Thursday night's game was pretty straightforward, so I'll just make a few observations about three Yankee pitchers ...
Don't be fooled. Andy Pettitte's performance wasn't a case of "If you don't beat him early, you won't beat him at all." Baseball doesn't work that way. Good pitchers will sometimes give up bunches of hits in the first inning and the second inning ... just as they'll sometimes give up bunches of hits in the third and fourth, or fifth and sixth. It is true that the Red Sox's chance of winning went down considerably when they managed only one run on those six hits in the first two innings.
Oh, and before I leave Andy Pettitte, I have to marvel at the selective memories people seem to have about Pettitte. During the broadcast Thursday night, the pundits raved about his ability to pitch well in important games. Friday morning, one of the nation's most respected sportswriters raved about Pettitte's uncanny composure.
Uh, guys? Pettitte's pitched a lot of postseason innings (i.e. big sample size) and his career postseason ERA is 4.28. That's certainly good, considering the competition, and it's not significantly higher than his career regular-season ERA (3.94). But it's not particularly outstanding, either. Pettitte's now 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA in American League Championship Series, but he's also 4-3 with a 4.30 ERA in Division Series, and (wait for it ...) 2-3 with a 5.08 ERA in World Series.
Pettitte's a wonderful pitcher, just this side of Hall of Fame quality. But he does not gain magical abilities when the calendar turns from September to October.
I said it before the postseason, and I'll repeat myself now: Jose Contreras would be the ace of many staffs in baseball, and his role as the Yankees' set-up man suggests 1) how luxurious the Yankees' payroll is, and 2) how hard beating the Yankees will be.
I've said this before, too, but Mariano Rivera is the engine that's driven the Yankees' postseason success since 1997. Thursday night, Tim McCarver said that Rivera is what separates the Yankees' bullpen from those of other teams, but I would argue that he's what sets the Yankees apart from other whole teams, in October.
Now, catching up on some postseason-related e-mail ...
Actually, you are missing one pitcher from the list of knucklers who started Game 1 of a postseason series. If my memory is correct, Phil Niekro started the opener of the '82 NLCS against St. Louis and was pitching well but it started raining buckets and the game was never official.
As a 10- year-old Braves' fan, that set my lifelong belief that negating a game just because it didn't last five inning is a silly concept.
While I'm e-mailing you, thanks for being the only mainstream media guy not to jump all over the A's and proclaim them a fraud. This team has a better second half record than anyone over the last four years, has played beautifully in tight pennant races and has gone into three series against the Red Sox and Yankees as huge underdogs. In each one, they went down only after the favorite threw everything but the kitchen sink at them. Somehow, that fails my definition of "choking." If there is any failure, it is their sudden change to pitching guys on short rest. That's the real story.
-- Mike Siegel
Let me take the second part first and the first part second.
Of course it's ridiculous to suggest the A's are chokers. When the A's storm into first place every August or September with a great number of walk-off home runs, the writers fall all over themselves raving about the A's character, their chemistry, and their talent. When the A's fail to advance past the Division Series every October, the writers fall all over themselves looking for -- and claiming to actually find -- deficiencies in their character, their chemistry, and their talent.
Fellas, you can't have it both ways. If the A's have enough character and talent to win big games against good teams in September, they have enough character, chemistry, and talent to win big games against good teams in October. And in fact, they've done just that. From 2000 through 2003, the A's have played 20 postseason games against good teams, and they've won eight of them. Is that really so awful?
From 1947 through 1953, the Brooklyn Dodgers played 25 postseason games, and won only nine of them. They finally won a postseason series in 1955, and today nobody questions their character or their talent.
From 1976 through 1978, the Kansas City Royals played 14 postseason games, and won only five of them. They finally won a postseason series in 1980, and today nobody questions their character or their talent.
Will this happen to the A's? Let's just say that historical perspective can be a wonderful thing.
About Phil Niekro in the 1982 NLCS, I can honestly say this is completely new information for me. The thing about games that don't count is they don't leave any statistical tracks. When I was compiling my list of postseason games started by knuckleball pitchers, first I consulted the list of knuckleballers in my head, then I checked that against the list on my computer (oops, missed Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons!), and then I checked their postseason numbers (or lack thereof) in Total Baseball (and yes, I could have done it just as quickly at Baseball-Reference.com, but I do enjoy the books).
So how on earth could I have discovered that Joe's big brother started Game 1 of the NLCS in 1982, and that he was beating the Cardinals 1-0 when the game was called after four-and-a-half innings? For details on this non-game, I went to The Sporting News archives (in my basement). Still no box score so I don't know exactly how well Niekro pitched, but I did discover that Niekro actually retired one hitter in the bottom of the fifth, which means he was just two outs from making the game official.
Upon such things baseball history turns. Think about it. If the rain had held off for just five more minutes, Niekro would likely have recorded those two outs, the Braves would have won Game 1, and they might well have wound up winning the National League Championship Series (instead, they were swept by the Cardinals) and playing the Brewers in the World Series. And perhaps beating them.
But of course none of that happened, and all for the want of five minutes. Sometimes you need a little more luck than you get. Just ask Billy Beane.
I just read your column on postseason knuckleballers and your comment that knuckleballers don't make batters swing and miss, they make batters swing and almost miss.
Does this mean that knuckleballers are an exception to the theorem (that you've discussed a few times) holding that pitchers don't generally have much of an effect on batted balls that are not home runs? Have you ever tested people known for overwhelming fastballs (e.g., Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens) against knuckleballers? Come to think of it, you might want to test this for other pitchers who were truly superior with one pitch, like a curveballer.
Sorry if you've already covered this.
I haven't, Adam ... but Tom Tippett has. I've been meaning to mention this for a long time because people are fascinated by the "theorem," but this summer Tippett conducted the most extensive examination that anyone's done on the subject. Tom's findings? I hope you'll read them yourself, but basically he found that 1) pitchers do have an effect on what happens to batted balls that don't go over the fence, 2) knuckleballers generally have a larger effect than other sorts of pitchers, and 3) still, pitchers don't have as large an effect on the fate of batted balls as most people would guess.
OK, I just threw in that third conclusion because 1) it's true and 2) I'm afraid it gets lost, as people who can't stomach McCracken's Theorem are only too willing to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Getting back to the original question, yes knuckleball pitchers are different. It's just one of the many things that make them more interesting than your average bears.
As an older baseball fan I have noted an arcane fact concerning this year's postseason play. If the Cubs beat the Marlins, we will have the first World Series since 1976 that involves two of the 10 pre-expansion franchises that are still in their original cities. I like the sound of "Yankees vs. Cubs" and "Red Sox vs. Cubs" just for that reason.
-- Frank Codispoti
Me too, Frank. I probably spend too much time with my nose buried in books about baseball players who've met their Great Reward (or will soon), but when I see "Yankees vs. Cubs" the first thing that comes to mind is "Babe Ruth vs. Charlie Root." That was more than 70 years ago, and maybe I should, you know, move on. But the older I get, the more I enjoy reading about the old-timers. And so if the Red Sox face off against the Cubs in the World Series, I'll be a bit more interested -- and I suppose a bit more relevant, as a writer -- than if it were the Marlins and the Twins (what's that? the Twins lost? jeez, I really have to get my nose out of the books).
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.