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Friday, October 3, 2008

October but without the Muscle

In a Year of Transition, Baseball's Postseason Pits Old Philosophies Against New Hybrids; All Eyes on Tampa Bay

More is at stake in these baseball playoffs than a trophy and a grip-and-grin session with the president. This year, we may finally see the rise of a new philosophy. A sport that sloughed off the legacies of the dynastic New York Yankees, home-run king Barry Bonds and pitching legend Roger Clemens this year could use it.

The Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Angels, the teams with the best records in the sport's stronger league, play a faster, quirkier brand of baseball that suits a changing game. Home runs hit a 15-year low this year, and young players whose salaries teams can control are increasingly prized. (Even the Yankees declined to trade for pitching ace Johan Santana last year, citing the need to keep their young prospects, who ended up playing disastrously.) The Rays and Angels, less reliant on power hitting and veteran talent than the rival Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox, may be better fitted to adapt.

[Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez] MLB/Getty Images

Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez

Picking This Week's Impact Players

Baseball Info Solutions ran a set of computer simulations for the first round of this year's baseball playoffs to measure the impact some key players might have on offense. See the most impactful players overall.

Nothing is so quickly imitated as a winner, so if the Rays or Angels follow on their regular-season excellence with a World Series victory, it will set a powerful example. So too, though, would a win by a more traditionally styled team like the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won in a century but are favored this year by bookies as well as sentimentalists.

Styles make fights, and baseball teams. Take the set between Tampa Bay and the White Sox, two teams that couldn't be less alike. The Rays, who before this season had never lost fewer than 90 games, beat out the Yankees for a playoff spot with a payroll one-fifth as big. The White Sox won the World Series three years ago, and won their division this season with a payroll ranked fifth in the game. The 32 hitters who took an at-bat for the Rays this year, collectively the second-youngest such group in the league, have hit 950 home runs in their careers. Chicago's Jim Thome and Ken Griffey, part of the American League's second-oldest lineup, have hit 1,151.

[Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria] Getty Images

Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria

On the field, the differences are at least as stark. The Rays, led by defenders like third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Jason Bartlett, led the majors in converting batted balls into outs, a key measure of defensive efficiency. The White Sox were 23rd. The Rays were second in the majors in stolen bases; the White Sox, 25th. The greatest difference, though, is the home run. The White Sox led the majors with 234, so many that even though Tampa Bay ranked 10th with 180, they were closer to 24th-place Toronto than to Chicago. Other than ace Scott Kazmir, the Rays' young starters don't give up many home runs; expect this one to be a victory for Tampa Bay, and for evolution.

A similar, if less dramatic, dynamic is at play in the American League's other series. Boston, the best-run team in baseball, seeks to win a third World Series in five years and establish a dynasty. They feature a sound defense and a fine pitching staff led by starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, who combined for a 34-9 record and finished third and fourth, respectively, in the league in earned run average. Their success, though, is keyed by an overwhelming offense.

Sophomore second baseman Dustin Pedroia led the league in runs and hits, first baseman Kevin Youkilis ranked among the leaders in every important offensive category, and overall the team rated second in baseball in batting average, first in walks, and third in extra-base hits. They did so despite an off-year from David Ortiz and the July trade of Manny Ramirez. This is a ferocious lineup.

[Boston ace Daisuke Matsuzaka] Getty Images

Boston ace Daisuke Matsuzaka

The Angels, conversely, ranked among the bottom 10 in baseball in walks and extra-base hits, and their .269 average ranked just 12th in the game. Crucially, though, with runners on base that rose to .287, third in the game. Similarly, their pitching, paced by homegrown starters Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, was no better or worse than Boston's, but their bullpen was better by a third of a run per game (Wednesday's Game 1 drubbing notwithstanding). Closer Francisco Rodriguez was the first pitcher ever to save 60 games in a season.

Add it up, and the Angels won five more games than the Red Sox despite outscoring their opponents by 83 fewer runs, less because of what they did than when they did it. Hitting and pitching well in the pinches can, if you do it consistently, make up for a lot. Between that, the dubious health of key Boston players like ace Josh Beckett and outfielder J.D. Drew, and the fact that the Angels won eight of the nine games the two teams played this year, this one looks like a victory for the Angels and another defeat for take-and-rake baseball.

It's easy to reduce these series to caricature. The Red Sox are in truth no softball team, and have great young homegrown players like Mr. Pedroia, Mr. Lester and closer Jon Papelbon. The Angels have plenty of pricey veterans like outfielders Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter. The Rays, for all their youthful vigor, are a very patient team; the more experienced White Sox aren't. In all, though, these two series match power against technique, and strategic emphases on speed and situational play against raw power. No moral virtue attaches to either, but one, given the sport's cyclical nature, represents where baseball is going, and the other represents where it has been.

For their part, the National League's playoff entrants all basically follow the same model as the Red Sox and White Sox. This makes sense for several reasons. The league isn't as competitive, so there's less incentive for teams to try to outwit opponents with novel strategies. There's also a generational difference at play. Three National League managers are in their 60s, while three American League ones are in their 40s. Joe Torre of the Dodgers alone has managed more seasons than all the American League skippers put together, while Chicago's Lou Piniella has managed nearly as many.

What the league lacks in novelty, though, it makes up in individual talent, including two of the great midseason acquisitions of all time. Milwaukee, which hasn't been seen in October in more than a quarter-century, is doing so due largely to the presence of CC Sabathia, who put up an awesome 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games in 17 starts after coming over in a July trade. Manny Ramirez hit .396 with a .489 on-base average and a .743 slugging average in 53 games for the Dodgers after an ugly exit from Boston. On the other hand, Mr. Sabathia, for all his vaunted endurance, can only start twice for the Brewers, and Mr. Ramirez may not even be the most important hitter on his team.

[Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley] Getty Images

Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley

Baseball Info Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based research firm, recently ran a set of simulations of each playoff series. In each one, they removed a key offensive player from a team, substituted an average player at his position, and then played out that team's series 50 times. Some results were expected. Left fielder Ryan Braun, for instance, had the most impact of any Brewer; on average, the team scored 1.02 fewer runs per game without him than they did with him. Some were less so: Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley had more than twice as much impact as first baseman Ryan Howard, who hit 16 more home runs and drove in 42 more runs during the regular season.

The most surprising result, though, came in Los Angeles. Removing right fielder Andre Ethier, who hit .305 with a .375 on-base percentage this year, cost the Dodgers an average of 0.96 runs per game in the simulation series. Removing Mr. Ramirez cost them 0.58 runs per game (the difference has to do with talent levels at their respective positions).

Whether or not Mr. Ethier outplays Mr. Ramirez -- with respect, I wouldn't bet on it -- this kind of result points up the impact a single player can have in the right circumstances, and how unpredictable the playoffs can be. One would assume that Philadelphia's imposing No. 4 and No. 5 hitters, Mr. Howard and Pat Burrell, will play a major role in their series against Milwaukee; according to the BIS simulations, though, neither should be expected to have much more impact than the Brewers' journeyman center fielder Mike Cameron. Given the Phillies' greater patience and speed and the presence of closer Brad Lidge, who didn't blow a save all year, you probably have to give them the edge here. But keep an eye on Mr. Cameron.

As for their opponent, the bookies and sentimentalists may well be disappointed. Chicago's ace pitchers, the monstrous sinkerballer Carlos Zambrano and strikeout artist Rich Harden, are unbeatable in theory. In practice, given Mr. Zambrano's dodgy shoulder and the brittle Mr. Harden's randomly disappearing fastball, the Cubs entered the playoffs with a sketchier rotation than the Dodgers. (Tellingly, Ryan Dempster, who had a terrific year but also spent the last two as a closer running up ERAs near 5, started the opener -- in which he walked seven and gave up four earned runs in a 7-2 loss.)

Further, their imposing lineup, built around a wall of right-handed power in Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and Aramis Ramirez, can be expected to look much less imposing against a Dodgers staff that held right-handers to a .239 average, third-best in the game.

Whichever team comes out of the National League, one can expect them to have a very hard time of things, perhaps barring a miracle run by the flawed White Sox, easily the weakest of the junior circuit's teams. If they run up against the Red Sox, they'll be facing a team like them, but better; if they meet the Rays or Angels, they'll be facing a team that beat the Red Sox. I like the odds of the latter; for what it's worth, so do the bookies.