October 26, 2010
World Series Prospectus
World Series Preview
In baseball as in literature, archetypes tend to be formulaic, proof that fiction falls short of reality when it comes to the power to describe any one thing in shorthand. The need, indeed one of the great benefits of the human mind is to identify patterns, and to peg things that fall within those patterns, or to re-evaluate the pattern as a whole to create some new rubric, some new way of explaining things. Take our current post-season slate: instead of a much-anticipated rematch between the Evil Empire and the Phillies' a-bornin' senior-circuit dynasty, last week we got the pleasure of witnessing imperial ambitions utterly overthrown in both leagues.
So let's chuck the artifice, and stick with the literal instead of the literary. What we have is two teams that created their own definitions of need and risk, before and during the season, and who proved equally adaptive in their plans for 2010. Both teams were operating from strong, established strengths before the season. The Rangers had their defense (fifth in PADE in 2009, first in 2010), providing much more staying power than the much-lauded Rays of '08 did in this regard, and also a top-10 bullpen, this year as in last. The Giants had a tremendous rotation that is a testament to their player development chops, and an underrated bullpen that was even better than the Rangers' unit in both campaigns.
Starting from those strengths, both teams edited their rosters and exploited the opportunities that arose as their competitors faltered. The Giants did so with their constant tinkering in the lineup and by reinforcing that bullpen instead of merely relying on past success stories, the Rangers by fiddling at first base and tweaking a deep pitching staff already populated with magnificent risks in the rotation, but most importantly by breaking out the big-game gun and landing the winning gambit in July by adding Cliff Lee from a fallen foe.
Instead of broadly drawn cartoons and lazily composed morality tales, what we get instead are two ballclubs that are here because they never settled, here because they relentlessly pursued improvement, and clubs who wound up, each in its own way, to becoming testaments to the virtue of human agency. If you go off our adjusted standings report, the Rangers were tied with the Twins for the fifth-best team in their league, while the Giants would fare no better, being couch-bound in October by rating fifth as well. But if you want it, make it so. To the credit of every person in both organizations, from Jon Daniels and Brian Sabean down, both did, giving us a series that should renew hope and faith not just in two markets and for two sets of fans, but in every market, and for all fans.
Almost by definition, these are a pair of merely adequate offenses. The Giants finished tied for eighth in the NL in True Average at .259, while the Rangers were seventh in the AL, at .263. Subtract the DH from the equation, and there isn't a lot of reason to prefer either unit. Neither offense significantly out- or underperformed its offensive expectations: the Rangers were 10 runs up, the Giants two runs down. Set that against the Rays scoring 49 more runs than expected, or the Royals 41 runs less, and that's nothing.
As far as other broad-stroke contrasts, the striking similarity both teams share is that they both don't walk much, as they finished 20th and 21st in walk rate among major-league teams. The Giants were more dependent on homers as a function of their scoring, with a Guillen Number—how many of their runs they scored on homers—of 35.7 percent, good for ranking 11th in the majors, against the Rangers' 32.7 percent, which ranked 18th. Against that, the Rangers enjoyed a two-win advantage in the cumulative value of their baserunning this season, ranking third in the majors and among one of just 10 teams in the black, against the Giants' 23rd-place finish. It probably dovetails rather neatly into those facts that the Giants were the worst team at baseball when it came to killing themselves by hitting into the deuce, while the Rangers were happily mediocre on this score. What you can ferret out of that info is that the Giants are much more of a big-inning ballclub, while not exactly being very good at it, while the Rangers are the scrappers whose efforts get masked a bit by a ballpark that creates its share of happy accidents on offense.
What does this add up to? Something very much like what we've gotten to see in the two previous rounds of post-season play. Whether or not playing without the DH inspires Ron Washington to become even more small ball-oriented, the likelihood that he'll be facing Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in three of those kinds of games should provide added encouragement. Bruce Bochy ought to be similarly run-hungry against Lee. But how matters unfold from there will prove interesting, which we'll return to in the Managers segment below.
Thanks to the All-Star Game's outcome, the DH is only going to be present in three of the seven potential ballgames, which bites into what would otherwise be an obvious Rangers advantage, in that they'd get the benefit of both Vladi Guerrero and David Murphy (or Jeff Francoeur) in the lineup, while the Giants' choices for who to give the at-bats to tend to be less pleasant. On the Giants' side of that dilemma while they're on the road, I could certainly understand if Bochy elects to spot Travis Ishikawa at first for defensive purposes in Texas—especially if Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter are the starters in Games Three and Four, respectively, because that would mean safely depositing Aubrey Huff in the DH slot, keeping in mind that Huff's career numbers aren't spectacularly affected when he's DHing. Against that, there's the likelihood you'd want to hook Ishikawa in-game if he's threatened with a situational lefty, which might put Pablo Sandoval on the spot at first base.
In contrast, Murphy might end up almost unused in the series if the Giants really do queue up Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner for the third and fourth games in Texas, because that ought to put the lamentable Frenchy in the field while Vladi safely scuttles back to his hitter-only sinecure. It's possible that Washington could pull Vladi, his cleanup hitter, in San Francisco and start Murphy in the second of the initial pair of games against Lincecum and Cain, but I suspect he's going to use this as an opportunity to start his best both times out, not unlike his decision to simply sit Julio Borbon and just put Josh Hamilton in center for the duration. The other nuisance about the Rangers' lineup is Washington's decision to bat Bengie Molina ahead of Mitch Moreland, a choice he might elect to perpetuate at his peril in the more run-scarce DH-less contests. Hell, after watching Moreland battle in at-bat after at-bat, I'd love to see him batting sixth, with Ian Kinsler and Molina both moving down a peg, simultaneously creating matchup problems for Bochy's bullpen, but that's me.
But the truly key decision that Washington has to make is whether or not to start Guerrero in the field in the first two games, as opposed to sitting him against either of the Giants' tough right-handed aces. With a full series' worth of Hamilton drawing nothing but IBBs potentially riding on the decision, even in the face of this lineup's already obvious heavy right-ward lean, my expectation is that he's going to have to risk Vladi both times out. That's even if it also creates the scenario of moving the pitcher's slot up to fourth late in the game if a double-switch possibility suggests it. It's best to try and take your best shot initially, see where that gets you the first two or three passes through the lineup, and then adapt as needed.
In the big picture, there's an obvious mismatch here, in that the Rangers have players they might reasonably like using, where the Giants have a Panda they're down on and a clutter of defensive replacements and warm bodies. That might make for a major advantage if Washington elects to be aggressive with double-switching in San Francisco, getting Vladi off the field and swapping in Murphy. Having Borbon around also gives him a quality pinch-runner if he elects to employ one, while Jorge Cantu and Frenchy give him a pair of disposably useful pinch-hitters in a lineup where nobody's likely to get pulled against a lefty reliever. Andres Blanco makes for a premium defensive replacement, but the situations that would encourage Washington to pull Kinsler are few. Matt Treanor should show up in C.J. Wilson's starts, especially after his homering in Game Five of the ALCS, but like Molina there's nothing about him that suggests he shouldn't be swapped out in a double-switch or pinch-hit or pinch-run for. If Washington uses his catcher slot in the lineup as NL skippers already use the pitcher's slot, as a way to employ additional offensive weapons, he'll be helping his club exploit its superiority in this area.
We'll see how much faith, if any, exists for Sandoval and Mike Fontenot as far as starting at third base against anybody, because Edgar Renteria at least has the argument that he's an ex-famous post-season performer. It may well be that, after watching Fontenot struggle to reward the initial desperate faith placed in him, Bochy has finally come around to platooning Sandoval and Renteria, which still adds up to more starts for Renteria if Lee and Wilson provide four of a potential seven starts. Ishikawa and Nate Schierholtz reliably show up in boxes as defensive replacements and pinch-hitters, while depositing Fontenot back on the bench puts him back into the early-use pinch-hitter pile. Aaron Rowand shows up a little less frequently, a status he earned the hard way, but with five extra-base hits and a .560 batting average in 29 PAs against Lee, he might be the man to spot start in Game Five, with Pat Burrell moving to DH. As for Eli Whiteside, you can count on him to be present and accounted for; we'll see if Bochy remembers to give him any time at all, so that he has the bragging right to the grandkids.
As fans and observers, we've been spoiled this October. We've already gotten the spectacle of Lincecum versus Roy Halladay, and even Lee versus Andy Pettitte, so kicking off the Series with this latest epic confrontation figures to be an automatic ratings-booster. As we go to press, the Rangers haven't officially committed to starting Wilson in Game Two, or even Hunter for Game Four, but the Giants already have their ducks in a row, preferring to set up Cain to get the pair of home starts in the Series. Not that it'll help determine the outcome, but it's worth noting that Lewis had a two-hit game in his interleague action this year, and also hit five homers in his two seasons in Japan, so putting him on tap behind Lee for the second turn could provide a minor tactical boost.
Looking at these in terms of the initial geography, the Giants have a lot of things going their way in the initial matchups. Lincecum has been death on right-handers, holding them to .229/.293/.316 on the year, striking out 26.5 percent of them. Subtract Murphy from the Rangers' lineup, and Lincecum will be getting six right-handers and a pitcher in the initial contest. While the Rangers are sure to exploit his inattention to baserunners (27-for-30 success rate on steals against him this season), they shouldn't have a ton of baserunners to begin with. Starting Cain at home provides the club's other ace with the opportunity to pitch in a park that indulges the fly-baller that particular vice. Against that, the Rangers will be counting on Lee's ability to keep shutting everyone down, but he'll be running up against a Giants lineup with a lot of success against lefties: Burrell and Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez and Cody Ross, and even hitters like Renteria and Juan Uribe who have had success against Lee over the years. I'm not arguing that they're going to rough him up, but this is a tougher Game One matchup than might meet the eye at first glance. As for Wilson, I worry a little about how he'll fare the third time through the Giants' order, but he should utterly negate Huff with his stuff.
Switching over to the action in Dallas, the Giants' initial choices for who starts when also means that they'll be tossing both of their lefties in a park that helps the hometown nine, but it's also important to keep in mind that both lineups lost plenty to matchups against southpaws: the Giants' attack drops from a 734 OPS to 716 (although not having Posey, Ross, and Burrell for full seasons contributes to that), while the Rangers dropped from 772 vs. RHPs to 717. Perhaps obviously, this will cut into the chances of any Hamilton heroics in front of the folks at home, but he doesn't become a pushover against lefties, and he's surrounded by hitters who mash in this venue. Bochy can hope that Jonathan Sanchez comes out firing strikes, but he and Bumgarner both generate a lot of flies, and Sanchez's problems in the second inning might create another panic the Giants can ill afford in a Game Three in the World Series as opposed to Game Six in the NLCS. On the season, it's worth noting that Sanchez produced a jarring TTO percentage of 54 in second frame, with more walks but also more Ks in that inning than in any other, suggesting he could again be KO'd early, especially if he doesn't have pitcher slot-driven machinations and flailures to help bail him out of any trouble.
Against that, the Giants will draw Lewis at home, and then what some might expect will be another Hunter-plus-Holland chuck-and-duck combo in the fourth game. On that latter score, I'm not so sure, because Hunter will get to pitch against a team almost tailored for him to face: slow, right-leaning, deuce-happy, and impatient lineup, as well as one with next to no direct experience against him. If anything, I'd peg Hunter to be a minor surprise, with Game Four turning into a surprise pitcher's duel through the first five or six innings. I also very much like the chances of what Lewis will do to a Giants lineup that can be overpowered by a hard-throwing right-hander.
For all the attention going to the headliners in the rotation, this is just about the best bullpen matchup imaginable, because only the Padres boasted a clearly better bullpen than these two teams. The Giants were second in the majors in relief FRA and ARP, and third in WXRL, while the Rangers were third in relief FRA and ARP, and fourth in WXRL. Both clubs were also among the best with inherited baserunners. (For a full list of pitching and defense-related goodies, you might want to check this out.)
Both clubs have excellent closers in Brian Wilson and Neftali Feliz, but the distinction between them is between how they're used: Washington's downright timorous when it comes to putting the former starter into a game any earlier than the ninth, while Bochy is a skipperin' throwback, tossing his fireman into eighth-inning conflndrugrations before stamping out the last flickering hopes of the opposition in the ninth. Both clubs also lack a no-doubt quality set-up man, instead encouraging both skippers to play matchup games up to that instant when they at long last reach for their closers. I'd argue the Giants have less need of one if they're willing to use Wilson in situations other teams turn to their designated set-up hero, where the Rangers have a problem where they might be caught flat-footed if Darren Oliver is going through another spotty patch. Happily, as right-wards as the Giants lean in the lineup, the Darren-on-the-spot most often should be O'Day, in what might be the Series that really puts ROOGYs on the map in terms of popular acceptance.
If there's one area of obvious distinction, however, it has been in the two teams' performances in what I refer to as "transition innings," of the defensive frames that a starting pitcher enters but has to hand off the game to his bullpen. The Rangers ranked 20th overall and 12th in the American League, giving up just over two runs per transition inning while producing 15 scoreless handoffs in 61 opportunities, but allowing three or more runs in those situations in 23, while the Giants were fourth in the NL and ninth overall by allowing 1.7 runs overall, with 14 escapes undamaged in 54 games, and 12 with three or more runs allowed. Which is a dull way of illustrating something we saw something of in the postseason's previous rounds: the Rangers are the more likely team to have an inning like this blow up in their face, which Bochy's Giants are a little better at stanching the bleeding.
Finally, I've italicized the Giants' likely options for the last slot in their pen, as well as three of the Rangers' most likely picks for their last two slots; there has also been mention of Scott Feldman as a late potential addition. For the Giants, the fact that no reason to ever use Guillermo Mota arose in the NLCS suggests a reason to go with a better long-relief alternative in case they ever do get into extra innings, which is exactly what Barry Zito would provide. As is, we'll have to see how Bochy addresses the problem with pitching to Hamilton late in games: use Javier Lopez or Jeremy Affeldt, or just issue an automatic free pass. For Texas, it's highly unlikely it'll repeat the decision to carry four lefty relievers given the paucity of dangerous lefty bats on the Giants' roster, but the question is whether they'll dispatch one or both of Michael Kirkman and Clay Rapada to add Dustin Nippert and Feldman. Whichever way that goes, it's the front five that Washington will be concentrating on employing.
As noted before, the Rangers have become a radically better ballclub afield, rating first in PADE this year after their 2009 fifth-place finish. Keying that improvement from their woeful 29th-place ranking in 2008 was plugging in near-RotY Elvis Andrus in at short last season, and then the later addition of Borbon to the outfield mix, but there's also cause to credit Washington for his work with Kinsler at the keystone. As far as tactical deterrents, they're a more mixed bag: Michael Young and recent first-base convert Moreland aren't very good on covering for bunt plays, and while both Hamilton and Nelson Cruz have great arms, Hamilton's throws seem offline as often as not. While Molina and Treanor aren't opportunity-crushing gunners behind the plate, the Giants only have Andres Torres to play baserunning games with, limiting the chances that much damage will be done to the Rangers with the running game.
Relative to the Rangers' success, what's less well known is that the Giants ranked second, just barely behind the Rangers in PADE, and leading their league in simple Defensive Efficiency as well. That's without a star defender in the middle infield, but they get a major benefit with Uribe at the hot corner, and Sanchez, Uribe, and Renteria are different shades of adequate at second and short. Torres has been excellent at covering ground in center, and with Rowand and Schierholtz around as good-throwing defensive replacements, this is at least one area where the Giants have depth.
One particularly key area will be whether or not Posey's ability to control the running game helps deter the Rangers, because his 37 percent kill rate will be particularly critical working with the non-Lincecums on the staff. In a series already replete with difficult matchups, Posey versus Andrus figures to be one of those inside baseball showdowns that might warm even John McGraw's flinty heart. While Andrus might run wild against Lincecum, I expect Posey to neutralize him almost everywhere else in the Series, especially considering that the Giants' pen is fairly effective at shutting down the running game.
I've already confessed considerable fandom for Bochy's work as far as his demonstrated flexibility with his lineups and his rosters, and I may as well confess to how that regard contributed to some measure of agony when it came to my voting for this year's NL Manager of the Year. (You can rest assured, when the vote's results are published, my thoughts on my ballot will be as well, because I will continue to be fully transparent on every one I cast.) Using Wilson early is a needed, overdue response to a world that got too hung up on what it interpreted as the lesson of Tony La Russa's Eck-centered pen of 20 years ago, and the former Dick Williams player is as aggressive as the old man was in his use of defensive replacements, as well as a demonstrated willingness to take on a few defensive risks. He also doesn't get especially cute on offense, and while the Giants' proclivity for hitting into double plays is one symptom of that, he's not blowing through his outs on one-run strategies this roster isn't really set up for.
Set against that, he's made some strange choices for the back end of his bullpen, and if it hasn't bit him yet, if he gets caught in an extra-inning situation or one too many early exits from a starter, a bullpen overladen with specialists could end up costing him a ballgame. That reliance on one-trick ponies in the pen contributes to his willingness to order up intentional passes, but he's also not shy about having even his best contribute to their baserunner count, as he's ordered Lincecum to issue as many as seven this season, for example.
As much banging on Wash as I've been given to, the man has his virtues, which far transcend in-game tactics, and he gets credit for being a teacher as well as a manager. Put that together with some tactical aggression, and he won't put you to sleep. On the ticky-tack stuff, it's to his credit that he has an unwillingness to issue the free pass. You can complain that he's bunt-happy after leading the AL in sacrifices, but it wasn't like he was indolently letting Daric Barton drop an out on the opposition at will the way one rival would: Wash bunts with the guys you'd expect him to, having Andrus deposit 17, his catchers 13, and Borbon eight.
The pity about this matchup is that it's zero sum: two teams enter, one team leaves, leaving one set of dreams and desperately nurtured ambitions thwarted and without consolation. So, the first game's a toss-up, but here's the thought that enough little things add up so that the Giants achieve the modest upset by jumping out to a 1-0 lead in a game with fewer than six runs scored between the two teams. The second game's outcome is similarly narrow, but let's say Wilson narrowly beats Cain in the game that gives us one of Hamilton's feats of strength while evening out the Series. Switching over to Texas, the Rangers handily win Game Three behind Lewis, but lose Game Four because Hunter's nice contribution gets wasted with some repeated relief shenanigans in the seventh and/or eighth innings. Then the Rangers take a 3-2 Series lead when Lee avenges his first-game loss while the Rangers open up a little on Lincecum, scoring at least four runs on the night. Which puts affairs back in San Francisco, and Cain evens things up with a masterpiece that puts us into a seventh game, which Lewis wins decisively as the Rangers win their first championship in seven games, while Lewis wins Series MVP hardware.
Which is ridiculously elaborate and unlikely, but better to go for the whole cloth, and however ridiculous all that is, the real point is that this should be a Series worth watching from beginning to end, the perfect conclusion to an exceptional postseason, and one so narrowly matched as to defy easy expectation. It's the payoff for fans of baseball, as well as fans of these two teams.