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October 13, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Four: Cruz Control

by R.J. Anderson

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Prior to Game Four, if you asked some well-meaning, in-tune baseball fans whether they considered Rick Porcello to be a good pitcher, I suspect most would have said no. Perhaps an overwhelming majority would have said no, and for good reason. Despite pitching in run-suppressing Comerica Park, Porcello has a career 94 ERA+, a generous figure given his career 87 FRA+. Porcello has never thrown 200 or more innings in a season, never struck out more than 104 batters, never posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of more than 2.3, or accomplished any numerical feat that serves as an earmark for good pitching.

I suspect that the people who would have said yes, categorizing Porcello as a good pitcher, may have meant relative to his age. Remember, Porcello will not turn 23 years old until a couple of days after Christmas. Justin Verlander was cherub-faced when he led the Tigers to the 2006 World Series, and he was 23. To put Porcello’s age into further perspective: he is younger than a pair of Rookie of the Year candidates (Ivan Nova and Jeremy Hellickson—both 24) and six months older than baseball’s new wunderkind (Matt Moore). Porcello has the major-league experience of a veteran and the age of a baby. Still, Porcello’s 2011 season has not been a good one, even for a 22-year-old. Since 2006, 23 22-year-old pitchers have thrown 100-plus innings, and 17 finished with a better ERA+, 19 with a better strikeout per nine innings ratio, and eight with a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. Saying Porcello is a good pitcher would be inaccurate—with or without the age modifier.

If you asked those same well-meaning and in-tune baseball fans whether they thought Porcello was pitching well through five innings, I suspect all of them would have said yes. For those five innings, Game Four looked like Porcello’s coming out party. No team struck out less often or recorded hits more often than the Rangers during the regular season, yet Porcello had six strikeouts and allowed just two hits through those five innings. His four-seam fastball hit into the mid-90s, his two-seam fastball led to a number of ground outs, and his slider caused a few Rangers to swing and miss. Everything Porcello did seem to work.

Take the fifth inning. Porcello allowed Mike Napoli to single with one out, bringing up Nelson Cruz. There might be no more terrifying batter hitting seventh in a lineup than Cruz, so Porcello had every right to fist pump when he induced a comebacker that led to a half-inning-ending double play, but how that double play formed is almost as important. Porcello fielded the ball, spun, and threw an arch that appeared to be off-center and heading into center field, but then shortstop Jhonny Peralta stepped into view, plucked the ball from the air, touched second, and fired to first to complete the play. It seemed like Porcello could do no wrong, not on throws to home, not on throws to a base.

But, as we learned in the sixth inning, Porcello could still do wrong, and did. David Murphy led the inning off with a single, and then Ian Kinsler hit a double down the left-field line that plated Murphy thanks to a discombobulated Delmon Young. Kinsler would steal third, and Elvis Andrus would single to tie the game up. Just like that, the coming out party was over, and the ice cream cake had to be put back in the freezer. Porcello paid close attention to Andrus before hitting him on a throw over, thus allowing Andrus to scurry to second base. Michael Young would then single and the Rangers had the lead, and Porcello’s night on the mound was over.

Porcello is a photogenic lad, and FOX seemingly kept a camera on him throughout the rest of the game, including when Brandon Inge—who moments earlier hit the game-tying home run—hugged him in the dugout, or did at least until the game went into extra innings and the Rangers took the lead. From an unexpected hero to goat to almost a negligible afterthought in six innings, that’s how fast the outlook can change during a baseball game, and that’s why, try as you might, predicting what will happen in a single game is a fool’s errand. After this postseason, I suspect most well-meaning and in-tune baseball fans will agree with that.

  • Then again, Miguel Cabrera doing something big is predictable. Cabrera knocked in two with a double in the third inning and walked three times. One of those walks deserves its own bullet.
  • In the eighth, Ron Washington elected to intentionally walk Cabrera with one out and none on. Victor Martinez then singled to right because the first baseman Young was holding Cabrera—yes, Cabrera—at the bag. Cabrera advanced to third during the run of play on the Martinez single, then attempted to tag up on a Delmon Young fly out to right field, but predicatively a good throw from Nelson Cruz allowed Mike Napoli to tag him for the out. Consider it the holy trinity of Game Four bad ideas, all packed into one half-inning.
  • A sub-question for Jim Leyland is why he decided not to pinch-run for Cabrera once he reached third base. You have to weigh the chances of another Cabrera at-bat versus the speed differential, but in the eighth inning at home, it seems like a fair bet to go with the upgrade on the basepaths.
  • Another questionable move came in the bottom of the 10th. Austin Jackson attempted a steal with one out and Cabrera on deck, but was thrown out. Jackson has a career 82 percent success rate on stolen bases; meanwhile, Napoli has a career-best kill rate of 36 percent this season. The benefit of a successful steal is that a single wins the game and ensures Cabrera an at-bat. The downside of a caught stealing is the potential that Cabrera has to wait until the next inning to bat, or that Texas would pitch around him if he does come up in the 10th. It seems like holding Jackson and giving Cabrera a chance to end the game with his own hands might have been the shrewd move.
  • Some more intentional walk madness occurred in the 11th. With Josh Hamilton on second and one out, Jose Valverde gave Adrian Beltre a free pass in order to face Napoli. You can argue that the walk was smart because it set up a double play, but Napoli grounded into a twin killing at a league-average rate this season and slightly less than league-average rate throughout his career. Besides, Napoli had the second-highest True Average in baseball this season, and giving him the chance to knock in the go-ahead run with a single seems a little silly.
  • It was silly, as Leyland found out, since Napoli did single on a loopy fly ball to center field. Hamilton did score, and the Rangers took their second lead of the night.
  • Nelson Cruz then hit a three-run home run, adding another nail to the Tigers’ coffin.
  • Don Kelly and not Wilson Betemit hit for Delmon Young with the game on the line against the righty Feliz. Betemit now has seven fewer plate appearances in the ALCS than Kelly, despite hitting .303/.365/.500 versus righties this season and .277/.348/.469 for his career (Kelly’s best against righties in each of the slash line categories forms an aggregate line of .271/.340/.398). Betemit would not have changed the game’s outcome, but Leyland’s opposition to using him should be a point of consternation for a Tigers team that needs to be exploiting every potential advantage. And keep in mind, while Feliz has reverse splits, Kelly is a lefty only; Betemit could have batted righty if Leyland really wanted to try something risqué.
  • Game Five is scheduled to begin shortly after 4 p.m. (EST) on Thursday, with Justin Verlander trying to keep the Tigers’ season alive while C.J. Wilson attempts to punch the Rangers’ ticket to the World Series for the second straight season. 

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

Related Content:  Rick Porcello,  Single

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