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February 8, 2008

Caribbean Series 2008

Day Six

by Derek Jacques

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SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic--All good things must come to an end, and the 2008 Caribbean Series was no exception. The question was not if it would end but when-Thursday night with a win by Licey at its hated rivals' stadium, or Friday night, in a tiebreaker between the Dominican teams?

Before we could have an answer to that question, the two eliminated teams, Mexico and Venezuela, would face off in the early game. It would be a lie to say that this game was more than just an afterthought for those of us preoccupied with the big nightcap, but coming off of Mexico's stunning victory over Licey, I thought it would be interesting to do the same kind of lineup analysis for Mexico that we did for Venezuela on Day Three:

Name            POS     EqA     PECOTA or NOTES
Oscar Robles     SS    .224     .219
Jorge Padilla    CF    .285     (AA, .247 in AAA)
Armando Rios     1B    .288     (AAA, in 2004)
Robert Saucedo   DH    .238
Reggie Taylor    LF    .273
Carlos Valencia  2B    .212
Albino Contreras RF    .222
Agustin Murillo  3B    .253
Said Gutierrez   C     .235
---
Alfredo Amezaga        .253     .240
Carlos Rivera          .309
Iker Franco            .200

In addition to the fellows in the lineup, I threw in three bodies from the bench: Alfredo Amezaga-who got Day Six off-as well as Carlos Rivera and Iker Franco, who'd been in the lineup regularly. The results aren't as brutal as you'd expect. There was a tendency to underrate Mexico because it had a 0-4 record coming into the big victory against the Dominicans, and because the team featured fewer brand names than last season's Mexican squad, which got creamolished up until the final day. Mexico's foreign players-Reggie Taylor, Rivera, Jorge Padilla-actually had pretty good 2007 seasons in their leagues, and Agustin Murillo and Amezaga were decent. Amezaga and Oscar Robles both get PECOTA projections, beating out the Venezuelans, who only had one position player with a projection (SS-CF Alberto Callaspo).

The game between Mexico and Venezuela was tight and suspenseful…until it wasn't. The teams were knotted at two runs apiece from the fourth inning until the ninth, when the floodgates opened with veteran lefty Andrew Lorraine on the mound. Venezuela struck back in the bottom half of the final inning, but came up short; so after eight innings of a riveting pitching duel, you got an inning of messy, poorly-pitched 5-3 baseball. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the Mexicans win, if only for the extreme raucousness of their fans. It was as if, by grabbing a tie for third place at 2-4, they had been crowned the tournament's secret champions.

But once the Mexican celebration was over, it was time to get to the business of selecting a non-covert champion. Day One starters Jose Capellan and Alfredo Simon (confusing because he's listed by dual surnames in the Dominican press-Alfredo Simon Cabrera-and then, he's always simply referred to as Simon) got the ball to start the game for Licey and Cibao, respectively, but both managers made it clear that just about everyone on their roster was available to pitch, a particularly scary prospect in the face of Cibao manager Felix Fermin's Captain Hook tendencies.

Here were the lineups the two pitchers would face, put under the same kind of magnifying glass we applied to the Mexicans and Venezuelans:

LICEY                     2007      2008
                           EqA    PECOTA
Emilio Bonifacio   LF     .216     .236
Erick Aybar        SS     .195     .247
Juan Francisco     3B     .191     .198
Nelson Cruz        RF     .224     .274
Jose Bautista      CF     .262     .267
Jose Offerman      1B     .249 (in 2006)
Timo Perez         DH     .272     .272
Ronnie Belliard    2B     .267     .258
Matt Tupman        C      .226     .187
EAGLES
Bernie Castro      LF     .237
Rafael Furcal      2B     .245     .262
Miguel Tejada      SS     .270     .273
Edwin Encarnacion  3B     .268     .282
Brayan Pena        C      .243     .239
Mendy Lopez        1B     .265
Alexis Gomez       CF     .240
Victor Diaz        RF     .258     .259
Tony Pena Jr.      SS     .214     .226

The biggest difference between these lineups and the ones that played the early game isn't so much in last year's EqAs as in the prevalence of players that we've given PECOTA profiles. Only three position players in the Mexican and Venezuelan lineups had projections; meanwhile, between the two Dominican lineups, only four men don't have projections. It's a somewhat subjective basis for evaluation, but Nate Silver only does projections for players we think either could play in the majors in 2008 or are major prospects whose future will interest fans. Looking at the projections, the one that's really flabbergasting is the idea of Timo Perez delivering a .272 EqA this year-to me, he was a forgotten man. PECOTA also sees Edwin Encarnacion getting a nice boost this season, perhaps being a breakout candidate.

On the other side of the projection coin you have Matt Tupman. Sometimes, other writers and I here at BP will anthropomorphize PECOTA a bit, saying stuff like "PECOTA thinks" this or "PECOTA feels" that. If we did that in this case, it would be "PECOTA hates Matt Tupman." But the fact is PECOTA doesn't think anything, or hate anyone. It's an algorithm, not a person. It can't be bargained with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you're…

Oh, sorry. Talking about artificial intelligence sometimes brings out the Kyle Reese in me. The point is, it's a projection, not destiny. People sometimes get mad at us when PECOTA spits out a bad projection for someone they like. That doesn't make sense to me-you might as well blame Henry Chadwick when someone has a poor batting average. Personally, I hope that Matt Tupman bucks the odds, since he seems like a nice guy, and it's way more fun to watch ballplayers succeed than fail. After all, as I mentioned, it's a projection, not destiny.

We'll have some bullet points for the game:

  • I was still shaking my head in disbelief of the PECOTA projection for Timo Perez when he launched a double that drew first blood for Licey. I mean, this is still the 33-year-old with a .268/.309/.382 career line, right? There isn't another, better Timoniel Perez out there?
  • Just when the Licey fans were starting to feel good about themselves, Rafael Furcal, the guy who stomped them in the Dominican League Finals, clouted a two-run homer to right. He's turned on the ball well in winter ball-if Furcal's power returns to the point that he can hit double-digits in homers this year, it would go a long way toward beating his projection.
  • The Aguiluchos only had a short break between innings in which to crow, because Licey came right back at them with a pair of one-out hits that drove Simon from the game; he was replaced by Day Three starter Fabio Castro. Castro was greeted by three straight hits, including a double by Erick Aybar (who I earlier wrongfully accused of being AWOL) and a single where switch-hitter Juan Francisco switched back to his left side against southpaw Castro. Four runs later, Licey had the game by the throat, and was about to kick it into cruise control.
  • With a 6-2 lead, and Capellan shaky-he'd walked five batters through three innings, repeating the problems with feel for his fastball that he had early in the first game of the tourney-La Manta took a page out of Fermin's book, and brought in his own Day Three starter, Ramon Ortiz.

  • It was around this time that the head of the press center, Jorge Torres, came around with our All-Tournament team ballots, with instructions that we had to have them filled by the seventh inning. Right.

    Some of the All-Tournament team decisions were easy-Nelson Cruz in the outfield, Roberto Saucedo at DH, Luis Maza at third, Furcal at second. Some were difficult because the field was weak or hard to select from. Universally, the first basemen in this tournament were pretty lousy, and some teams, like Licey and the Mexicans, rotated a series of players through the position. There was a slot for best left-handed pitcher that was befuddling-I usually don't keep track of lefties as a group to themselves, except when we're talking relievers. The managers each had their less-than-impressive moments. It's very hard to issue awards based on six games' data (or five and a half games' worth, for the two teams still playing). Many people didn't have the daily stats sheet they passed out in the press center, and some were now scrambling to get their hand on one to figure things out. Others didn't want to hear about no stinkin' stats, and others still hunkered around my computer as I pulled up the numbers.

    During my chat on Tuesday, someone mentioned having trouble accessing Caribbean Series and other winter league box scores. I intended to mention then, but didn't, that my go-to site for winter stats and box scores was the winter league page at MLB.com. The interface is not perfect, but all the winter league games are there, they're updated regularly, and the Caribbean Series games even featured Gameday, which is on my short list of essential internet services. Looking at the stats helped with some decisions: Mendy Lopez's empty .346 average as the top first-base performance, Tony Pena Jr. at shortstop, Jose Bautista and Alberto Callaspo in the outfield.

    The last decisions on my ballot were catcher and MVP. Behind the plate the top two guys were playing as we made out our ballots, and they were perilously close to each other in performance to boot. I chose Brayan Pena because of some defensive and baserunning mistakes Tupman had made earlier in the series; by the end of the game-after turning in my ballot-I felt I'd probably made a mistake. The other big problem was MVP. I'd already picked Nelson Figueroa as my best right-handed pitcher-for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who read yesterday's column-and I was actually toying with him as MVP. To my mind, there wasn't a single dominating performance in the field, and the top moment of the tournament was him coming out of the pen to shut down Licey in the ninth on Day Five. It was then that I noticed that Ramon Ortiz had thrown three shutout innings, and that he was likely in line for the win. That, combined with the six and two-thirds shutout innings he pitched against the Eagles…yeah, that's my MVP. So I put him on my ballot. In a move that might bother some of the awards-voting purists in the crowd, I left Figueroa as best right-handed pitcher. I could make up some fancy explanation about how a right-handed pitcher can be MVP and yet not be the best right-handed pitcher, but I won't. The fact is, I'd already written in Figueroa's name and didn't want to scratch it out. Since I thought both men deserved acknowledgment anyway, it wasn't a problem for me.

  • After we handed in our ballots, I saw a small problem with my plan: Ortiz was still on the mound. I turned to a Venezuelan colleague who'd also voted for Ortiz and asked, "What if he, y'know, blows the game, here?"
    "I guess we ask for out ballots back," was his reply.
  • No need for me to ask for my ballot back, as the Tigers breezed to an 8-2 win for the title. In the ninth, Licey scored another couple of runs and was in open celebration mode. A few of the Licey players had been doing hip bumps-think the jumping chest bump, just from the side with an aerial hip check-all tournament long, but after one of the ninth inning runs scored, the boys set up a hip-check line, two rows of players trading bumps in the same way they sometimes trade handshakes after a win. The smaller guys, like Erick Aybar and Anderson Hernandez, really get some air; I thought, "this is all fun and games until someone rolls an ankle." But that was the point: it was all fun and games. It was the Caribbean Series. Watching the players behave like little kids 'cause they're enjoying playing the game is part of why we watch.

So that's it for our coverage from Santiago. There might be some additional thoughts I'll put up on Unfiltered, but they'll be from the hotel in Puerto Plata, or later, when I get home. It's been a long week and I'm quite tired-not having a seventh game was a relief-but I'm also counting the days to Caribbean Series 2009, in Mexicali, Mexico.

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

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