Wednesday October 13th, 2010

With the first round of this year's major league baseball playoffs now behind us, here are five things that we learned from the just-completed Division Series that could reverberate in the coming League Championship Series.

The Rangers staked Cliff Lee to an early 3-1 lead in their Game 5 win over the Rays, and all three of those runs were the result of the Rangers forcing the action on the bases. In the top of the first, Elvis Andrus singled, stole second, and, in motion when Josh Hamilton grounded out to first base, scampered home all the way from second. In the fourth, Nelson Cruz doubled, then took off for third and scored when Kelly Shoppach's throw sailed into left field. Finally, in the sixth, Vladimir Guerrero made like Elvis and scored from second on a groundout to first. Oh, and Bengie Molina stole a base as well, just his fourth in the major leagues and first since 2006.

These Rangers will run. Including both members of their outfield platoon, only four Texas regulars had fewer than eight stolen bases this season, and two of them were Guerrero and Molina. As a team, Texas was seventh in the majors in stolen bases. The only playoff team to rank ahead of them were the just-eliminated Rays. The Yankees, meanwhile, were dead last in the majors in caught stealing percentage, throwing out just 15 percent of attempting basestealers, so expect the Rangers to keep on running in the ALCS.

Which is to say that the Phillies' H2O rotation is as good as their reputation would have you believe. Sure, Roy Oswalt was underwhelming in Game 2 against the Reds, but what makes H2O so formidable is that there are three of them. As we saw in the Rays-Rangers series, when most teams fail to win their ace's starts, they lose, but the Phillies have three aces. So Oswalt wasn't sharp. Big deal. Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, facing what was the National League's best offense during the regular season, pitched a no-hitter and a shutout, posting this combined line: 18 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 17 Ks. The Phillies needed just four innings from their bullpen in the entire three-game set, and even with Oswalt's struggles, their staff ERA for the series was 1.00 . . . or rather, because of Oswalt's struggles he was the only Phillies pitcher to allow a run in the Division Series.

Consider this: The Rangers will only get one Cliff Lee start in the first six games of the ALCS, if it goes that long. The Phillies, on the other hand, will only have one game not started by Halladay, Oswalt or Hamels in the NLCS, even if it goes the full seven games.

Entering the Division Series, the defending world champion Yankees appeared to be in serious danger of a first round exit. Sure they had the major league's best offense and Mariano Rivera capping a competent bullpen, but their rotation behind ace CC Sabathia appeared to be in shambles. Postseason veteran Andy Pettitte had made just three starts, two of them poor, after missing most of the second half of the season due to a groin injury and had more recently complained of back stiffness. Twenty-four-year-old Phil Hughes, in his first full season as a major league starter, had maxed out his innings limit and gone 2-3 with a 5.62 ERA over his final six starts. A.J. Burnett's 5.26 ERA was the highest single-season mark by any pitcher with 30 or more starts in the entire history of the franchise, and Javier Vazquez was bombed in his only start since September 10 and left off the Division Series roster entirely.

As it turns out, the Yankees swept the Twins and Sabathia's solid Game 1 outing was actually the weakest of the three from the Yankees' starters. Pettitte looked like the photo on the box in Game 2, needing just 88 pitches to get through seven strong innings, and Hughes, despite pitching at home where he'd struggled during the regular season, came up looking like nothing short of the next Pettitte with seven shutout innings in the clinching Game 3. The Yankees will need one start from Burnett in the ALCS, but that will likely come against the Rangers' fourth starter Tommy Hunter at home, so the Yankee bats could easily make Burnett irrelevant in that game. Meanwhile, Sabathia, Pettitte and Hughes suddenly seem like a fairly formidable postseason trio.

There were 15 games played in the four Division Series this year. Road teams won 11. Home teams won just four. Of those four home wins, two came behind Roy Halladay's no-hitter and Tim Lincecum's 14-strikeout shutout, performances that would have played just as well on the road. In one of the other two, Phil Hughes threw seven shutout innings against the Twins. The first-round's only extra-inning game, Game 2 of the Giants-Braves series, was won by the road team despite the advantage conferred on the home team by last licks. The only team to win multiple home games in this year's first round was the Phillies, who swept the Reds and likely would have done the same had they played the first two games in Cincinnati rather Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the Rangers-Rays series was the first playoff series in major league history in which the road team won every game. Since the 2-2-1 format was adopted for the 1998 postseason, teams with home-field advantage have won 47 of 88 Division Series, a .534 winning percentage. Given that the team with home-field advantage typically has the better regular season record (though not always as the wild card teams can't have home-field advantage), that's not a terribly impressive or convincing performance. The implication is that home-field advantage is more than a little overrated.

The currency of baseball is the 27 outs each team is allowed to make over the course of a nine-inning game, and every missed opportunity to cash in one of your opponents outs simply makes them richer. Such was the case for the Braves and Reds in the NLDS. Each made a whopping seven errors, the Reds doing so in just three games, the Braves in four.

Though the Reds were doomed from the start -- if they hadn't kicked away Game 2 they just would have had to face Roy Halladay again in Game 4 -- the Braves' errors made the difference in a tightly contested series in which every game was decided by a single run. The only run in the Giants' Game 1 victory scored when Omar Infante whiffed on a fairly routine play to his left (and that wasn't even one of those seven errors as it was ruled a hit). In the Giants' Game 3 victory, two of the Giants' three runs scored on errors by second baseman Brooks Conrad, including a Bucknarian, through-the-wickets grounder that let the winning run score in the top of the ninth. In the decisive Game 4, an Alex Gonzalez error let the tying run score in the top of the seventh and later in that inning the series-winning run scored with two outs. The Braves actually outscored the Giants 8-7 in earned runs, but allowed four unearned runs to score, and that was the difference in the series.

Of the four remaining teams, the Rangers made the most errors in the Division Series with five. The Phillies and Giants made three each. The Yankees made none. Their regular season error totals broke down among similar lines, with the Rangers making the most of the four teams and the Yankees making the fewest in the majors.

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