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March 20, 2013

Overthinking It

The Undefeated Dominicans

by Ben Lindbergh

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Watching a championship game between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico without having seen most of the previous contests between the two rival countries is a little like starting a show in its fourth-season finale. There are story arcs, plot points, and dramatic payoffs you’re only vaguely aware of, and you missed the episode where they introduced the first baseman. Fortunately, most baseball games are bottle episodes, and most of the actors have faces you’ve seen before. And from the first pitch of last night’s WBC final on, it was clear to anyone watching that both teams really, really wanted to win.

In Puerto Rico, many people were able to watch the game for free in movie theaters and public squares. In the mainland US, many people weren't able to watch the game at all, depending on their cable providers. So in case you couldn’t or didn’t see most of the tournament but clicked here to find out how it ended, let me briefly set the scene. Previously on the WBC, the Dominicans went 3-0 in the first round, 3-0 in the second round (in which the bullpen threw 12 2/3 shutout innings), and defeated the Netherlands 4-1 on Monday night to advance to the finals (with four more scoreless innings in relief). They entered the game as the tournament’s only remaining undefeated team. Puerto Rico knocked off two-time WBC winners Japan on Sunday and reached the final with a 5-3 record (but an 0-2 tally against the DR). Due to their dominance in earlier rounds, the Dominican got last licks on Tuesday.

After both lineups were introduced and three national anthems were sung, which made some of the almost 36,000 fans at AT&T Park

sleepy, the game got underway, with Dominican starter Samuel Deduno opposing Puerto Rican starter Giancarlo Alvarado. You might remember Deduno from the 2012 Twins, who called him up last July after every other member of their Opening Day rotation got hurt or pitched poorly. You might not remember Alvarado, since he’s never pitched in the majors. He has pitched just about everywhere else, including six organizations’ minor-league systems, the Mexican League, the Atlantic League, and the Japan Central League, where he’s spent the last three of his 17 professional seasons.

Deduno is 29, has thrown 84 2/3 innings in the majors, and barely cracked a rotation that ended 2012 with an AL-worst 5.40 ERA. Those facts suggest that there’s something missing, and there is: control. Deduno walked almost as many batters as he struck out last season, posting a lower K:BB ratio than any AL pitcher but Kyle Drabek and deadballer-in-disguise Aaron Cook. But after holding the US to one run over four innings (and 80 pitches) last week, Deduno again conquered his control issues, or at least battled them to a draw, in the WBC final. He fell behind 3-0 to Angel Pagan in the first, giving up a leadoff single on a 3-1 meatball, but he recovered to get a groundout from Irving Falu and strike out Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina to end the inning. He'd allow only one more hit on the evening.

After Alvarado allowed a leadoff double to Jose Reyes in the bottom of the first, both teams put sabermetrics in the trash can, where Jim Kaat (whose work I otherwise enjoy) believes it belongs. Erick Aybar sacrificed Reyes to third, and Alvarado intentionally walked Robinson Cano—with one out in the first—to get to the right-handed Edwin Encarnacion. It’s not easy to say which was worse: putting an extra runner on to play matchups with 26 outs to go, or giving up an out with one of the best hitters in baseball last season due up against a 35-year-old pitcher who’s never made the majors. I’ll go with the strategic mistake behind door no. 2, since the one-out IBB with a runner on third gifts the other team a quarter of a run even with a typical batter-pitcher matchup on tap, let alone Alvarado vs. Encarnacion (and Hanley Ramirez).

Both moves backfired. Encarnacion doubled, which would have driven in Reyes from second, where he was before the bunt. And instead of plating one run, the double drove in two, since Cano came around to score from first. The WBC put many of baseball’s best features on display for a worldwide audience, but intelligent in-game tactics wasn’t one of them. Many of the tournament’s more notable managerial moves haven’t been justifiable since the advent of run expectancy tables, and Japan, traditionally the country quickest to embrace the bunt, was far from the only small ball abuser.

The two runs would turn out to be all the Dominicans needed, since Puerto Rico couldn’t push a run across. That put the focus on the performance of the Dominican pitchers, particularly Deduno, who went five scoreless and struck out six. Tom Verducci pointed out that Dominican catcher Carlos Santana was setting up in the middle of the plate, even with Deduno ahead in the count, a strategy Joe Mauer evidently pursued last season in an attempt to coax the right-hander’s pitches closer to the strike zone. Kaat and Bob Costas raved about Deduno’s fastball, noting that Ryan Doumit compares it to “a 92-mph knuckleball” because its movement is so unpredictable (although that could be because Doumit can’t catch).

It’s not just Doumit, though: last Friday, Twins GM Terry Ryan said, “When he’s throwing it over the plate, he isn’t going to get hit. The ball moves so much.” The first part of that statement rings true. Most of the damage against Deduno last season came outside the strike zone, and was self-inflicted. His TAvs by location suggest that when he threw the ball inside the zone, he wasn’t hit that hard:

The movement is even more interesting. If you sort our 2012 PITCHf/x leaderboard for four-seamers by vertical movement, from highest to lowest, you’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom to see Deduno’s. His four-seamer’s vertical movement was only 2.8 inches, two inches less than Daniel Bard’s (the next lowest), and its two inches of horizontal movement ranked in the bottom 15 percent of pitchers. In the words of Harry Pavlidis, Deduno’s fastball “has unusual movement, more of a drop than a hop. Not with tail like a sinker, but almost like a cutter.” Unusual movement can be good—it pays to be unpredictable—but only if it comes with command.

Deduno topped out at 93 on Tuesday but threw just one pitch over 91, though the 6’3” righty has a long stride, so his velocity probably plays up. He got some help from his defense in the fifth, after Alex Rios walked and advanced to second on a wild pitch. With one out, Deduno started Andy Gonzalez with three consecutive curveballs, the last of which he smoked to center, where Alejando De Aza made an impressive catch:

The last batter he faced in the inning (and the outing), Angel Pagan, struck out swinging on a curve in the dirt and didn’t take kindly to the reaction of the demonstrative Dominican bench:

Most of the game stories sang Deduno’s praises, but we probably shouldn’t make too much of his WBC success, at least as it relates to his outlook in the American League. He was facing a starting lineup that featured four Triple-A players, and he still walked three with a pair of wild pitches. Deduno may have worked his way into a better position in the battle for Minnesota’s fifth-starter slot, but considering his competition, that’s not saying much.

Wisely, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez chose not to extend the struggling Alvarado, bringing Hiram Burgos out to start the second. Despite Deduno’s success, Burgos, a 25-year-old righty who was effective at three levels of the Brewers’ system last season, was named their minor-league pitcher of the year, and hopes to make their staff this spring, was the more impressive pitcher. Last June, Kevin Goldstein praised Burgos’ “deep arsenal and plus command,” and Harry handed in a positive review of his many-pitch mix in his article on WBC arms last week. Burgos maxed out at 89 mph on Tuesday night, but he mixed in a cutter, changeup, slider, and curveball, including a couple of curves at 69 mph. More importantly, he put his pitches where he wanted, until he started to tire and surrendered his only walk of the game in his fifth inning of work. He struck out five of the 19 batters he faced. Expect to see him starting in the majors for Milwaukee at some point this season.

Each team was down three pitchers, thanks to the WBC’s strict workload limits, but had plenty of pen to get through the game. The lone scoring play after the first inning came in the fifth, when the Dominicans added a third run on a two-out Aybar double that barely cleared first baseman Carlos Rivera’s glove. The double drove in De Aza, who was on second because of a mental mistake by Irving Falu, who'd neglected to get the lead runner on a one-out Reyes grounder. If Falu had gone to second to get De Aza, Reyes might have had trouble scoring from first—by that point, it had been raining steadily for a few innings, so the basepaths weren’t well suited for speed.

The only real late-inning rally by Puerto Rico came in the seventh, when the trailing team put the first two runners on. Pedro Strop was summoned to end the threat with two strikeouts and a foul pop that Miguel Tejada turned into a painful final out:

(It was a rough night for Dominican third basemen: Hanley Ramirez loafed on a fly ball that fell in with one out in the bottom of the fourth, ending up on first instead of second. An inning before, he’d hurt his hand diving for a ball, which eventually led to his early exit. And Tejada, still smarting from his hard landing in the eighth, let a ball go under his glove for an error to start the ninth.)

Puerto Rico had 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position, despite being held to three hits. But they couldn’t capitalize on any of those opportunities, as Octavio Dotel, Strop, Santiago Casilla, and Fernando Rodney combined for another four scoreless innings. And that’s the way the WBC was won, by (probably) the second-most-talented team in the tournament, and the first to finish undefeated. See you in 2017! Unless the international draft has destroyed foreign baseball by then.

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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