Saturday, October 18, 2003

Phish Phood Phor Phall Klassic

As a Red Sox fan, making an analysis of Phish vs. Yanks feels like Dennis Kucinich predicting whether Clark or Dean will win the nomination, but at least I've got objectivity on my side.

Phish in Six.

This actually wasn't too hard when I went through the steps of analysis. The hard part was actually trying to figure out the number of games -- five is a real possibility, randomness could extend it to seven.

The Mighty Untouchable

Instead of starting with the head to head matchups, I'll start with the 'intangibles'.

The Marlins have reset their rotation. The Yankees are going with their #4 starter in Game 1, emblematic of how much effort they had to expend on the way there. Rest and a chance to line them up counts for a lot at this time of year.

The Marlins have shown no sign of being intimidated by Pac Bell and Wrigley. They've been stellar on the road. They were the best team in baseball the second half. They're loose and there's very little pressure. As with last year's Angels, that will count for a lot.

The Yankees do have fan support, and the Marlins, I don't believe, have more than three truly committed fans. That said, a large home crowd might even work against the Marlins -- how many Yankees fans are living in South Florida? But I doubt it. These guys have played to empty houses all year, they're going to interpret the big crowd in Miami as on their side.

I don't ever put much emphasis on the "post season experience" falderal. That's another way of saying a team is old. It's the same game between the lines before and after October 1st, and the real question is how tough a team plays close and late and down. The Yankees played great in such situations in parts of the season, but in others -- including in a couple of post-season games -- sloughed a bit. The Marlins, in the nothing-to-prove category, have been playing extremely tough in pressure games and situations all year. So I'd call this level of intangible pretty much even up.

Finally on the somewhat more intangible, coaching and management. Torre's been great, although not brilliant, in the course of his Yankees career, and I think he doesn't- give-a-damn what Steinbrenner thinks at this point. He's got nothing to prove to me or anybody else.

McKeon, similarly, isn't exactly on the hot seat, having already shocked everybody by taking this team from ten games back to the World Series. Honestly, this team was a much better story than the Cubs, but the only problem is nobody at home cares, so it's hard to get that sense of national following. But looking from the manager inward at his 25 men, instead of outward at the franchise and fan base and world, it's hard to find a better match between leadership and the ranks.

I would like to note on the subject of Yankee coaching and management: I haven't seen better fielder positioning all year. They've got a class scouting organization and Torre follows through. It's worth a couple of extra outs a game.

The Yanks have played as a unit, but are still full of just-barely-buried tensions ( Jeter vs. Steinbrenner, Zimmer vs. Steinbrenner, Wells vs. the entire team, etc.) I'm not sure that counts for a lot, though.

These are very, very subjective evaluations but if intangibles count for anything in performance, there are a few negative signs for the Yanks and not really any for the Phish.

Gentlemen, Engine your Starters

OK, now the match-ups:

Starters: advantage Phish. Bigger time than you'd expect.

Mussina has been really, really off, his big-time performance in Game 7 notwithstanding, and he's now off his spot in the rotation. Clemens was awful in Game 7. Wells has been good, but always benefits from extra rest, which he won't have for Game 1 or a Game 5. Pettite got rocked by the Sox the last outing. The five-man rotation (counting Contreras as the 5th starter turned long man) boasts three 40 year olds -- no world series team has even had two. It's a long season.

Does this sound like a strong rotation? Literally or figuratively?

The Phish kids do have the problem of throwing a lot of innings. In particular, I think Willis is suffering from overwork on the young arm. He does have that great motion which will be death on the Yankees the first two times through the lineup -- IF the kid hits his spots. He's matched up against Mussina in Game 2, and I'd buy Overs in that one.

Penny, on the other hand, has been throwing extremely well down the stretch, and was used out of the pen by McKeon in key situations, including of course Game 7 of the NLCS. I suspect he'll be a match for the Yankees, not dominating, but enough to keep the game low-scoring; I'd go with the Under on Game 1.

Game 1 should go to the Phish, Game 2 I'll give to the Yanks on a shoot-out.

Game 3 matches up Pettite and Beckett. Beckett couldn't be pitching any better right now. The only wildcard is whether the extra rest might throw him off his game a little. Watch him carefully the first two innings or so. I think Pettite will have problems with the righties in the Phish lineup, especially on the road. He had a great first start in the post-season but seems to have a lot of problems making adjustments of late, so it will take a grade-A effort for him to be dominating.

Game 4 has Clemens vs. Redman. This one's tougher to call. The poor performance in Game 7 notwithstanding, Clemens is the ultimate gamer and now knows that this will be his last game ever, for sure. However, Clemens has played just a bit tight in these situations this year -- look at his first few stabs at win #300 and Game 7 of the ALCS. Redman is a poor man's Greg Maddux, and will be assisted by the pen. This one is a pick 'em but on a close game I go with the bullpen and home field advantage and give it to the Phish.

Game 5 would take the rotation back to Penny and Wells, although I wouldn't put it past Torre to start Contreras if Wells gets roughed up in Game 1. On the road, with little ball working for the Phish, this will be a pick'em-plus, go with the Marlines. That said, the Yanks down to the wall will play all their cards out, and I expect them to pull out one of my predicted Phish wins -- probably Game 1 or Game 5 -- to send it to the Bronx in six.

There the Yankees would face Willis again (or Pavano) vs. Mussina, and you'd have to normally like the Yanks' chances here. That's why I was vacillating between a 5-game and a 7-game series. But McKeon will have Beckett waiting in the wings for Game 7, and Willis will get yanked early no matter what the game situation, and this is where the full force of the superior Florida pen will be felt. Moose, god bless him, is tired, clearly, and was tired down the stretch (or would've made a better Cy Young case against the weak September Yankee opponents) and this is where youth and depth may well make a difference.

If it goes to a game 7, it would be Beckett vs. Pettite. Anything can happen when it gets down to one, but again I look at similar situations, and McKeon and the Phish have had many more weapons this year than Torre has at this point in the season. The bench depth and bullpen and the starting matchup favors the Marlins again here.

There's No Defense Like Homeland Defense

OK, off of starting pitching and the matchups. On to defense.

The Marlins have a GREAT outfield defense. Its name is Juan Pierre. For centerfielders, it's all about range, and poor Bernie is down to about 80% of the outfielder he was in his prime. Cabrera is a potential liability in right, being very new to the position ( which is very weird for a starter in the world series, but just goes to show you what kind of team effort McKeon's been pulling all year) but has a cannon, so is at least even up with Garcia/Rivera. I love the way Matsui plays left, but the smaller porches will lessen the marginal difference in range with Jeff Conine, who I think has better hands even if Matsui is more of a player. So, even up on the sides, big advantage up the middle, where it counts.

At the corners, Johnson has acquitted himself extremely well, but D Lee is the star here. He's one of the best defensive first basemen I've seen play since Keith Hernandez. He's worth three or four outs a game over a replacement first sacker.

Third base advantage goes to the Yanks. Lowell can be a terrific third sacker, but his footwork has always been a little suspect; Boone would normally be considered a much better third-sacker (GREAT feet) but has played really tight in the post-season. I suspect hitting the game winner will help loosen him back up.

Infield defense. Jeter has an advantage at SS; he's very polished overall, and while I think he's been overrated much of his career, he's got great instincts. Alex S. Gonzalez isn't quite as accomplished in positioning and anticipation but I think has better hands, and in particular is quicker with his double-play partner, Luis Castillo. The two of them combine for great range. Soriano is so ham-fisted it's ridiculous he's still in the IF. Only his great speed and reflexes keep him from being a total embarrassment.

In terms of double-play combos, major advantage to the Phish. Castillo has the range to be a shortstop and he and AS have been very fluid all year.

Now on to catcher. Everybody's been creaming over Pudge, so I don't need to recap that bit. His handling of the pitchers has not been that great, but the games are called from the bench now, and his ability to stop the ball and throw out runners is all the confidence pitchers need from their catcher. Posada is a real weakness here: he often gets emotional on the field and apparently gets into tiffs with his pitchers, and with an ego-driven bunch that can be a problem. He'll have problems stopping the Marlins running game, while Pudge may be a nuclear deterrant against that aspect of Torre's game (in a way Varitek was not, an edge that probably was one of many reasons the Red Sox couldn't pull it off in close/late games when their bomber squadron failed to show up in post-season.)

Hitting on All Cylinders -- Adjust your Timing Belt for Maximum Power

Now on to hitting.

We'll start off with DH because that's the easiest. There's a major, major advantage to the Yankees with Giambi. My only diss on Jason right now is he's been having problems mastering the pitchers when he's behind in the count, and has all year, and that's kind of a problem when seeing a staff for the first time. But he's seeing the ball better and is obviously a more potent weapon than Juan Encarnacion.

Not to skip ahead too much, but one should note, though, that Giambi is adequate as a first baseman while Encarnacion would actually be an improvement over Cabrera and will probably start a few games. So in terms of the flexibility a DH might offer in a late game, there's something to be said for having Encarnacion there.

As for offense in general. First off, ignore season stats: an AL lineup like the Yankees compared to a triples-offense like the Marlins, with the pitchers hitting, is apples and oranges on the stat line. One needs to look at how the lineup works and how the pistons are firing in sequence to see how much fuel power is going to be sent out.

It's not like the Marlins are a small-ball team. The speed goes throughout the lineup, with the exception of Lowell and maybe the rightfielder du jour. But pretty much everybody past Castillo and Pierre have pop in their bats. The Yanks are, in general, older and slower and have slower bat speeds.

It's also obvious to me that the Yankees are an extremely smart-hitting team, they've got plate discipline and a better idea of what to do at the plate than a youthful team such as the Marlins will have. That's going to be a contrast of the Yankees pitchers vs. the Marlins batters and vice versa, of course, not the Yankees batters vs. the Marlins batters.

In terms of how I see the matchups, I don't think that difference in hitting IQ is going to be that significant. A speedy team can undo the Yanks; craft by the Yankees pitchers could be the undoing of the Marlins, but I don't think they're actually that impetuous as a group.

In an odd way, the NL pitchers having some clue with the bat may be a key difference here. In the critical games 3,4, and 5, you have to figure maybe about +4 to 5 bases to the Marlins because of their better ability to sacrifice and put runners ahead, etc. Giambi vs. Encarnacion is probably the same advantage in a seven-game series, but that's not where this series will be decided.

Bottom line here: craft and experience on the Yankees' side for both hitting and pitching, but speed and better reflexes are ultimately much more important to winning a longer series, and I think the Phish have that advantage.

Off the Pine and Into the Fray

I've left the bench and the bullpen for last for a reason: it's because I think that this is really the critical difference in close games, and this is where the Marlins have their biggest advantages. Obviously if a couple of Marlins starting pitchers suck it bigtime, all the comments I made previously will be chaff. Ditto the Yankees. But you have to assume in championship baseball close-and-late is going to be critical.

Let's start with the bench. Bearing in mind Giambi may or may not be on the bench for the Florida games, either he or Johnson would be a formidable weapon off the bench as a pinch-hitter.

After that, here's your comparison: Banks, Fox, Mordecai, Harris, Hollandsworth, Redmond; Almonte, Wilson, Rivera, Dellucci, Sierra, Flaherty.

Notice anything about this list?

Hardly any of the Yankees listed have played in the post-season. ALL of the Marlins have, some providing key hits. With the exceptions of Harris on the Marlins and Dellucci on the Yanks, the Phish bench are better defenders. They had more ABs in the season and are more accustomed to playing like a team. I give an edge of Sierra over Harris and Giambi/Johnson over Encarnacion for "first pinch hitter", but after that, it's all Phish.

Now we're down to the bullpens.

The Phish have C. Fox. Helling, looper, Urbina, Pavano, and Tejera. The Yanks have Contreras, Nelson, Hammond or Weaver, Heredia, White, Osuna, and Mariano Rivera.

We'll start with the obvious. Rivera is a fantastic pitcher, and if the Gossages and Sutters and Lee Smiths get admitted to the hall of fame, then I'm beginning to believe Rivera may end up on this list of HoF candidates as well.

And he's tired. And has been vulnerable this year. So while there's a definite advantage here, it's not as tremendous as you might think.

Urbina has had his problems, particularly with big innings, and the Yanks have all seen him before when he was with Texas. He's also pitched extremely well down the stretch, and McKeon isn't going to lean on him as heavily as Torre has been on Rivera.

Looper is a perfectly acceptable alternate closer and a much better 8th-inning man than anything the Yanks have put up. Torre clearly has zero confidence in his pen in anybody other than Rivera right now, and this gives McKeon the ability to deal his hand while Torre will have to keep drawing until he gets to his Ace in the pen.

Also notable here is the matchups of long men. Contreras has been dicey in the post- season but has that amazing slider. Weaver and/or Hammond have been no shows, obviously relegated to mop-up contingencies. McKeon has Pavano and Tejera, both of who started effectively (especially Pavano) and who appeared regularly in the post-season. That essentially doubles McKeon's options. Throw in the fact Rick Helling, another starter, has been throwing well down the stretch and has a great fastball strikeout pitch, he's essentially got three long-men who can also be thrown in to right-handed pitching situations.

Chad Fox is obviously out-classing Jeff Nelson right now. Gabe White and Osuna have been used strictly situationally, as has Heredia.

The Phish weakness is those lefties against the lefties and switch-hitters in the Yankee lineup; but neither is that a strength for the Yankee matchups, given that it requires tight choreography.

What this comes down to is the Marlins have bullpen advantages in the first through eighth innings, and while outclassed in the eighth and ninth, can probably at least out -work Rivera and will have enough flexibility to work out most save situations.

Manhattan Chowder will be Phish Phood

OK, so here's the bottom line.

As they say, anything can happen in a short series. And my previous comments aside, you do have to give history, experience, and a potentially intimidating Bronx crowd as an advantage to the Yankees. But in pure baseball terms, the Phish have everything going for them except a sense of urgency. If they can't handle the Yankees, if they don't show up to play as they have been, if they're not the best team in baseball as they've been since July first, the blame will only fall on lack of desire, not ability.

Phish in Six says my head, my gut tells me seven.

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