Your 2008 National League Champions

Philadelphia Phillies @ Los Angeles Dodgers, Game 5 NLCS, Phillies advance to World SeriesAs hard as it may be to believe, the Philadelphia Phillies are the National League representatives in the World Series. Pinch yourself to validate that this is not a dream.

Cole Hamels pitched seven strong innings once again, allowing only one run — a Manny Ramirez home run to the delight of FOX broadcaster Joe Buck — on five hits and three walks with five strikeouts. What more can you ask of the guy? Maybe a Brett Myers-esque night at the plate, but I’ll settle.

Jimmy Rollins led off the game with a home run to right-center on a 3-2 fastball from Chad Billingsley. The Phillies never looked back, scoring twice in both the third and fifth innings (oddly enough, those runs did not come via home run). Hamels dominated the Dodgers’ lineup throughout the entire game with Ramirez getting the only good swing — on a high and outside 1-2 fastball — and Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge locked it up with two scoreless innings.

You have to feel for Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, as he made three errors in the game, all coming in the fifth inning. With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on first and second respectively, Pat Burrell hit a grounder in the hole which Furcal could not field cleanly. Seeing the botched grounder, Utley sped around third base towards home plate, and Furcal made a poor throw, allowing Howard to advance to third base.

Later in the inning, with the bases loaded and two outs, Carlos Ruiz hit another grounder to Furcal — a relatively simple play 99% of the time. Perhaps uneasy about his previous defensive plays, Furcal was hesitant with his throw. It came up short to first baseman James Loney, who could not cleanly catch the bounce, so a run scored and everyone was safe all around.

Blake DeWitt was arguably just as bad. In his two at-bats in the game, he hit into two 4-6-3 double plays. His WPA for the game was -1.77. Aside from that three-run triple off of Jamie Moyer in Game 3, DeWitt had an awful NLCS.

On the flip side, many Phillies had a great NLCS, including Shane Victorino, Utley, Hamels, and the entire bullpen. Victorino had the Dodgers so scared that they intentionally walked him twice in Game 5 to get to Pedro Feliz.

I’ll probably be teaming up with John Brattain for a couple more articles at The Hardball Times, explaining why the Phillies beat the Dodgers and why they’ll beat whoever they face in the World Series (likely the Tampa Bay Rays). Click here if you’d like to review the previous articles, perhaps reminding you of how wrong I always am.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.

One More Win

Philadelphia Phillies @ Los Angeles Dodgers, Game 4 NLCSAfter last night’s stunning comeback, the Phillies find themselves up three games to one, just one victory away from returning to the World Series for the first time since 1993.

Oddly enough, if you had only just now looked at the series statistics without knowing the results of each game, you’d think the series would be tied. Both teams have performed similarly in almost every area, except for the bullpen thanks to Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs.

Perhaps the best part of last night, besides the win, was a quote from hero Matt Stairs. Per David Murphy:

“You want to get that one big hit where you feel like you’re part of the team,” Stairs said. “Not that I don’t feel like I’m part of the team, by no means, but when you get that nice celebration coming into the dugout and you’re getting your ass hammered by guys, it’s no better feeling than to have that done.”

I was going to add some emphasis, but I’ll allow you to throw your own mind in the gutter.

Stairs also made a couple other funny quips, though there were no more double-entendres. From the Associated Press:

“My whole career, even back in the early days, my approach was try to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said. “And it’s something I enjoyed doing. In batting practice, I try to hit every ball out of the ballpark. I’m not going to lie, it’s fun. I try to hit home runs and that’s it. I’m not going to hit a single and steal second base. So I think the biggest thing is to get up there, swing hard and elevate.”

Is Matt Stairs this year’s version of Russell Branyan (i.e. used in a very limited role, but ends up winning a game anyway)?

Game 5 (Wednesday, 8:22 PM EST) will feature Phils ace Cole Hamels against the Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley. Should the Phillies clinch on Wednesday, they’d get about a week of rest, meaning that Hamels could start Games 1 and 5 of the World Series (or 1, 4, and 7 depending on how the rotation is set up). If they clinch in Game 6 on Friday, they’d get about five days, which is fine as well.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.

Moyer More Unlucky Than Bad in Game 3

Philadelphia Phillies @ Los Angeles Dodgers, Game 3 of the NLCSOne look at his pitching line in Game 3 of the NLCS in Los Angeles against the Dodgers and you’re forced to conclude that Jamie Moyer was absolute garbage. He’s no stranger to the garbage start either, as he tends to have one every once in a while: September 16, August 26, and May 10, for instance. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll see that Moyer’s failure was due less to his lack of “stuff” and more to bad luck and a successful aggressive approach by the Dodger offense.

Rafael Furcal led off the bottom of the first inning taking a ball and a strike, then swinging at the third pitch, an inside slider that skidded just past the outstretched glove of third baseman Pedro Feliz, too far to the right of shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Andre Ethier, a left-hander, came up and swung at Moyer’s first pitch. It was a high and inside fastball (not a good location if you’re a left-handed hitter) that Ethier drove into the ground and it was, once again, just outside the outstretched glove of a diving Phillies infielder, this time Chase Utley.

Manny Ramirez continued the first-pitch swinging, offering at a get-it-over fastball and smoking it into left field, driving in Furcal. Not a lucky hit.

Russell Martin took the first pitch, an outside change-up. Moyer then threw two strikes, a cutter and a four-seamer that Martin also took. Martin swung at and fouled off the fourth pitch, another four-seamer. In trying to cross him up inside, Moyer’s fifth pitch, a change-up, went in too far and hit Martin on the knee to load the bases for Nomar Garciaparra.

Nomar took four of the five pitches he saw, the fifth one a cutter on the outside corner for strike three.

Casey Blake took the first pitch, then fouled off a curveball to fall behind in the count 0-2. Moyer’s third pitch an outside fastball, and Blake served it into right field to drive in Ethier on a great piece of hitting of which he deserves full credit. You can’t fault Moyer for it, since he made a good pitch.

Matt Kemp took three straight balls at which point Phillies fans were feeling a big inning for the Dodgers coming up. Maybe not. Moyer bounced back in the count to bring it to 3-2, then got Kemp looking at his sixth pitch, an inside fastball for strike three.

Blake DeWitt went down in the count quickly 0-2. Moyer tried to get him to offer at two straight change-ups in the dirt, but it was to no avail. With a 2-2 count, Moyer threw a high slider, but it caught too much of the plate and DeWitt hit it down the right field line, just in fair territory for a bases-clearing triple to bring the lead to 5-0.

Finally, Moyer ended the awful first inning by retiring the pitcher Hiroki Kuroda on a grounder to third baseman Pedro Feliz.

Moyer came out for the start of the second inning. Continuing with the aggression, Furcal swung at the first pitch, a change-up over the plate (another get-it-over pitch to get ahead in the count) and it cleared the left field fence for a solo home run and the Dodgers’ sixth run.

Manager Charlie Manuel let him stay in to pitch to the left-handed Ethier, who also swung at the first pitch and flied out to shallow center field, before replacing him with Clay Condrey.

Moyer’s line: 1.1 IP, 6 ER, 6 H, 0 BB, 2 K, 1 HR. 11 batters faced, 32 pitches (2.9 per batter).

A recap:

  • Furcal: Ground ball hit
  • Ethier: Ground ball hit
  • Ramirez: Line drive hit, RBI
  • Martin: HBP
  • Garciaparra: K looking
  • Blake: Ground ball hit, RBI
  • Kemp: K looking
  • DeWitt: Fly ball triple, 3 RBI
  • Kuroda: Weak ground ball out
  • Furcal: Home run
  • Ethier: Weak fly ball out

Only two of the six hits were well-hit (DeWitt’s triple was not well-hit). Against Moyer, the Dodgers’ BABIP was .714 with only one line drive.

Compare their average on the batted balls to that of the NL average BABIP:

  • Ground balls: 3-for-4 (.750); NL average: .232
  • Fly balls: 2-for-3 (.667); NL average: .145
  • Line drives: 1-for-1 (1.000); NL average: .717

Be aware of the small sample size, but you get the point.

As they say, “baseball is a game of inches” and had Furcal and Ethier’s hits been an inch or two closer to Feliz and Utley respectively, it’s an entirely different inning.

That’s why I am not hasty in faulting Moyer for his poor outing. The only mistake he made was hitting Martin with the change-up. Otherwise, you have to credit the Dodgers with their aggressive approach. Moyer has a tendency to throw hittable junk in an attempt to get ahead in the count (as a pitcher without much “stuff,” it’s an important strategic endeavor). It’s likely the Dodgers realized this and that’s why they were successful.

This start, coupled with his four-inning stint in the NLDS, will lead a lot of fans and media people to lobby that Manuel hand the ball to Joe Blanton (essentially pushing him up a day) or even J.A. Happ, should Moyer’s spot in the rotation come up again. This is misguided, however, as Moyer didn’t even pitch terribly against the Brewers in Game 3 of the NLDS, so it’s a knee-jerk reaction. His mistakes then were two lead-off walks to Mike Cameron and Bill Hall (Cameron scored on a Prince Fielder sacrifice fly, Hall scored on a J.J. Hardy single); other than that, he shut the Brewers down.

If Moyer’s spot comes up again in the NLCS, you hand him the ball and realize that luck simply wasn’t in his favor in Game 3 against the Dodgers, and that his opponents had a successful approach — certainly not all his fault. Watch some videotape of the game, make some adjustments (don’t throw first-pitch cookies), and try to halt the slide.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.

Brett Myers is a Post-season Legend

Remember Myers’ two at-bats against C.C. Sabathia in Game 2 of the NLDS? How could he possibly one-up that performance?

Oh, I don’t know… how about hitting two singles in two at-bats and driving in three runs against Los Angeles Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley?

He swung at the first pitch in both at-bats. The first hit came on an inside slider to put the Phillies up 2-1. Myers kept his hands inside the baseball and drove it into shallow right-center. The second hit came on an outside fastball to increase the Phillies’ lead to 6-2. Myers scorched it down the right field line past first baseman James Loney.

As he has been wont to do lately, he’s also been pitching well. Granted, he’s been a little wild (ask Manny Ramirez), but as of this writing (Phils up 8-2 in the bottom of the third), he’s given up two runs through three innings on three hits and three walks while striking out four.

UPDATE: Not so much anymore, as Myers surrenders a three-run home run to Manny Ramirez to make it an 8-5 lead.

And Myers makes it 3-for-3 at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning as he beat out an infield single down the third base line.

The Phils have thus far scored eight runs without hitting a single home run. The collective head of the media has exploded.

On a much more depressing note, I’d like to send my condolences out to Charlie Manuel, whose mother passed away this morning. He still found enough strength to manage Game 2, and for that he deserves our utmost respect. ESPN’s Jayson Stark has a great, moving article on Manuel that I implore everyone read.

Shane Victorino was also given some bad news after the game. His father told him that his grandmother had passed away. Shane has written about it on his blog. Scott Lauber has some Shane quotes as well.

Success! Phils win Game One

Los Angeles Dodgers @ Philadelphia Phillies, NLCS Game OneIt looked like it was going to get ugly very early. In the first inning, Cole Hamels gave up a one-out double to Andre Ethier — no fault of Hamels, it was a good piece of hitting — and promptly made arguably his only mistake pitch of the game, an 0-1 fastball down the middle to Manny Ramirez*. Man-Ram smoked it, as most good hitters would on a fastball down the middle. The ball just barely stayed in the yard, bouncing off of the 19′-high fence in left-center.

Hamels stayed out of further trouble in the inning, striking out Russell Martin, walking James Loney, and ending the inning by inducing Matt Kemp to fly out to right fielder Jayson Werth.

* It’s debatable as to whether or not Ramirez should have ever been pitched to in that situation, considering that first base was open. With the gift of hindsight, it’s plain to see that he should have been walked, but an intentional walk in the first inning of a scoreless game is questionable strategy in and of itself.

Hamels rolled through the game, although he was nearly at 60 pitches through three innings.

The Dodgers scored again in the fourth, but it was on a lucky ground-rule double by Matt Kemp — a ball that sliced down the right field line, landing just inside the line. Kemp advanced to third on a grounder to shortstop by Casey Blake, and scored on a fly ball to deep left-center by Blake DeWitt.

For whatever reason, Hamels decided to throw a high fastball in an 0-1 count to DeWitt. Not exactly the pitch you want if you’re trying to avoid a fly ball to the outfield.

Other than that, Hamels was dominant, going seven strong innings, giving up the two earned runs on six hits and two walks, and striking out eight. Ryan Madson threw a scoreless eighth and Lidge had a stress-free ninth inning, although the first two outs were recorded on deep fly balls to center and right-center.

As he so often seems to do, Shane Victorino started the Phillies’ run scoring on a seemingly harmless grounder in the sixth inning, but because of his speed, shortstop Rafael Furcal rushed his throw and threw it wide of first baseman James Loney. Without hesitation, Victorino advanced to second base.

With Utley up next, you were just hoping he didn’t make an unproductive out, as he’s likely been playing with a bad hip since about early May (he was taken out hard at second base by Justin Upton of the Arizona Diamondbacks). Instead of working the count, Utley swung at starter Derek Lowe’s first offering, a sinker he left up. Utley put enough on his swing to deposit the ball beyond the right field fence to tie the game.

More home run-runs. 10 of the 15 runs the Phils scored in the NLDS came via the long ball, and now 2-of-2 in the NLCS. Maybe it doesn’t matter. With Phillies fans content with a mere tie game against a dominant sinker-baller, Ryan Howard grounded out. But it wasn’t over. Pat Burrell took three straight balls, and then a called strike before smoking a belt-high fastball that landed beyond the left field fence in about half-a-second.

With Hamels on the mound, 9 outs to go, and a dominant bullpen to look forward to, things were looking good, and they were good. Ryan Madson did give up a hit but it should have been an error, since Pedro Feliz literally booted a Russell Martin ground ball. Brad Lidge went 3-up, 3-down in the ninth for a victory in Game One of the NLCS.

It wouldn’t be a Phillies victory without some curious strategy from manager Charlie Manuel. In the bottom of the seventh against “reliever” Greg Maddux, catcher Carlos Ruiz led off with a single deep in the hole, a tough grounder for Furcal. With the pitcher due up, Manuel could have sent up left-handers Greg Dobbs or Matt Stairs against the right-handed pitcher, but instead opted to go with So “Failure” Taguchi to bunt Ruiz to second base.

A look at the Run Expectancy Matrix at Baseball Prospectus will show you why bunting in that situation is a losing play even if executed properly, so success or not, it was a dumb move. But Taguchi turned regular old fail into epic fail by popping up his bunt attempt, caught by Loney in foul territory.

The one bright spot in Manuel’s strategy was that he didn’t take Burrell out until the ninth inning. Usually, it’s in the seventh inning.

All in all, it was an entertaining game and a great start to the NLCS. Brett Myers will oppose Chad Billingsley tomorrow afternoon (4:35 PM) in what should be yet another low-scoring game.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.

Is The Hardball Times Sick of Me Yet?

Prior to the Brewers-Phillies NLDS series, I partnered with John Brattain on a preview, trying to lay out the reasons why the Phillies were favorites to win the series. Fortunately, the Phillies did a decent job of not making me look like an idiot, so Brattain and I teamed up again for the NLCS.

First, you want to know why the Phillies beat the Brewers, right? Right? Come on. The Gruesome Twosome analyze ex post facto the NLDS.

And the meat of the matter: Why the Phillies will beat the Dodgers.

Here’s a snippet:

Bill: […] No reliever on the Dodgers’ postseason roster finished the regular season with an ERA+ under 130, which is amazing. I mentioned in the Phillies-Brewers preview that Philly relievers all had an ERA+ over 120, so that gives you some perspective on just how good their bullpens are. Presume any late lead is safe in the NLCS.

John: Well, any lead of more than two runs anyway. I never discount the ol’ “bloop and a blast” possibility or as we witnessed in the LDS … the IBB and a blast. My gut tells me we’re going to see one “walk-off” win in this series, or so my sources inside my head inform me (yes, I always think with my stomach).

Catharsis: From the Brew Crew to the Blue Crew

In four NLDS games, the Phillies have disposed of the Milwaukee Brewers with relative ease. Three of the four games saw strong starting pitching from Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, and Joe Blanton (combined 23 IP, 3 ER, 1.17 ERA) with great support from the bullpen (10 IP, 4 ER, 3.60 ERA). The offense wasn’t impressive (3.75 runs per game) but did enough to back up the pitching.

Picking the LVP — the Least Valuable Player — of the series is easy: Corey Hart. He was 3-for-13 in the series with 4 strikeouts and grounded into a double play that helped Brett Myers escape a tense first inning in Game 2. To add insult to injury, he made a base running gaffe in Game 3 where he was too aggressive rounding first base on a single to right field and Jayson Werth threw a laser to first baseman Ryan Howard who tagged him out.

Picking the MVP of the series is a bit harder. Shane Victorino was 5-for-14 with a home run (yeah, that grand slam off of C.C. Sabathia), five RBI, and three stolen bases. Pat Burrell came into Game 4 0-for-8 but went 3-for-4 with two dingers and four RBI in the Phillies’ 6-2 win in the clincher. Cole Hamels pitched eight shutout innings in Game 1, Myers pitched 7 strong innings giving up only two earned runs, and Blanton threw six strong innings giving up only one earned run.

In general, the Phillies’ starting pitching was the MVP, but if you have to award it to one person, Victorino’s the winner.

The Phillies advance to the NLCS for the first time since 1993; the Dodgers advance to the NLCS for the first time since 1988.

Stay tuned for a preview of the Dodgers-Phillies NLCS preview at The Hardball Times. Once again, I’ll be collaborating with John Brattain. And sometime between now and the weekend, I’ll have my picks for the regular season awards posted.

Proponents of 7-game LDS Are Wrong

Should Major League baseball turn the League Division Series from a 5-game series into a 7-game series?

The question has been brought up in various segments on ESPN and some writers have opined on the idea, such as Hal Bodley: they think that a 5-game LDS series is too luck-based and suggest that a 7-game series is more fair in that bad teams can’t depend on absolute luck and advance to and potentially win the World Series, like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s a hair-triggered reaction to the downfall of the Chicago Cubs, who were the National League’s best team almost all year, but have quickly fallen behind two games to none to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. The Dodgers finished with a record 13 full games worse than the Cubs did, so the Dodgers obviously should never have been close to a victory. It’s not like they have good pitching and good hitting, right? I mean, who’s this Manny Ramirez guy, and what’s up with the other guy named Chad Billingsley?

Would a 7-game series really solve anything? The only thing it would accomplish is uniformity — the LDS would be just as long as the LCS and World Series. Given a larger sample size, of course, the effect of luck is diminished, but we’re only talking about two games.

Additionally, adding two games (likely three days if you include an off-day for travel) would mean that the World Series would finish in early November. Not that there’s a whole lot of difference between November 3 and October 31, but as they say, “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” It’s just a precedent that needn’t be set.

The sudden cries for a 7-game LDS reminds me of when we as kids used to play Roshambo (Rock, Paper, Scissors) and whenever you beat your opponent in a best-of-three, he’d angrily ask for a best-of-five, then when you beat him again, he’d ask for a best-of-seven, and then a best-of-nine, and a best-of-eleven … until he finally won.

While I don’t think all of the sudden support for a 7-game LDS is due to pity for the Cubs, it’s hard to imagine that if the Cubs were up 2-0 on the Dodgers that there’d be any discussion on the matter. Oftentimes we root for the underdog, but for some reason, the top dog Cubs are getting a lot of support (likely due to their reputation and large fan base) and aren’t receiving too much criticism for their failures.

The Cubs aren’t going to lose the LDS due to bad luck; they simply played badly. Occam’s Razor, right? Kosuke Fukudome has been awful, similar to most of his 2008 regular season. The defense, especially in Game 2, looked worse than Little League-quality. The Dodgers’ pitching has been pretty damn good, a credit to Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley.

Do you really think that teams that have played the way the Cubs have played deserve more opportunities to advance in the post-season? The teams that play the best advance. What’s wrong with that?

I guess it’s just a bad concept when the plot doesn’t unfold exactly the way you want it to: the Cubs are the hapless lovable losers who are cursed by a goat, and this is their hundredth year without a World Series championship on their mantel. Wouldn’t it be great if the Cubs exorcised their demons the way the Boston Red Sox did in 2004, or the Chicago White Sox in 2005?

That’s life. Just because things don’t turn out the way you’d like doesn’t mean you can change the rules around. I can’t give myself authority to fire the person who got the promotion instead of me. I can’t edit my lottery numbers so that I won last week’s jackpot.

The call for an amendment to the current LDS set-up is infantile and unjustified. There may be legitimate arguments to be made for such an amendment, but all that has been presented thus far has been unwarranted, hair-triggered, emotional appeals for the Cubs.

A Legendary At-Bat

No one with a solid grasp of logic picked the Phillies to win Game 2 of the NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers. C.C. Sabathia is just too good and had been too dominant to go against him.

Brett Myers, pitcher and absolutely not a hitter extraordinaire, would have none of that. Unfazed by Sabathia’s 1.65 ERA as a Brewer, Myers was buried early in the count 0-2, but worked it back to 3-2, fouled off a tough pitch, and eventually worked the walk.

Here’s what the at-bat looked like in MLB Gameday:

Brett Myers first at-bat vs. C.C. Sabathia in Game 2 of the 2008 NLDS

As the baseball gods would have it, Myers’ walk paid dividends. Jimmy Rollins came up and worked a four-pitch walk to load the bases. Shane Victorino took two pitches for a 1-1 count before fouling off a tough fastball. C.C. thought he could get him with a slider, but thought wrong as Shane drove the slider over the left field seats for a grand slam, and the Phillies went up 5-1.

If you add up the 9 pitches Myers saw, the four that Rollins and Victorino each saw, and the three that Sabathia had to throw to strike out Chase Utley, you arrive at 20 pitches. Since Sabathia had Myers 0-2 and Myers is a pitcher, you could make the argument that Sabathia threw 17 more pitches than necessary because of the Phillies’ patience at the plate.

For a pitcher that threw 335 pitches in three starts in a span of nine days, the extra 20 pitches shaved an inning or two off of Sabathia’s max, which means more exposure to the Brewers’ flawed bullpen (which, unfortunately, looked pretty good last night).

When looking back on the Phillies’ road to the NLCS, Victorino’s grand slam will stick out like a sore thumb, but Myers’ at-bat was extremely important. Don’t forget it!

UPDATE: Myers worked another full count, but this time flew out to center fielder Mike Cameron on the tenth pitch. Myers’ plate approach is immaculate. All by himself, he’s seen 19 pitches in two at-bats.
Here’s the MLB Gameday view of the second at-bat:

Brett Myers' second at-bat against C.C. Sabathia in Game 2 of the NLDS

UPDATE #2: What do you know? In Myers’ third at-bat, this time against righty Seth McClung, he swung at the first pitch he saw and dropped it into shallow right field for a single to load the bases with two outs for Jimmy Rollins, who unfortunately lined out to Prince Fielder to end the inning.

UPDATE #3: Oh yeah, Brett Myers pitched well, too. His first inning was shaky, but his overall start was great. 7 IP, 2 ER, 2 H, 3 BB, 4 K.

Also, when the game ends (bottom of the 8th now), the LI and BABIP spreadsheets will be updated.