3-up, 3-down with Mitch Williams (extended version of my USA Today mag piece)

Note: This article appeared in abridged form in the USA Today World Series Preview glossy magazine. Interview conducted the week before the World Series began.

Unconventional twists and turns have carved a unique path to the coming Fall Classic.

The MLB postseason has changed dramatically since Mitch Williams took the mound as closer in the 1993 World Series, but he has closely monitored the playoff transformation in his ensuing career as one of the more insightful straight shooters in baseball media.

Williams now brings the heat as an MLB Network analyst and is thrilled to have additional banter courtesy of this year’s inaugural two-wild card structure.

“What it does is take the most exciting part of our game, which is elimination games, and take them from six to now there’s eight of them,” Williams said. “And that’s the most exciting part of baseball so I love the new system.”

This comes without reservations in determining the best possible teams for the league championship series.

“The best team’s not always going to win,” Williams said. “It’s the team that’s playing best that’s going to win. That’s not going to change. It’s always been that way.”

Williams points out that there are things Bud Selig and Co. still need to tweak, having taken notice of Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s recent candor on expanding instant replay use.

“Fair or foul and game-ending plays,” Williams said. “It needs to be a headset from an umpire in the booth to the home-plate umpire. It does not slow the game down, it speeds the game up. It eliminates manager-umpire arguments that take 10 or 15 minutes. … Baseball has nine innings, you get four opportunities to challenge. If you’re wrong you lose another opportunity and that brings the strategy of it into the game.”

USA TODAY went 3-up, 3-down with the hurler as Williams offered his praise and critiques of this year’s World Series participants and award candidates.

Award Candidates

Up  — Miguel Cabrera for AL MVP, Down — Mike Trout for AL MVP

MW: For the American League that’s not even a question, Miguel Cabrera hands down. It should be unanimous vote. … I love Mike Trout, Mike Trout is probably, since I came into the big leagues in 1986, the best young player I’ve seen. That’s Ken Griffey, Jr., all of them. … But if he wasn’t a rookie this year, it wouldn’t even be a conversation of whether or not Cabrera’s the MVP or Trout’s the MVP.

These writers, all these sabermetrics or all this other crap that people are such big believers in — the name of the award is Most Valuable Player. Would the Angels have taken third in the AL West without Mike Trout? Yes they would have. Would Detroit have been a .500 team without Miguel Cabrera? Absolutely not. … It’s simple.

He’s a Triple Crown winner, hasn’t been done since 1967. It’s not even a discussion. And if it does come out and they do vote Mike Trout MVP I will lose all respect for the sports writers that cover our game, because they don’t know the game.

Up — Wade Miley for NL Rookie of the Year, Down — Rest of the NL ROY field

MW: (At the beginning of the year) I picked (Bryce) Harper to be the NL Rookie of the Year and he had a great rookie season. But 17 wins for the Arizona Diamondbacks, for me, makes Wade Miley Rookie of the Year.

And what Todd Frazier did that’s great, but he’s not an everyday player. He filled in and did an unbelievable job. But when it came down to crunch time postseason he’s not in the lineup. It’s hard to vote a guy Rookie of the Year who’s not an every day player, unless he’s a pitcher.

Up — R.A. Dickey, Tampa arms for Cy Down — Justin Verlander, Kris Medlen

MW: It’s going to come from Tampa. It will either be David Price or Fernando Rodney.

(Verlander’s Cy Young follow-up) wasn’t significantly worse, it’s just that there were other guys that did things. If I’m picking I’m picking Rodney for the simple fact: Those numbers are just plain stupid. And he affected way more games than any starter affected. When you have an ERA below one over the course of a season and you save the number of games he saved, in my opinion that’s the Cy Young. …

R.A. Dickey in the National League. … (The knuckleball is not a factor but) the fact that he won 20 games on a horrible baseball team is a factor in that. His strikeout numbers are up there with everybody’s across the board.

World Series (more than three to account for both Giants and Cardinals)

Up — Max Scherzer’s stuff Down — Max Scherzer’s consistency

(Max) Scherzer has been the biggest surprise because he’s been able to repeat his mechanics. I’ve said for the past four years that if he would emulate mechanically what Verlander does with his hands, Max Scherzer would win 20 games every year.

His stuff is that good, but when he gets in trouble he takes his hands over his head in his windup and that means there are times when he separates his hands in different points in his delivery, and that’s when he gets wild. And by wild I don’t just mean wild out of the zone, but wild in the zone.

Things flatten out because his lower half is rushed down the mound. His arm’s stuck behind him and that fastball that has hop on it now is just straight as a string and flat. Same thing with his breaking ball. When this guy repeats his mechanics and gets to his backside and stays back, he is no day at the beach.

Up — Stepping up sans Melky, Down — Upsetting the apple cart

MW: They haven’t missed a beat, but I can’t sit there and say they couldn’t use him. They could absolutely use him, but they have guys that have stepped up. … They managed to get through the rest of the regular season and win the division, so why upset the apple cart and bring him back and take a guy’s job away that had to replace him. That would’ve caused more upset than anything. Then you’re going to have a guy like (Marco) Scutaro who says, “Look I came over here, I’ve hit .350 since I got here and now a guy that chose to break the rules is eligible to come back and I’m going to lose my job?”

Marco Scutaro has been huge for them … but the way that (Angel) Pagan has stepped up at the top of the order and hit a couple of leadoff home runs to give that Giants pitching staff a lead early in the game. People don’t understand that when a pitcher takes the mound and he’s got a lead, that takes a lot of pressure off him.

Up — Lincecum in bullpen, Down — Valverde’s mechanics

MW: Lincecum’s lost velocity, but I don’t think he’s ever gone through any arm problems. Watching him warm up in the bullpen and come out of the bullpen, it doesn’t look like it’s a problem for him.

It gives (Giants manager Bruce) Bochy the flexibility much like in the Zito (Game 4 ALDS) start, where you send Barry Zito out there hoping to get five or six innings out of him. But if you can’t, you have a guy like Lincecum you can go to immediately before the game is out of hand. So I think Bochy has a great weapon in having Lincecum down there. …

(Valverde) blew the game in Oakland. He blew the four-run lead the other night … and for Miguel Cabrera to slam the water cooler and show emotion like that, there is nothing more demoralizing than blowing a four-run lead in the ninth inning. It will completely demoralize a team. I know; I’ve blown them.

The first thing I’m doing if I’m Papa Grande, is I’m going in the video room and I’m seeing why, why am I getting hit? Why is my split hanging in the middle of the plate. And it’s simple: He’s underneath the baseball. … It’s all about getting to your backside and allowing your arm to catch up to where you can throw the ball downhill. That’s why they put you on a 10-inch mound, to create angles.

When your lower half rushes out, that means your arm is stuck behind you and you’ve got to blow your front side open to get your throwing arm through. When it comes through it’s coming through underneath the baseball, which takes all downward movement off the ball.

When Valverde’s good he’s on top of the ball throwing the ball downhill and his fastball’s at 95-96, and then he’s throwing his split off that. But when you’re underneath the split — the split that he gave up the home run to (Raul) Ibanez on (in Game 1) — there was no movement whatsoever on that ball. None. It just hung in the middle of the plate and that’s all caused by his lower half.

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