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October 22, 2006

Prospectus Today

Game One

by Joe Sheehan

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This is why no one was picking the Tigers three weeks ago. The team that showed up last night is the one that went 19-31 down the stretch, coughed up two big leads to the Royals on the season's final weekend en route to blowing the division, and generally looked like fodder at the start of the month.

In Game One of the World Series, they played mistake-prone baseball, starting with an inexplicable mental error by Jim Leyland and continuing in an inning-by-inning display of hacking that turned a rookie pitcher with a 5.06 ERA into, for seven innings, vintage Greg Maddux. They made mistakes at the plate, on the mound, in the dugout and the field, and at no point resembled the team that had won seven in a row to get to this point.

For all intents and purposes, the game ended in the third inning, when Leyland had Justin Verlander pitch to Albert Pujols with two outs and a runner on second base. The "walk Pujols" crowd can get a little out of hand, but putting him on with first base open and two men out is something of an automatic call. To his credit, Leyland went on the air about 20 minutes later and fell on his sword for Verlander, taking the blame for not issuing the walk and instead having his pitcher look to throw a pitch outside. The fastball wasn't far enough outside, and Pujols' two-run homer gave the Cards' a 4-1 lead.

That might not have been insurmountable if the Tigers had had any kind of plan against Reyes. They made him throw 22 pitches in the first inning, with five of the six batters taking the first pitch against him. At that pace, the Cardinals would have been fortunate to get five innings from their starter. After that, though, the Tigers turned into a team playing a getaway day game in June. Reyes threw just 71 pitches after the first inning, getting 21 outs on 24 batters. He got through four of his complete innings on eight pitches or fewer, and had just one inning of more than 13 pitches. Even by the standards of the Tigers-arguably the hackingest team to ever play in a World Series-that's a silly night.

The Tigers capped their error-filled evening with some fielding misplays in the sixth. Verlander became overly concerned with Pujols over at first base, and threw a pickoff attempt away, allowing Pujols to reach third. It wasn't the physical error as much as the concern; one thing the pitchers don't have to do too much in this series is worry about baserunners, as neither team runs and both catchers throw very well. Moreover, Pujols has some leg problems right now that make him even less of a running threat. It was the first time Verlander looked like a rookie, and it led to a run when Jim Edmonds singled home Pujols.

Three batters later, with Jason Grilli on the mound, second and third and no one out, the game devolved into follies. Juan Encarnacion hit a chopper to Brandon Inge at third, who knocked it down and instead of settling for an out, came home to cut down the run. (At 5-1, it wasn't such a bad decision, actually.) He threw the ball away, then obstructed Scott Rolen trying to score from second on the play. Rolen was out at the plate, but home-plate umpire Randy Marsh correctly called the obstruction and awarded Rolen the base and the run.

The first thing that flashed into my mind was the Miguel Tejada play from the 2003 Division Series. Tejada was also obstructed, but he didn't finish the play, was out at the plate, and didn't get the call. Rolen picked himself up and ran hard to the plate. The difference between the two illustrated the point made at the time: obstruction doesn't remove the obligation to make the play.

The Cardinals played another very tight game, which has been their M.O. this October. They didn't make mistakes, they got a good start, and they hit a few balls out of the park. The looked, in fact, a lot like the Tigers had looked in rushing through the AL playoffs. Credit Reyes with pounding the strike zone and letting the Tigers get themselves out, and the middle of the Cards' lineup with having the kind of game it hasn't had much this month.

  • Pitching to Pujols was the most notable error, but I thought Leyland made some other strange decisions. His lineup was peculiar, with Sean Casey at DH and Ramon Santiago at shortstop. The advantage to having Casey around is that he can play first base, which allows Carlos Guillen to play shortstop. Using him at DH just gets an inferior bat into the lineup; Leyland basically played Casey over Marcus Thames, which might make sense against Jeff Weaver and his 300-points-of-OPS platoon split, but doesn't work against Reyes.

    I also didn't think it made sense for him to use his bullpen the way he did late in the game. This isn't really a performance analysis thing, but one of the ideas that generally exists in baseball is that a batter facing an unfamiliar pitcher is at a disadvantage. Rather than close out last night's game with Grilli and Zach Miner, who aren't going to pitch much in high-leverage situations, Leyland used Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker, and Todd Jones, even playing matchups with the last two in the ninth inning. This gave the Cardinals a glimpse at the Tigers' relievers, something that may make a small difference the next time they have to face them, most likely in a closer game.

    The compulsion to use those relievers, rather than any ideas about rust, was the biggest impact of the Tigers' time off. Leyland no doubt wanted to get his guys some work, because they hadn't pitched in a week. By doing so, he gave the Cardinals a peek, however brief, at three of his top four relief pitchers.

  • On the other hand, I thought Tony La Russa punched the right buttons. He slotted Chris Duncan in the #2 spot. Duncan is far from a classic #2 hitter, but he's not going to hit into many double plays-he's a flyball/strikeout guy-and he's a much better choice than Encarnacion for the spot. La Russa also put So Taguchi, his best defensive left fielder, into the lineup to play the big Comerica Park outfield. The Cardinals gave up a lot of runs by putting Duncan and Spiezio on the field in the first two series; playing Taguchi should help that, perhaps by enough to make up for the offensive difference between him and Spiezio.

  • I finally figured it out: Justin Verlander reminds me of Kevin Brown. Tall, lanky, works quickly, has a little turn where he hides the ball, explosive stuff. Verlander's breaking ball is a curve whereas Brown had the sinker, but the rest of the comp works. Brown didn't have the greatest peripherals in his rookie season, either, but he eventually put up some monster seasons and finished his career as a member of the Hall of the Very Good. Verlander may well go through a similar pattern. If he stays healthy-and the Tigers did a terrific job managing him this year-he could have a Cy Young peak starting in 2008 or 2009.

  • If tonight's game is rained out, La Russa is going to have the same decision he had in the NLCS: start Chris Carpenter on normal rest Monday or stay on rotation and let him pitch Game Three. For my money, the answer is the same. You get your best pitcher to the mound as soon as possible in a short series. If the Tigers are down 1-0 and facing Chris Carpenter, the pressure in the Series shifts entirely to them. You have to put that scenario into play.

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

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