|Tuesday, October 1
Breaking down the four Division Series
By Rob Neyer
Four Division Series, and four questions that should be answered before this time next week ...
Do the Twins need a new ballpark, or do they just need more people in the "old" one?
They've won 11 postseason games inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Lucky? Sure. You don't go 11-1 against anybody without some luck, and you certainly don't go 11-1 against postseason teams without some luck. However, there's a reasonable theory suggesting the Twins have a significant advantage during postseason games at the Metrodome, where it gets loud enough to actually create inner-ear problems for the poor unfortunates in the visitors' uniforms.
I'm not at all sure that I actually believe this theory, but it does have a sort of compelling logic. After all, how else can you explain the Twins winning two World Series in the space of five seasons? So the consensus seems to be that if the Twins can win just once in Oakland, they've got a fighting chance because they've got a great shot at winning twice in Minneapolis.
Maybe. But can you remember another Division Series where one team seemed so much better on paper? The Twins struggle against left-handed starters; the A's have two excellent left-handed starters. The Twins compiled their 94 wins while playing in baseball's worst division; the Athletics compiled their 103 wins while playing in baseball's best division.
And here's my favorite little note ... Minnesota's starters in the first three games of the Division Series combined to lose 21 games during the regular season. So did Oakland's.
But where Minnesota's starters in the first three games combined to win 28 games, Oakland's starters won 56 games ... twice as many. Leaving aside the lineups -- and yes, the A's did score more runs than the Twins -- it just looks like the disparity between the two clubs' top three starters is going to tell the story of this series.
Can the anti-Yankees actually beat the Yankees?
Nearly every Yankee has seen significant postseason action; very few of the Angels have seen any postseason action at all.
The Yankees finished second in the American League in home runs; the Angels tied for 10th. The Yankees finished first in the American League in walks; the Angels finished 11th.
The difference in the pitching staffs isn't as pronounced, but it's certainly there. Yankee pitchers were third-best in walks allowed and first-best in home runs allowed, and the Angels were seventh-best in walks allowed and sixth-best in home runs allowed.
So how, exactly, did the Angels manage to win only four games fewer than the Yankees (while playing in a tougher division)?
Batting average. The Angels batted .282, tops in the league and seven points higher than the Yankees. The Angels, as you'll hear regularly for (at least) the next four or five days, "put the bat on the ball." In these glorious days of swinging hard and missing often, the Angels have struck out only 805 times, easily the fewest in the American League. Did I mention that the Angels are the anti-Yankees? The Yankees have struck out 1,171 times this season, most in the American League.
This series may seem like a mismatch, and it probably is. But don't think it's not intriguing, because it represents a clash of philosophies. And that's intriguing.
Can the Cardinals beat the dreaded Schilson twice?
Clearly, the Diamondbacks got a big break from the schedule-makers this year, and the Cardinals ... well, they got something else. And aside from the obvious mercenary considerations, is there any good reason to schedule two off days within a best-of-5 series?
There is a another question here, though ... Is the first half of Schilson really almost as good as the second half? Johnson probably did lock up yet another Cy Young Award over the last few weeks of the season, yet in the mind of the public, Schilling is still right there as the first- or second-best starter in the National League.
And for most of the season, he was. But over Schilling's last eight appearances, he's racked up a 5.35 ERA in 51 innings.
Probably just a blip. But if it's not a blip, if there's something wrong with Curt Schilling ... well, then the Cardinals might be glad to face him twice.
Will Vinny Castilla touch first base?
And he ain't the only one. Across the diamond at first base, you've got either Julio Franco, Wes Helms or Matt Franco. J. Franco's got a powerful .382 slugging percentage, while Helms sports a sprightly .283 on-base percentage. M. Franco's been great this year, but before you get too excited, it's worth remembering that he's Matt Franco. Moving to second, there's Marcus Giles (714 OPS) and Keith Lockhart (613 OPS). And at shortstop, Rafael Furcal starts the batting order with a non-frightening (unless you're a Braves fan) .323 OBP.
Oh, and did I mention catchers Javy Lopez and Henry Blanco, neither of whom managed to reach base 30 percent of the time this season?
John Schuerholz has received a fair amount of credit for acquiring Gary Sheffield, and he deserves every bit of it. But it would have been nice if he'd found a Grade B third baseman -- or a Grade B first baseman or second baseman -- to complement his shiny new right fielder. So while the Braves have certainly improved from last year's awful showing -- they finished 13th in the National League in runs scored -- their 10th spot this season is a bit less than what you'd expect from a team that won 101 games.
And here's a little secret that I shouldn't share with you before my book comes out next spring, but I will because the sun could explode between now and then ... the Braves have not been so disappointing in October because of their bullpen. Their bullpen has, on the whole, performed fairly well over the years. The Braves' biggest problem is that they haven't scored enough runs. And though you probably have to give them a slight edge against the Giants because of the disparity in starting pitching, I think that the lack of balance in the Braves' lineup is going to prove their Achilles heel once again.