The 2004 ALCS by Today’s Rules

Orlando Hernandez pitching to David Ortiz in Game Four cost the Yankees. (via SecondPrint Productions)

Orlando Hernandez pitching to David Ortiz in Game Four cost the Yankees. (via SecondPrint Productions)

Let’s get this out of the way: No amount of flowery prose would do justice to the 2004 Yankees-Red Sox American League Championship Series. It was a hell of a series — arguably the best of this century thus far — and is fun to look back on from time to time.

That’s been done, of course, so we’re going to take a different approach today: How might have the 2004 ALCS — specifically Games Four through Seven — gone down differently had it been played under the conditions of baseball today? It’s a chance to take stock of how much the game has changed during the last decade (plus a couple of months) through the case study of an exceptional sequence of four games. Before jumping into specific instances, a few notes:

  • This then-versus-now thought exercise would work, in theory, with any set of games from any year. The hope with these four games is that they are long enough ago that it is an interesting comparison, yet still memorable enough to the vast majority of the baseball community.
  • The point is not to second-guess managerial decisions. The point is to consider how Decision X might be approached differently today.
  • Clearly, it is impossible to tell how trends like the boom of front office-influencing data or the ever-evolving strike zone — not to mention the presumably decreased prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs — might dramatically alter the entire series. As such, this activity is generally limited to specific plays/instances.
  • Along those lines, considering butterfly effect-esque consequences is an interminable task. So I mostly stayed away.

Game Four

Bottom of the fifth: The Ortiz At-Bat

The Yankees led, 2-1, when David Ortiz stepped to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Joe Torre’s choice: Stick with a tiring Orlando Hernandez, who was nearing 90 pitches and had already walked three in the inning, or go to Felix Heredia out of the bullpen for the lefty-on-lefty matchup?

Heredia was more effective against lefties than Hernandez was in 2004, and left-handed pitchers as a whole did a better job limiting Ortiz that season than righties did. It’s also worth noting that back then, of course, Ortiz was just David Ortiz, All-Star owner of back-to-back very good seasons 22 months after being cut by the Twins, not David Ortiz, Destroyer of Opponents’ Postseason Hopes.

Torre stuck with El Duque. Ortiz lined a two-run single to center for a 3-2 Red Sox lead.

These days, though, it might’ve been a different case. Dave Wallace, then Boston’s pitching coach who is now in the same role with the Orioles, suggested a manager today would be more likely to go to a lefty reliever. Brad Mills agreed.

“There’s no doubt,” said Mills, the then-Sox bench coach and current Indians bench coach. “It seems like more teams are doing those exact things right now.”

For what it’s worth, Ortiz faced Heredia twice later in the series — he struck out swinging in Game Five and broke his bat on a fly out in Game Six.

Bottom of the ninth: The Steal

When it comes to replay and the 2004 ALCS, the Dave Roberts steal is one of the first plays to come to mind. Given the juncture of the series and the season, the umpires almost certainly would have needed to give it a look, right?

“Definitely,” said Kevin Millar, whose leadoff walk set the stage for Roberts’ dramatics. “I think every close call you’re yelling out ‘replay, replay, replay.’ Ninth inning — and you saw that play, the call was right, so that makes it easier — but what a close play. Posada makes an absolutely gorgeous throw. Dave Roberts makes an absolutely perfect slide. Jeter puts the tag down. You’re talking about the length of a finger, and definitely an instant replay-type play.”

Millar, who is now the co-host of “Intentional Talk” on the MLB Network, agreed that it’s only a small step from there to wonder how the delay, however brief, might’ve affected Mariano Rivera or Bill Mueller, who moments later tied the game with a single up the middle.

“Probably wouldn’t take that long because that play was pretty obvious, even though it was close,” Millar said. “Does Billy Mueller go back to the dugout? Does Mariano just stand there? There’s a lot of aspects, and you never know.”

Bronson Arroyo, who was on the mound during at least two replay situations with the Diamondbacks in 2014, has had to wait out similar delays.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“It’s hard to stand out there and play catch with your second baseman and wonder what’s going on,” Arroyo said.

Game Five

Top of the sixth: Cairo safe at home

Derek Jeter’s bases-loaded double cleared the bases for a 4-2 New York lead, with Miguel Cairo barely sliding in ahead of Jason Varitek’s tag for the third and final run. In one replay, in fact, it appeared Varitek’s tag was actually in time.


It seems like another obvious replay scenario, especially given the stage.

Top of the eighth: Jeter’s sacrifice bunt

Two innings later, Cairo stood on second with no one out when Jeter laid down a sacrifice bunt. It’s easy to imagine how outraged Twitter would be if this happened today.

Baseball Prospectus’ handy run expectancy chart shows us that in 2004, the expected runs when there was a man on second and no outs was 1.1497. When there was a man on third and one out — the scenario that resulted from Jeter’s plate appearance — that mark dropped to 0.9458.

While, yes, last postseason showed us the bunt is very much a part of the game (long live #Yostober), folks have moved away from it to a degree. Decision-makers are more aware of things like the numbers above and have allowed it to influence their calls.

“The bunt is gone,” said Millar, perhaps slipping into a bit of hyperbole.

Game Six

Pregame: Schilling gets the ball

Arguably this game’s biggest decision came before a single pitch was thrown — giving Curt Schilling and his sutured ankle the ball.

The surveyed participants agreed that even today, when teams are so mindful of protecting their arms/investments, Schilling would have pitched in the physical state he was in. This has to do with the type of player Schilling was — a respected veteran and hard-nosed leader who had been on the big stage before — and the fact that the team got clearance from doctors that the hurler would be okay.

“A veteran guy that has a relationship with the manager and [says,] ‘I’m okay, let’s roll,’ there is a difference from if it’s a two-year guy … like Yordano Ventura,” Millar said. “Do you risk his career for a game like that? I don’t know. I think yes to Schilling in this day and age. He still has a voice because he’s a vet.”

Added Wallace: “Because of who he is, his stature and what he’s been through and his experience, [Schilling would pitch today]. … It’s different for starters. Those guys are smart enough to navigate their way through some innings. If a guy like Curt doesn’t have it, he’s going to let you know right away.”

Top of the fourth: Bellhorn’s overturned homer

Mark Bellhorn sent a fly ball to left for a three-run homer and 4-0 Sox lead, but at first it was ruled a double. To their credit, the umpires congregated and got it right, allowing Bellhorn to finish his trip around the bases, just as they would have had replay been an option. (The confusion was the result of the ball bouncing off a fan in a dark shirt in the first row and back onto the field.)

Joe Buck’s commentary as it unfolded, however, offers a window into just how far the game has come when it comes to trying to get calls right:

Every umpire, all six of them, will congregate. This is such a change — over, say, five or six years ago — trying to get this call right,” Buck said. “Nobody goes under the hood in major league baseball. They just get together and talk it over.”

Bottom of the eighth: A-Rod swats Arroyo

Bronson Arroyo fielded Alex Rodriguez’s dribbler toward first, and A-Rod swatted Arroyo’s glove, allowing the ball to roll down the right-field line. Jeter scored from first, and Rodriguez ended up on second. Ultimately, A-Rod was called out and Jeter made to go back to first.

Another play that definitely would have been reviewed, another play in which the ruling would have been the same, replay or not.

“At the same time, we have the ability now with replay to remove all doubt,” Mills said. “Where without it, we might have some doubt about whether A-Rod should’ve been out, whether he should’ve been safe, whether guys were in the base line, out of the base line.”

Arroyo also pointed out that in the event the umps decided it was Rodriguez’s “natural running motion” — and thus been safe — they could have forced the runners back a base or two because the ball bounced off A-Rod, forcing it much farther down the line.

“That definitely would’ve been looked at, given the fact that Alex claimed it was his running motion,” Arroyo said. “Even if, let’s say it was a legal play, they might’ve been able to say, ‘He [forced] the ball down the line, the runner has to go back to third base.’ I think that play would’ve been looked at for sure.”

Top of the ninth: Yankee Stadium crowd goes haywire

First came the debris thrown onto the field in the bottom of the eighth after the A-Rod/Arroyo play, then more boos and garbage after a close call in the top of the ninth in which Orlando Cabrera barely beat out a would-be double play at first. Police in riot gear ended up lining the field, a situation that Arroyo said was “like a war zone.”

“It went a little weird there for a short time,” Millar said.

If replay had been an option — and umpires went to it not only on the A-Rod/Arroyo play, but also for the Yankees’ near-double play the next half-inning — would the fans have reacted as they did? Or would those delays, as well as seeing the officials were putting in the extra effort to get the calls right, have given fans a chance to calm down and perhaps understand, yeah, this call is correct?

Trying to anticipate the thought processes of 50,000-plus New Yorkers in various states of inebriation is a dangerous game, but it stands to reason that cooler heads might’ve prevailed.

“When you look back at how well replay was accepted by players, by managers this past year, and the accuracy of getting the calls right because of replay, I do think fans would’ve accepted that a little bit better,” Mills said.

Arroyo agreed that might have been the case under normal circumstances. But this game, this series and this rivalry were not normal.

“I would traditionally say yes, it should, that gives the fans a chance to watch it on the Jumbotron as well. And then they realize the umpires will get the right call most of the time, and it should quiet the crowd down,” Arroyo said. “But, you know, I’m tempted to say at Yankee Stadium I’m not sure it would have mattered.”

Bottom of the ninth: Foulke pitches, again

Keith Foulke held the Yankees scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, capping a busy stretch for him: 100 pitches in five innings over roughly 48 hours. He allowed no runs and gave up just one hit, but he walked five.

Whether a reliever would be pushed to that extent in today’s game is worth questioning. It depends on (1) the individual, and how well he bounces back from a heavy workload on a given day (2) the recent workload of the team’s other relievers and (3) the circumstances under which the team is playing, among other factors.

For the Red Sox at that point, Foulke was a guy who loved to throw regularly and, as Arroyo noted, wasn’t exactly lighting up the radar gun, as so it’s not as if he relied on straight gas. Pretty much the entire bullpen was worked into the ground. And the Red Sox had their backs against the walls all week, so for Foulke & Co., it was either survive that night or not have the chance to pitch tomorrow.

Still, in Game Six Foulke issued a pair of walks, and Tony Clark stepped to the plate as the potential series-winning run. Fatigue seemed to set in.

Wallace, the pitching coach, said a reliever would “probably not” be asked to do that now. Mills said “not during the regular season,” though as Madison Bumgarner showed us last October, the postseason is another animal.

“In the postseason, when you’re not saving for anything and you’re not really worried maybe about an injury down the road — I can see guys throwing that,” Mills said.

Added Arroyo: “He was a type of guy that we felt like we could give the ball to every day because he stayed within himself. He never was throwing max effort. He relied so much on that inside change-up on righty-righty matchups, that it was easy for him to do that.”

Curt Schilling — whose employer, ESPN, was unresponsive to interview requests — happened to tweet about Foulke recently.

Foulke’s performance in that 2004 postseason was pretty amazing, though it is worth noting that he was never good again.

Bottom of the ninth: Where is Kenny Lofton?

After Hideki Matsui led off with a walk, Bernie Williams went down out swinging for the first out and Clark struck out swinging for the last one. Should Lofton have batted for either man? The case has been made that Lofton should have started Game Six. We’re not necessarily making that case, but in this particular situation, there was certainly a good case for him to enter as a pinch hitter.

Foulke, noted change-up specialist, didn’t have to face Lofton, who in 2004 ranked 51st at hitting the change out of 276 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. His 1.89 wCH/C was far superior to Williams’ -0.39 and Clark’s -1.17.

Lofton didn’t see any action between Games Four and Six, when Foulke pitched five innings. Williams, meanwhile, struck out swinging with a man on in Game Four, popped out in Game Five and struck out again in Game Six against Foulke. Clark struck out, doubled and struck out.

So there’s a case to be made that Lofton should have pinch-hit in that ninth inning. Of course, these sorts of splits likely weren’t available to clubs back then, and even if they were, you might be hard-pressed to get the on-field decision-makers to make personnel changes based on them. All of it would be much easier now.

“The statistics that are available for those kind of situations are well beyond what they were 10 years ago,” Wallace said. “The statistics are somewhat mind-boggling.”

Lofton ended up starting Game Seven and went 1-for-4.

Game Seven

Top of the first: Damon out at home

Manny Ramirez singled to left, and Johnny Damon was thrown out trying to score from second. It was just about the first thing to go wrong for the Red Sox in four days.

With the home-plate blocking rules in place now, Damon would’ve been ruled safe or — more likely, given catchers’ general compliance with the change in 2014 — slid safely into an unblocked plate.

It wasn’t a huge deal either way, given that the Red Sox would build a 6-0 lead an inning and a half into the game.

The rest of the game was relatively straightforward and not nearly as heart attack-inducing as the others. This is OK.

The clubs also deserve some credit for moves that were perhaps a bit ahead of the times. Terry Francona, for example, went to Foulke for the last out in the eighth inning of Game Five, showing a willingness to use his closer when he needed him most — a move that would draw applause today. Additionally, Joe Torre had a quick hook on Kevin Brown in Game Seven, pulling the righty after just 1.1 innings when it looked like Brown didn’t have it that night, and batted Rodriguez — the team’s best hitter — second all series (and most of September).

All things considered, it seems like not much would be different had Games Four through Seven been played under the conditions of baseball today. The umpires didn’t make any flagrantly wrong calls, so replay would not dramatically alter the series. The hard-nosed pitchers who pitched then would probably still get the ball now.

On-field game play is largely the same as it was not only 10 years ago, but 100 years ago. Perhaps that’s part of the beauty of baseball.

“On the whole, for the guys that are out on the field,” Arroyo said, “I don’t think the game feels much different than it did 10 years ago.”

Tim Healey is a Boston-based sportswriter. He works for Sports on Earth and the Boston Globe and can work for you, too, if you want. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey or email him here.
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Fred Vincy
9 years ago

This is great. Painful, but great. But, lefty reliever? Sure. But Felix “the Run Fairy” Heredia to face David Ortiz cannot be the right decision in any era.

9 years ago

That Dave Roberts clip gave me goosebumps

9 years ago

I think the Ortiz at bat in game five would have sounded more like this “And stepping up to the plate is Gabe Kapler. Ortiz would be batting here if he wasn’t serving a 50 game suspension for steroid use.”

Eric F
9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

I guess it’s a good thing that Ortiz is still playing today and still has never tested positive or seriously thought to be taking steroids.

9 years ago
Reply to  Eric F

He has tested positive as much as A-Rod has.

9 years ago
Reply to  Eric F

Yeah, I’m pretty sure he used them. But, yeah it is kind of a moot point as pretty much every good player on these teams was cheating or had cheated in the past.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Same with Ramirez. And A-Rod for the other side. Maybe Sheffield, Kevin Brown too. If you go there, it’s hard to know if these are even the teams that would play the ALCS.

David P. Stokes
9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Ortiz always struck me as being a bit like Cecil Fielder–they were steroid abuses if eating a whole bucket of fried chicken or ribs or 20 Big Macs by yourself counts as steroid abuse.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Sounds like sour grapes from a Yankee fan, especially after A-Rod-the-Cheater got caught again. Too bad for Yankee fans that Ortiz was never suspended for taking an over the counter vitamin that might have contained something that was on the banned list. Ortiz has been tested over 80 times and nothing has ever been found that would cause a suspension – unlike A-Rod.

9 years ago

I cannot watch highlights from this game without tearing up. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it!

John C
9 years ago

The conclusion is pretty much it. The game hasn’t changed enough since 2004 for that Series to have played out much differently under current rules and playing conditions. You’d really need to go all the way back to the 1980s for things to be hugely different.