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October 22, 2006

World Series Prospectus

Game One

by Nate Silver

Every headline in the country is going to focus on the impact of the Tigers' long layoff prior to Game One of the World Series. Indeed, the Tigers came into tonight's game with a full six days of inactivity against the Cardinals' one day. That five-day differential is the largest ever between two teams facing off in a World Series.

Three teams had four more off-days than their opponents before playing in the World Series, and they didn't seem to suffer for it:

  • The 1996 Yankees lost the first two games of the Series, but then took four straight from the favored Braves, bringing Joe Torre his first championship as their manager.
  • The 1991 Twins won the first two games of the Series, also against the Braves, eventually going on to win in a thrilling seven-game Series.
  • The 1981 Yankees reversed the fate of the 1996 club, winning the first two games of the Series, but losing in six games after dropping four straight to the Dodgers.
Another trio of teams had three extra days off before the World Series:
  • The 2005 White Sox, who swept the Astros.
  • The 1995 Braves, who beat the Indians in six, including wins in the first two games of the Series.
  • The 1988 A's, who were upset by the Dodgers, losing Game One on Kirk Gibson's Roy Hobbs impersonation.
So among the extra-rested clubs, that's a 4-2 record, both in the first game of the series and overall. Now, we should expect the rested clubs to have been favored in those games, because it takes a stronger team to beat an LCS opponent in four or five games than in six or seven, which is how you get the extra rest in the first place. But the Rust Belt teams have no clear pattern of difficulty in the historical record. In fact, they've done pretty well for themselves.

The Tigers sure looked rusty, though. Didn't they? Well, perhaps. You can use a lot of adjectives to describe the performance of a team that loses a ballgame 7-2--rusty, pathetic, heartbreaking--and none of them are kind ones. The Tigers certainly didn't look rusty out of the gate, though. Justin Verlander cruised through the first inning looking sharp and relaxed, while Anthony Reyes was lucky to get away with allowing only one run in the bottom of the frame.

After that, the game got away from the Tigers. Slowly at first, on a Scott Rolen home run that ought to remove any lingering doubt about his health--Rolen really extended on that ball. Then all at once, as the Cardinals put up crooked numbers in the third and sixth innings.

Yes, there were a couple of ugly moments along the way, most obviously Brandon Inge's uncharacteristic defensive miscues. The game got away from the Tigers, however, for one reason and one reason only: they quit taking pitches, while the Cardinals kept working to set up good at-bats. In the first inning, Reyes threw 22 pitches: nine balls and 13 strikes (five of which were put into play). Then, for the next seven innings combined, Reyes threw just 14 balls against 53 strikes. That's just 2.4 pitches per Tiger batter in the second through eighth innings, and barely more than one ball for every second at-bat.

Reyes deserves much of the credit for this. His command and pitch selection were spot on. As I commented in my World Series preview, the ball can be hard to pick up coming out of Reyes' glove, and that can mean rough sledding for a team like the Tigers that is hitting against him for the first time. The Tigers made an awful lot of foul contact tonight, which is a good indication of a team that is not seeing the ball real well.

The Tigers certainly didn't make Reyes' job any harder, however. Perhaps their irrational exuberance at the plate was the result of rust, or at least overanxiousness. But the Tigers have been doing this all year long. Their hitters finished next-to-last in the American League in both strikeouts and walks this season, a combination that is all but unprecedented for a team that advanced to the World Series. Sometimes, their prodigious power bails them out. Tonight it didn't, as is bound to happen from time to time when you have this undisciplined a plate approach.

--

Ironically, one of the worst decisions made by a Tiger in this game was the choice to take a pitch. In the bottom of the first inning, the score still nil-nil, Magglio Ordonez faced a 3-0 count with two outs, Craig Monroe on second base, and first base vacant. A walk doesn't do you a whole hell a lot of good there; with two outs, you want a base hit to score Monroe, who can run on any contact. In fact, the manager will sometimes give up, and walk the batter intentionally in that situation.

Reyes threw a fat pitch right over the middle on 3-0, just like pitchers usually do. And Ordonez took it, just like hitters always do. The Tigers eventually scored in the inning anyway, but this was a poor decision on Ordonez' part.

--

There has been a lot of ink spilled this postseason about the inflated radar gun readings on the FOX television broadcasts. Tonight, however, the FOX gun was consistently reading about 3-4 miles per hour slower than the Comerica Park scoreboard. The FOX gun was also reading slower than the velocities listed on MLB.com's Advanced Gamecast, so on many occasions we were left with three different velocity readings for the same pitch.

Velocity readings are overemphasized, to the point where they sometimes become a fetish. Nevertheless, given their ubiquity, they have become an important part of performance analysis. Was Justin Verlander working at 90-92 mph tonight, which is a tick off from his usual readings and could indicate rust or fatigue? Or was he throwing at his usual 94-96, the good Cardinal hitters hitting good pitches? Would Jim Leyland have had someone warming in the bullpen at the start of the sixth inning if the stadium readings had been on the slower end of the scale? We can't answer any of these questions.

Major League Baseball, through its Advanced Media wing, is a progressive organization that takes great pride in improving the accuracy and availability of all sorts of statistical data. Creating a universal standard for measuring mph ought to be right at the top of its list.

--

"And will Detroit be your final destination, sir?"

Detroit is not only smack dab in the middle of flyover states--it's a flythrough city, the sort of place you stop to change planes on your way to Denver or Montreal or LaGuardia. Try and book a hotel in Detroit; you'll notice the hotels advertise not their proximity to the city center, but their nexus with the city's departure points: "less than five minutes from the airport" or "only two miles to Canada!" (A few daring proprieties may break ranks and note their short distance from the city's metaphysical departure points--Detroit's fledgling casinos.)

But judging by the large amount of Tiger paraphernalia (and the smaller amount of Cardinal paraphernalia) on my flight out of Chicago yesterday morning, something was decidedly different. Not only were these people going to Detroit, they were staying in Detroit, and they were happy to be doing so. Upon arrival, the stewardess welcomed us to "The Home of the 2006 World Champions," receiving a loud chorus of cheers.

Now, Detroit is still Detroit, which means that not everything is perfect. My taxi driver gave me a funny look when I, a well-dressed white man checking his e-mail on a Palm Treo, told him that I wanted to go "downtown." My hotel couldn't find my reservation, and the elevator didn't work. The area immediately surrounding the ballpark resembles some kind of post-apocalyptic rave party, with gangs of fans, donned in Tiger Tails and Magglio Ordonez wigs, drinking beer and circling around aimlessly. Perhaps it was only fitting that the Tigers lost tonight.

Make no mistake, though. Detroiters are, maybe for the first time in a long time, exceptionally proud to be Detroiters. And that's because of the Tigers.

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

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