Saturday, September 3, 2011

Verlander: Sox Potential Playoff Nightmare?

The dreaded phrase: "If The Season Ended Today" crossed my mind last night for one very specific, fear inducing reason: Justin Verlander. When media-types are uttering phrases like "Pedro '99" in regards to an opposing pitcher, you probably don't want to see that guy on the mound, especially I.T.S.E.T.

Verlander: product of Goochland, VA
The popular consensus seems to have overcome the pitcher-bias for many and has shifted favorite status to the Tigers starter in the AL MVP race. At least for today.  Following yesterday's win over the White Sox, even tweeted this morning: "Justin Verlander's win total is old enough to drink..." No matter how one describes it, this is Verlander's summer, and he & both his 100MPH fastballs will be remembered years from now. That said, things could shift back in the direction of Curtis Granderson or Jacoby Ellsbury if the Tigers fall too far out of contention.

A quick check of the standings shows that the 10-0 bludgeoning at the hands of the Rangers last night dropped Boston a half game behind the Yankees, which means that New York would draw Detroit as of this writing. Clearly, Texas can match up with either East power, so missing Verlander wouldn't exactly leave Bostonians dancing in the streets. But whether or not the Red Sox are in line to face Verlander's Tigers on September 3rd is not entirely the issue.

The question on the table here is: can Verlander (essentially) win a playoff series by himself?

The quick answer is yes. Of course he can get hot and take over the division series, and if things line up right in the LCS, he can conceivably dominate the next round too. But how many times has it actually happened? Has a pitcher, with essentially soft-serv ice cream machines lining up behind him in the rotation, ever been able to pull something like that off?

The obvious comparison that springs to mind is Pedro Martinez in 1999. Robbed of the Cy Young-MVP sweep that season (with Ivan Rodriguez taking the MVP trophy for the Rangers), Pedro was in a rotation that saw Kent Mercker start game 1 of the LCS. So you can pretty much imagine the quality of the other starters on that squad. Verlander is in a similar situation this year.

Of course, the reason Pedro didn't pitch the first game against the Yankees that year, was that he was too busy putting on one of the greatest pitching performances playoff baseball has ever seen, tossing six no-hit innings in relief the previous game to clinch the LDS over the Indians.

Like no. 45 did for the Red Sox that year, Verlander has a chance at the AL pitching triple-crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts). He's got a big lead in wins and strikeouts, and his 2.34 ERA is just a tick behind LA's Jered Weaver (2.34) at this point.

For comparison's sake, here's a list of all the pitching triple-crown winners since 1995 (the inception of the Division Series):

Year  Lg   Player                 Team                      ERA   W      K
1997   AL   Roger Clemens    Blue Jays              2.05   21   292
1998   AL   Roger Clemens    Blue Jays              2.65   20   271
1999   AL   Pedro Martinez   Red Sox                 2.07   23   313
2002  NL   Randy Johnson   Diamondbacks   2.32   24   334
2006  AL   Johan Santana     Twins                     2.45   19   277
2007  NL   Jake Peavy           Padres                    2.54   19   240

The only guys on this list to make the playoffs in their triple-crown years were Pedro in '99, Johnson in '02, and Santana in '06. How did they fare? Martinez had the aforementioned legendary relief appearance, but he bowed out of game 1 in the fourth inning due to injury, his only other outing.

In '02 the Big Unit still had Curt Schilling by his side, but he took the loss in game 1 as the Dbacks were swept 3-0 by St. Louis. Ditto Santana in '06, as the Twins ace took the mound and the L in the opener en route to an Oakland sweep. Aside from Pedro in '03, no triple-crown winner has even made a significant contribution to his team winning a game under the current playoff structure, let alone single-handedly locking down the entire series.

What about MVP pitchers you say? Glad you asked. There have been exactly four guys to win most valuable player in since 1980, and only one of them was a starter: Roger Clemens in 1986.  Clemens went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA and 292 Ks during the regular season. The Rocket was mediocre during those playoffs, dominating neither series and posting a 3.97 ERA. The Sox won 2 out of the 5 games he started. You get the point: he didn't hold ultimate sway over the series.

So, is it possible Justin Verlander can single-handedly win a playoff round? It's possible. But not probable, as we see from the above lists. Sure, there have been guys to do so in the past (see: Orel Hershiser, 1988) but they usually aren't the people we expect to do it by applying how the regular season played out to the postseason model. Knowing this, any fan of the Red Sox should welcome the opportunity to beat up on Verlander's staff-mates over another tousle with Mike Napoli and the Rangers.

In case you were wondering, here's how Verlander's numbers look against current playoff teams:
Boston     1 0 1.72  2  0 15.2 10 3  3  2  2 12 58 0.766  6.9  6.00
New York   0 0 4.50  2  0 12.0 11 6  6  1  8 16 53 1.583 12.0  2.00
Texas      0 1 2.00  1  1  9.0  6 2  2  0  1  4 33 0.778  4.0  4.00
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/3/2011.

Friday, September 2, 2011

5 Random Observations: Yankees Series

I'm sure most of you were sleeping through this series, what with meaningless games dragging on over the four-hour mark mid-week in September and whatnot. Even the players are complaining at this point. In any case, the Sox held a 1.5 game lead coming into the series, and a half-game margin going out, leaving New York up 8.5 games over Tampa in the Wild Card race. Without further adieu, here's a few notes about the last three days:

1. Long, Long, Long: We all know these rivalry games are as long as John Lackey's face after a trip to a Mensa meeting, but Jon Lester's first inning in last night's 4-2 loss was brutal. It took the Boston ace 43 pitches to strike out the side, which sent me on one of my many empty stat searches. I tried in vane to find the record for the highest amount of pitches thrown while striking out the side, but came up with nothing. My guess is this inning has to be close. Somebody needs to get on this so I can sleep at night.

2. MVP Watch: I'm probably overly obsessed with this award, but with four AL candidates showcasing their talents in this one series alone, the individual race was more in the forefront than the chase for the pennant. That said, in 15 games against Boston, Curtis Granderson has hit just .218/.377/.436, and he didn't fare much better over this last three-game set. He did, however, make this run-saving grab off the bat of Jed Lowrie in the 6th inning last night:

Granderson: "These grass stains will be hell to remove."
Granderson, who seemed to be the favorite to take the award coming into the series, did nothing to push the needle in either direction, while Jacoby Ellsbury continued to make his case, hitting .364 with a 1.264 OPS over the past three days.

3. Rocco Cervelli: The boisterous New York catcher has been dubbed by many "The Yankee Clapper" following his antics during the past week, which is okay by me. Endearing to New York fans and rage-inducing to Boston rooters, Cervelli and his new moniker simultaneously prove puns can still be hilarious and that this rivalry hasn't lost its punch. Anything that stirs things up like that among playoff contenders this late in the season is a welcome sight.

4. On Second Thought: This incident deserves a closer look. Here are the four stages of emotion, as occurred in Tuesday's scuffle:



Revenge (Sabathia)/Dementia (Posada).

Penis Envy.

5. Adrian Gonzalez/David Ortiz: You may have noticed the Boston firstbaseman's torrid pace was slowed down considerably by Yankee pitching. He posted just a .167/.286/.250 slash line, with 0 RBI this time around. Meanwhile, Big Papi is as hot as he's ever been. Since returning from a 10-day hiatus on August 24th, he's hit .500/.559/1.067, with 4 HRs and 9 RBI over eight games. Yikes.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do Not Boo This Man

I'm assuming if you're reading this, you're not a major leaguer. I'm also going to take for granted that if you've played baseball in the outfield, you've made an error similar to this one Josh Reddick committed last night:

Walk of Shame: Not a reference to your typical Sunday Morning.

The ball scoots by you on the outfield grass, and you have to go chasing it like CC Sabathia after a Little Debbie's truck. It's a squirm inducing situation for both the player and whomever's witnessing the red-faced march--a play I like to call the outfielder's walk of shame. Well, maybe scramble of shame. Hot embarrassment combined with zealous urgency to recover your position as your baseball life flashes before your eyes. Whatever you dub it, it's not fun for anyone.

Okay, so maybe that was just me as a little-leaguer.

It's certainly a bloodbath in that right field corner sometimes, and that play off of Eric Chavez's bat is probably one most outfielders would've flubbed. Same thing happened to Carlos Gonzalez in Arizona last night. Reddick immediately dropped his head after the ball caromed off the wall, and the walk began.

So, if you find yourself snickering at a play like this, remember: you did it too. Admit it. Just a public service announcement from Life on the Wagon. On a side note, Reddick qualified, his UZR of 8.1 would put him sixth defensively among AL outfielders. So there.

Sox Acquire Conor Jackson

On the eve of baseball's "we're serious this time" trading deadline, Boston acquired 1B/OF Conor Jackson from Oakland for nothing-prospect Jason Rice, according to the Globe's Peter Abraham. The move is meant to bolster the Sox depth against lefties, giving them a right-handed hitting option off the bench not named Darnell McDonald (see: his embarrassing whiff against Boone Logan Tuesday night with the bases loaded).

Before injuries began to plague Jackson in 2009, he was about a .285, 15-HR guy over the span of three seasons for the Diamondbacks.