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October 8, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three Recap: A's 6, Tigers 3

by Sam Miller

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Guess the MLB.com headline!

  • Bats Mash In Motown
  • The Mig Hurt
  • Detroit Rocked City
  • Mr. OWtober
  • Visitors In The Driver’s Seat In Motor City

Say the Tigers and the A’s are both true talent 96-win teams. (Our third-order standings consider Detroit much better than this, and the Tigers’ actual record this year considers them worse, but we’re just looking for a common premise here.) If that were the case, and they played each other 1,000 times, they’d each win something like 500 games.

Now take Miguel Cabrera, about a 7-WARP player this year. But Cabrera moves like a giveaway bobblehead these days, and he’s almost certainly something worse than a 7-WARP player. How much worse? A quick poll on Twitter turns up answers ranging from one win to four wins, with a mean of about two. Average, in other words. A particularly interesting comp, via Neal Kendrick, is Toby Harrah, who hit .279/.389/.444 in 1979, while playing a -30 third base (according to FRAA). I can accept every one of those numbers as Miguel Cabrera’s true talent on these particular legs. Harrah was worth 2.3 WARP that year, so let’s go with 2.3 WARP.

That turns this into a matchup between a 96-win team and a 90.7-win team. In such a scenario, the better team will win about 53 percent of the time. That’s nothing like a death sentence for Detroit, but it’s like giving Oakland almost the equivalent of home-field advantage in every game. And, with the A’s now up a game after a 6-3 win Monday, a 53 percent edge (adjusted slightly for the skewing effects of actual home field advantages) would make them about 78 percent favorites to move on to the ALCS.

Cabrera’s performance so far—a single in each game’s first inning, nothing else throughout each game’s final eight; an error that put the A’s on the board in Game 3—is interesting, but more in the confirmation bias sense than the relevant data sense. What seems much more relevant is the way that the A’s are attacking him: Since Sonny Gray got him to chase a third-pitch curveball in the third inning of Game 2, the A’s haven’t thrown him a single off-speed or breaking pitch. Just 18 fastballs, right after the other. Cabrera has, in that time, popped out weakly to right, popped out weakly to right again, nearly popped out weakly down the right-field line (it just reached the stands) and today, popped out weakly to first base. If scouting is the ability to get relevant information before the sample gets large enough, the A’s scouts (or coaches and catchers) have basically just given us a spreadsheet with everything we need to know.

After Game 2, Bob Melvin was asked to assess Cabrera based on what he has seen. Melvin didn’t bite. He deflected it, and noted that Cabrera always looms in the lineup; even at partial strength, he’s in the pitcher’s peripheral vision all the time and a potential walk when he’s at the plate. That’s what Melvin said, but the A’s game plan makes it clear that the A’s are not falling for it.

***

A month ago, R.J. Anderson looked at the Tigers’ league-worst efforts against the running game. Rather than blame the catcher, he blamed the pitchers; and rather than blame all the pitchers, he noted that the damage was mostly done against a few—namely, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.

The A’s, who ranked 11th in the AL in stolen bases, haven’t showed an aversion to little ball tactics in a low-scoring series. But they mostly passed up the chance to run on Sanchez or Verlander, who allowed baserunners to steal 46 bags in 51 attempts this season. Coco Crisp swiped second in the third today, the first and only time the A’s have attempted a steal this series.

Arguably, the opportunities haven’t been there. Over the past two games, when Verlander or Sanchez was on the mound, the A’s have had 19 situations with a runner on first, a close game, and what proved to be multiple pitches on which to steal. In five of those situations, the lead runner was Brandon Moss, who had four stolen bases in six attempts this year. In three it was Seth Smith, who didn’t attempt a steal this year (and went 2-for-4 in 2012), and in three more the lead runner was Yoenis Cespedes on second base with Smith on first. The A’s are an unusual team (especially considering their don’t-give-away-outs tradition) in that every baserunner has the green light, virtually all the time. Even Moss, even Smith. But neither raises eyebrows by staying on first.

The situations where a steal might have been expected:

Cespedes, on first base with nobody out, in the fifth inning Saturday. That was the same inning that Josh Reddick was asked to lay down his third career sacrifice bunt, so the A’s were clearly prioritizing that run. Cespedes got two chances to go before Seth Smith singled and moved him to second.

Crisp, on second base with one out today. He got two pitches to attempt a steal but stayed put.

And Crisp and Josh Donaldson on second and first in the third inning today. They were there to lead off the inning and ended the inning without having moved.

The latter two would have been steals of third, so we might throw those out, too, leaving, really, just Cespedes. Verlander hurried the ball to the plate—about 1.4 seconds, not fast for a normal pitcher but quite a bit faster than the 1.7 he took when it was Moss on first—and Cespedes didn’t get very long to make his move. The conclusion, then, is probably pretty simple and straightforward: knowing your opponents’ weakness doesn’t guarantee opportunities to exploit it.

***

If you were listening to the TV announcers, Jhonny Peralta made a good throw home on Coco Crisp’s sacrifice fly. If you were listening to the radio announcers, Jhonny Peralta made a terrible throw home on Coco Crisp’s sacrifice fly. “It looked like a shortstop throwing to first base,” Ray Fosse said, aptly. If you are watching a GIF, Jhonny Peralta did this:

The form makes it look worse than it probably was, but the accuracy and closeness of the play makes it look better than it probably was. He was awfully, awfully shallow.

Of course, a scenario where Miguel Cabrera could DH and Jhonny Peralta could play third would be wonderful, but sometimes foresight is 20/20, too.

***

Winning headline:


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

2 comments have been left for this article.

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