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October 24, 2006

World Series Prospectus

Off Day

by Nate Silver

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A few assorted World Series thoughts while I enjoy my brief, 24-hour respite at home in Chicago.

  • When I first saw the video of the smudge on Kenny Rogers' left hand--out in the auxiliary press box in right field, we get the Fox game feed but no audio--I thought it was much ado about nothing, Fox creating a story to pump up flailing ratings. Now, 20 hours later or so, I've come to almost the opposite opinion. I'm surprised that this isn't bigger news.

    It's clear that Rogers cheated, or at least intended to cheat. First, you have this strange smudge on Rogers' hand in all three of his postseason starts. A major-league pitcher, an 18-year veteran no less, is simply not going to come out to the mound three times in a row with no idea of what's on his pitching hand. That's especially true on a night like Sunday when it had to be hard to grip the ball. Second, you have the post-game reactions. I'm a poker player, and so I can overrate my ability to read body language, but it was pretty clear to me that Rogers was lying in his post-game press conference. Thirdly (and I think this is at best the third-strongest part of the case against Rogers), you have the statistical evidence.

    We aren't privy to all the conversations that went down at field level, but something was lost in communication here. Did Tony La Russa merely inform Alfonso Marquez about the "dirt" on Rogers' pitching hand as a courtesy to the veteran lefty? If not, why didn't Marquez check Rogers' hand? His glove? The underside of his cap? The baseball? Was La Russa not insistent enough? One flaw that La Russa and Jim Leyland seem to have in common is their gentlemanliness. While this personality trait might be admirable under other circumstances, and it makes both managers popular with the media, if it means that La Russa, out of deference to Leyland, does not press his point enough to knock the opposing team's pitcher out for the rest of the series, that's a problem. Similarly, if Leyland is too afraid of offending Todd Jones to demote him to a set-up role after Sunday's flashing yellow light, that's going to be a problem for the Tigers.

    Yes, Rogers pitched very well Sunday even after the first inning. The Cardinals don't hit lefties particularly well. It was cold as hell outside. Their hitters were likely a little bit psyched out. Rogers is a pretty good pitcher, pine tar or no.

    But if the substance was pine tar, then Rogers could still have had the sticky residue of the substance left after he washed his hands and removed the visual evidence. Or, if he had some stash of gunk hidden on the underbill of his cap, he still might have been able to apply it very discretely, washing his hands between innings. After all, the point is not to get the pine tar on your hands--it's to get it on the baseball. The apparently weak warning that Marquez gave Rogers certainly can't have been much of a disincentive to a pitcher determined to break the rules.

    I can't help but think that the Tigers are getting a bit of a mulligan because they're a warm-and-fuzzy story. If this incident involved one of the New York teams, people would be calling for a grand jury.

  • The Rogers story takes on even more importance because it looks like Game Six is going to be the key game of this series. I expect the Tigers to take two of three games in St. Louis--most likely succumbing to Chris Carpenter on Tuesday, beating up on Jeff Suppan in Game Four, and making enough adjustments against Anthony Reyes to take Game Five. That sets up Rogers, back in Detroit for the series clincher on Saturday. If the Tigers cannot win Game 6, they'll be faced with the Carpenter/Nate Robertson confrontation again in Game Seven, which is far and away the worst match-up of the series for them.

  • On the other hand, there's the chance that I've missed the boat here. As the story has run its course, the debate isn't really about whether Rogers used some foreign substance or not--it's clear enough that he did--but just how serious an offense this is. Pine tar, if that's what Rogers used, is something that seems within the fringes of acceptability under baseball's unwritten rules, provided that it's used only for "grip" rather than to actually scuff the ball.

    Now, I'd argue that this is a pretty fine line, especially when it's 40 degrees outside. I had enough trouble feeling my fingers that my scorecard looks like chicken scratch from about the bottom of the third inning onward, and I'm not trying to throw a curveball past Albert Pujols.

    But this at least helps to explain one of the possible reasons behind La Russa's inaction. Perhaps he didn't want to create a repeat of another famous incident involving pine tar. That said, if it had gotten to the point where my hitters were wondering about the flight of the ball, I think I'd be obliged to act, and act decisively.

  • The weather is going to continue to be a major factor. There's a system that looks like it will move through St. Louis between Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, and the weather in Detroit next weekend doesn't look like it will be much better than it was the last time around. The game on Wednesday is officially scheduled to start a bit after 8:30 Eastern, and merely moving that time forward by an hour or so would go a long way toward ensuring that the World Series is concluded by Sunday.

    One also has to wonder if the inclement conditions don't account at least partially for the impatience at the plate that we've seen from both sides thus far in the Series. Rogers set a good precedent yesterday by mixing his pitches early in the at-bats, whereas Jeff Weaver all but guaranteed the Tigers a hittable pitch on 0-0.

  • On the other hand, I don't think Weaver can use his warm-weather upbringing to excuse his poor performance. Yes, the average July high in Northridge, California, Weaver's hometown, is 96 degrees Fahrenheit. But the average July high in Savannah, GA (Rogers' hometown) is 92, and in Texarkana, TX (Craig Monroe) is 93. And the average high in Maracay, Venezuela, Carlos Guillen's hometown, is 88 degrees--in October.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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