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October 27, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Three Preview: Giants at Tigers

by Daniel Rathman

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The Giants held serve at AT&T Park, winning the first two games of the series by thrashing Justin Verlander behind Barry Zito in the opener and riding Madison Bumgarner in a duel with Doug Fister on Thursday night. Now, it’s up to the Tigers to take at least two of three in Detroit to send the series back to San Francisco. Step one is winning tonight’s Game Three, which may hinge on one offering by each starter that is crucial to his success.

Giants (Ryan Vogelsong) vs. Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) – 7:30 p.m. ET

Projected Starting Lineups:

Giants vs. Sanchez (R)

Tigers vs. Vogelsong (R)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Quintin Berry, LF (L)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

Delmon Young, DH (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

Andy Dirks, RF (L)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Hector Sanchez, DH (S)

Alex Avila, C (L)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

Sanchez spent the first four months of the season in Miami before heading to Detroit along with Infante in late July, so unlike Verlander and Fister, he has recent experience against San Francisco to rely on and mistakes to learn from. He faced the Giants on May 3 at AT&T Park and on May 24 at Marlins Park, locking horns with Vogelsong both times and posting starkly different results.

In the May 3 outing, Sanchez—who is 3-0 with two complete-game shutouts and a 0.36 ERA in his career at China Basin—scattered seven hits (all singles) and a walk over seven innings of one-run ball, striking out five Giants along the way. Three weeks later, despite recording seven strikeouts, he was shelled for five runs in 5 1/3 innings and allowed seven hits, two of which went for extra bases. What was the difference? Take a look at the pitch charts below:

May 3

May 24

The 28-year-old Sanchez was considerably more effective against left-handed batters (.243/.299/.347 triple-slash line against) than his fellow righties (.291/.324/.473) this year, and while the magnitude of the gap is amplified by the small sample size of plate appearances, the reverse-split trend—699 OPS for lefties, 729 for righties—has held firm over the course of his career. As is often the case with pitchers who are effective against opposite-handed batters, the reason is a plus changeup, and Sanchez’s ranks among the best in the game.

Notice that in the May 3 chart, most of Sanchez’s changeups hit the bottom quartile of the strike zone, with six of them crossing the hitting area right at the knees. Conversely, on May 24, Sanchez sprayed his changeups erratically, missing way outside with four of them and leaving four others belt-high. The Giants took advantage—both because they were able to capitalize on the elevated changeups and because the control issues forced Sanchez to turn to lesser offerings when he was behind in the count—and the ugly box-score line from the 14-7 slugfest told the story.

Interestingly, despite Sanchez’s well-supported reverse-split trend, built over a sample of more than 3,700 plate appearances, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said yesterday that he had chosen backup catcher Hector Sanchez to be his designated hitter in Game Three because he wanted an additional lefty bat in his lineup. In doing so, Bochy appears to be betting his seemingly infallible postseason track record on one game, played five months and three days ago, in which Pagan and Blanco collected two of the five extra-base hits Sanchez has surrendered in five career meetings with the Giants.

And that’s why Sanchez’s changeup is critical to the Tigers’ success tonight. If it’s on, Bochy’s strategy may backfire. If it’s not, the Giants will have one more powerful, if unpolished, hitter waiting to pounce.

Vogelsong has a quality changeup in his arsenal, too, but the key for the Giants’ starter is—as I wrote in the previews for his past two playoff assignments—his two-seam fastball.

The two-seamer is Vogelsong’s best weapon against right-handed batters, and he wore down the Cardinals in Game Six of the National League Championship Series by throwing it repeatedly on the inner half of the plate, or in brush-back territory a few inches off the left-hand black. Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, and David Freese—who hit fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in St. Louis manager Mike Matheny’s order—went a combined 1-for-12 with five strikeouts, enabling the Giants to cruise to a 6-1 win.

Tigers skipper Jim Leyland has a more balanced lineup than Matheny did, with the ability to mix Jackson, Cabrera, Young, and Peralta with the lefty-swinging Berry, Fielder, Dirks, and Avila, but if Vogelsong can neutralize the righties, Detroit will have as much trouble stringing together hits as it did in Games One and Two. On the other hand, if the 35-year-old struggles to command his two-seamer, as he did during his month-long slump between mid-August and mid-September, the Tigers have the talent to wake up with a roar.

One Tiger, in particular, should be salivating at the chance to step in against Vogelsong, a favorite foe he must have thought would prove elusive after he returned to the American League this summer.  That Tiger, as you may have inferred from the hint, is Infante, who went 6-for-8 against Vogelsong in May, padding his overall line to 7-for-11 with seven singles and two steals, and earning his spot in the Matchup of the Game.

Vogelsong has pitched Infante every which way—backward, forward, all fastballs, no fastballs—and the 30-year-old second baseman has persistently been a thorn in his side. Hitting at the bottom of Leyland’s lineup against right-handed starters, Infante is tasked with turning over the order and catalyzing crooked-number rallies. If Infante gets aboard, Vogelsong may face Jackson and Cabrera in high-stress situations out of the stretch. If he doesn’t, Vogelsong will have more room for error in his showdowns with the sluggers.

And speaking of room for error, home-plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth won’t provide much of it. As his umpire card shows, the 15-year veteran is somewhat inconsistent with the boundaries—and occasionally impressed by pitches several inches off the left-hand (from his perspective) corner—but Culbreth has a tight strike zone on the whole. That generosity with the inside edge to right-handed batters could serve to bolster Vogelsong’s two-seamer, but Sanchez’s superior control may be better suited for Culbreth’s picky tastes overall.

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

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