Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Last Word on Chase Ugly and Tonight's Match-Up

There's been a lot of talk about last night's assault by Chase Utley on our Jesus Flores, with I'd say a majority of folks (not unanimous, but most), including Nationals fans and coaches, saying that Utley's play was clean. I however still think the play was a barbaric act of cheap, dirty baseball.

First, I totally understand that the play was legal. However I strongly believe that a play doesn't have to be explicitly illegal to be dirty. Jack Tatum's hit on Darryl Stingley was legal, and for years head-hunting by defensive backs was considered good, clean, intimidating defense. Roy Williams's horse-collaring was legal till just recently, and I'm quite sure that Eagles fans were none too impressed with that when he did it to Donovan McNabb (though it was illegal at the time of the clip I link to here). Likewise, the Larry Allen / Erik Williams / Mark Stepnoski-era Cowboys were notorious chop-blockers who took out many a defensive lineman's knees. John Jurkovic of the Packers stands out in my mind, but I'm sure Redskins and Eagles fans have their own not-so-fond memories of that sort of thing.

Just because these plays aren't specifically banned doesn't mean they are clean. To me, any play that is unnecessarily and highly likely to result in the injury of another player is questionable at best. A play like Utley's missile-like attack on Flores, which was clearly pre-meditated and made it less likely that Utley would score is hands-down a dirty play.

You can see watching the replay, especially on the angle from behind third base, that the back half of the plate is not covered by Flores. The advantage Utley has here is that he has the whole play in front of him, while Flores has to look away to catch the ball. If Utley simply does a hook slide he will have a very good chance of being able to reach around the tag of Flores, who, with his head turned will have no chance but to swing his tag blindly for Utley. If Utley does the "lipstick" thing, in Charlie Manuel's words, he probably scores. If instead he chooses to show off how big his cojones are by diving Tatum-style into the blinded Flores's ACL, he is out, as we saw.

I also understand that by the standards of traditionalists, his play was indeed good, scrappy effort. However, again, like Tatum's spearing and Williams's horse-collaring, the old-school way is very often the dumb and dirty way. Utley risked injury to himself as well as Flores, and, as noted, gave up his best chance to score.

All that aside, I think it's highly dubious to say that Utley wasn't motivated by revenge for last year's beaning by Lannan. Hat-tip to Nationals Journal commenter Section 506 (before moving) for finding this little gem from the "good school" thugs of Philly warning that there would be retribution. But the idea that John Lannan was intentionally trying to hit an MVP candidate while down by one run in the fifth in his major-league debut with Ryan Howard and Aaron Rowand on deck is just totally nutso. Even if the beaning did require retaliation, wasn't it enough that the Phillies beaned us three times on Monday and eight times on the year?

All that said though, I do feel differently about the Nationals' response than I did in the heat of the moment last night. As I said last night, in the morning I felt proud that Manny didn't retaliate, knowing that fights don't in fact cause a team to play better (again contrary to dumb old-school wisdom). Our guys showed class and restraint, and I'm glad we didn't sink to their level. Besides, the last thing we need is for Dukes to get a Milton Bradley-style ACL tear.

What's the solution? There should be a rule change. It's not legal to slug an infielder on an infield fly. It's not ok to step on the Achilles' tendon of a stretched out first-baseman on a close play at first. The only situation in baseball in which it's ok to destroy a defenseless player is with a close play at home, when it's considered "good clean baseball" to blatantly endanger the health of a defenseless catcher. It would be very easy to outlaw intentional contact at home. Probably you'd also want to make it illegal for the catcher to block home plate. Just make it so that the catcher has to tag the runner without exposing himself to injury. This is a long-overdue rule change to end a barbaric artifact of the days when infielders did get punched in the mouth by base-runners while camping under infield flies.

All that said, I still feel like the Phillies, and their fans, who gleefully cheered the injury on their typically thuggish blogs today, deserve something. So I am casting a stathead blogger voodoo curse:
  1. Brad Lidge will learn the hard meaning of the phrase "regression to the mean" when the statistical correction for his laughable 4.7% HR/FB rate arrives at the worst possible time. I'm thinking Adam Dunn plays the role of Albert Pujols and David Eckstein is this year's Scott Podsednik in the lastest Lidgean playoff inferno.
  2. Cole Hamels, the oft-injured but hugely talented 23-year-old, is leading the league with 203 innings pitched and is on track for an innings jump of close to 100 innings if he doesn't get hurt and the Phillies play deep into the post-season. This is the risk you run with a numb-skull "good school" manager who cares more about proving his macho street cred than the long-term interests of his team. I promise he's doing more damage to his own team than he'll ever do to ours. My curse isn't that Hamels becomes the next Kerry Wood (though that wouldn't surprise me), but that he simply comes down with a bad case of "tired arm" just in time to get massacred the was CC Sabathia did in the ALCS last year.
  3. Brett Myers, another pitcher who has been screwed up by the reckless handling of "Good School" Charlie, once again loses confidence in the fastball and goes back to throwing upwards of 25% curveballs just in time to get bombed in October.
With that, here's my take on the series finale, which will not include a brawl, because Manny's got too much class for that.

Pitching Match-Up
Joe Blanton: the epitome of the league-average innings-eater, Blanton is an incrementally better version of Tim Redding that the Phillies could have had for much, much less. He throws a fastball, slider, change, and curve, and has kept his ERA under 5 the last two years only because he has posted nearly Lidge-like unsustainably low HR/FB rates. Hate to break it to them, since they're such nice obnoxious, wife-beating jerks, but these guys are due for one brutal run of gopher-balls.

Odalis Perez: if there's one guy who might take it upon himself to even the score tonight, it's Odalis. As I said, I hope he doesn't and don't think he will, but he's the one you'd expect it from.

Since Lopez and Lo Duca were sent packing, Perez has posted a 3.50 ERA with only one subpar start. He's been brutal on lefties all year (.210 / .277 / .303), which is a good thing facing a team whose best hitters (Howard and Utley) are lefties.

Fearless Prediction
(Season record: 20-14)
Golly, I want them to win. I usually try to make analytical predictions, but tonight I'm going the fanboy way. Nationals win, 8-2, with Dukes and Milledge doing the most damage and Odalis setting them down all night.

One last thing: IT'S NOT YOUR HOUSE!


John O'Connor said...

I'm glad Odalis put Utley down, and I say that as someone who has Utley on his roto team.

James Beale said...

I mean, it's kinda our house.

Steven said...



Levi said...

You keep saying that the catcher is a "defenseless" player. What about the face mask, chest protector, shin guards, etc.?

dale said...

Your "fanboy" prediction was much closer to the truth than what your analytical side would have projected. Against the Phillies it's really O.K. to let your inner self out.

Hendo said...

Excellent analysis all around.

Tonight I especially enjoyed the almost-obviously-staged plunk by Odalis on pitch number 1 of the evening. Along with the obligatory warnings to Odalis and both dugouts, the whole scene had almost a Japanese-theatre aura to it -- and defused a lot of tension.

This game could have been ugly no matter who won. I'm glad it wasn't.