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October 25, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game One Recap: Giants 8, Tigers 3

by Sam Miller

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Guess the MLB.com headline!

a. Panda Express: Giants Jump Out Quickly
b. Mr. Octobear
c. Zito Catches Tigers By The Tail
d. Law Of The Jungle: Panda Bites Tigers
e. Pandamonium Breaks Out in San Francisco
f. Mr. Thrice Guy

Well I'll be honest, there's one perfect answer slipped in here that Joe Peta came up with, and it's wrong. So listen to your gut, then eliminate that answer, and go with what your gut likes second best. Answer at the bottom. 

***

And just like that, this World Series has decided what it's about.

On Wednesday, Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs, in a park where only three Giants hit three (or more) home runs all season, against a pitcher who—well, Verlander's home run rate is probably the most human thing about him, besides his opposable thumbs (one of which he uses to deploy his unhuman and dangerously fast assortment of pitches) and his physical attraction to other humans. Also on Wednesday, in the same game, coincidentally, Barry Zito earned a victory by pitching excellently against a team that was expected to hit him, by dint of having brought baseball bats. He also got a base hit and drove in a run against Justin Verlander. Against Justin Verlander he did that. Barry Zito has now matched Pat Burrell's career World Series RBI total. Pat Burrell batted in the middle of the order on two World Series champions. This is all so unthinkable. 

But somebody steps up in every World Series game. What this World Series is about is 2010. It's about carrying forward a narrative through time for the payoff that is all the greater for this narrative having made us wait. In 2010, Barry Zito was left off the postseason roster, a shame (because of his salary) on a level greater than Alex Rodriguez's forced inactivity in this year's ALCS. He was not just booted from the rotation, as Tim Lincecum was this year, and as some starter is every year; he was left off the roster entirely. Instead of Zito, the Giants carried Mike Fontenot: 0-for-0. He made one appearance as a pinch-hitter and was immediately pinch-hit for.*

So (with the caveat that this all gets undone if the Tigers win the next two or three games) what the 2012 World Series wants to be is the final act of the 2010 World Series. The 2010 World Series, in this narrative, is actually just the instigating event; the 2010 World Series lays the gun on the dresser, then moseys off, distracting us with all manner of plot twists and substories, David Freese and Mike Trout and the fish structure in Miami. But, sure enough, that gun will be fired. 

So let's take each shot separately. 

***

We had a bit of fun with Pablo Sandoval's pitch chart in Game Six of the NLCS, when he singled on the 10th pitch of an at-bat that saw perhaps 10 pitches thrown out of the strike zone. For that reason, for the Panda reason, it can sometimes be hard to determine how much blame to give the pitchers and how much credit to give Panda (and, in the case of Sandoval's outs, the reverse). What about Wednesday? Here are the three home runs, as shown by Dan Brooks' extremely nifty match-up tool

The first home run

This looks like beautiful pitching. The first pitch hit the catcher's target perfectly, at 95 or so. Sandoval took it for a strike, with a grimace. The second pitch was a fastball that missed it's target, but Sandoval swung at it in all it's absurd hitlessness. The third pitch changed his sight line, was up and in at 95, and a borderline strike at best. Tim McCarver sums it up: "That's a situation where Justin Verlander did exactly what he wanted to do. Up and in. Sometimes you have to tip your hat to the hitter, and I think Justin would say that." 

Well, geez, Tim. You couldn't be more wrong**. Here's where the pitch was supposed to be, and here's where the pitch was: 

He missed almost as much as he could miss. Does that mean Sandoval hit a cookie? Not a bit. This is perhaps the perfect case of a pitcher who gets 100 percent blame and a batter who gets 100 percent credit. 

The second home run

Sandoval took the first two pitches, both changeups, for balls. Neither was very close, and so that brought out the pitching coach, which we'll get to a bit later in this piece. Verlander's next pitch could have worked well, as it starts about where he would normally start a changeup and could fool Sandoval, and Verlander did hit his target perfectly. But perhaps Sandoval was following the long-accepted myth that a pitcher will follow up a trip to the mound with a fastball. Verlander does a hop and spin to watch, but his arms flop limply, like unoccupied rope swings, so you know he knows it's a bad scene. 

Of this, Grant Brisbee says it well

The second swing is the one that would scare the giblets out of me if I were a Tigers' pitcher. Pablo going the other way with power. He used to do that all the time. Some of the time, at least. That's like Happy Gilmore saying "Uh oh, looks like somebody learned how to putt."  

And in his third trip, against Al Alburquerque, a sinker just out of the zone away for a foul, then a slider out of the zone low that Sandoval gets.

To evaluate Sandoval's role in each: 

1. He hit a very difficult pitch for a home run. 
2. He hit a difficult pitch for a home run. 
3. He hit a very difficult pitch for a home run. 

To evaluate the pitchers' role in these three: 

1. Verlander blew it. 
2. Verlander fell behind and had to come in with a fastball; he made his pitch, but was count disadvantaged.
3. Alburquerque threw a very respectable slider out of the zone low. He's a victim here. 

You can see why Sandoval is so difficult to beat when he's on. If he can hit your best pitch, then he can hit your best pitch and there's nothing you can really do about it. You can also see why Sandoval is so easy to get out when he's off; or, if you don't much believe in on/off, why he looks so garbage when he doesn't get a hit. He saw nine pitches in those three at-bats (there's actually another pitch that didn't make it onto the chart; it was thrown by Alburquerque and landed, oh, 15 feet in front of the plate). Three were balls that he took. The other six were all either out of the zone, just a touch out of the zone, or just barely in the zone. From a Process standpoint, Sandoval is terrible, even on good nights. But on a good night, there's nobody tougher.

***

As for Zito, before this game I kept thinking about Bob Gibson. Gibson won those three games in the 1967 World Series, maybe the most famous World Series performance by a pitcher. Partly he was a spectacular ace, like Verlander. But also, he was going up against a pitcher who was, like Zito, just nobody's idea of a Game One starter. 

He was Jose Santiago, and he was 27 years old. Twenty-seven, and he had thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title just once. His career ERA+ was 93; his ERA+ that season, 1967, was 98, worse than the league average. He was starting Game One because the Red Sox had needed their real ace, Jim Lonberg, to pitch the final game of the season (they won the American League by just one game), and because the World Series started just three days later. (Lonberg was so much better than Santiago that he would end up making three starts that series anyway; he started Game Two, then Game Five, then came back for Game Seven on just two days' rest.)

Bob Gibson vs. Jose Santiago might have been as big a mismatch as Verlander vs. Zito, but maybe not. This was Zito's good year, remember, and in his good year he had the worst FRA on the Giants (minimum 30 innings pitched). There are 100 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2010; Verlander has the best ERA+, and Zito is 94th. 

Hopefully you read R.J.'s piece about Zito this week, which blew my mind a bit and I'll tell you why. When I was reporting on Mike Trout, two things stuck with me about how to pitch him. Mike Scioscia told me that most teams pitched him hard up and in, soft low and away, but admitted that "that's just pitching 101." In other words, that's how everybody gets pitched, Mike Trout included. But a scout told me that Mike Trout's bat is so fast, and he hits fastballs inside so well, that pitchers should try to do the opposite and unlearn everything: throw  soft stuff in fastball locations, etc. If his bat is going to be so fast, the thinking went, maybe pitchers could take advantage of that by throwing him mistakes, mistakes he would be too quick for. 

Well, Zito is sort of the pitching opposite of Trout. He throws everything slow. He can't beat anybody the traditional way, because against Zito's slow stuff everybody is as quick as Trout. But Zito, in a way, also pitches opposite. Look at the pitches he threw to right-handers: 

Zito doesn't go up and in, and he doesn't go down and away. He does the opposite, almost exclusively. And, as you can see, he got loads of strikes where he wanted them: high and outside, low and inside. R.J. pointed out that this works because the fastball up and away looks like the curveball he throws in the strike zone, so it's not really analogous to the Trout/batspeed thing. But it is fascinating to see Zito pitch so deliberately and so unconventionally. 

That's not to give Zito more credit that he deserves. He has found a way to narrowly survive with stuff that shouldn't work, is all. (And another way of framing this is to note that he can work only in two quadrants, where pitchers with better stuff can work in all four.) Anyway, Zito. Barry Zito did it! 

***

So if that's the narrative about the Giants this series, what will it be in Detroit? If this blows up into a two-day story, it might be about the Tigers getting progressively less happy with each other: 

Add to that the likelihood that Jose Valverde won't pitch a meaningful inning again, and there could be a lot of psychoanalysis going on in the press box. Or the Tigers could win Game Two and everybody could just move on. Regardless of what happens in the next three games, I can guarantee you're going to see a lot of these two stats before Game Five, whether you like it or (more likely, and justifiably) not: 

Barry Zito, postseason: 2.85 ERA, 60 innings
Justin Verlander, postseason: 4.22 ERA, 70 innings

I'm sorry to be the first to bring that pairing to your attention. I just want you to be prepared for what is to follow. 

***

So if each game is a coin flip, the Giants are about 65 percent favorites right now. You probably thought the Tigers were better coming in, though, so maybe every game isn't a coin flip. Adjust down as you wish. 

***

Answer: 

Pete's perfect one was the Pandamonium one, made more perfect by the subhead: "Verlander can't bear to watch." 

*The Giants also carried Eli Whiteside on that roster, as a backup catcher. He didn't play an inning, but his college still wrote about his World Series championship on their website. They didn't mention the not playing an inning. They wrote this: "The duo of Posey and Whiteside carefully managed the Giants pitching staff through the rest of the reason and past the heavily favored Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS and NLCS." The duo of Posey and Whiteside! Tremendous. Whiteside did not appear in the NLDS, or the NLCS.

** After the game, Verlander said of that first home run, "I was trying to elevate and didn't get it high enough." As noted, the target was not anywhere near that location. So either: Verlander is misremembering, which happens way more than you would think; Verlander is lying, because he doesn't want to give too much of his game plan away to Sandoval; Verlander is just talking and doesn't really care about giving the right answer; or the catcher's target means absolutely nothing. I don't think it's this last one, particularly on fastballs, where location is agreed upon. If it is this last one, it makes analysis of pitching virtually impossible for all of us, forever and ever. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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