Sunday October 18th, 2009

1. Tonight for Game 3 of the NLCS the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda becomes the third pitcher in as many days to start a championship series game after not starting in the division series. The Phillies' Pedro Martinez, of course, was masterful on Friday, throwing seven shutout innings and allowing only two hits and no walks (though Philadelphia's bullpen blew the lead and the game). The Angels' Joe Saunders tossed seven innings of two-run ball last night, exiting in a 2-2 tie, a game that the Yankees won 4-3 in the 13th inning.

Making the performances of Martinez and Saunders, who were pitching on 15 and 12 days rest, respectively, all the more impressive is the track record of others who have started championship series games after similar layoffs. (Kuroda hasn't pitched since Sept. 28, a 19-day break.)

Before the outings from Martinez and Saunders this weekend, a pitcher had started in a championship series game after not starting in the divisional series 32 times since MLB implemented the wild card and expanded the playoff format in 1995. (Three pitchers have done it twice and one, Denny Neagle, has done it three times.) On the whole, those starts have been pretty good: an 11-12 record, an average of 5 2/3 innings per outing, with 3.71 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. Those numbers are very much in line with the average championship series pitcher's line (3.86 ERA, 1.35 WHIP).

But there is a strong correlation between whether the CS starter threw any relief innings in the DS or not, providing further evidence that there is no substitute for facing live hitters. In the 10 games a pitcher did relieve in the DS, in his CS start he averaged six innings with a 2.56 ERA with a 1.26 WHIP, for a 4-3 record. Neither Martinez, Saunders nor Kuroda had or will have that luxury.

Of the 22 instances in which the CS starter didn't relieve in the DS, they went 7-9, averaging 5 1/3 innings with a 4.28 ERA -- nearly a run and three-quarters worse -- and 1.41 WHIP. Bullpen sessions and simulated games just aren't the same.

2. When Kuroda does take the mound, he'll need to do his best to keep the Phillies off the bases, something the Dodgers have generally excelled at in the first two games of the NLCS.

Kuroda has had abnormal struggles with runners on base. In each of his first two seasons he's allowed opponents to bat exactly 58 points higher with men on base -- this year the difference is .280 to .222. (On average NL hitters typically hit only eight points higher with runners on the basepaths.) Kuroda's numbers this year are especially bad (100 points higher!) if a runner is on first, and he allows steals 25 percent more frequently than the average NL pitcher. The Phillies should be extra patient in trying to work leadoff walks or slap singles, anything to put the ball in play and rattle the pitcher. Considering Kuroda has a 0.95 ERA and 0.58 WHIP in 19 innings against them this year, they should take what they can get.

Getting on base has been an occasional problem for the Phillies, who had a below-average .334 on-base percentage during the regular season and a mere .290 OBP in the their first two NLCS games. Among players with at least two plate appearances, only Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz have an OBP above .300, which has hampered Philadelphia's ability to sustain rallies. It's a small sample size, sure, but it's also a difficult way to win a playoff series. Seven of their nine runs have come via homers from Howard, Raul Ibañez and Ruiz. Add Howard's two-RBI double in Game 1 and all nine Phillies runs have crossed the plate on just four scoring hits.

3. In Game 1 the Angels defense committed three errors the scorekeeper gave them credit for -- and the embarrassing miscommunication on the run-scoring pop-up that fell between Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar, which did not officially count as an error -- and L.A. only compounded its defensive woes in Game 2.

The Angels made two more errors, including Maicer Izturis' errant throw that allowed the game-winning run to score, plus another mistake that allowed a run to score. In the bottom of the second Robinson Cano hit a very soft triple, which was really a liner into right-centerfield, that neither Bobby Abreu nor Torii Hunter cut off, allowing it to trickle to the fence for a triple. Their reaction time may have been a little slow, but Hunter's throw to the cutoff man still should have set up a relay to possibly catch Cano at third -- only Izturis dropped the ball.

Though the Angels made the AL's fourth-fewest errors and their team Ultimate Zone Rating (a measure of runs saved or lost because of defensive play) was fifth-best, the reality is that they're only an average defensive team. Leftfielder Juan Rivera had L.A.'s best outfield UZR because he has a strong arm, but he has very little range. Hunter, 34, has lost a step and had a negative UZR for the fourth straight season. Neither catcher has a great success rate in throwing out basestealers, and the primary starter, Mike Napoli, was third-worst among all catchers who played at least 50 games. By Baseball Prospectus' preferred measure of team defense, Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Angels ranked only eighth in the AL.

4. After Game 1, Angels lefthander Scott Kazmir -- he of the 6-5 career record and 2.67 ERA in 87 2/3 innings against the Yankees -- explained that "there are no tricks to beating these guys. You can't make mistakes, especially when you're pitching. They like to make you work out there. To be successful, you've just got to attack the zone. You've got to put them on their heels."

The Angels failed to do that, with their starter, Saunders threw only 57 strikes on 105 pitches (54.3 percent) and at one point in the third through sixth innings, he started 11 of 14 Yankees hitters with first-pitch balls. The Yankees' bats, however, generally failed to capitalize, scoring their only two runs off Saunders on a Derek Jeter solo homer and Cano's aforementioned gift triple. In five games this postseason New York is batting a mere .253 with a subpar .322 OBP.

The key time for the Angels not to be aggressive, of course, was in the bottom of the 11th when Brian Fuentes was called upon to save a one-run game. Batting for the Yankees were a very dangerous future Hall of Famer (Alex Rodriguez), two weak-hitting backups (Freddy Guzman and Brett Gardner) and then a man wearing a ski mask (Cano, who was clearly the player most bothered by the cold weather and whose only hit was the ball that slowly rolled into the gap). So Fuentes' decision to challenge A-Rod with an 0-2 fastball is dubious at best, particularly since it was a pitch that's Pitch FX data confirms was a mostly straight, 90-mile-per-hour, waist-high, middle-of-the-plate meatball, which Rodriguez deposited into the rightfield bleachers.

5. Making Rodriguez's torrid start to the playoffs even more impressive has been the middling lineup support he's received from Hideki Matsui. Sure, Godzilla is 5-for-16 in the stat sheet, but take away the gift single he received by hitting the routine pop-up that fell between Aybar and Figgins and he's batting just .250. Of Matsui's 11 recorded outs, three have come via strikeout and seven (!) of the remaining eight have been groundouts to either the first or second baseman, which is often a sign of trying to pull outside pitches. Angels pitchers can afford to be very careful with A-Rod -- to the extent of walking him in every situation in which first base is unoccupied -- because they can pound Matsui on the outside corner and let him ground into double plays, like he did in the sixth inning of Game 2.

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