Tuesday, October 27, 2009

World Series Preview

Let me officially be the first Charge-Shot!!! writer to offer my congratulations to the New York Yankees for earning a place in the 2009 World Series of Baseball! The heavily favored Yankees defeated the Orange County Angels of Way Out in the Boonies in game 6 of a best-of-7 series on Sunday night. This will be the Yankees' 40th appearance in the Fall Classic, out of which they've won 26 times, both Major League records by a huge margin.

The Yankees will face the reigning champion Philadelphia Phillies, who handily defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 4 games to 1. They will be phighting for just their third World Series title in a franchise history that extends back to 1883. They are also looking to be the first National League team to repeat as champions since the mid 1970s.

The series will air on the Fox network starting tomorrow (Wednesday), forcing them to jumble up their schedule which includes such hits as the new scripted musical-comedy "Glee," competitive reality favorite "So You Think You Can Dance," and veteran drama "House." This fall, Fox saw a 5% rise in viewers, including a 10% jump in the coveted adults 18-49 demographic, and they hope to continue the trend with coverage of the biggest sporting event of the fall season. In previewing the World Series, I won't bore you all with statistics and predictions and advanced metrics. What I will do is give a brief profile of some of the key players on each team and outline some of the recent history that brought them to where they are today.

The Yankees have been one of the most dominant teams of the last decade and a half, thanks largely to consistently posting the highest payroll in the game. (Their team cost over $208 million this year, $62 million higher than the second place Mets, and almost $97 million higher than the eighth place Phillies.) But their big spending has paid big dividends: since 1995 the George Steinbrenner-owned team has missed the playoffs only once.

Where does all this money go, you ask? To big name free agents, of course. The Yanks always seem to sign the biggest players whose contracts expire any given off-season, and 2009 was no different, even in this crippling recession. The Yankees made three key signings this year: switch-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman Mark Teixeira, hard-throwing righty pitcher A.J. Burnett, and 6'7" 290 lb. lefty hurler C.C. Sabathia - perhaps the winter's most coveted free agent.

Here's how much money the Yankees have: C.C. Sabathia grew up in California and made it known that he would have preferred to sign with a team closer to his hometown - namely, the Dodgers or the Angels, the only teams in the area willing to meet his lofty price tag. But the Yankees made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Or, more to the point, they made him an offer his union rep couldn't refuse. The guys from the union basically said, "Look, C.C., the Yankees' contract blows all your other offers out of the water. No matter where you would prefer to pitch, if you don't take this astronomical offer, it's gonna make all us guys in the Players' Union look bad." So in the end, the money won out, and Sabathia won 19 games for the Yankees, leading the league.

But it's not just big name free agent signings that have kept the Yankees competitive for so long - the group of longtime Yankees known as the "Core Four" has been contributing since before I was old enough to know what "RBI" meant. Shortstop Derek Jeter, everyone's favorite baseball playboy, power hitting catcher Jorge Posada, and untouchable closer Mariano Rivera have all three played with the Yankees for 15 years running. Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, who broke into the majors the same year (1995) as the previous three, is back with the Yanks after a three-year stint pitching for his hometown Houston Astros.

But the Yankees' secret weapon during the 2009 post-season has been Alex Rodriguez. Notorious for his lousy performance in playoffs past, A-Rod has finally started playing great baseball in October. Maybe admitting to steroid use has allowed him to play with a clear conscience for the first time since he started juicing as a teenager.

The problem for the Yankees has been finding more than three pitchers to start games for them. Usually baseball teams employ a five-man rotation, giving each starter four days to rest his beleaguered arm before pitching again. In the playoffs, since the stakes are higher and five good pitchers are hard to come by, teams usually drop that number to four. The Yankees, however, have been marching out C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte in that order since the start of the post-season. It's seemed to work for them so far, but we'll see if fatigue starts to set in.

The Phillies have no such problem with their pitching. The acquisitions of last year's AL Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee and aging legend Pedro Martinez gives them five solid starters, one of whom (rookie J.A. Happ) will likely be used exclusively as a reliever. Pedro has built up quite a rivalry with the Yankees during his years pitching for the hated Boston Red Sox, which culminated in Martinez calling the Yankees his "daddy" in 2004. We'll see if wearing a new uniform will help the future hall of famer pitch any better against the Bronx Bombers.

Offensively the Phillies are totally stacked. They have a group of homegrown players comparable to the Yankees "Core Four" - cocky shortstop Jimmy Rollins, gargantuan slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, quietly superb second baseman Chase Utley, and speedy center fielder Shane Victorino - but all four are hitters in their prime who currently sit at or near the top in many key offensive categories. Add to those guys right-fielder Jayson Werth, who has found his power stroke this season, and left-fielder Raul Ibanez, a key off-season pickup with an undeniable resemblance to Lord Voldemort. All these great hitters contributed to a lineup that led the league in Home Runs, Runs scored, and Runs Batted In (RBI). Every spot in the Phillies' lineup is a threat, and I do not envy the Yankees' pitchers having to face them in either ballpark in which the World Series will be played.

Why do the ballparks matter? Well, in case you didn't know, the dimensions of the outfield walls are not uniform for every Major League stadium. The distance from home plate to the mound (60 ft., 6 in.) and between the bases (90 ft.) are always the same, but the distance from the plate to the outfield walls varies from park to park. Thus, because of their particular dimensions, some fields favor batters and some fields favor pitchers. Both the Phillies' home field (Citizens Bank Park) and the Yankees' home field (New Yankee Stadium, in its first year since its recent construction) are notorious hitters' parks - despite the Phillies' unbelievable offensive attack, the Yankees hit even more home runs thanks in part to their miniscule home ballpark. For now, I will remain silent on the circumstances that led to the parks being designed in this way and the benefits/detriments of not having uniform park dimensions; but either way, we're sure to see some high scoring games.

The biggest weak point for the Phillies this season has been the back end of their bullpen. When a pitcher (known as the Closer) enters a game in the last inning (9th) with a slim lead (3 runs or less) and preserves that lead until the end of the game, he earns a prestige stat called a "Save." If he enters the game in the same situation and gives up enough runs to lose a lead, he gets a shame stat called a "Blown Save." Last year (2008), Phillies' closer Brad Lidge didn't blow a single save in 48 chances including the playoffs. He was perfect; he did his job 100% of the time. This year, however, Lidge had 11 blown saves, most in the majors. So in the span of one season, he went from the league's absolute best relief pitcher to the league's absolute worst. Somehow he's escaped disaster this post-season, but if Phillies manager Charlie Manuel keeps rolling the dice with him in close games, we'll see how long the fairy-tale lasts.

So there you have it, dear readers: strengths, weaknesses, and key players for each team involved in Baseball's biggest stage. If any of you happen to catch any of these games on TV, I hope some of the context/background information from this post will help enhance your enjoyment of them.

The World Series airs on the Fox Network at 8pm ET.