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June 15, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

Boston Red Sox @ Minnesota Twins, 6/13/06

by Derek Jacques

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Welcome to yet another edition of Game of the Week. As you might have noticed, the game we set out to cover last week was rained out. That game, the nightcap of a planned Saturday day/night doubleheader between the Red Sox and Rangers at Fenway Park, was to have featured Red Sox past and future--former Sock John Wasdin going for the Texans, young Texan ace-of-the-future Josh Beckett pitching for the Beantowners.

The rainout of Saturday night's game split up that match-up. The teams played a doubleheader on Sunday, but this time the pitchers were aligned more conventionally, with Beckett squaring off against the Rangers' number one starter, Kevin Millwood, and Wasdin taking the five o'clock start against rookie David Pauley. The first game was quite a compelling matchup--a dramatic come-from-behind win for the home team, on a three-run home run by Big Papi, David Ortiz. In game two, Old Man Wasdin didn't pitch badly--he was one out away from a quality start--but the story of the game was an offensive explosion by the Rangers, at the expense of Pauley and Keith Foulke.

Sadly, circumstances conspired against us covering either of those games, and we were left disconsolate, certain to be branded lowest of bait-and-switch artists by our readers, who deserve the very best that we can offer. It was in this state, sighing and clicking through the upcoming matchups on MLB.com, that we saw it: Curt Schilling. Johan Santana. Quite a consolation prize, and not likely to be rained out, given that the game is in Minnesota.

So this week, Game of the Week comes to you from the plastic-wrapped confines of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where on Tuesday the first-place Boston Red Sox played the fourth-place Minnesota Twins. Let's see some lineups:

Boston                               Minnesota
                     EQA     WARP                         EQA     WARP
Coco Crisp, CF       .251     0.4    Luis Castillo, 2B    .241     0.3
Mark Loretta, 2B     .247     1.5    Lew Ford, LF         .221     0.5
David Ortiz, DH      .296     2.1    Joe Mauer, C         .330     4.1
Manny Ramirez, LF    .330     2.6    Mike Cuddyer, RF     .294     1.2
Jason Varitek, C     .252     1.6    Justin Morneau, 1B   .264     1.0
Mike Lowell, 3B      .292     2.9    Torii Hunter, CF     .253     1.5
Kevin Youkilis, 1B   .318     2.8    Jason Kubel, DH      .241    -0.2
Trot Nixon, RF       .307     2.6    Luis Rodriguez, 3B   .236     0.4
Alex Gonzalez, SS    .212     0.2    Juan Castro, SS      .187     0.0

Coming into this game, Minnesota was 11th in the league in runs scored, and a look at this lineup gives you an inkling why: aside from Joe Mauer and Mike Cuddyer, this lineup's brutal. Let's put it another way. Mauer's WARP this season is 4.1; the rest of the Twin's lineup, put together, is 4.7. And this may well be the Twins' best lineup. If you're looking for a reason that the Twins are under .500, this is one big reason, the other being a ridiculously high batting average on balls in play (nattily abbreviated BABIP) of .341. The next highest figure in the AL is .319, so we might have to consider that the Twins have been unlucky in the number of hits they've allowed so far this year, and perhaps expect their pitching to improve as the year goes on.

On the other hand, in some circles, the fall of the Red Sox from the offensive catbird seat is a surprise. Coming into the game, they were sixth in the league in runs, having flip-flopped with the Rangers over the weekend. As you can see above, the Red Sox feature two different lineups-five batters which still have the high-OBP, grind-the-opposing-pitcher-to-dust style that has marked the Theo Epstein era, and four batters who aren't. One of those batters, Alex Gonzalez, was expected to be an out-maker at the plate. It was merely thought that his superior glovework would outweigh his offensive inadequacies. As you can tell from his WARP, Gonzalez's glove has not trumped his bat--the Defensive Translations have Gonzalez as a below-average shortstop.

The other three batters dragging the lineup down were expected to be contributors. Center fielder Coco Crisp has come back from injury and illness to take his place in the Boston lineup, and he's expected to bounce back from a slow start. Catcher Jason Varitek and second baseman Mark Loretta are both playing in their Age-34 season. It's not rare for players, particularly ones at challenging defensive positions like second and catcher, to start losing their skills at this age. PECOTA gives both players high collapse rates--37% and 43%, respectively--meaning that the projection system sees a high probability that their offensive performance will drop off by 20% or more from their previous three seasons' average.

Then again, some of you may be surprised when you hear us talk about Crisp and Loretta as having "sub-par" seasons, since both came into the game with batting averages over .300. However, in both cases the batting average is a bit empty--both players have OBPs around .340, and slugging percentages at or below .400. After an adjustment for the fact that their home park is an offensive paradise, both Crisp and Loretta land near a .250 EQA, a below-average offensive performance.

Since the pitchers don't really need much of an introduction, let's get to the game. Santana's first pitch of the night is a strike, a fastball on the outside corner. One pitch later, another fastball, the count is 0-2. A foul and an 84 MPH changeup later, and Crisp is sitting down, a strikeout victim. Santana leads off Loretta with a ball, but comes back to make the count 1-2. A couple of pitches later, Loretta swings over the change. Santana throws a straight change, which bores down in the strike zone. Quickly, Santana gets ahead of Ortiz 0-2, and then freezes the big man with a fastball over the outside of the plate. Three up, three down, no balls in play.

In the bottom of the inning, Schilling starts off by falling behind to Luis Castillo 3-0, and ultimately walks the leadoff man, ending the pitcher's 34-inning walkless streak, according to the announcers. Lew Ford comes to the plate, and Schilling falls behind again, 2-1, all fastballs. On the next offering, Ford swings at Schilling's first breaking ball of the night to tap into a 6-4-3 double play.

That leaves the bases empty for Joe Mauer. Schilling feeds Mauer a diet of fastballs ranging from 90 to 95 miles per hour. Mauer singles on a pitch up and away, bringing up Mike Cuddyer. Schilling falls behind Cuddyer 2-1, but then blows two fastballs by the outfielder to retire the side.

Santana has a short-arm delivery, where it looks like he's only applying force to the baseball at the top of his arm motion. Whatever he's doing, it's pretty good, and he strikes out leading off the second inning Manny Ramirez with his first breaking pitch of the night. Next, Santana gets ahead of Jason Varitek 1-2, then gets the catcher to go fishing on an 81 mile per hour changeup that's low and out of the strike zone. Against Mike Lowell, Santana finally ends his strikeout streak, inducing a flyball to center.

Leading off the second, Justin Morneau ropes a single to center. In a repeat of the first inning, Torii Hunter gets a breaking ball from Schilling, and quickly bounces it to Gonzalez for a 6-4-3 double play. The Schill comes back to strike out Jason Kubel on a split-fingered fastball that darts below the knees at the last moment, and the side is retired.

In the top of the third, Santana gets ahead of Kevin Youkilis--as Steven Goldman styles him, the Mohel of Swat--two strikes, no balls. Be sure to thank Steve for the most cringe-inducing nickname since…ever. Two pitches later, Youkilis whiffs. Trot Nixon bats eighth in the lineup today, the only concession to Santana's lefthandedness. Santana gets Nixon to a 2-2 count, but Nixon drives a pitch high and away just out of Ford's reach in left field. Santana's first pitch allowed is a double. Gonzalez follows Nixon with a hard lined single, which is so hard that Nixon's unable to score from second. Coco Crisp pops up his first pitch from Santana…and it never comes back down. That's life in the dome, we guess.

That brings on the obligatory mention of the Twins' new ballpark, which should open in 2009 or so. For the announcers, it's happy news that there's going to be a new ballpark in Minnesota. For baseball purists, anything that gives baseball one less dome is a good thing. But lest we think a new ballpark is the end all and be all, ask Milwaukee taxpayers how much they're enjoying their tax increases.

In the meantime, Santana strikes out Crisp and pops up Loretta to end the threat.

Through the middle innings, it becomes clear that while Schilling's not dominating as easily as Santana has, he's still getting the job done. Schilling's pitches tend to move incrementally around the strike zone, so a pitch that's low and outside will tend to be followed by one that's just a little lower or slightly further from the plate, until they hit it or he gets the out. It's as if Schilling's probing the strike zone for the batters' weaknesses, and each pitch is part of an experiment.

Leading off the top of the fourth inning, David Ortiz becomes Santana's 1,000th career strikeout. After a momentary pause for applause, Santana goes back to work against Ramirez. By the middle of the fifth inning, Santana has eleven strikeouts, and has only allowed six balls in play. Do you think the fielders behind this guy get bored when he's pitching like this?

In the bottom of the fifth, with one out, Hunter strokes a single back up the middle. This is the first hit by either team since the Sox threatened in the third. Hunter then steals second base, rather easily. The threat ends on a strike'em out, throw'em out double play, Kubel on the whiff, Hunter on the boneheaded attempt to steal third.

While Santana takes the "boring and fascist" approach to pitching, Schilling has been far more democratic, getting several good plays in back of him from Lowell and the Mohel of Swat. We're going to keep on saying that until it no longer makes us cringe, which means we might be making these Mohel references long after Youkilis retires.

In the seventh, Santana cruises through the heart of the Red Sox order, getting a grounder from Ortiz, and striking out Ramirez on a foul tip. Coming into the inning, he'd thrown about 70 pitches. Then Varitek, who's looked absolutely awful in his last two plate appearances against Santana, jumped on the first pitch he saw from Santana, and launched it on a line to left center. Finally, we have a score.

Santana's weakness this season has been the longball, as he's allowing them at the rate of 0.02887 homers per plate appearance, above the leaguewide average of 0.02792. Now, that's obviously not above-average by a huge margin--Santana's not Bruce Chen (home run rate of 0.07287) or even teammate Carlos Silva (0.05724). Still, when you face a guy like Santana, you look for any possible chink in the armor.

Given the lead, in the bottom of the seventh Schilling overpowers Ford with a high fastball for the first out of the inning. He then gets ahead of Mauer 0-2 before getting him to fly out the opposite way. The second out gets Schilling to an even 3,000 career innings pitched. Thankfully, no one sees the need to stop the game so that he can give a speech.

Schilling's still coming off the milestone when Cuddyer hammers one to straightaway center, over the plastic-wrap outfield fence into the folded up seats in center. Gee, reading that description, maybe it's not such a bad thing if this dome hits the road. Anyway, the Metrodome's now the site of a tie game, 1-1.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, who trail the Red Sox by one game in the AL East, have won a pitcher's duel of their own, 1-0 against Cleveland. On cue, the Sox turn the bats on--with one out, Nixon and Gonzalez hit safely back-to-back for the second time in the game. Things get dicey when Santana falls behind the next batter, Crisp, 2-0, but Crisp taps one back to the pitcher, who starts the 1-6-3 double play.

At the end of eight innings, both Schilling and Santana are done for the evening. In the ninth, Joe Nathan comes on for the Twins. Nathan's pitched a rather meager 23 innings this year, in part due to a lack of save opportunities (we'll leave the rant on closer usage patterns for some other time). Mark Loretta singles to lead off the inning, bringing up David Ortiz. Ortiz takes a ball to the warning track in deep right center, which is caught by Hunter. With one down, Nathan goes after Ramirez aggressively, pouring his 95 mile and hour heat into the strike zone to get ahead 0-2. At 1-2, Nathan's slider bounces off of Mauer, putting pinch-runner Willie Harris at second. After another bouncing slider in the dirt, Nathan gets away with a high slider, which just dips into the zone; Ramirez goes down looking. With Harris on second, Varitek is intentionally walked to face Lowell, and Lowell obligingly flies out to center to end the threat.

In the bottom of the ninth, it's now the battle of the closers, as Terry Francona brings in Jonathan Papelbon to pitch. Let me tell you, don't call him Jon, which was Papelbon's soubriquet when he first reached the majors. He prefers "Jonathan," and Sox fans will remind you of this preference, if you slip up.

By any name, though, Papelbon has been the most effective reliever in baseball this year. He leads the AL in WXRL and ARP, the main measures of a reliever's run-prevention and win expectation added. Papelbon pitches from the stretch, even when the bases are empty. But the bases don't stay empty, as the leadoff man, Luis Castillo, doubles down the thirdbase line.

With a man in scoring position and no outs, Ford bunts toward first base. Let's leave aside the fact that this is a bad percentage move, as a quick trip to the Run Expectation Report will tell you. A team going from having a man on second and no outs to a man on third with one out on average loses about 0.18644 of a run scored. No, it's not a big difference, but what happened on Ford's bunt play is--Youkilis charges the ball and (ahem) the Mohel cuts down Castillo at third! It's a very aggressive play, executed with surgical precision. Papelbon whiffs Mauer and Cuddyer to take us to extra innings.

In the top of the tenth, Youkilis slices a fly ball into foul territory in right--oops, did I ever say we were done with the Mohel humor? Anyway, it's an out for the new Twins pitcher, Juan Rincon. Rincon took a steroid suspension last year, but it doesn't seem to have affected his career much. It seems that as long as you don't hit home runs with the added muscle, nobody much cares.

Nixon flies out to center on a 3-0 pitch. Gonzalez follows with a two-out hit, his third of the night. Must've heard the "out-maker" comment. However, Gonzalez doesn't get to be a run-scorer, since Crisp flies out to Hunter.

In the bottom of the eleventh, Mike Timlin takes over for Papelbon. Timlin tagged in from the DL just as Keith Foulke tagged out. Timlin's 40, plying his trade in the majors since 1991, and he hasn't shown much sign of stopping any time soon. Timlin still cranks the fastball in the low 90s, and he gets good sink on the ball. Although it's far from effortless, Timlin retires backup shortstop Nick Punto, Castillo, and Ford in order.

In the top of the twelfth Jesse Crain's on the mound for the Twins, following Rincon. Crain's been an odd combination, a hittable strikeout pitcher. True to form, he strikes out Varitek, and follows that with a Mike Lowell single. Crain falls behind Youkilis, 3-1 en route to walking him. Nixon strokes a single through to right field, but the runner at second does not score.

This brings up tonight's Hit Man, Alex Gonzalez, with the bases juiced. Gonzalez hits a soft grounder up the middle. Just as we become resigned that the ball will get through the infield, Punto manages to corral the ball and flip it, from flat on his stomach, to Castillo, whose throw to first is just late. Close may be good enough in horseshoes and hand grenades, but not double plays. Boston takes a 2-1 lead. But the Twins prevent further damage when Dennys Reyes retires Crisp to end the threat.

Timlin, fresh off the DL, only pitches one inning, and so it falls to Julian Tavarez to preserve the lead in the bottom of the twelfth. Tavarez, whose main renown these days is as a cheapshot artist, may well be the worst pitcher in the Boston bullpen, with a negative ARP (-3.8) and WXRL (-0.234).

Things start off well enough, with Tavarez striking out Joe Mauer on a nice tailing fastball. But the situation rapidly disintegrates after that-Tavarez gets ahead of Mike Cuddyer 1-2 before eventually hitting him in the chops with a pitch. Morneau then strokes a 2-1 pitch to center, which would score a run if it didn't bounce over the fence for a ground rule double. Now the Sox walk Hunter to load the bases for Kubel, a left-handed batter, to face Tavarez. Given that lefties have hit Tavarez well over the last three years, this is not an especially wise tactical decision.

You've probably heard about what Kubel did, working the count full, then blasting a walk-off grand slam to end the game. What started off as a pitcher's duel ends up with a deceptive 5-2 score.

Join us next Sunday, when the Game of the Week goes Interleague, to see the Angels' phenom Jered Weaver face off against the Padres and Chan Ho Park, at 3:35 Eastern Time. Keep your eyes peeled to the Newsletter for more details.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

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

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