Friday October 22nd, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the play that will live in infamy for the Giants in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the ball barely left the infield. Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino hit a bounding grounder to first base that ricocheted off Aubrey Huff and onto the outfield grass in shallow right-center. Runners on second and third both scored, the second and third runs for the Phillies in the inning and the game, playing a deciding role in Philadelphia's eventual 4-2 victory.

"No doubt the error hurt," Huff said. "I was just trying to rush it, get it in my glove and throw it [home]. We're not machines, man. We make mistakes. I should have taken the out. I wish I could hit rewind."

Huff wasn't alone. His was one of three errors in Game 5 -- Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard booted a grounder and Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval made an errant throw -- but there were other gaffes.

Before Huff's error in the third, catcher Buster Posey scooped up a bunt and threw in time to get a forceout at third, but Sandoval failed to tag the base, instead tossing across the diamond for an out at first base. In the bottom of the first Phillies second baseman Chase Utley had a chance at an inning-ending double play but didn't field the ball cleanly, allowing a run to score. Neither of the latter two plays were statistical errors because an out was still recorded.

Once again this October has shown that in the small sample size of pressure-packed playoff games, anything can happen. And across baseball this postseason, anything has happened.

A rash of poor defense has plagued the first half of this year's postseason, beyond the much-publicized woes of Braves infielder Brooks Conrad, who made three errors in one game and four in the NLDS. In total, there have been 36 errors in 25 playoff games, an average of 1.44 per game. There have already been more errors than in the entirety of the 2009 postseason -- when there were 31 errors in 30 games -- and neither league has crowned its pennant winner yet. The errors are up from an average of 1.25 per game during the regular season, which was the highest rate in the majors since 2006.

The impact of defense has been particularly profound this October because runs have been scarce. While the average regular-season game featured 8.8 combined runs, this year's postseason average is nearly two runs lower, at 7.2 per game. NL playoff games have been particularly riddled with low scoring and high errors -- the average contest in the senior circuit has had only 5.9 runs and 2.1 errors per game.

In this year's playoffs, 19 of 179 runs scored have been unearned, a rate of 10.6 percent, a few points higher than the regular-season rate of 7.9 percent unearned. A staggering 19.7 percent of runs scored in NL playoff games have been unearned.

"The bright lights come on and what would be considered just a normal boot now becomes highlighted," said former Giants first baseman Will Clark, who won a Gold Glove and played in five postseasons. "You can't do anything different. The game stays the same. It's just all the craziness and hoopla going on all around you."

Making the findings even more surprising is that this year's playoff field contained six of the eight least error-prone teams (Yankees, Reds, Giants, Twins, Phillies and Rays), with only the Rangers and Braves below league average. By Baseball Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, all eight playoff teams were among the top 14 in the majors in converting balls in play into outs -- the four remaining teams are all among the top eight, including the Rangers (No. 1), Giants (No. 2), Yankees (No. 3) and the Phillies (No. 8).

What could possibly explain the pronounced effect of poor defense this postseason? There's no simple answer. Of course there's the increased scrutiny and pressure surrounding each play; the ballpark atmosphere is different with louder fans and use of other distractions like fans waving rally towels ("It affects the depth of the ball sometimes," Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth said about the towels); but there's also the chance it's just a fluke of a small sample size.

When measured against a regular season of 2,430 games, the to-date 25 playoff games represents a relatively small sample, but a pace of 1.25 errors per game equates to five in a four-game series, yet the Phillies and Reds, for instance, had twice that (10) in their three-game NLDS set.

The Reds appeared ready to steal Game 2 in Philadelphia until the seventh inning, when right fielder Jay Bruce lost a ball in the lights and second baseman Brandon Phillips misplayed the relay throw, accounting for two errors and two unearned runs as the Phillies flipped a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish.

There have been other notable lapses in recent years, too. Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning in Game 2 of the 2009 NLDS against the Dodgers, greasing the wheels for Los Angeles' comeback win. Perhaps that made up for the Dodgers' problems in the 2008 NLCS, when shortstop Rafael Furcal made three errors in the fifth inning of a Game 5 loss to the Phillies.

It affects all comers, too. Huff is not known for his defensive range, but he rarely makes many errors. He made only three errors this season, and his .996 fielding percentage at first base ranked fifth in the NL.

Utley, on the other hand, is known as a sharp fielder, but he made two errors in last year's postseason and has made two official errors so far in this year's postseason, not to mention Thursday's bobble and a misplay on a one-hopper in NLCS Game 3 that led to a run -- a play for which he was originally charged an error before the official scorer changed his mind.

"Errors are part of baseball, and they will always be a part of baseball," Utley said at Friday's pre-NLCS media day. "I just think these games are magnified, and people are paying attention, so they get looked at a bit more."

The defensive miscues are not limited to statistical errors, either. There were pop-ups dropping untouched, as happened to the Giants in NLCS Game 1 on Sunday, and two lapses by the Rays in ALDS Game 5 that allowed the Rangers to score a runner from second base without the ball leaving the infield.

Even when an error or other mistake doesn't immediately lead to a run, there is a toll extracted from the team who committed the defensive lapse in the form of additional pitches thrown.

"You think about, well, the error cost you a run, but a lot of times it costs you an inning or two out of your starting pitcher," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in New York last week. "That's a huge concern for us. If you don't make a play, the pitcher ends up throwing eight or nine more pitches, and you may have just lost an inning. That's where defense plays an important role as well."

Never was that more important than in the "Brooks Conrad Game," when the Braves' second baseman made three errors in NLDS Game 3, the first two of which sabotaged starter Tim Hudson's chance of going deeper into the game. It was particularly important that day because Atlanta's ninth inning was in some disarray -- the game was being played in the evening of the same day in which injured closer Billy Wagner announced he wouldn't pitch again that series.

Hudson exited after the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead, having thrown 106 pitches and allowed only four hits and one unearned run. If he hadn't expended 20 extra pitches pursuing fourth outs, a Hudson who had thrown only 86 pitches would have at least pitched the eighth, allowing manager Bobby Cox to not have to deploy his bullpen so soon.

As it was, Cox used lefty Jonny Venters for the eighth and started Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. If Hudson had cleared the eighth, then Cox could have used Venters either to start the ninth or at least in favor of the bullpen's second-string lefty, Mike Dunn, who was summoned to pitch to Huff, whose RBI single tied the game.

"It's not something that you think about when you're out there, but it all adds up when you have to throw extra pitches," Yankees ace CC Sabathia said. "If you save yourself 10, 12 pitches, you can use those later in the game."

And so it is that pitching and defense -- the old adage's recipe for winning championships -- are inextricably linked, and never more important than the postseason, when a championship can be close and the end of a season, just a few mistakes away, can be even closer.

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