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October 27, 2006

Prospectus Today

Game Four

by Joe Sheehan

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What storyline do you want?

If you're a Cardinals fan, there's the way your team came through in the clutch, the big hits by Scott Rolen, David Eckstein, and Preston Wilson. There's Jeff Suppan gutting his way through six innings, and a bullpen that bent but didn't break. There's a three-week ride from, "my god, we're going to be the biggest chokers ever" to "we need one win to be champs."

Partial to the Tigers' angle? Well, you have the ongoing defensive problems that led directly to three of the last five runs you allowed. Fernando Rodney, Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe all had misplays of one stripe or another that cost you a chance to tie the series. Add in blown opportunities to stretch the lead in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, and you see just how close they came to tying things up at two games apiece.

Looking at things from a greater remove? Well, it's hard not to notice how the conditions affected the play of the game. Would Rolen's fourth-inning hit have been a double on a dry field? Monroe sure seemed to have trouble slowing himself down. (It should be noted that Preston Wilson made a very nice cutoff on a similar ball in the eighth; it was still a double, but Wilson's approach was very adept.) Obviously, Eckstein's seventh-inning double was just a fly ball to center, but Granderson was tackled by the ground at about the 370-foot mark. Wilson's tie-breaking single later in the seventh wasn't a guarantee to score So Taguchi from second, but the ball slowed up considerably when it hit the grass, changing the play.

And then there's the strike zone, ever-changing, shrouded in mystery, coy, flirting, frequently kind, suddenly cruel, the most it will do is throw shadows at you but it's always a strike zone to meeeeee….

It's a joke. Eckstein took a 2-1 fastball for ball three just before he hit his game-winning double. Monroe led off the ninth, saw a pitch at the same height and further away called a strike. That's just the most egregious example I'm going to mention. Bring on the laser beams, and quickly, because the difficulty of the job has gone beyond the ability of the functionaries assigned to do it. World Series titles are worth tens of millions of dollars; the conditions of play should reflect that.

So what actually happened last night? All of it. The Cardinals, who came into Game Four batting in the low .200s with runners in scoring position this month, got some big hits and more good pitching. The work of their bullpen has been amazing this postseason, and they're doing it with a bunch of low-salaried, low-service-time pitchers. The Tigers had another awful game; if their 7-1 romp through the AL playoffs was them at their best, the World Series has shown them at their worst, especially in the field. The condition of the outfield, exposed to all that rain on Wednesday, came into play on a number of key balls, and the strike zone was a secret from pitch to pitch. Put it all together, and the St. Louis Cardinals are up 3-1 in the Series.

We don't know what will happen over the rest of the Series, whether the Tigers will channel 1968 and come back, or the Cardinals will join the 1987 Twins as World Champs people roll their eyes about. It is interesting to note just how clearly this series illustrates the central point of the postseason: it determines a champion, but it doesn't always crown the best team. By most measures, really by any measure when you consider the perceived gap between the leagues, the Tigers are better than the Cardinals. Over the last four games, however, the Cardinals have outplayed the Tigers. Not many people expected that to happen, but how good you are isn't always an indication of how well you'll play over the next few games. The Tigers weren't expected to run over the Yankees and A's in eight games total, but they outplayed them in that span. The Cards did the same in the National League, and have continued to play well in the World Series.

How you value the regular season versus the postseason depends on your personal taste, and while I'm one to get a big dogmatic about the idea that the former is a better experience and a better measure, there's room for disagreement. I'd just be happy if we could acknowledge the differences when evaluating the teams involved, to note that everything we learned about the Tigers and Cardinals between March 31 and October 20 is still valuable information.

Flags fly forever. The beauty of baseball is that the arguments rage for just as long.

  • Eckstein's game-winning ball off of Craig Monroe's glove in left field occurred at the intersection of a number of roads. First, note that David Eckstein, who has been mistaken for batboys, clubhouse kids, fans, little brothers, and Haley Joel Osment, pulled Joel Zumaya's fastball. I don't care what various radar guns say; that tells me Zumaya's forearm/wrist issue is affecting him on the mound.

    As mentioned above, the 2-1 to Eckstein was called a ball. The FoxTrax graphic showed the call to be correct; however, it could just as easily have been called a strike. At 2-2 instead of 3-1-arguably the biggest one-pitch swing outside of 1-0/0-1--Eckstein has to take a different approach, and probably can't yank a ball into the gap.

    Monroe got a poor jump and took an indirect route to the ball. He was playing fairly shallow in left field, which may have been a reaction to the play an inning prior, when Preston Wilson's single hit the grass and slowed dramatically, allowing Taguchi to score from second. Having seen that happen once, Monroe may have been cheating an extra step or two in to prevent the same thing from happening on an Eckstein single.

    It was one pitch, one swing, one play, but if any of those things don't happen, the inning probably turns out differently.

  • After all the talk about Adam Wainwright's curve, he relied on his fastball to close out the game last night, and it seemed to surprise the Tigers. Wainwright blew heaters past Alexis Gomez and Monroe, both of whom seemed prepared for the curve that has been such a story this postseason. Wainwright's fastball is good enough to miss bats, and when he's mixing pitches, with the fastball up and the curve down, he borders on impossible to hit.

  • Wainwright did use the curve on Curtis Granderson, who's locked in his own private hell right now. As Keith Law of ESPN.com has pointed out, Granderson simply isn't seeing the curve, which makes a matchup with the breaking-ball-heavy Cardinals staff a problem.

    What's odd is that he's had some success against breaking balls in this month. Remember, Granderson hit a critical double off of the Yankees' Mike Mussina in an at-bat where he fought off some breaking pitches. Granderson has some pitch-recognition issues, and because of that, he may never be a superstar. I think he can be Brady Anderson without the big year, however, and that's a very good player.

  • Where did Fernando Rodney come from? He's looked dominant in this Series, and while his defense-a throwing error that tied the game for the Cards-hurt the Tigers, his pitching has been a revelation. He throws the change and the fastball with the exact same delivery, and with 10-15 mph between the two, the sweet spot for fastball/change-up pitchers.

    Call me crazy, but I think there's maybe a 20% chance that Rodney develops into Trevor Hoffman. Remember that Hoffman, a converted shortstop, was something of a late bloomer, not getting a full-time closer job until 1995. I'm not arguing that Rodney is going to the Hall of Fame; but I do think the next 300 innings he throws could feature an ERA around 2.00 with a great strikeout rate.

    Tony La Russa has decided to skip Anthony Reyes and go with Jeff Weaver in Game Five, which in theory will be played tonight. I didn't like the idea at first; now, I'm apathetic towards it. The difference between Reyes and Weaver right now isn't much, although I think Reyes is better, and starting Weaver in Busch prevents Leyland from getting an extra lefty bat in the lineup via the DH spot. Reyes moves to the bullpen as the long man, something the Cardinals don't really have.

    Leyland has no reason to modify his rotation, because he now has to win three games in a row. If Kenny Rogers was set up to pitch Game Six in Detroit, well, the Tigers still need to win Game Six in Detroit. Justin Verlander wasn't that great in Game One against the Tigers, but he'd been effective in two previous starts, and his stuff looked very lively on Saturday.

    The Tigers aren't going to rise or fall on their starting pitching, anyway. They need to stop making ridiculous mistakes in the field, and they need to hit some home runs. If they don't do both, they aren't going to win the World Series.

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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