FIRE JOE MORGAN: Postseason Pressure


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Thursday, August 18, 2005


Postseason Pressure

One of my favorite myths, promulgated by the likes of our own Joe Morgan, is that of "Postseason Pressure." The conventional wisdom is, a team comprised of "untested-in-the-postseason" players is more likely to fall apart in October, because, as we all know, professional athletes are nervous wrecks who flail around like newborn gerbils under the glare of a spotlight. Check out excerpts from Joe's recent column on how the '05 Playoff Field is weaker than in years past:

With the exception of the St. Louis Cardinals, none of the teams that made the playoffs last year is as strong this year. The defending champion Boston Red Sox miss Pedro Martinez and a healthy Curt Schilling anchoring the top of the rotation. The New York Yankees don't even know who their top starters are; offseason pickup Randy Johnson (11-7, 4.22 ERA) hasn't been the Cy Young-caliber pitcher we're accustomed to seeing. The A's have a good rotation, but some of their young starters haven't experienced postseason pressure (Rich Harden is as good as any starter in the league, though).

Now, I agree with the first two points. The Red Sox badly lack a stopper, and if the Yankees make the playoffs, it's anybody's guess how their pitchers hold up. But do we really think the A's pitching staff is going to fall to pieces? Barry Zito studies meditation and seems impervious to pressure. Also, if Joe searched his memory banks for just one second, or perhaps deigned to do some actual research, he might remember/learn that Zito in the postseason is 3-2, 2.76, giving up just 23 hits in 32.2 IP. So, he has experienced postseason pressure, and has flourished. Rich Harden is an absolute bulldog, who might be considered the best #1 postseason starter in the league outside of Buerhle or Garland. Danny Haren pitched in all three levels of the playoffs last year, giving up just 2 ER in 8.1 IP with 7K's. He was the only Cardinal pitcher to shut down the Sox' lineup. So, overall, Joe, two of the A's three best starters have stellar postseason records, and the third, Harden, is so awesome it probably couldn't matter less. (And he does have a little postseason experience, throwing a couple innings in the 2003 ALDS against the Red Sox as a rook. Neither here nor there.) Blanton and Saarloos are "untested," but every staff has a few guys who are "untested," and I'd take the A's pitching staff over just about anybody's right now in a five-game series.

By the way, the White Sox starters have just as little experience. Buerhle threw 1/3 of an inning in the 2000 ALDS. Garland has never been. Jose Contreras has been awful in 8 games: 0-2, 11 H in 11 IP, 7 ER and 7 BB with a 5.73 ERA. El Duque, of course, has been otherworldly, with a 9-3 record in 17 games, but this October 11 he will turn 140 years old. Freddy Garcia has some experience, and has been decent -- 3-2, 3.71 in six starts, 36 H and 14 BB in 34 IP, but it's been five years since the 2000 ALCS when he beat the Yanks twice, and he wasn't nearly as good in 2001.

The point of all of this is, there is scant evdence that postseason experience is a huge plus for a pitching staff. If it were that important, the Braves would have won more than one WS in the last 13 years. And furthermore, to suggest that this mythological advantage will affect the A's more than any other team is simply not supported by something we call "facts."

I didn't anticipate the Yankees' pitching woes this season. Johnson has been so dominant, and I expected him to continue to dominate, even at age 41. I also expected more from Mike Mussina. I though Carl Pavano would pitch well. And to be honest, I didn't even factor Jaret Wright in because of his injury problems in recent years. The Yankees made two offseason mistakes: They should have kept Jon Lieber and Orlando Hernandez.

Well, okay. Johnson has been a bit of a surprise with his mediocre (by his standards) pitching. Mussina, we have seen in the last two years, is on the decline. Why you thought Carl Pavano would pitch well is anybody's guess -- he was a career .500 (roughly) pitcher who'd had one good year in an extreme pitcher's park in the NL, and he strikes out less than 6/9 IP, and the Yankees have a terrible defense. Also, was keeping Lieber really a good idea? He has given up 173 H in 156 IP this year with only 102 K's. His WHIP is an average 1.30 (I know you think that is "outstanding," Joe, but it's not) and he has a 4.85 ERA. Some of that can certainly be attributed to playing in a ballpark the size of a Denny's, but not all of it. The guy has amazing control, and he's fairly durable, but he doesn't fool anybody. The Yanks had an $8 million option on him, I think, which is a lot to pay for a 35 year-old guy who had a three-year ERA+ of 108. Keeping El Duque might have pleased the fans in New York, but, again, he is a thousand years old. The Yankees have made a lot of front-office mistakes recently, but I think Lieber/Duque or Pavano/Wright is a wash. Until you factor in the money they spent on those guys, which, admittedly, is crazy, so okay, fine, it was a mistake. I just don't think you think it's a mistake for the same reasons I think it's a mistake, because you refuse to do research.

Meanwhile, any contender can win the AL pennant. If you make the playoffs, you have as good a chance at getting to the World Series as anyone else. The Chicago White Sox, with the best record in baseball, will be the statistical favorite in the AL, but they haven't been to the playoffs in a while so they're untested in the postseason.

The 2003 Marlins. The 2002 Angels. The 2001 Diamondbacks. The 1997 Marlins. There are 4 teams in the last 9 years who had never been to the postseason (with their core line-ups), yet still managed to win the World Series.

The way I see it now, the Angels will win the AL West and the A's will win the wild card. As things stand, I don't think the Yankees will make the playoffs. They have a better chance of catching Boston than winning the wild card, although I don't think that's likely (I believe Boston will win the AL East). Of course, it depends not only on who gets hot but also on who stays healthy down the stretch.

The last sentence is not helpful.

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