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October 28, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Three Recap: Giants 2, Tigers 0

by Ben Lindbergh

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Have you ever had déjà, déjà, déjà, déjà vu? Because it sorta seems as if I've written this recap before. The Tigers’ latest 2-0 loss came against a new starter in a new setting, but the outcome was SSDD—same score, different day—for Detroit. The Tigers, who were shut out just two times during the regular season, have now been shut out two times in their past two games, becoming the first team to fail to score in consecutive World Series games since the 1966 Dodgers (and the first AL team to do it since the 1919 White Sox, who didn’t want to win).

Game Three was the seventh straight start in which Ryan Vogelsong has allowed no more than one run, but it may have been the worst of the bunch. As Daniel Rathman predicted in his preview, Vogelsong stuck with the approach that has served him so well, pounding righties inside and lefties away with two-seamers (the blue squares in the plot):

However, his control wasn’t as sharp as it had been in the NLCS; he had a hard time putting his curveball close enough to the plate to make it enticing, getting only one chase on the seven he threw outside the zone. He walked four and struck out three. When you allow nine baserunners in 5 2/3 innings and set your opponent down in order only once, you have to work your way out of jams to be successful, and that’s just what Vogelsong did. As Leyland said after the game, “I thought we had Ryan on the ropes a couple times tonight. We couldn’t get the killer hit or the killer blow.”

Vogelsong’s biggest tests came in the first, the third, and the fifth. In the first, he walked Quintin Berry and allowed a single to Miguel Cabrera with one out, but he got Prince Fielder to ground into a double play on a 2-1 changeup, with an assist from Marco Scutaro—who did well to get the throw off over Cabrera’s takeout slide—and Brandon Belt, who made a nice scoop on the receiving end. In the third, he gave up back-to-back one-out singles to Omar Infante and Austin Jackson but doubled up the speedy Berry on a grounder to second off a first-pitch changeup. It was the first start all season in which Vogelsong had induced two double plays; he hadn’t earned even one in his previous four starts.

In the fifth, Vogelsong got more help from his defense, as Pablo Sandoval stole a leadoff double from Jhonny Peralta. After that, he allowed consecutive singles to Alex Avila and Omar Infante before loading the bases with a walk to Austin Jackson. But he escaped that situation unscathed, too, fanning Berry—who had the changeup from the previous at-bat “in the back of his mind a little bit,” according to Leyland—on a four-seamer away and getting Cabrera to pop out on an 0-1 four-seamer inside.

Prince Fielder led off the sixth with a hard line drive, but it went right to Hunter Pence. Vogelsong knew how close his line came to looking a lot worse than it did: after the game, he said, “The balls they hit were at people. We played great defense again like we have been all series and all through the postseason.” Tim Lincecum followed with 2 1/3 nearly perfect innings to get the game to Romo,* though he had some help himself:

*The Tigers have missed more than half of the Lincecum pitches they’ve offered at in this series. Bruce Bochy, by the way, reiterated after the game that Lincecum will return to the rotation in 2013.

Vogelsong's counterpart, Anibal Sanchez, allowed two fewer baserunners despite facing four more batters, going seven strong with eight strikeouts and only one walk. Three of those runners reached base in the third, the only frame in which the Giants managed to touch him. In his preview, Dan wrote about how important it is for Sanchez to keep his changeup down to lefties: when he did that on May 3rd, he beat San Francisco, but when he elevated it and wasted it outside on May 24th, they returned the favor. In every inning but the second last night, he consistently kept it down:

But in the second, he kept leaving it up and away:

The changeup wasn’t the only pitch that Sanchez lost his feel for that inning. It was clear right away that the right-hander was struggling with his control, as he walked leadoff man Hunter Pence on four pitches (including a 2-0 slider, a strange selection with the bases empty). Pence stole second on a strikeout of Brandon Belt, and a wild pitch advanced him to third. That pitch would have been catchable had Avila been setting up somewhere else, but he was anticipating a sinker low and inside, and instead he got one high and outside.

The big blows came on a 3-2 slider that Melky substitute Gregor Blanco drove to deep right-center for a triple and a two-out, 1-1 fastball that Brandon Crawford lined into center for a single just in front of Austin Jackson. Leyland went so far as to get Rick Porcello up in the pen, but after that, it was smooth sailing for Sanchez. However, the damage had already been done, and Detroit’s bats couldn’t do any of their own.

The Tigers have hit .165 with a .467 OPS in this series. The Yankees hit .157 with a .488 OPS in their four-game ALCS. As Delmon Young put it after the game, “New York looked like us right now.” When the Yankees went a few games without hitting, of course, it wasn’t just small sample size plus good postseason pitching. It was a flawed offense finally being exposed, and Alex Rodriguez infecting his teammates with his toxic unclutchitude. Now that the Tigers are suffering the same fate, maybe we can stop stretching for facile explanations. Or maybe we’ll just need to cook up some new narratives.

***

  • As good as Sanchez was, Leyland’s decision to bring him back out for the seventh may have reflected a lack of faith in his relievers. Sanchez had already thrown 104 pitches and was on the verge of reaching his fourth time through the order; he averaged 101.5 pitches per outing during the regular season. Drew Smyly loses to Lincecum by a lot in the battle of starters temporarily banished to the bullpen.
  • Sandoval went 2-for-4 with a double in Game Three and is now hitting .404/.429/.827 in 56 plate appearances this postseason. What makes his success even more incredible is how bad he looks in isolated at-bats, like the one that ended in a grounder to first in the third inning:

    The pitch that got him out was over a foot below the strike zone—Avila would have had to block it if Sandoval hadn’t swung. This is what a swing at a pitch that far out of the strike zone looks like:

    It makes no sense to swing at that pitch, except once in a while it works when you're Sandoval. In April 2010, he singled on a pitch lower than that.

    Outside of AT&T Park are four statues of Giants Hall of Famers doing distinctive things. Juan Marichal in mid-delivery, with his foot way up over his head; Willie Mays and Willie McCovey admiring home runs they just hit; Orlando Cepeda—well, Cepeda just sort of standing there. If Sandoval ever gets a statue, it should look like this:

  • No pitcher threw sliders on a higher percentage of his pitches to righties this season than Sergio Romo, who averaged three sliders for every four pitches to same-handed hitters. Eleven of the 13 pitches he threw to Peralta and Infante on Saturday were sliders. One of the 11 was over the plate, but eight of the 11 were strikes. 

  • Phil Coke struck out the side in the ninth. One of his sequences was particularly impressive. With one out, Coke went up 0-2 on Blanco, then wasted a curve way outside in the dirt. On 1-2, he came inside with a 94-mph fastball. The pitch was likely a little farther inside than Coke wanted it, but its primary purpose was to set up the 2-2 delivery; he wasn’t fishing for a strike inside off the plate, since home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth didn’t call one of those all game.

    With Blanco conscious of the inside fastball, Coke uncorked this beauty of an 84-mph curveball on the other side of the zone for a called strike three.

    No, it wasn’t in the strike zone, per se, but Culbreth was calling that pitch to lefties a strike pretty consistently:

    Before you get too worked up about Culbreth’s zone, remember that those extra inches he gave pitchers on the outside corner against left-handed hitters are typical of umpires as a group:

    Blanco wasn’t happy about the call, and it’s hard to blame him, since there wasn’t much he could do with that pitch except try to foul it off. But by now, he should probably be used to it.

  • The Tigers have done one thing very well: retire Brandon Belt. Belt is 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in the series. Five of the six strikeouts have come against off-speed stuff (four curves and a changeup). He’s swung through three two-strike, 79-83-mph pitches low-and-away in the past two games.
  • Game One set record-low ratings for a World Series opener. With the Tigers down by a deficit from which no World Series team has ever come back, Game Four’s are likely to be even lower. Expect a bunch of fun stories Monday about football ratings easily beating out baseball’s.

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

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