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May 12, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Best Game of the 2014 Season So Far

by Sam Miller

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The play-by-play for the top of the first inning of the game between the Giants and Dodgers in Los Angeles on Sunday doesn't initially look like much:

  • A. Pagan singled to center
  • H. Pence singled, A. Pagan to second
  • B. Posey grounded into double play shortstop to second to first, A. Pagan to third, H. Pence out at second
  • P. Sandoval doubled to left center, A. Pagan scored
  • B. Hicks struck out swinging

Pretty typical sequence, except for what's not mentioned: Pence would have doubled, and Pagan would have gone to third, except that Pagan tripped rounding second and had to scramble back to second. With that trip, the Giants' run expectancy dropped by a half a run. Naturally, Posey would hit into a double play—a double play that would have been impossible with Pence on second, and a groundball that would have otherwise scored a run; if you ignore the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, you'd now say that Pagan's trip had cost the Giants more than a run a half in win expectancy. And then, just as quickly as it seemed that everything had changed, as quickly as the Dodgers seemed like they were out of the inning, as quickly as the Giants figured they'd missed their one opportunity against the best pitcher in the game, Pablo Sandoval cashed in the run. It was a run that, predictably, held up for much of the game, and that for nearly two hours seemed like it might be enough in a showdown between two aces. Objectively speaking, this might have been the best first inning of the year.

I have a checklist of positive game attributes that I’ve used in the past to find the worst game of the year. If a game can mark off anything on the checklist, it can't be the worst game of the year. I’ve never tried to use it to find the best game of the year, but it makes sense that one might, and if one did, one would discover that one had seen something one ought never forget. On Sunday, the 2014 season got its best game out of the way.

The Giants and the Dodgers played 10 innings to a resolution and nearly aced the Best/Worst Game test:

1. First time amazing thing happened. Check.
At some point, maybe in the past 24 hours, you’ve heard that Clayton Kershaw has never allowed a home run on his curve, which isn’t technically true, or perhaps is technically true but isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds—he allowed a postseason home run on a curve to Matt Holliday in 2009, and as much as I’d like to go along with the fun fact I can’t come up with a logically consistent reason not to count that one. Kershaw’s curve is so delightful that it’s tempting to cheat a bit; I’ve frequently seen it noted that, for instance, he struck out 78 and walked nobody with the curve last year, which sounds amaaaaazing except that he never once threw it on three balls; if anything, that fun fact is a knock on his curve, since he’s unwilling to throw it even once with three balls. (It’s not a knock. But if anything, it’s a knock.) Shoot, even today, when we’re mostly responsibly noting the Matt Holliday exception, we’re mostly not noting the Allen Craig exception, a 78 mph breaking ball that sure looks like a curve (but was classified as a slider) and was hit out in 2011. Regardless: That was in 2011. Since 2012, his curve has really become the weapon that Vin Scully anticipated it would be back during Kershaw’s first spring training. Since the start of 2012, he has thrown it 889 times. You got that number in your head? 889? Okay. Now, before Sunday, these are all the extra-base hits he had allowed on it:

A batter has been roughly three and a half times more likely to swing and miss at it than hit it in the air, as a line drive or a fly ball. That certainly seemed to be true of Brandon Hicks, who was well shamed when he took one right down the middle to strike out looking earlier in the game:

That one was sharper than the one he hit, which was, instead of four inches away from the center of the plate, four inches in from the center of the plate:

2. Closer than it looked. Check.
Since 2011, Sergio Romo has baseball’s fourth-lowest ERA; Kenley Jansen’s is 11th best. The Dodgers had to score a pair off Romo to push the game to extra innings, and the Giants had to score off Jansen in the 10th to end it. The tying run batted for the Dodgers in the 10th. Before that, the Dodgers (trailing by two) had the tying runs on base in the eighth; had a rally disrupted by an impossibly close replay review in the seventh; had a runner thrown out at the plate in the sixth; and had the tying run thrown out at the plate in the fifth.

3. Great starting pitcher pitches great start. Check.
Tim Hudson threw six innings and walked only one batter intentionally. He has now pitched 60 innings this year and walked three batters unintentionally. The Dodgers hit 18 grounders against him and two flies. Kershaw, meanwhile, has 25 strikeouts to one walk this year.

4. Crisp. No.
But when the game is good, the standard flips; you don’t want it to end. So check.

5. Pennant-race rivalry. Check.
On Opening Day, our playoff odds (which generally considered the Giants as one of the league’s best teams) didn’t count this division as being particularly close. The Dodgers (at 94 wins) were projected to be nine wins better than the Giants, and their division odds (76 percent) were more than five times the Giants’ (15 percent). That gap has completely closed: Before Saturday’s game, the Giants were projected to win just 0.2 fewer games than the Dodgers and were only one percentage point behind Los Angeles in the playoff odds. After the two teams split the final two games, in Los Angeles—where the Dodgers would have been favored—it’s possible that you’ve woken up to a world where the Giants have taken the virtual lead. The Dodgers aren’t nearly so lost as a thousand columnists are going to write this week; they are, after all, one of only three teams in baseball still projected to win more than 88 games. The Giants are one of the other two. (The third, Detroit, has no race to speak of.) So, by the playoff odds’ standards, there are three great teams in baseball right now, and two of them are in the same division. Also, and most people don’t know this: Back in 1924, the Giants and the Dodgers (then the Robins) were in a close pennant race. Some lingering rivalry still exists between partisan old-timers who remember that race. Probably won’t come up.

6. Michael Cuddyer pitches. No.
Sadly, this game featured no position players pitching (or pitchers playing positions). This is no consolation, but we did get to see position players in an exaggerated shift badly misplay their out-of-positions:

You see shifts go wrong from time to time, with the amount of ground left exposed, but you rarely see that: Two professional baseball players who, when standing in a slightly different position, completely forget how to play baseball.

7. Brawl. Check, sort of.
The two sides had beefed on Friday after Puig’s home run bat flip against Madison Bumgarner. On Sunday, Puig again homered, and again flipped bat:

No beef this time. Hudson had a different philosophy than his young locker-neighbor:


8. Extremely hot superstar doing hot superstar things. No, but…
This game had the opposite, which turned out to be just as interesting. Pablo Sandoval entered the game hitting .173/.250/.276. With runners on, it was .123/.180/.175, and his WPA this year is not just the worst in baseball; it’s so bad that it sets up a particular genre of Fun Fact: The gap from Pablo Sandoval's WPA to the second-worst in baseball is larger than the gap between the second-worst and the 54th-worst.

Naturally, all he needed to find his stroke was a day’s worth of at-bats against Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. He had three hits. He drove in the first run of the game on a two-run double; he scored the second after a leadoff double; and he drove in the go-ahead run in the 10th on a single. Two of the swings looked awful and there was a first-pitch GIDP mixed in, but it was plenty to produce a positive WPA for just the sixth time this year (in 36 games).

9. “MVP!” chant. No.
But it would have been weird for Dodgers fans to chant for Troy Tulowitzki in a game he wasn’t even playing in.

10. Metaphor! Eventually, yes.
I'm 100 percent sure that, eventually, we'll find a metaphor in this game. But this race is going to be too fun. There's no need to rush to any conclusions just yet.

What made this game great wasn't just that there were leads changing, or an extra inning. Go back to that first inning: The state of the game changed three times in that first inning, from the Giants' offense in total control to the Dodgers' defense mostly in control to the Giants on the board, and the change had nothing to do with anything you could possibly expect. It turned on a player falling down for no reason. Angel Pagan has run around second base hundreds of times in his pro career, and he's probably fallen down twice. At most. The totally unexpected changed everything. And that's pretty much what happened this entire game: It turned on a runner falling over; it turned on the coldest hitter in either lineup getting the big hit; it turned on a couple players getting jumbled up because they were playing next to each other in a shift for the first time; it turned on the first* home run Clayton Kershaw has ever* given up on his curveball*; it turned on Brandon Hicks, a 28-year-old rookie, hitting that homer; it turned on runners getting thrown out at home; it turned on the Dodgers scoring off Sergio Romo; it turned on the Giants scoring off Kenley Jansen. Nothing went to script. The entire thing was ridiculous. And you just get the sense that this year's NL West could be a lot more fun that our Playoff Odds expected.

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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