Why the Phillies lost, and what stinks about baseball this postseason...
Anyone been watching baseball? If so, then you will know that with a few exceptions, namely Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander, the starting pitching has been atrocious. Or has it?
Look, I’ll admit that I am biased because it was a painful thing to watch the Phillies go down swinging (yes, swinging, but unfortunately not hitting) to the St Louis Cardinals. A lot of Philadelphians point to Cliff Lee in game 2 and say that he just didn’t get the job done. I would disagree. I would say that he did the best he could against a stacked deck. I would say that the umpiring this postseason has been atrocious, egregious, and awful, and that the Phillies and Cliff Lee specifically were the biggest victims.
Now don’t get me wrong. I did not say that the umpiring was unfair to the Phillies or to Lee. I just said that they were the victims of the horrific umpiring that has turned the baseball playoffs into an NBA All-Star Game.
Basically, there is no strike zone anymore. Forget about the little box in the corner of the TV screen and watch the games. The strike zone used to be across the entire plate and from the armpits to the knees. Now it seems like it is a 6-inch by 6-inch box that slightly shifts depending upon the whim of the home plate umpire for each game.
Why do starting pitchers usually have more trouble early in the games, even in the regular season? Because they have no idea where the strike zone is. Sure this was a pretty good year for pitchers during the regular season, but when it came time for the playoffs baseball decided that offense was necessary for excitement. Why would we want to see a couple of great pitchers dueling in a 2-1 battle when we can have a four-hour, 11-8 slugfest? They think its more exciting to see more offense but they are wrong.
Baseball is not exciting because of action. Baseball is exciting because of tension. It is exciting when every pitch matters, when every decision is scrutinized, when every foul ball that a batter can wring from a great pitcher is theater.
Back to Cliff Lee.
As I see it, there are three kinds of pitchers. There are power pitchers, who rear back and chuck it and dare you to hit, and who can change speeds and make you look foolish because every ounce of energy is spent on trying to catch up to the heat. Verlander. A six-inch strike zone means nothing to these guys. Verlander, by the 6th inning in game 4 against the Yankees, stopped nibbling on the edges of the plate and just started bringing the Hellfire and daring the Yankees to hit it. They couldn’t.
There are pitchers who challenge hitters from inside the strike zone out. The ball starts in the strike zone and moves around, and they change speeds in the zone. Halladay and Carpenter are like this. Cole Hamels pitches like this, with predominantly a fastball-changeup repertoire. Sometimes the ball moves away, sometimes it stays straight, but its almost always starting in the strike zone. The hitter doesn’t know, so they can’t just let the pitch go. A 6-inch strike zone doesn’t bother these guys, once they know where it is, because they can make hitters swing and miss or ground weakly back to the pitcher or middle infield.
Most relief pitchers are either power pitchers or inside-out guys, because they usually don’t have the luxury of nibbling the corners of the plate. Mariano Rivera is the classic example. The ball starts at the barrel of the bat but hits the handle. Hitters have to swing, because the ball never really leaves the strike zone.
The third type of pitcher is the Cliff Lee type. They challenge hitters from outside the strike zone in. They throw fastballs on the edge of the plate, back door cutters and sliders, looping curves. They try to get hitters to chase balls out of the strike zone and freeze them on pitches that come in from the edges. These guys get killed by umpiring like we have been seeing. If a hitter knows that the strike zone is tiny and that they are not going to get called strikes at the edges, then if they are disciplined, they just don’t swing. As a team, they will accept the occasional called third strike knowing that more than likely the count will slowly move back to their favor if they just lay off anything on the edges.
The flip side is that when they know the count is in their favor, they know almost exactly where the ball is going to be. They may not know what pitch is coming, but if the strike zone is tiny they can plan to have the barrel of their bat in that tiny zone and know that the ball is going to have to move into that zone. Guys like Lee don’t throw heat down the middle and they are’t used to throwing their cutters and sliders to the middle of the plate hoping that they will move off. They don’t throw “heavy” balls and pitch to contact. At some point, after not getting calls on 1-2 and 0-2 counts, it just looked to me like Lee felt that he had no choice but to go against his nature, throw to the tiny strike zone, and hope the Cardinals didn’t hit it too hard. They did.
Now back to the Phillies hitters. They are totally undisciplined at the plate. Even though the umpiring was forcing the pitchers to narrow their strike zone, the Phillies didn’t let that happen. They were swinging at balls on the edges, sliders and curve balls that were tailing away, and high fastballs that their own pitchers weren’t getting calls on. They struck out, popped out, hit easy fly balls, and weak ground balls to the middle infielders. and they couldn’t score runs in a postseason where everyone has been scoring. The opposing pitchers threw far less pitches than the Phillies pitchers, and they didn’t even force the Cardinals bullpen to throw strikes. Ultimately, they lost because they couldn’t score, not because their pitching wasn’t good enough.
Baseball wants a small strike zone in the postseason because they want offense. The umpiring stinks, and that’s why the Phillies lost. Just don’t blame Cliff Lee for the whole thing!