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October 25, 2006

Prospectus Today

Game Three

by Joe Sheehan

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Not that the Tigers didn't make Chris Carpenter work very hard last night, but I'm pretty sure I saw him circling the warning track in the ninth inning, getting his running in spring-training style.

For the second time in three games, the Tigers treated their at-bats like a free resource, swinging early and often and producing nothing but short innings and easy outs. They saw just 93 pitches last night, just 82 from Carpenter in his eight innings of work, a total of 3.2 pitches per plate appearance. That approach isn't going to work against a good pitcher; Carpenter is the one Cardinals' starter who can get the Tigers out inside the strike zone. He just kept throwing strikes, and the Tigers kept making weak outs. Carpenter annihilates right-handed batters (.210/.252/.323 in 2006, which is actually slightly worse than his 2004-05 numbers), and the five the Tigers sent up went 1-for-16.

The Tigers were completely overmatched by Carpenter, which is a problem because down 2-1 in the Series, any chance they have to win is likely going to involved beating him in a Game Seven. This may seem like an obvious point, but the Cardinals have to now be considered significant favorites to win the World Series. They're up 2-1, they have the next two games at home with a bullpen that's going on full rest, and the only way they don't at least get their ace to the mound in a Game Seven is by losing every one of the next three games. That's a far cry from the "Tigers in 3" stuff that was being written just four days ago, and it underscores, yet again, the unpredictability of short-series baseball.

The Tigers looked so good in shutting down the Yankees and A's that they made it easy to forget that they had this kind of baseball in them. Their starters have continued to pitch reasonably well, but they have just five runs in the World Series, and at no point have they looked like a dangerous offense. Even in their Game Two win they saw just 3.4 pitches per plate appearance; the difference in that game was that they were able to hit balls hard and find holes, picking up ten hits, three for extra bases. They have three walks in three World Series games, a low total even by their standards, and just two home runs, which is the key difference after they hit 13 in eight games in the AL playoffs.

Being down 2-1 in a best-of-seven series is by no means a death sentence, but it is a problem. Going back to the Tigers' last appearance in the Series, in 1984, 15 teams have been down 2-1 after three games. Those teams came back to win the Series four times. The Tigers definitely have an uphill battle, and the fact that the AL was the superior league this year--which drove so much of the pre-Series analysis--isn't going to help them much. They have to start being much, much smarter at the plate, getting into some hitters' counts where they'll see fastballs and be able to drive the ball. The pitching and the defense are still intact, but without runs, they're not going to win.

  • The use of Joel Zumaya last night was puzzling. Jim Leyland brought Zumaya in in the sixth inning, with the Tigers down 2-0, the Cardinals having a runner on second and one out, and the number-eight spot in the lineup due up. I understand Leyland's reason for making the move--Zumaya hadn't pitched in a game in nearly two weeks--but with Zumaya's forearm/wrist issues I don't know how heavily he can be used. I'm guessing--and admittedly, it is that--that he can't pitch on three straight days. That would mean that Leyland, by using him last night to get So Taguchi and Chris Carpenter in a fairly low-leverage situation, will only be able to use him once over the next two days.

    If bringing Zumaya in last night costs the Tigers an appearance tonight or tomorrow in a closer game, or perhaps against better hitters, than the get-him-work appearance last night was highly counterproductive. It's notable when you consider that Zumaya didn't pitch in Sunday night's game, one that was nearly lost when the Cardinals started spraying hits off of Todd Jones. Getting Zumaya work in the protection of a late lead with a day off to follow is a much better application of the principle than doing so down two runs with bad hitters coming up and games on the next two days.

    We've been over this ground, but it's worth pointing out again: no good performance analyst would ever let a single statistic drive decision-making the way major-league managers let the save rule dictate the use of their relief pitchers. If a manager ever made decisions strictly on the basis of EqA or VORP or OPS, he'd be skewered, but he'd be on much more solid ground than the managers who let a statistic decide who pitches and when.

    It didn't help that Zumaya made the first really boneheaded play of the series. Having walked the first two batters of the seventh to bring up Albert Pujols, Zumaya got a one-hopper back to the mound, a perfect double-play ball. Instead of wheeling to second, though, Zumaya tried to get the lead runner at third base. To Brandon Inge's credit, he was breaking towards the bag in a situation where he had no reason to expect a throw. Zumaya's toss was behind him and went down the left-field line. The two runs that scored essentially ended the game.

    The physical error, the throw, cost the two runs, but the bigger mistake was going to third in the first place. You have a much better chance of getting the double play by going to second, and that's a play that everyone is comfortable with. Zumaya may have been thinking about the way he might play a ball bunted too hard back to him in that situation, where he'd try to get the lead runner. In any case, it was a mental error that sealed the Tigers' fate.

  • There was a clip a couple of innings after Albert Pujols' double in the third where they showed Kenny Rogers commenting on the pitch he hit. Rogers said, "That ball might have been eight to ten inches off the plate." It's a pretty good explanation of why Pujols swung, since that's a borderline strike this October.

  • Leyland made a strange decision late in last night's game, a double-switch in which he removed Brandon Inge, who made the last out in the top of the eighth, and inserted Neifi Perez into the #9 spot to play third base.

    There are two reasons to make a double-switch. One, you want to have a better hitter than the pitcher bat in the next inning. Two, you want to avoid having to pinch-hit for the pitcher, so that he can go multiple innings. Neither of these things were in play. With the Tigers down four runs, any hope of seeing the bottom of the ninth inning was almost certainly going to involve batting around. No matter where the pitchers' spot was, it was probably going to have to come up again before the Tigers took the field in the ninth, which would mean the new reliever, in this case Fernando Rodney, was not going to pitch more than an inning.

    By using Perez in the double switch, Leyland also put his worst hitter in the game leading off the final inning. As bad as this decision was, Leyland compounded it by then hitting for Perez to start the ninth. Leyland cost himself Brandon Inge and gained absolutely nothing. His pitcher wasn't going to go more than an inning, and he was going to need a pinch-hitter to start the ninth. Using Omar Infante, who pinch-hit for Perez, at third base for an inning wouldn't have justified the move, but it would have at least saved a player.

    It was a very strange set of decisions for a manager who has thousands of games' worth of experience playing under National League rules. It will be worth keeping an eye on Leyland over the next two games to see if he makes any other mistakes like that. Remember, Leyland has a bad bench and he made virtually no in-game moves with his position players in the first 10 games of this postseason. He may just be unfamiliar with how to use his roster.

    Tony La Russa went with So Taguchi in right field last night, a move I don't really disagree with. By starting his defensive replacement in an outfield corner, however, he does create quandaries. Twice last night, Taguchi came up in high-leverage situations with the Cardinals ahead by a couple of runs, and he didn't come through. When you're ahead, you generally don't hit for your defense, so it's hard to justify taking Taguchi out. There's no right or wrong answer here, it's just worth pointing out that starting your better defensive players can lead to giving up advantages later in the game.

    Letting Taguchi bat paid off in the seventh, when he made a nice sliding grab on a ball hit by Magglio Ordonez.

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 Who,  Tigers,  Managers Of The Year,  Double Switch

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