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May 31, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Detroit Tigers @ Baltimore Orioles, 5/29/05

by Jonah Keri

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Bruce Chen vs. Wil Ledezma--with Chen putting up the numbers people expected of him eight years ago and Ledezma a raw but intriguing prospect, I have a good feeling about this match-up. Throw in the out-of-nowhere O's, Brian Roberts and the Tigers' always entertaining Dmitri Young and I think we could see a fun game.

3B Brandon Inge
SS Ramon Martinez
1B Dmitri Young
RF Craig Monroe
DH Ivan Rodriguez
LF Marcus Thames
2B Omar Infante
C Vance Wilson
CF Nook Logan

More and more we're seeing non-traditional leadoff men like Brandon Inge--hitters whose game revolves more around on-base ability, and even extra-base power, rather than speed--being slotted at the top of the order, as teams begin to embrace OBP and more efficient ways of assembling a lineup. So why, then, do so many teams continue to bat Punch-and-Judy guys in the #2 hole, as if the game still revolves around bunting and playing for one run at a time? How hard is it to sit down and think to yourself "Who do I want getting more at-bats over the course of the season--Ramon Martinez or Ivan Rodriguez?" It's time to take these non-walking, powerless Mendozers and move them to the eighth and ninth spots in the order, where they belong. (Brian O'Neill, the "Stats Geek" for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and one of the best baseball columnists writing for a daily newspaper, has a good, more in-depth take on this topic.)

The scouting report on Bruce Chen: Throws a four-seam fastball that moves well, with a big curve. Oddly, there's no mention of his change-up, which as we soon learn is his bread-and-butter pitch. The report also notes that he "must travel light," given this is his ninth different organization in pro ball. Aside from the question of whether or not that's a scout's call, Chen comes into this game looking like a new pitcher. In 59 innings pitched, he's got a strikeout-to-walk ratio rate of about 2.5 to 1, his best figure in five years, with a 3.51 ERA. Though he's still a flyball-to-neutral pitcher susceptible to home runs--his career-long bugaboo--Chen has learned to change speeds and locations effectively, keeping hitters off balance better than he has in the past. It's almost as if, five years after leaving the Braves, the tutelage of Leo Mazzone and the example of Tom Glavine, he's just now having his delayed reaction, going away, away, away with his change and befuddling hitters, like Glavine in his prime.

You can see the new Chen from the get-go. Working to Inge, he throws a sinker at 81 mph taken for strike one, then a high fastball at 84 to even the count. He works the outside corner with another fastball at 84, inducing a very late swing by Inge, who seems to be looking off-speed given the new junk-balling scouting report on Chen. On 1-2, Chen takes a few miles off a curve for the punchout. He starts Martinez with a change-up called for a strike at the belt. Chen then moves the hitter's eyes, throwing a big, bending curve that drops for strike two. He moves the plane again with high, inside fastball fouled off for strike two. Chen then snaps off an even bigger curve--a 73-mph yakker that makes the Camden Yards faithful go "ooooh...aahhh" mid-pitch--for called strike three. Against Dmitri Young, Chen throws all change-ups, except for one fastball at 88 where Chen visibly has to exert himself just to get that high. You can see right away he doesn't locate as well when he's pitching with high effort, and only a sliding catch by Miguel Tejada saves a screamer from going through for a hit.

2B Brian Roberts
LF B.J. Surhoff
3B Melvin Mora
SS Miguel Tejada
RF Sammy Sosa
1B Chris Gomez
DH Jay Gibbons
C Geronimo Gil
CF Jeff Fiorentino

Really, Chris Gomez is the best you can do against a lefty at first base? It makes sense to rest Rafael Palmeiro and his aging bat against a lefty, but given how easy it is to get big, immobile right-handed batters who can crush left-handed pitching, why are you playing someone who doesn't even hit well enough to be a starting big-league shortstop?

There are two problems in play here. First, injuries are starting to grind down the Orioles, so much so that it's an open question if they'll stay above third place by the All-Star break, let alone remain in atop the division. Luis Matos, Larry Bigbie, Val Majewski and, most recently, Javy Lopez have hit the DL. Second, the farm system is lacking in reinforcements, with only 30-year-old journeyman Alejandro Freire showing any kind of pop, no minor-league veterans available to help, and high-level hitting prospects nowhere to be seen. Thanks to years of neglect by the former regime and a draft and development program under the front office that may take years to bear fruit--if it ever does--the Orioles will need to explore the trade market to have any hope of upgrading the big-league roster should they stay in the race. They're stuck with Gomez and the like, and their bench figures to give them problems all year.

The scouting report on Ledezma notes that he's gone six straight starts throwing fewer than six innings and that he needs to mix his pitches better, with his fastball and change both good offerings when used and located properly. He gets a test right away facing AL MVP candidate and story-of-the-year Brian Roberts. There are plenty of theories that may explain Roberts' emergence this season. But as Nate Silver noted last week, he's set a new baseline with his performance, and as we enter June, we should start to take his performance more seriously. If he does keep going, expect sales of Nike and Bausch&Lomb's MaxSight contact lenses--so effective, Roberts swears, that he can pick up the stitching on the baseball as it's whizzing toward him--to skyrocket. The one thing that jumps out at you when you watch him are his quick hands: Even on 90-plus fastballs, his hands seem to get through the hitting zone lightning-fast, as they do on a 93-mph fastball from Ledezma, drilled for a leadoff double.

B.J. Surhoff tries to bunt the first pitch he sees, but fouls it off. Ledezma comes into the game with a 6.52 ERA, it's an American League game in the year 2005 in the first inning, and Surhoff, his manager or someone, somewhere has decided that a bunt is the best tactical move in this spot. In any case, on the second pitch Surhoff slaps at a pitch to get a groundout to second, his swinging bunt having the same net effect of advancing the runner to third. Melvin Mora, who before Roberts was one of the most amazing out-of-nowhere stories both on his team and in all of baseball, hits a grounder to third on a fat, thigh-high fastball. Inge was playing deep enough that the run was almost conceded, but the ball was hit so hard that Inge was able to make the throw home to cut down Roberts trying to score. Tejada gets another fastball thigh-high down the middle and crushes it to center on the first pitch, where it's caught just in front of the wall. This marks the start of a day-long pattern of Ledezma living dangerously.

Quick notes:

  • According to Allen, some Orioles observers are saying the reason Roberts is hitting for power is because pitchers are challenging him more; they're scared of putting him on and having him steal bases, so they throw strikes in the fat part of the plate to try and prevent walks. It's a nice theory, but unlikely. Roberts stole 23 bases in 29 tries in 2003, 29 in 41 attempts in 2004--it's not as if people suddenly discovered he could run. You'd also think after a few homers pitchers would stop grooving pitches, realizing how much more dangerous a home run is than a potential walk-plus-steal.

    I'm still intrigued by the contact lens theory. Ted Williams was simply a great hitter rather than merely a great power hitter; he's also considered the hitter with the best eyesight of all time. If we assume a certain amount of strength and athleticism among a large segment of the big-league population, you wonder how many other formerly pedestrian players suddenly go nuts if they can improve their eyesight dramatically? Of course with offense down league-wide, maybe this is just a one-man fluke, soon to dissipate.

  • Speaking of the decline in offense so far this year, the amount of debate on this front dwarfs the Roberts quandary. Steroids have been oft-cited as the cause of this drop-off. But how realistic is it that hitters would go off the juice, then immediately stop hitting for power? On the Baseball Prospectus mailing list, Joe Sheehan has asserted that it's a greater number of strikes being called that's to blame. I think it's just the generation of good, young pitchers breaking onto the scene, arriving faster than new hitting talent.

    Meanwhile Clay Davenport has a different take, taken more from his day job as a meteorologist than any EqA-derived inspiration:

    The weather in the Northeast--call it Baltimore, Washington, Philly, New York, Boston for sure, plus probably Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland--has been considerably colder than usual for May. Yesterday (May 25) it was drizzly with a high of 55 (in Baltimore). That's a third of the league. Baltimore and D.C. both have one-year park factors well below what was expected, Cleveland looks low, Toronto is above (of course, they're domed), Philly is above. I don't know if its enough to "explain" the difference, but it certainly nudges it in the right direction.
    (James Click noted in his article on steroids and their possible connection to lower offense how average temperatures were lower in April 2005 than in previous years. The same holds true for May, though those figures remain comparable to 2002-2003 levels).

  • Allen points out how Monroe is the fifth Tiger to beat cleanup in less than two months, then notes how the team misses Magglio Ordonez. Several months later, this remains one of the most bizarre free-agent signings of the last decade, maybe ever. Yes the Tigers threw in all kinds of clauses they hoped would protect themselves, but five years, $75 million? That signing looks similar to Eric Milton's in Cincinnati: It's almost like each team's owner suddenly decided, late in the free-agent cycle, that the team should go out and spend big on one free agent, price be damned. The end result when you're given that kind of freedom but with only limited options out there is often ugly. Spend the money or don't, but give your brain trust time to operate.
Back to the action, and Chen's Glavine-ing the Tigers to death. He throws three change-ups in a row to Monroe, working away the whole time. The goal is to expand the hitter's strike zone, and maybe the umpire's too. When he comes back with a 85-mph fastball out over the plate--after Chen misses his inside target--Monroe pops out to first. Monroe's reaction spoke volumes: Monroe slammed bat in disgust, knowing he missed a fat one because Chen had him thinking of a different pitch in a different location. Chen follows that up blowing an 84-mph fastball by Rodriguez, then inducing him to pop out to center on a change, and going change, change, fastball--all outside--to Marcus Thames, followed by another change outside and below the knees that Thames misses by a foot for the strikeout. Chen retires the first 11 hitters in order before the Tigers even manage a single baserunner.

Bunting again becomes the topic in the bottom of the second, when Ledezma's wildness leads to two walks to start the inning. After Ledezma gets Jay Gibbons to pop out to left without advancing the runners, Allen reflects: "You know the Tigers are loving the fact that Gibbons, a left-hander going up against a left-hander with runners on first and second, was not up there sacrifice bunting, trying to move those runners up. This Orioles bunch, they don't bunt a whole lot, they've got some sluggers over there." Impemba underscores that fact, pointing to Roberts, Mora and Tejada all having 10 homers or more already. "With good reason," Impemba concludes of the Orioles' non-bunting ways. The punchless Geronimo Gil being up next only increases the need to avoid bunting. After the pop-up Ledezma starts getting his pitch sequences back on track, throwing a raft of low fastballs to Gil to try to induce a double play, humming them in as fast as 94. Though they don't get the twin killing, Ledezma does strike Gil out, getting out of the inning unscathed after rookie Jeff Fiorentino takes strike three on an inside-corner fastball at the knees.

With Javy Lopez likely to be out six to eight weeks, his loss compared to a full slate of Geronimo Gil could cost the O's more than one win in the standings, as Keith Woolner explains:

Lopez PECOTA-projected weighted-mean EqMLVr = .071
Gil weighted mean EqMLVr = -.180
Difference in EqMLVr = .251 runs per game
Over 45 games: 11.25 runs, 1.125 wins

The Tigers and O's exchange runs in the fourth, as Fiorentino jars the ball out of Sosa's hands for an error on an outfield miscommunication, followed by Baltimore scoring on a pair of walks, a sacrifice by Gomez (apparently the Orioles do bunt, though why they do in the fourth inning, down a run, is a mystery) and a groundout to first.

That sets the stage for the Baltimore fifth, Ledezma's swan song. After putting the leadoff man on for the fourth time in five innings--and the first two baserunners on for the third time--Ledezma runs out of Houdini moves this time. Fiorentino and Roberts reach on a single and a walk. Surhoff comes up, looking determined to see his sacrifice attempt through, squaring around right after Ledezma comes set on the first two pitches. With the count 1-1, though, the O's take the bunt sign off, and Surhoff fouls the pitch down the left side for strike two. On the next pitch, he lines it into the right-center-field gap. The hit cashed two runs, gave the Orioles the lead, and knocked Ledezma out of the game.

Eschewing the sacrifice isn't about sabermetric orthodoxy; bunting to move the runner over is worth it sometimes. But managers need to do a better job of deciphering situations. In the early-to-middle innings, against an erratic pitcher, when he's in deep trouble, why bail him out?! Need one run in the ninth against Mariano Rivera, in a tie game? OK, that makes sense. The sacrifice can become a tactic based on not wanting to lose, rather than playing to win, the fear of the double play or wasted opportunity rather than envisioning a big inning. After a Sosa bloop single, an RBI double by Gomez and a sacrifice fly by Gil, the O's have their big inning, and lead 6-1.

A Dmitri Young leadoff homer in the sixth makes it 6-2 Orioles. Though Chen gets through the rest of the sixth with a four-run lead, his command is wavering after loading the bases in the fifth and struggling to put hitters away in the sixth. Though it takes a lot of patience, hitters can counter the Glavine approach by waiting on pitches rather than swinging early, taking pitches off the outside corner and daring the pitcher to come in with a fastball. Though Chen never does come inside with his mid-80s heater, the Tigers are starting to wait on and drive more curves and change-ups. When Vance Wilson works him for a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh, Manager Lee Mazzilli pulls Chen. His starter's line: 6+ IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 7 K, the type of performance the Orioles will need from him all year to contend.

In truth, they may need a lot more. The club's middle-of-the-pack bullpen gets exposed in a hurry, as Steve Reed throws fuel on the fire. A Nook Logan infield hit sets up a screaming liner off the right-field scoreboard by Inge. The action only gets more frustrating from there:

  • Incredibly, Wilson fails to score from second on the ball hit off the wall, despite Sosa turning to field the ball, clearly accepting the likely double.

  • Trammell, apparently wracked by managerial inertia or Ebola or something, leaves Martinez in to hit with the bases loaded and nobody out, down four in the seventh. Martinez pops out to left and fails to cash any runners.

  • Young crushes a two-run double off the right-field scoreboard, his third extra-base hit of the game (he'd go on to go 8-for-12 for the series, with two homers and two doubles).

  • Mazzilli, also wracked by managerial inertia, apparently doesn't think Reed has been crushed quite enough, as he elects to leave him in to face Monroe, who already has two homers in the series. Monroe just misses a home run on an inside change-up to run the count to 2-2. Then after fouling off an 85-mph fastball, Monroe gets the same inside change-up and smokes it over the left-field wall for a go-ahead three-run homer. With Jorge Julio available and Steve Kline, B.J. Ryan and others behind him, it's hard to see why Mazzilli pressed his luck.

As the Tigers go on to win the game 8-6, the O's cast more light on their plight in the ninth, giving James Baldwin--James Baldwin!--his first major-league appearance of 2005. Lacking the Red Sox's depth and the Yankees' front-line talent, it'd hard to see the Orioles holding up much longer unless Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan look to upgrade in a hurry. The team leads the AL East by four games after Monday night's win, though. For management the key will be not getting complacent, making the necessary improvements while there's still a lead to protect.

The Tigers won't be playing any meaningful October games. But seeing them celebrate their sweep, we're reminded that there's always something at stake, 162 times a year.


Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week has the Los Angeles Dodgers hosting the Milwaukee Brewers, Sunday June 5, 4 p.m. ET (Channel 743 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Brad Penny and Wes Obermueller will take the hill. Vin Scully on a warm summer day--can't beat it.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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