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October 28, 2006

Prospectus Today

Game Last

by Joe Sheehan

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Four reasons why we have an 83-78 team as World Champion this morning:

  1. The Cardinals bullpen, which consists of Braden Looper and six guys who combined don't make what Looper does, was virtually unhittable in October in high-leverage situations. Adam Wainwright, Josh Kinney, Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson-the four guys who pitched when the games were in doubt--allowed one run in 29 postseason innings, striking out 37 and walking nine.

    In September, when the Cards were going in reverse, those guys had an ERA of 4.45. Their peripherals were comparable, but the struggles of Johnson and Flores in matchup roles contributed heavily to the Cards' near-collapse. Those two guys got critical outs in almost every one of the Cardinals' 11 wins this month. The improvement in the bullpen is the biggest reason why the Cards went 11-5 in October.

    It's fair to wonder what would have happened had Jason Isringhausen been healthy enough to continue pitching. Isringhausen would have remained the closer, and perhaps a critical game or two would have been lost along the way. Isringhausen's injury allowed--or forced, if you prefer--Tony La Russa to put the later innings into the hands of inexperienced pitchers. Extrapolate for yourself the importance of a veteran closer versus just having guys who can pitch.

  2. The Cardinals' defense, above average in the regular season, was terrific in October. They beat the Mets largely by reducing hits on balls in play to a bare minimum. Against the Tigers, they did it again, allowing a .233 batting average on balls in play. The Tigers never walk-just eight times in the World Series-and with the hits taken away, they were left with far too few baserunners to actually produce runs.

  3. In addition, the Cardinals' pitchers took away the Tigers' one consistent weapon: the home run. The Tigers hit 203 homers during the season and another 13 in taking out the Yankees and A's in four games apiece. They hit four in five World Series games.

    What's odd is that there's often a backlash against teams that hit for power, with the most common criticism being that they're too one-dimensional. This ill-conceived idea drove a lot of the criticism of the 2000-03 A's, as well as virtually any team that was both good at scoring runs and better at doing that than preventing them. However, the 2006 Tigers were one of the most one-dimensional teams you could find-they don't run, they don't draw walks and they don't have great average or doubles hitters. They hit home runs, that's all they did, and when they stopped hitting them, their season ended in short order. Even the 2005 White Sox had some speed; these Tigers had none. Where's the hue and cry over their one-dimensional offense and how it failed them in the postseason?

  4. Finally, the Tigers' defense just no-showed for a week. They made mental and physical errors all series long. Every single loss featured multiple plays on which Tigers made a wrong decision, took a bad route, misplayed a ball or threw one away. It is very rare that you can really evaluate a defensive performance based just on the highlights or lowlights. In the 2006 World Series, though, you can trace the destruction of the Tigers to a string of errors that cost them four games at the wrong time.

  • There's not much to say about Game Five that isn't covered in the paragraphs above. The Cardinals caught the ball and gave up one homer; their bullpen threw a shutout inning; and the Tigers played defense like it was the father-son game.

    Brandon Inge is going to have trouble sleeping for a while. He managed a trifecta of bad, making a critical error in the second, running into an unnecessary out in the third, and striking out on three pitches to end the game.

    The physical error in the third, the throw, is the one on highlight reels, but I think that the throw was the least of Inge's problems last night. The decision to rush the throw to first was probably unnecessary, as he had time to set himself. The bigger mistake was going to first. Yadier Molina was well off the third-base bag on his way home, but he wasn't running hard and he's not fast when he does. Any kind of attempt to throw him out would likely have succeeded. It would have been an unorthodox play, but at the moment Inge corraled David Eckstein's grounder, it was his best chance to get an out. A good throw to first also would have gotten it done. The two decisions Inge made-to go to first and to do so hastily-were his undoing, and they allowed the Cards to take the lead.

    The baserunning mistake in the third will be lost to history, but I think it was even more damaging than the throwing error. Inge was on second with one out and Justin Verlander up. Verlander hit a one-hopper to Jeff Weaver, and Inge took off for third. Bad decision. With one out already, getting to third doesn't mean as much; you can't go on contact there, you have to wait for the ball to get past the pitcher and be to your left. Inge's leaving too soon cost the Tigers a base, and when Curtis Granderson singled to center, it looked to have cost them a game-tying run.

    Regular readers will note that I have often argued for aggressive baserunning of the kind Inge displayed, and accuse me of results-oriented analysis. ("He was out, so it was a bad decision.") It's a fair point, but the play was too easy for Weaver. Inge doesn't have the raw speed to make it a tough decision to take the play on him, and the ball wasn't a difficult one to handle. Inge simply made his decision too quickly and was caught off the bag in a situation where the base was worth more than the slim possibility of him being safe.

    OK, I confess that I wrote that before looking up the run-expectancy data, and now I'm wondering if I'm not wrong. Inge essentially traded an expectancy of .36 runs (runner on second, two outs) for an expectancy of .24 runs (runner on first, two outs), while trying to gain a base and an out to get to a situation with an expectancy of 1.17 runs (runners on the corners, one out). To make that work, he'd have to be safe ((.36-.24)/(1.17-.36)) = 12.3% of the time, or 1-in-8. In the specific context of the play-putting a pitcher on at first base, down 1-0 in the third inning-I'd expect that the value of the base isn't entirely reflected in the figures above, and the breakeven is higher, approaching 20%.

    So with that new information, was Inge's play a mistake? At the risk of turning up in another blog post, I'll say that it was. I don't think he had a 1-in-5 chance of being safe there. Perhaps in an intrasquad game he would have, but not against the Cardinals.

    One last Inge point: on the ball Justin Verlander threw away in the fourth, the one that led to a pair of decisive runs…I don't know why he didn't make the play. Verlander's throw was bad, short and left of the bag, but with Yadier Molina running, Inge had time to come off the bag, field the ball and still get the force. He lunged, the ball got by him and the Series was effectively over. Whereas he had no real chance to make a play on Joel Zumaya's ball in Game Three, I thought he could have saved this one with a minimum of effort.

    Maybe I'm picking on Inge, who is well-regarded defensively, but the plays he made in last night's game were indicative of a player who isn't making all the right decisions. He had opportunities in the field and on the bases, and he never seemed to convert them. It's not the physical mistakes so much as the erros of judgment, or the inability to see the entire play. The savvy to make an unorthodox play, an awareness of the baserunner's speed, a knowledge of game situation on the bases…he didn't display any of that last night.

  • Flags fly forever, and I'm happy for the Cardinals fans I know. They may wish to skip to the next bullet point.

    This was one of the weakest World Series in memory. I don't mean that as a criticism of the quality of the teams, but of the play itself. The Tigers were just awful. There's no way around that. The Cardinals took advantage of that, and they played well in spurts-especially their pitchers-but they weren't exactly sharp. They left a ton of runners on base, they themselves made more than a few defensive misplays, and the quality of their at-bats often left something to be desired.

    Fans, and the less-critical corners of the media, are welcome to embrace the Cardinals and create storylines about raising their level of play and coming up big when it counted and grit and guts and what have you. It might ring more true if it wasn't the standard storyline for every single team that wins a championship: they're better people than the guys who lost.

    If you're objective, though, you look at the 2006 World Series and you see games that turned almost entirely not on good plays, but on bad ones. Whether three-pitch at-bats or pitchers throwing baseballs all over kingdom come or outfielders turning a 5'6" shortstop into a doubles hitter, this World Series was poorly played. It was a five-game series-there are very few good five-game World Series-with just one late-game turnaround, not much tension, and the defining moment is probably a center fielder going top over teakettle.

  • Speaking of World Series MVPs…hey, look, he's a nice little story, but as Clay Davenport pointed out, David Eckstein basically hit two routine fly balls that the Tigers turned into doubles Thursday night. He tacked on two "singles" last night because Inge and Carlos Guillen couldn't make plays on ground balls. Scott Rolen, who bounced back from a brutal NLCS to hit .421, slug .737 and play a terrific third base, was robbed. For that matter, I might take Chris Carpenter, Jeff Weaver or even Adam Wainwright for Series MVP. Not only were they all more valuable than Eckstein, they would be more representative of why the Cardinals won-run prevention-than Eckstein is.

    Chris Duncan may never be allowed to play the outfield again after his performance this October, but it should be noted that his fourth-inning drop of a Magglio Ordonez fly ball, a drop that cost the Cardinals a run, wasn't entirely his fault. Jim Edmonds came at him like a defender trying to scare a punt returner into dropping a fair catch, getting close enough to be a distraction without actually getting his hands on the ball. Duncan gets the error, but Edmonds gets an assist.

    Jeff Weaver, World Series hero. For those of use who don't think a player should ever be judged on his performance in a short series, or even a handful of short series, that's kind of cool. Weaver, like Kenny Rogers, put the lie to the idea that he lacked whatever noun is in this week that makes pitchers effective in October. He's just a pitcher who didn't pitch well at one point in time, and did pitch well at another. It will be very interesting, given his roller-coaster 2006, the market for pitching and the ungodly amounts of money floating around, to see what kind of offers he gets this winter.

So I have a confession to make. As you may recall, I went 0-6 picking the winners of the first six playoff series. I was comfortable with my analysis of most series; things just happened, as they do in October, off script. It's what makes October fun.

Anyway, when I sat down to look at the Cardinals and Tigers, I definitely didn't see the gap between the two teams that others did. In fact, I saw enough in the Cards to make them my pick to win the series. (I'm not just bragging, I'm getting to a point.) Regardless of who I liked, though, I had to pick them to win in seven games. I had to, because on the day of the scheduled seventh game, two very good friends of mine-Sophia and I actually introduced them-would be getting married in the late afternoon.

This conflict has been hanging over my head for the entire season. (As it is, I missed the rehearsal dinner last night.) I was horrified by the idea that I might have to tell these two people that I would miss their wedding for a baseball game, and just as horrified by the idea that I might have to not cover Game Seven of the World Series. So to ensure that this wouldn't happen, I simply picked the series to go the distance, putting my powers to use for good.

With last night's result, my work here is done. The season is over-and I'm sure that will hit me soon-and thanks to my prognostication skills, I'm free to attend the wedding Sunday. Don't think I had anything to do with it? Hey, it's as rational as some of the other explanations we hear for what happens in October. Chemistry, veteran leadership, character, predictions of some loudmouth with a keyboard…it's all kept in the same bin. I'll put my ability to end a World Series in five games up against anyone's.

Seriously, though, let me say thanks to everyone who took this ride. In a job that is far cooler than I deserve, October is a peak, a rush, every single year. I don't work as hard, write as much or get as immersed in the game as I do during the playoffs, and I'm able to do that in no small part because I know there are people out there who read this stuff. There are people who challenge me, insult me, debate me and inform me, and that feedback is critical to my making this space better. I love this gig, and it only works because of the readers. Thank you. Thank you for reading Prospectus Today and all the rest of the work we do here at BP.

I'll be back Tuesday with some odds, some ends…and one request.

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:  World Series,  World Champion,  The Who,  Tigers,  Running Game,  October

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