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October 28, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Four Preview: Giants at Tigers

by Daniel Rathman

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Before San Francisco’s 2-0 victory in Game Three, no team had logged back-to-back shutout victories in the World Series since the 1966 Orioles. The 2012 Tigers were held scoreless only twice during the regular season. So, naturally, the Giants blanked the Tigers in Games Two and Three to take a commanding, 3-0 lead in the Fall Classic. Can Detroit bounce back and avoid a sweep, or will the 2012 season end tonight, with San Francisco celebrating for the second time in three years? To answer those questions, here is a closer look at Game Four:

Giants (Matt Cain) vs. Tigers (Max Scherzer) – 8:00 p.m. ET

Projected Starting Lineups:

Giants vs. Scherzer (R)

Tigers vs. Cain (R)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Quintin Berry, LF (L)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

Delmon Young, DH (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

Andy Dirks, RF (L)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Hector Sanchez, DH (S)

Alex Avila, C (L)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

Ten days have passed since Scherzer last toed the rubber for the Tigers, mowing down the Yankees to complete Detroit’s American League Championship Series sweep. Now, manager Jim Leyland will hope that his 28-year-old right-hander is rested rather than rusty, ready to dodge brooms after helping to deliver them from this very mound on Oct. 18.

Facing a hapless New York lineup plagued by a team-wide slump, Scherzer took full advantage, mixing his pitches to keep Joe Girardi’s hitters off-balance and blowing them away on the rare occasions when they weren’t fooled. He allowed just one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings of work, walked two, and struck out 10.

As the table above shows, all three of Scherzer’s primary offerings were sharp, with his fastball touching 96 mph and his slider drawing five whiffs on 17 tries. But Scherzer’s changeup was especially exceptional: he earned a strike on 19 of the 23 occasions that he threw it, and all but one of those strikes was called, swung at and missed, or fouled off. The lone changeup the Yankees put into play resulted in a sixth-inning ground out off the bat of Robinson Cano.

Scherzer enjoyed a breakout year in 2012, ranking second only to teammate Justin Verlander with 231 strikeouts. But while Scherzer seemed virtually untouchable by right-handed batters, limiting them to a .201/.244/.343 triple-slash line that would make Mario Mendoza proud, he was vulnerable to lefties, who touched him up for a .292/.366/.465 line. Scherzer logged a terrific 122-to-14 K:BB versus his fellow righties, but he issued more than three times as many walks (46) and recorded 13 fewer strikeouts against opposite-handed hitters.

The reason for that sharp platoon split, which has dogged Scherzer throughout his young career—albeit to a lesser extent (786 OPS for lefties, 670 for righties)—is erratic control of his off-speed pitches.

Scherzer missed the strike zone with nearly half of the curveballs and sliders he threw to left-handed batters during the regular season, an issue that often restricted him to two pitches, his fastball and changeup. When the changeup is working, as it was last Thursday afternoon, he can get by without a hitch. When it’s not, however, Scherzer is liable to become a one-trick pony, and even his healthy heater won’t fool hitters fearlessly sitting dead red.

With Bruce Bochy fielding a lineup with six left-handed or switch-hitting starters, establishing the changeup will be crucial for Scherzer’s success tonight. The Giants scored their only runs in Game Three on hard-hit balls by Blanco and Crawford, bottom-of-the-order lefties who don’t have much power but are capable of punishing mistakes. If Scherzer can keep them off the basepaths, his dominance against right-handed batters should enable him to minimize the damage, with Scutaro batting second, Posey cleanup, and Pence fifth.

Meanwhile, Cain—who overcame a lackluster arsenal to blank the Cardinals for 5 2/3 innings in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series—now gets a relatively low-stress assignment. The righty coughed up exactly three runs in each of his three previous postseason starts, and he has not looked sharp at any point in October, serving up four home runs in 23 innings while striking out only 15.

To the 28-year-old’s credit, even though his fastball has lacked its usual bite and his breaking pitches have too often sailed over the heart of the plate, Cain has not used the substandard stuff as an excuse to surrender. He has issued exactly one walk in five of his last six starts—after doling out nine total in two consecutive mid-September outings—and used that control to minimize the damage from the seven extra-base hits he has allowed over 23 innings of work this October.

That brings us to the Matchup of the Game: Cain versus Fielder. The big first baseman saw plenty of Cain during his six-plus seasons with the Brewers, but the righty won most of their encounters, holding Fielder to a 5-for-18 line with two doubles and three walks, but no home runs. After an 0-for-4 outing with two strikeouts in Game Three, Fielder is just 1-for-10 in the series and 9-for-44 with one extra-base hit—a big fly in Game Four of the Division Series in Oakland—in the playoffs, and the Tigers badly need their lone lefty slugger to come alive before the curtain comes down on their season.

In the 16 plate appearances tracked by the Matchup Tool, Fielder went 3-for-15 with two singles, a double, and a walk. Cain has altered his approach against Fielder over the course of each game, usually establishing his fastball early and then feeding him a steady diet of low-and-away changeups. His curveball and slider have served chiefly as show-me offerings to keep Fielder guessing, and given Cain’s worrisome tendency to hang those breaking pitches in his past few starts, expect him to attack Fielder primarily with fastballs and changeups again tonight.

Finally, after dealing with an inconsistent and gradually expanding strike zone from Fieldin Culbreth in Game Three, hitters should be pleased to have Brian O’Nora calling the balls and strikes in Game Four. O’Nora won’t often squeeze either Cain or Scherzer, and he has a tendency to expand the outside corner to left-handed batters. But the 15-year veteran typically maintains established boundaries from beginning to end, a trait hitters caught rubbernecking in the late innings of Saturday’s game are sure to appreciate.

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

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