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October 23, 2006

Prospectus Today

Game Two

by Joe Sheehan

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I feel like I have written this before. Kenny Rogers used very good off-speed stuff to keep the other team's hitters out in front, preventing solid contact on the way to shutting them out over eight innings.

Rogers has made three starts this October, and they've all been basically the same. He had better command in his ALDS start against the Yankees than he's had since, but other than that, he's been doing what Tommy John class pitchers do: throw strikes, get ahead, keep the ball down, kill the running game. (He's also started channeling Carlos Zambrano a little bit, a trait that somehow hasn't brought the media down around his head. I'm not sure why it's OK for him to show people up, but it seems to be approved.)

With last night's outing, Rogers ran his scoreless streak to 23 innings, during which time he's struck out 19 and walked seven, far superior to his peripherals the last few seasons. The lack of solid contact off of him is reflected in the fact that opponents have just nine hits off of him in three starts. The few balls really hammered have been run down by his outfielders in Comerica Park's spacious gaps. The Cardinals helped Rogers by aping the Tigers' approach from Game One, swinging early and often: the Cards averaged just 12.2 pitches in Rogers' eight innings, just 3.4 pitches per plate appearance.

This is all a bit amusing when you consider that Rogers came into this postseason with a reputation as someone who couldn't handle pressure. His postseason ERA prior to 2006 was just shy of 9.00, and his playoff career had been defined by a bases-loaded walk to Andruw Jones that ended the 1999 NLCS. I would like to think that Rogers' performance this October would serve as a reminder to people that the sample sizes we work with in the postseason aren't meaningful, that a major-league baseball player can do just about anything in a span of a few outings or a handful of at-bats. You can't evaluate a player, and you certainly can't extrapolate conclusions about his character, based on what he does in a playoff series or three. Baseball is much, much harder than that.

Some of you will write in to tell me that I've made this point, and I should stop harping on it. Objection noted, but until the message begins to take hold-and I see no evidence that it has-I will keep bringing it up.

Of course, this could all be moot if it turns out that Rogers is cheating. Cheating, as we've learned over the past few years, is a horrible, horrible thing, arguably the worst thing a baseball player can do. Cheaters should have their achievements struck from the record book, become ineligible for honors, and banished to the upper reaches of the Yukon Territory, joining Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry and John McGraw.

No, wait, that's just for some types of cheating. I get confusedů

Anyway, Rogers may or may not have had a substance on his hand last night designed to make a baseball do funny things, and now we're all amateur detectives, looking at old game films and trying to discern whether Rogers is effective because he's effective or because he's doctoring the baseball. Nate Silver broke down Rogers' home and road stats and concluded that the man's splits were statistically significant, but stopped short of assigning the difference to cheating.

I'm not sure what to think, and am curious to see how this plays out over the next few days. As with the more famous forms of cheating we've been discussing in the 21st century, the standard of proof here should be pretty high. I'm not going to accuse Rogers without some fairly damning evidence that his late-career success is tainted by substance abuse. Right now, I consider him a good starting pitcher who's had one of the best stretches of pitching in his career at perhaps the best possible time, and the reason the Tigers are tied 1-1 in the World Series.

--

  • I was ready to criticize Tony La Russa pretty strongly for letting Yadier Molina make the last out in Game Two. Molina is a terrible hitter, one of the worst regulars in the game. He plays because he's just that good defensively, and he has some occasional pop. In a high-leverage situation, you want to get anyone else up there, because he's an out.

    The more I thought about it, though, the less I felt like it was a point to be made. Don't get me wrong: La Russa should have hit for Molina with Chris Duncan, what with Jim Leyland committed to Todd Jones. Duncan has about 100 points of average and 300 points of slugging on Molina against right-handers, and getting him to the plate in a situation where he would face the northpaw and not be intentionally walked was as good as it would get for La Russa. There's no defending the decision to let Molina hit.

    Where I think I lost steam was in realizing that for La Russa, it wasn't even a decision. Molina has hit well over the last few weeks and he hit the big home run that got the Cardinals here-in another situation where a pinch-hitter would have been appropriate. Although La Russa hit for Molina in both the NLDS and NLCS, Molina's short-term performance appears to have made him someone who won't be coming out of many games.

    One of the few certainties of performance analysis is that the short-term results of players are not predictive; players are what they are, and observed variations from that norm over a period of days or weeks are variance, not a dramatic change in skill set. Molina went up the plate last night as a career .238 hitter with a career .342 slugging average, both figures worse than that in 2006. His heroics in Game Seven or his modest three-game hitting streak did nothing for the Cardinals in the ninth inning last night but hurt them. They needed a much better hitter in that spot, and La Russa instead elected an inferior one.

  • That the Cardinals were even in a position to bring Molina to the plate illustrates a problem with having Todd Jones as your closer. Guys who give up a lot of balls in play are occasionally going to have outings in which the balls find holes or misplays are made. The Cards benefited both in the ninth inning last night, and in fact, might have made the game even more interesting had the hardest-hit ball off of Jones-Scott Spiezio's line drive to start the inning-dropped a bit faster.

    Low-strikeout closers have had success in the short term (and pre-1993, success over longer periods of time), but there's a reason the game converts hard-throwing failed starters to the bullpen. It fits what they do best, and when you need three outs, getting them by strikeout is the safest path. Jones doesn't do that any longer, which means every one of his save situations has the potential to be a nail-biter.

  • The Cardinals seem to have a problem running to first base. On at least two occasions last night, Cards batters hit ground balls that were bobbled by Tigers' infielders, but found themselves thrown out easily. Preston Wilson was one guilty party, as was Albert Pujols in the ninth inning. Juan Encarnacion didn't exactly get a great start out of the box on his grounder back to the box that Jones booted in the ninth.

    It's a small thing, but I do wonder why criticism for this type of thing is doled out so inconsistently. Either not running out routine outs is a crime against the game, as it seems to be when Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez does it, or it doesn't matter much, even when the infielder bobbles the ball, which is the lesson I took from last night's game.

  • When Sean Casey singled to right in the fifth last night, I got a bit lost in my head. Do you think these guys--and I'm thinking about Casey, or Placido Polanco, or Preston Wilson, who have been around a while without getting here-get as big a thrill out of playing in the World Series as you think they would? When Casey got that hit to drive in Carlos Guillen, I was thinking about playing ball as a kid, and how you'd pretend to be playing in a World Series and getting a big hit. That's what Sean Casey had just done, lived out the dream of millions, even billions of kids over the course of a century. Craig Monroe got to hit a home run in the World Series! Do you think he realizes just how cool it is to do that? Does playing the World Series have that kind of cachet for these guys, or is it just cold and crowded in the clubhouse and a flight every few days and eight months since the reporting date for spring training?

  • Hey, I know it's important to keep the sponsors happy, but it's more than just a little hostile to the crowd to make them sit in 38-degree weather, damp and windy, while you put on a poorly-disguised, ill-conceived ad for one of the car companies that advertises during the telecast. If I've paid $250 for a ticket, I'm important to the bottom line as well. Do the pregame activities in pregame time, and start the baseball game on time.

    Fox, which misses 5-10 pitches a game and most often cuts back to the ballgame while the pitcher is in his windup, managed to show that in its entirety. Well done.

  • Oddly enough, despite weather in Detroit that was almost identical to that of nine days ago, with an increasing chance of precipitation as the night wore on, the game wasn't rescheduled for earlier in the day. I guess MLB's initiative of moving postseason game times up so that they can be played in better weather has ended.

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

Related Content:  The Streak,  The Who,  Cheating,  Running Game

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