an infield fly ball, and a ground out. Shortly thereafter, the Phillies got to Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter early, working deep counts and drawing walks. With the bases loaded, Ryan Howard knocked in two with a single up the middle in the first. Raul Ibanez tacked on another before the inning ended, putting the Phillies up 3-0 quickly. Carpenter walked to the dugout having thrown 30 pitches.

In the top of the second, Lee again worked around a lead-off extra-base hit, notching two strikeouts and a ground out to end the inning unscathed. In the bottom-half, the Phillies continued to work Carpenter. With two outs, the Phillies added an extra run on a double, walk, and a single. Carpenter had thrown another 26 pitches, putting him at 56 on the night through just two innings.

With a smooth third inning, it looked like an easy night for Lee. After all, how often does he cough up a four-run lead? But, as we’ve learned, a pitcher can still perform well but end up with unpleasant results. That’s exactly what happened to Lee starting in the fourth inning.

Lee got ahead of Lance Berkman 0-2, but could not put him away, eventually walking last night’s lone batsman for the Cardinals. After David Freese struck out, the Cardinals strung together three hits — a double sandwiched by two singles — scoring two runs, bringing them within two runs at 4-2. Nick Punto struck out, seemingly ending the threat, but the always-pestering Rafael Furcal hit a line drive to Raul Ibanez, plating one more run and requiring a perfect strike from the Phillies’ left fielder to prevent the tie game. Ruiz was forearm-shivered at the plate by John Jay, but held on for the third out.

The Phillies were then tasked with adding insurance runs against the Cardinals’ bullpen, something they certainly did with relative ease last night. However, Fernando Salas entered the game in the fourth and retired the Phillies in order on three ground balls. In the fifth, Lee appeared more comfortable, striking out two more Cardinals and inducing another infield pop-up. The Phillies remained silent on offense in the bottom-half of the fifth, going down in order once again.

Lee got two quick outs in the top of the sixth, seemingly on a roll. With two outs, though, Ryan Theriot doubled to left to keep the Cardinals’ offense going. Theriot quickly scored on a seeing-eye single to left by Jon Jay, tying the game. Skip Schumaker singled afterwards to continue the threat, but Lee was able to retire Furcal, allowing the sell-out crowd at Citizens Bank Park to breathe a sigh of relief.

The Phillies went down quietly again in the sixth, the Cardinals’ fourth consecutive 1-2-3 inning. Lee, with over 100 pitches thrown, took the hill for the seventh inning. Ahead of lead-off hitter Allen Craig 1-2, Lee left a change-up over the plate, which Craig smoked to deep center. Victorino misjudged it at first, which cost him. The ball glanced off his outstretched glove, rolling towards the center field fence. Craig wound up on third base without a play. Pujols plated Craig with a well-hit line drive single to left field. The hits just would not end for the Cardinals, then with 11 hits total and ahead 5-4. Berkman, hitting right-handed, blooped a single just beyond first base, the last straw for Charlie Manuel. Lee exited the game having allowed 12 hits in six innings of work with nine strikeouts and two walks. His game ERA was 7.50 but his game FIP was 1.10, showing the disparity between performance and results. Lee induced a lot of weak contact, but many of the Cardinals’ batted balls found gaps in the defense.

Brad Lidge entered the game to attempt to end the damage. In very limited playing time, Lidge stranded 90 percent of base runners during the regular season. Given the performance of Michael Stutes last night and the Phillies’ general lack of confidence in their middle-relief, a solid outing from Lidge was needed. Lidge got the first out on a David Freese ground ball fielder’s choice. Manuel then chose to load the bases by intentionally walking Yadier Molina, hoping Lidge could induce a ground ball double play out of the always-pesky Theriot. It worked — Theriot weakly grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat and the inning.

To that point, the Cardinals were batting over .500 on balls in play, while the Phillies — having been retired in order in four consecutive innings — were a shade under .300 (the league average over a significantly larger sample is .296). The Phillies, behind one run, attempted to manufacture a run in the bottom of the seventh, but their first two hitters made outs, running the streak of consecutive outs made by Phillies hitters to 17. Jimmy Rollins ended it with a line drive single to left. The TBS cameras saw Rollins being a bit liberal with his lead off of first base and was eventually picked off by lefty Marc Rzepczynski, ending the threat.

The top of the eighth was another test for the Phillies’ bullpen. Antonio Bastardo had pitched terribly in the month of September. Rich Dubee suggested the lefty was tipping his pitches, while Bastardo himself said he couldn’t get the same feel for his pitches he had previously. Bastardo didn’t really answer any questions. He walked the lead-off batter, then got two outs on a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout before giving way to Vance Worley. Worley got the third out on a fly ball to right field. All told, the Phillies ended up where they started in terms of what they felt about their middle relief.

Down one run with six outs remaining, the Phillies needed to call upon the post-season magic that had aided them in the past. The bottom of the eighth inning was taken over by Tony La Russa, however. Rzepczynski led off the inning by hitting Chase Utley with a pitch, then was taken out for right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Boggs retired Pence on a ground ball fielder’s choice. La Russa lifted him for lefty Arthur Rhodes to face Ryan Howard. Howard struck out on three pitches, and Rhodes was promptly replaced with Jason Motte. Motte finished the inning by getting Victorino to fly out to center field. Three outs, four different pitchers used by the Cardinals — seven on the night.

La Russa made his impact felt in the top of the ninth as well. Against Ryan Madson, Albert Pujols led off with a broken bat seeing-eye single to left field. Madson worked to a 2-2 count against Lance Berkman, at which point the Cardinals’ manager decided to put on a hit-and-run with Pujols at first base, even though he has been playing with a painful foot injury. Berkman swung and missed, and Ruiz fired to second base. Pujols hadn’t even made it halfway between first and second by the time the ball reached second base. The first baseman got in a lackadaisical run-down and was retired for the second out. Madson ended the inning by striking out Adron Chambers.

The Phillies went down quietly in the ninth against Motte. A strikeout, a weak fly ball, and a weak ground ball ended the game, knotting the series at 1-1. They had just one base runner reach base between the fourth and ninth innings, and the plate discipline that was so crucial to their four early runs disappeared entirely.

The Cardinals and Phillies will board planes and head to St. Louis for Games Three scheduled for Tuesday. Cole Hamels will oppose Jaime Garcia in a battle of lefties.

Phillies Pound Cardinals, Win NLDS Opener

Four batters into Game One of the NLDS, it just wasn’t looking like the Phillies’ game. Lead-off hitter Rafael Furcal singled to open the frame, then stole second base in a flash. After Roy Halladay struck out Allen Craig, he tip-toed around Albert Pujols with a walk to bring up Lance Berkman with runners on first and second with one out.

Halladay has been notoriously ineffective early in games this year. He held hitters to a sub-.700 OPS in all innings between two and eight with a combined seven home runs. In the first inning, however, hitters compiled a .717 OPS with four home runs during the regular season. The trend continued as Berkman smoked a first pitch fastball that just missed going into the second deck in right field, putting the Cardinals up 3-0 early.

Against Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse, the Phillies displayed uncharacteristic impatience at the plate. The Phillies went down in order in the first two innings, seeing just six pitches apiece. If the first two innings were to be taken at face value, it was going to be a long night for Phillies fans.

Fortunately, Halladay settled down quickly. Skip Schumaker singled to lead off the second, but that would be the last base runner the Cardinals would have against the defending NL Cy Young winner all night. Halladay had pinpoint precision, using his vast array of pitches to generate weak ground outs when he wasn’t missing bats entirely.

The Phillies scratched across a run in the fourth on an opposite-field RBI single to left by Shane Victorino. At the time, it was a vital hit as Lohse appeared to be on cruise control. It was in the sixth inning, though, that the floodgates opened.

Jimmy Rollins singled to lead off the inning. After Chase Utley struck out, Hunter Pence singled up the middle to put runners on first and second with one out for Ryan Howard. Howard was looking to redeem himself after last year’s finish to the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, when Howard struck out looking against closer Brian Wilson.

Howard worked Lohse as well as anybody had to that point. Lohse worked out of the strike zone, trying to get Howard to offer at a bad pitch, but Howard laid off the bait. With the count 3-2 and nowhere to put Howard, Lohse had to come near the strike zone. He threw two change-ups which were fouled off with a last-ditch effort. Lohse came back with a third change-up, but Howard was on the mark this time, sending the pitch deep into the stands in right field for the three-run home run, putting the Phillies up 4-3. Per FanGraphs, the home run increased the Phillies probability of winning by a whopping 45 percent.

Shane Victorino kept the inning going with a single to center. Lohse was visibly rattled at this point. He fell behind 2-0 to Raul Ibanez, then tried to come back with another change-up. Ibanez, who has been remarkably inconsistent this season, put good wood on the ball, sending Lohse’s offering over the fence in right field for two insurance runs. The Phillies took a 6-3 lead with a five-run sixth inning, chasing Lohse with just one out in the inning.

Octavio Dotel came in and put out the fire, retiring both hitters he faced, but the Phillies were only getting started. While Halladay continued to mow down Cardinal after Cardinal, the Phillies’ offense continued to thrive against the Cardinals’ bullpen. In the bottom of the seventh, the Phillies strung together five singles, pushing across three more runs against relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Mitchell Boggs.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Phillies continued to tack on runs. With two outs, Rollins walked and Utley doubled, putting runners on second and third for Hunter Pence. Pence promptly hit a screaming line drive up the middle, scoring both runners for an 11-3 lead.

Halladay, having thrown 105 pitches, left after eight innings. He was replaced by Michael Stutes, getting his first taste of the post-season with an eight-run cushion. Likely dealing with butterflies in his stomach, Stutes walked Allen Craig to lead off the inning. Pujols followed with a single to left-center. After getting Berkman to ground into a fielder’s choice, Stutes allowed an RBI single to Adron Chambers and another single to Yadier Molina to load the bases, forcing Charlie Manuel to call upon closer Ryan Madson.

Madson didn’t stop the bleeding. Skip Schumaker swung at Madson’s first offering, a belt-high change-up on the outside corner, lining the pitch with noticeable slice to John Mayberry, Jr. in left field. Mayberry dove for it, but it was just out of his reach. Two runs scored and the Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out, giving them a glimmer of hope for a comeback. Madson rebounded, though, striking out John Jay with a 93 MPH fastball at the letters. Madson closed the door against pinch-hitter (and Game One scratch) Matt Holliday, striking him out on three pitches.

With an 11-6 victory, the Phillies took the opening game of a post-season series for the seventh time in their last eight post-season series dating back to 2008. With many questioning the potential of the Phillies’ offense entering the post-season, their performance in Game One ought to settle a lot of stomachs, even if it was against Lohse and an unimpressive bullpen. Cliff Lee will oppose Chris Carpenter, pitching on short rest, in Game Two.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.

Cardinals NLDS Series Preview with Matthew Philip

After two weeks of meaningless baseball, the Phillies will get back on the horse as they open the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Roy Halladay will oppose former Phillie Kyle Lohse in a battle of right-handed pitchers in Game One. Yesterday, you got a graphical preview of the series; today, I call upon ESPN Sweet Spot’s resident Cardinals expert Matthew Philip of the Fungoes blog to give us some perspective on the other team in red.

. . .

1. Matt Holliday is unavailable for at least Game One of the NLDS. How big a deal is his injury?

It’s certainly huge if he can’t play, inasmuch as he is one of the offense’s “MV3,” along with Berkman and Pujols. GM John Mozeliak has said that Holliday’s injury might be DL-worthy had it occurred earlier in the year, so it’s definitely serious. The good news for the Cardinals is that Allen Craig is a potentially potent fill-in.

2. Do you agree with Tony La Russa’s choices in using Kyle Lohse to open the series, and Chris Carpenter for Game Two on three days of rest?

La Russa’s penchant for overmanaging is infamous enough to have been the subject of a Mustrash episode, and this is an example of TLR seemingly needing to put his stamp on the series. He does have some method to his madness, though: Using Carpenter early would allow him to return for a possible Game 5, which makes sense. The stranger call is delaying Jaime Garcia, who would’ve pitched on normal rest in Game 1, till Tuesday’s Game 3. I don’t like it because pitching Garcia in Game 1 would’ve given the team the option to start him on one-day short rest in a possible Game 4. And if not Garcia in Game 1, I still consider Jackson to be better than Lohse, despite the latter’s career year.

3. The Cardinals are not a very mobile team, having finished last in the NL in stolen bases with 57. Do you worry about their ability to manufacture runs against the Phillies’ pitching staff?

The Cardinals scored the most runs in the league because they manufacture runs simply by getting on base and not via “small ball.” The key, since they are so poor at stealing (not to mention the league’s slowest team) and, in addition, executing will be not running into outs on the bases, which they have done with occasional impunity. TLR will have to resist the urge to put runners in motion in order to avoid double plays, to which he may be particularly sensitive given the misguided criticism of the team hitting into so many (which is mostly a function of OBP, of course). The Phillies’ staff will make them pay or underappreciating their limited outs.

4. Do you feel confident that the Cardinals’ lefty relievers can neutralize Ryan Howard?

Howard has a .100 OBP/.100 SLG in 10 plate appearances against Brian Tallet. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they overhauled their LOOGys late in the season and shipped Tallet to Toronto. They now have the majors’ fourth-oldest player in Arthur Rhodes, against whose platoon advantage Howard is impervious, with .400 OBP and .750 SLG in 10 PAs. Expect Marc Rzepczynski to be the designated LOOGy, against whom Howard is 0-for-2. If for some reason La Russa gets into a pinch or wants to get creative, he could use starting pitcher Jaime Garcia in relief against Howard, who is only 2-for-12 with six Ks against him.

5. The Cardinals are a team heavy on right-handed hitters. Do you think they match up better against Cliff Lee than Roy Halladay?

They haven’t hit either one this year, so I think this is a case of sheer talent trumping any platoon advantage. Lee held the Cardinals to a .322 OBP/.269 SLG in two starts in 2011, while Halladay was no more generous at .286 OBP/.340 SLG.

BONUS: Who do you see winning the series, and in how many games?

If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the Phillies — but not much. As superlative as the Phillies are, the Selig-format playoffs are notoriously a crapshoot, and this would be the series for the Cardinals to knock them off. The deep Philly rotation also loses some of its advantage, since the Cardinals can end it in three or, at the least, have to use their fourth man only once.

. . .

Thanks to Matthew for taking some time out of his schedule to talk with us on the other side. You can follow him on Twitter (@Fungoes) and keep tabs on his blog Fungoes for a numbers-heavy take on the series as it progresses.

STL/PHI NLDS Series Preview

Bill Petti (@BillPetti) of Amazin’ Avenue and Beyond the Box Score was nice enough to share his Saber-stat series preview graphic. It’s pretty snazzy. Click on the image to view a much larger version.

The graphic shows that the Cardinals are a better offensive team than the Phillies in, well, every facet. But it should be no surprise that the tables are flipped when it comes to pitching. The Cardinals are 7% better than the Phillies when it comes to scoring runs, but the Phillies are 27% better at preventing runs. That is why the Cardinals finished with just a +70 run differential while the Phillies finished at +184.

As for individual offensive contributors, let’s compare them using wOBA.

The Cardinals have the edge at five of eight positions; the Phillies lead at second base (Chase Utley), shortstop (Jimmy Rollins), and center field (Shane Victorino).

Now, a look at the pitchers using SIERA.

The Phillies have the overwhelming advantage in Games One and Two, and a slight advantage in Game Three. Should the series go to a fourth game, the Cardinals plan to use Phillie-killer Jaime Garcia, who has a 1.20 ERA against the Phillies — lowest among opponents with 20+ innings pitched.

The Phillies and Platoon Splits

After the Phillies won the NL East and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, fans began to play matchmaker. Would the Phillies rather play the lefty-heavy Arizona Diamondbacks, or the Milwaukee Brewers’ wealth of right-handed hitters? The Phillies will enter the post-season with the potential of just one lefty out of the bullpen (Antonio Bastardo), so maybe you bite the bullet and roll the dice against NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun and the Brewers’ flock of right-handers.

What is interesting about the Phillies’ pitching staff, though, is that the platoon match-ups do not work the way they do with most pitchers. Pitchers tend to perform better against same-handed hitters because they can hide the ball slightly longer and the ball appears to come from a more favorable angle. That has not been the case for the Phillies this year.

Two starters and four key relievers have performed better against opposite-handed hitters, surprisingly. With talk of the Phillies potentially adding lefty Joe Savery to the roster, that now looks superfluous after perusing this information. In a late-innings situation where the Phillies need to get a crucial lefty out — say, Prince Fielder — they can instead call upon Vance Worley and expect him to get the job done.

This is an important distinction to make because it allows the Phillies the flexibility of entering the playoffs with an 11-man pitching staff. With the questionable durability of the Phillies’ entire infield, bringing an extra infielder rather than an extra fielder can make or break the Phillies’ late-game decision-making. The debate then revolves around carrying five or six outfielders (and conversely seven or six infielders). Ben Francisco could be left off in favor of Pete Orr if the Phillies want to be very safe against any potential injuries to their infielders.

Ultimately, some people may say it is an irrelevant discussion, but each roster spot should be treated as if it matters the same as any other. And, as the Phillies experienced in 2008, you never know who is going to be a key contributor. Would you have expected Eric Bruntlett, Geoff Jenkins, and Pedro Feliz to have played big roles in the Phillies’ Game Five win over the Tampa Bay Rays? Do the best you can at maximizing each roster spot and you can safeguard against being wronged by Baseba’al.

Baseball Is Awesome

If you missed last’s action around the league, let’s let the win probability graphs from FanGraphs do the talking:

Starting with Phillies-Braves…

The St. Louis Cardinals, vying with the Braves for the NL Wild Card, beat the pulp out of the Houston Astros 8-0. As a result, the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff on Thursday, their only hopes for the post-season. The Braves were up 3-1 going into the seventh, but the Phillies started to chip away. They scored once in the seventh and tied the game against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Hunter Pence broke the tie in the 13th with a BABIP-fueled RBI infield single in the hole between first and second. David Herndon nailed down the bottom-half for the save, dashing the Braves’ playoff hopes.

At one point in mid-August, the Braves had 26 more wins than losses and appeared to be locks for the post-season. In September, the Braves lost 18 of 27 games while the Cardinals won 18 of 26. Simply put, the Braves ran out of gas — and healthy players. The Braves’ loss was the Phillies’ 102nd win of the season, setting a new franchise record for wins in the regular season, beating the 101 wins of the 1976 and ’77 Phillies.

Meanwhile, the Yankees-Rays game wasn’t too interesting. The Yankees took a 7-0 lead, putting the Rays’ fate firmly in the hands of the Boston Red Sox, who were playing the Baltimore Orioles. In the eighth inning, Yankees relievers Boone Logan and Luis Ayala had complete meltdowns. Logan allowed all three hitters he faced to reach base, departing with the bases loaded. Ayala forced in two runs with a walk and a hit batter, followed by one more on a sacrifice fly. With two outs, Evan Longoria capped the inning with a three-run home run to bring the Rays within one run at 7-6. Suddenly, it was a game. The reset button was pushed with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Dan Johnson — who hadn’t reached base via a hit since April 27 — hit a home run down the left field line to tie the game and breathe life back into the Rays’ playoff hopes.

Over in Baltimore, the Red Sox had gone up 3-2 thanks to a Dustin Pedroia solo home run in the fifth. The score held going into the bottom of the ninth inning as the Orioles attempted to rally against closer Jonathan Papelbon. At the same time, the Rays and Yankees were going back and forth, the score holding at seven apiece as the game went deeper and deeper into extra innings. Papelbon retired the first two Orioles he faced on strikeouts, giving Red Sox Nation confidence that they would at least have the opportunity to have a direct fight with the Rays for post-season rights.

The 68-93 Orioles weren’t going down without a fight. Chris Davis doubled on a line drive down the right field line. Nolan Reimold promptly doubled to right-center, tying the game at threes. The Rays fans in Tropicana Field went nuts when they heard the news. Moments later, Robert Andino singled to left. The ball was misplayed by Carl Crawford, allowing Reimold to score the winning run uncontested.

How did that feel? Have a look at the graph:

No more than three minutes later in Tampa with Scott Proctor on the bump, Longoria hit a solo home run down the left field line to clinch the AL Wild Card for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Like the Braves with the NL Wild Card, the Red Sox at one point appeared to be locks for the AL Wild Card. In fact, the Sox were in first place in the AL East as recently as September 1. However, their September was even worse than the Braves’, winning just seven of 27 games. The Rays won 17 of 27, including their last five games to finish out the season. If you thought the Mets’ collapse in 2007 was bad, the Braves and Red Sox arguably exceeded that — in the same season.

One night after we saw this dramatic comeback…

… we were treated to three. On the same night. As it pertains to the AL Wild Card, within minutes of each other. Each game had drastic playoff implications.

I don’t think it would be outrageous to say that Wednesday, September 28, 2011 was the wildest day of baseball in history, all things considered. Cherish what you witnessed on that day; you will go a long time before witnessing something like that again.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Over at the Sweet Spot blog, David Schoenfield takes a stab at how the post-season rotations will line up. The Phillies will need to wait until the end of the day to be assigned an opponent, but regardless of which team it is, the Phillies will enter the playoffs with the best starting rotation, bar none. Here’s a graphical look at how the Phillies compare with the other two known playoff entrants in the National League, going by SIERA.

With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the Phillies have the best starter by far in the #1 and 2 spots, and have a slight edge at #4 with Roy Oswalt. The Brewers beat the Phillies at #3 because they’re using Zack Greinke behind Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, even though Greinke has been significantly better by defense-independent metrics. He has been significantly worse with runners on base: batters are hitting for a .908 OPS against him when runners are on, compared to .695 when the bases are empty.

The Phillies are slightly behind the Brewers and D-Backs in offense, but make up for it with their elite starting rotation. While anything can happen in the post-season, as last year’s San Francisco Giants can attest, there is no reason to bet against the Phillies going into October. It will be a real treat to see how this much-heralded rotation fares in the playoffs.

The Cost of Loyalty

The graph below takes Raul Ibanez and John Mayberry, Jr.’s performances in favorable (vs. opposite-handed pitching) and unfavorable (vs. same-handed pitching) platoon scenarios and compares them to an average NL batter in those same splits.


Notes: wXB/H is “Weighted Extra Bases per Hit,” a contact skill-neutral measure of power that I Frankenstein’d together here. Strikeout rate is inverted, so that lower strikeout rates are higher above league average.

As you would expect, Mayberry bests Ibanez in every category except for walk rate versus opposite-handed pitchers. His overall output, plate discipline, and power are all superior to those of Ibanez. The best thing that can be said for Raul Ibanez is that he has streaks of passable to good performance. When you stop creating generous endpoints for him, he is just a corner outfielder with poor defense who is hitting 10% below league average at the moment by wRC+. On many other teams he would be a bench bat — and blessed to hold on even to that role. Front offices less prone to considerations of loyalty and character, on teams whose fates were less assured, would have looked elsewhere for production weeks ago.

Still, we’re a few days away from the official submission of playoff rosters, and I can say with reasonable certainty that Charlie Manuel will start Raul Ibanez in left field for every playoff game. Granted, it’s more complicated than the above graph makes it seem. Ibanez has nearly twice as many plate appearances as Mayberry, and it will be a while before we can be certain that Mayberry’s improvements are the real deal. It’s also questionable how much their skill differential will really matter in the playoff rat race, where a good four or five plate appearances can turn an entire series.

But suppose the Phillies are knocked out shy of their ultimate goal. While we’re sitting around building narratives after the fact, as FuquaManuel detailed, will we at least consider this, a decision predicated entirely on non-baseball factors that objectively lowers the team’s offensive potential? Or will we brush it aside, credit Charlie Manuel again for being the “player’s manager,” and turn our attention to some other scapegoat?