Examining the fallout from the 2008 World Series.
Though the 2008 World Series was a milestone for both the city of Philadelphia, which broke a quarter-century title drought, and for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise, which capped it's first winning season with its first World Series appearance, the most significant thing to come out of the Series is likely to be a change to Major League Baseball's rules concerning the termination and suspension of postseason games.
The decisive Game 5 of this year's World Series was the first postseason game ever to be suspended and finished on another day. The decision to suspend the game conformed to a new rule MLB adopted prior to the 2007 season that states that any tie game that is stopped after five innings and cannot be resumed that same day becomes suspended and must be completed at a future date. However, in his post-game press conference, commissioner Bud Selig said that even if the Rays had not tied the game in the top of the sixth, just prior to the umpire's halting the action, he would have required that the game be suspended and finished at a later date, despite the fact that the MLB rule book would have declared the game official and the Phillies the winners and thus world champions.
The situation was reminiscent of the 2002 All-Star Game, which ended in a tie after 11 innings because the two teams ran out of pitchers. Selig's reaction to that fiasco was to make the All-Star Game determine home field advantage for the World Series, an arbitrary and unnecessary rule change misguidedly designed to increase the sense of competition in the game (though a slight improvement on the previous method of simply alternating home field between leagues from year to year). If Selig was willing to alter the rule book in that case, you can be sure that he'll amend the rules this winter so that postseason games are required to last a minimum of nine innings, regardless of the score.
Yes, Hamels is a dominant ace, and good enough to be the MVP of the NLCS and the World Series. Yes, he turned in an outstanding overall postseason pitching performance, and yes, he is a 24-year-old lefty who's sure to remain one of the National League's very best pitchers for years to come. That has been established, but the rest of the staff deserves some credit as well. After all, the Phillies just won the World Series without a crushing performance from their offense, and Hamels only earned one of the four victories.
The Phillies had the best bullpen ERA in baseball during the regular season. Brad Lidge was perfect in save opportunities and led the majors in WXRL (a Baseball Prospectus statistic which measures a reliever's effect on his team's chances of winning the games in which he pitches). Set-up man Ryan Madson found an extra gear in August and was blowing people away right up until he gave up Rocco Baldelli's home run in Game 5. J.C. Romero was picked up off the scrap heap in mid-2007 and has since rediscovered his ability to dominate left-handed hitters. Back in the rotation after being the closer in 2007, Brett Myers was dominant after his mid-season demotion to fix his mechanics. Joe Blanton pitched surprisingly well after being acquired from the A's in July. Jamie Moyer proved he still has it at age 45 by winning more games and posting a lower ERA than in any season since he won 20 games for the Mariners five years ago and came up huge in his first career World Series start. All together the Phillies' pitchers had the third-best adjusted ERA (ERA+) in the National League during the regular season, and the fourth-best in baseball.
Bullpen performance tends to be fungible, but Lidge really is this good (his Comeback Player of the Year award made no sense as he struck out 11.83 men per nine innings in 66 games while posting a 3.36 ERA in 2007). Moyer is likely to suffer some correction at age 46, but Hamels should only get better, Myers should build off his strong second half, Blanton seems to have found a second life in Philadelphia and lefty J.A. Happ, who made a leap in his age-25 season and spent the postseason in the bullpen, could allow the Phillies to put the days of Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick behind them.
Price is a 23-year-old left-handed pitcher who was taken by the Rays with the top overall pick in the 2007 draft. He just completed his first season in professional baseball, one that started in the Florida State League, and finished in the World Series. Price started his pro career by going 11-0 with a 1.87 ERA in Class A and Class AA. He lost his first Class AAA start, in mid-August, but made his major league debut a month later in Yankee Stadium and posted a 2.89 ERA in 28 innings split between Triple-A and the majors over the season's final two months. Added to the Rays' postseason bullpen via an injury loophole, Price posted a 1.59 ERA while striking out eight men in 5 2/3 innings against two of the best offenses in baseball while on the game's biggest stage. Price got his first major league win in Game 2 of the ALCS and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings to nail down the Rays' Game 7 victory in that series and pick up his first major league save. Price gave up the only two runs he allowed all postseason in Game 2 of the World Series, but one was a solo home run and the other scored on an error, and neither was enough to erase the four-run lead that Price had been called upon to protect. In Game 5 Price pitched a scoreless eighth inning, striking out Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard, and many believe that, had he been in the game sooner, the Phillies might not have gotten the run they needed to become world champs. Price will be in Tampa's rotation to start the 2009 season, and is one of many reasons why the Rays could very well find themselves back in the World Series next October.
The Phillies left 48 men on base in the five games of the World Series, stranding 66 percent of their baserunners. By contrast the Rays left just 23 runners on base, or 52 percent of their baserunners. Yet despite that superior efficiency, the Rays were outscored 24-15 in the Series. The reason why is simple: The Rays may have been better at plating their baserunners, but they put so few men on base that it completely undermined that efficiency. The Rays managed just 44 baserunners over the course of the Series to the Phillies' 73, compiling a pathetic .246 on-base percentage to the Phillies' robust .368.
Obviously, a runner can't score without first reaching base, but just as importantly, every time a runner reaches base, he avoids making an out, thereby delaying the third out which will strand those runners already on base. The Phillies may not have performed particularly well with runners on base, but they got enough of them on and avoided making outs often enough that they were able to score enough runs to win the World Series. By that same token, the Rays not only didn't get very many men on base, but they made outs with such frequency that, despite their superior clutch hitting, they were unable to mount a sustained rally because that third out kept coming around to interrupt the action. Because they made outs so often, the Rays managed just two multi-run innings all Series and never scored more than two in an inning. By contrast, the Phillies had six multi-run innings, including innings of three and four runs in Game 4. This year's World Series stands as an important lesson for anyone who still doubts that on-base percentage is the single most important offensive statistic in baseball.
Maddon is a very smart man and an excellent manager. It's easy to forget that the team that has lost the World Series was still playing after 28 other teams had emptied their lockers for the winter. It's also easy to forget, with all of the focus on the end of Philadelphia's title drought and the bifurcated Game 5, that Maddon went to the World Series with a team that was 66-96 last year, the worst record in baseball, improved by 31 games this year, became the first team since the 1997 Orioles to break the Yankee-Red Sox hegemony in the AL East, and beat the defending world champions in a hard-fought ALCS. Maddon achieved all of that in part because he is an original, progressive thinker, but he took that progressive style too far when he disregarded the platoon splits in some of the most important situations in his team's history.
Everyone in the ballpark knew that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was going to send up a left-handed pinch-hitter for Cole Hamels to restart Game 5. None of Manuel's three lefty bench bats can hit left-handed pitching. Maddon had three lefties available in his pen, yet none of them were even warming up as righty Grant Balfour gave up a ringing leadoff double to Geoff Jenkins, who had just three hits against lefty pitching during the regular season.
Jenkins would come around to score and give the Phillies a quick 3-2 lead. The Rays retied the score in the top of the seventh, but Maddon left southpaw J.P. Howell, who had finished the sixth for Balfour, in to face righty Pat Burrell, whose OPS was 109 points higher against lefties than against righties during the regular season. Like Jenkins, Burrell led of the inning with a booming double off the opposite-handed pitcher and came around to score what proved to be the winning run of the World Series.
Maddon's instinct that same-handed matchups aren't automatically the most advantageous for the pitcher is a good one. There are many pitchers and hitters with even or reverse splits, and a pitcher's overall effectiveness should be the manager's first consideration, but Maddon had hitters with severe platoon splits at the plate and effective pitchers who threw from the more desirable side available in his pen (Howell for Jenkins in the sixth, Chad Bradford for Burrell in the seventh, both of whom wound up coming into those innings anyway). Maddon is an exciting and effective manager because he's willing to think outside of baseball's conventional wisdom, but sometimes a manager can over-think things.