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September 30, 2009

Prospectus Today

Selection Bias

by Joe Sheehan

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Amid the rush to beatify Justin Verlander, let's point out a couple of things. One, he didn't pitch as well as Rick Porcello did. Two, he had a marginally easier job, facing an ever-so-slightly inferior lineup, at night, in the second game of a doubleheader. Three, he was left in well past the point of effectiveness, and Jim Leyland's stubbornness on this point, when the most effective reliever he has right now would have been the perfect foil for Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel, nearly cost the Tigers the game.

Verlander was terrific for five innings, but the lavish praise heaped upon him is an excellent example of how starting pitchers' performances are erroneously judged in context. In the first game of the doubleheader, the Tigers completely failed to capitalize on a number of rallies, providing Porcello with one run of support, so that Porcello's good work was forgotten a bit. The 20-year-old generated ground ball after ground ball, throwing the entire game with no one more than a one-run lead, but left with his team tied at one. Verlander was staked to the same 1-0 lead as Porcello was after two frames, but his teammates got him two more in the third, and an additional pair of runs in the fifth. So when Verlander starting giving up some hard-hit balls-and this is where "pitching to the score" advocates will chime in despite the acres of evidence that there's no such skill-he had a lot more room for error than Porcello did.

Verlander is a hero today, and Porcello a footnote, and the primary difference between the two is that Magglio Ordoņez and Brandon Inge succeeded in Verlander's game where the Tigers failed in Porcello's. Flip the run support, something over which neither starter has control, and the entire story is different.

With the Tigers having found their bats for a night, they reset the series and put themselves in position to all but lock up the AL Central with one win in the next two games. Now, I'm not saying these two teams are fairly unimpressive, but today's pitching matchup is Carl Pavano against Eddie Bonine. The Twins traded for Pavano to improve their rotation at midseason, which is not a sentence anyone ever expected to see again. (In fairness, Pavano has pitched well for the Twins.) Bonine will be making his ninth major league start, and here's a fun fact: Eddie Bonine does not have a career ERA below 4.00 at any level of baseball at which he's thrown at least 35 innings, nor does he have a career ERA below 4.00 at any level of baseball above A-ball.

So if you're headed to the park tonight, dress warmly, and maybe cancel that early meeting on Thursday. Even these two limp offenses may be able to turn it into a long night in downtown Detroit. The Twins are now playing must-win games the rest of the way-they have to take these last two games to have much hope of beating out the Tigers, because a split would leave them two games back with three to play, one of which will feature Zack Greinke. I want to see if Ron Gardenhire adjusts accordingly, and runs his bullpen as if every game were potentially the last meaningful one for the Twins.

The Tigers managed to play both games yesterday without using Bobby Seay or Fu-Te Ni, which is really not recommended when facing the middle of the Twins' lineup. In both the tenth inning of the first game and the eighth inning of the second, Leyland allowed Mauer and Kubel to face right-handers rather than bring in Ni, who has allowed a .119 batting average to lefties in his short career. The decision may have cost a key insurance run in the first game, and allowed the Twins to get within a run in the second. Maybe it's less obvious with Justin Morneau out, but you have to go after the middle of the lineup with lefties. Jason Kubel can't hit them, and Joe Mauer is mortal against them. Leyland was passive yesterday, and while he got away with it once, he has to use Ni and Seay more aggressively.

--

In other news, the Braves lost while scoring more than three runs for just the second time since September 2, as once again Bobby Cox failed to get his best pitchers into a close game. After Matt Diaz hit a three-run homer off Brian Sanches to tie the Marlins at four, Cox allowed Kenshin Kawakami to bat with two outs and no one on. I can almost understand this, given the low-leverage situation and the speed with which the game changed. Maybe you let Kawakami take the AB rather than burn a player; this would also allow him to take the mound for the top of the seventh while you get a higher-leverage reliever warmed up.

Cox, however, let Kawakami stay in the game. Four batters and two hard-hit balls later, the Marlins had a lead again, one they would not relinquish. Why Cox, with three left-handers at his disposal, wouldn't use Boone Logan to go after Chris Coghlan to start the inning, then follow up with Peter Moylan (.269 OBP vs. right-handed batters) against the three right-handers to follow, boggles the mind. These are must-win games, with no margin for error, and while Kawakami is a solid mid-rotation starter, his value is in his innings, not in his ability to get through any given one without allowing a run. This is at least the second time this month Cox has let a winnable game slip away from his team by not being more aggressive with his bullpen, and when the Braves miss the Wild Card by a small handful of games, those missing wins are going to loom large.

The Braves are now much more likely to miss the playoffs again, because not only did they lose last night, the Rockies survived a three-run game-tying homer by Jason Kendall-no, really-to beat the Brewers 7-5 in 11 innings. Chris Iannetta, who's been relegated to the bench as part of Jim Tracy's effort to end up in a broadcasting booth in October, hit a two-run opposite-field homer to win it, seemingly the Rockies 43rd home walkoff this season.

The takeaway for me in this game was watching Huston Street, who appeared to be hurt, tired, or some combination of the two. He had movement, but no velocity, not much command, and no ability to locate his pitches. To bring it back to Tracy, consider that after missing three weeks with an inflamed right biceps tendon, Street was pitching for the fifth time in eight days, a stretch that included his first outing of more than 20 pitches since before the All-Star break and his first outing of more than an inning since mid-August. Street threw 15 pitches on Thursday, nine on Friday, and 22 more Sunday, barely holding on in that game thanks to a Clint Barmes game-saving catch (maybe). Coming off of missing three weeks and fairly gentle usage all year, that may have been too much for him. Tracy has to be careful, because his bullpen isn't so deep that he can break Street and not miss him come the postseason.

Both the Twins and the Braves may have gotten as close as they are going to get. Their margins for error were so very small, and they should be lauded for strong stretch drives that made the last week of the season a lot more interesting than I expected it to be. The lesson here, though, is that for all the focus on winning "when it counts," the games all count. The games the Twins didn't win in May and July, the runs the Braves didn't score in August, the lineup decisions the Rockies made in June, the runs Brandon Inge put on the board in April… these are why the standings are what they are today. Every game counts equally, and success or failure in September doesn't mean more just because more people are watching. Baseball's regular season is the most daunting challenge in sports, which is why so many people, myself included, defend its integrity so vociferously.

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:  Bobby Cox,  The Who,  Three Homer Game,  Stretch Run

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Eric

The Twins may not be super-imposing, but they have scored the 7th most runs in the MLB, so it's probably not fair to label them a "limp offense."

http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/team/_/stat/batting

Sep 30, 2009 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

14th in EqA, and that was mostly with Morneau. They have four good hitters.

Sep 30, 2009 11:43 AM
 
Eric

Good points, but I'd counter that they "do the little things right."

Nah, just kidding.

Sep 30, 2009 12:05 PM
rating: 1
 
John Collins
(110)

And in (further) fairness to Pavano, his "quik ERA" is closer to 4 and is much better than his actual ERA (as mentioned on this site by a BP writer, though I don't remember which one).

Sep 30, 2009 11:04 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Eric,

I'm pretty sure the Twins would be nowhere near 7th in the league if Morneau was gone all season. I think Joe is referencing their offense now without him.

Sep 30, 2009 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
garmoore

The use of Seay in the Twins-Tigers series may be in doubt. He's been ineffective the last few times out, and was injured in his last appearance. I'm not sure how much he can be used right now. The Twins are playing great baseball right now (this coming from a long-time Tigers fan), and Pavano has beaten up on the Tigers all season long. The Tigers will never go far if they let Carl Pavano look like Carl Hubbell.

Sep 30, 2009 11:49 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

It's true. I was at his last start for the Indians when he held the Tigers to 1 run on 6 hits in 8 innings. His next start, his first as a Twin, was against the Tigers again, this time in Detroit. He shut them down for 7 innings, allowing only 5 hits (no walks). Does he have their number, or would he have performed similarly against any team (just a pitcher on a hot streak?)
Stay tuned!

Sep 30, 2009 13:22 PM
rating: 0
 
cliffvoliva

The mind is easily boggled when you are not in the dugout. I think Bobby Cox's record speaks for itself.

Sep 30, 2009 11:51 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

I think Cox is a tremendous strategist in putting together winning teams (talent evaluation, roster construction, managing personalities, etc.); but he's an abominable tactician within a game, particularly regarding bullpen usage.

Sep 30, 2009 12:41 PM
rating: 1
 
Adam Madison

Nope, it doesn't.

Sep 30, 2009 14:35 PM
rating: -3
 
Matthew Avery

In the sense that he's been making absurd bullpen decisions for his whole career, yes, it does. He's just not very good at that. Or maybe his bullpen usage is somehow related to how he keeps his teams motivated and focused, in which case perhaps the benefits outweigh the costs. But I've got to think that at this point in the season, you go ahead and ruffle a few feathers to get the best pitchers into the game.

Sep 30, 2009 15:54 PM
rating: 1
 
gtgator
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

And if you (or anyone else) thinks Boone Logan is one of the Braves' best pitchers, then you need to reexamine your statistics.

Hindsight analysis is worthless. All it does it make the person try and look smarter than he/she actually is. Because there is zero proof that a better result would have occurred using Boone Logan and Peter Moylan. None.

So all we have are hypotheticals and one known fact - KK gave up a run. Could Logan and Moylan have escaped unscathed? Yes. They could have also given up 2+ runs. If they could have escaped with 0 runs, where does that leave the Braves? Most likely, at best, tied entering extra innings with their 3 best relievers used (as Bobby used MGonz in the 8th and, in a tie game, has always used his closer (if available) in the 9th). Is that better than down a run with 3 turns at bat to go? I guess based on hindsight, yes. But looking at the decision at the time it was made (i.e. going to the top of the 7th)? Hard to fault Bobby for sticking with a guy who has pitched well as a RP and has the ability to get LH out - especially in favor of one of the worst RP on the team and one who had pitched to 5 batters total in September - and retired 2 of them.

In the end, it will be all moot - and likely would have been even had they won this game (or last night) since the Rox control their destiny. That said, I just can't wait until today's column where I can read even more hindsight analysis about how some HOF manager screwed up once again and how some one who never won a single game knew that he had done so the moment of this "key" decision.

In the end, Bobby's record DOES speak for itself - both the good (the numerous playoff appearances) and the bad (1 WS title). Does he make mistakes? Yes - he's human and all humans make mistakes (except of course for some people here). But his long term record shows he's made fewer mistakes than most over the long haul.

Oct 01, 2009 07:42 AM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Your central thesis seems to be that because no one owns a time machine, decisions can never be questioned.

Letting Kawakami bat and then leaving him in for the top of the lineup was less likely to result in a win than was hitting for him, using Logan or O'Flaherty (preferably the former in a cameo) to pitch to Coghlan, then going to Moylan for the righties. Or if you prefer, just going straight to Moylan.

All that is true irrespective of what actually happened.

Oct 01, 2009 09:46 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

You're right, his record does speak for itself. All those postseason appearances and one World Series win to show for it suggests that Cox is great at long term strategy but less strong at short term/short series strategy... and right now, Cox needs good short term strategy and some luck to make the postseason. Things like bullpen optimization are elements of short term strategy.

I do find it a bit ironic, though, that a few months ago Cox was lauded on BP for unconventional closer usage.

Sep 30, 2009 17:00 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

And then he stopped, making Soriano the closer.

Sep 30, 2009 17:22 PM
 
Jeff Evans

Pavano vs. Tigers this season: 4-0, 1.69 ERA in 5 starts; 3-0, 1.61 at Comerica. And if Bonine comes close to replicating his last outing vs. the White Sox, where a 2-run homer by Gordon Beckham was the only blemish, this could actually be a short night in Detroit.

Sep 30, 2009 14:37 PM
rating: 1
 
Juris

The Tigers brought Pavano down to earth tonight. He looked tired, he pitched tired.

Sep 30, 2009 19:06 PM
rating: 0
 
T. Kiefer
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Statistically Rick Porcello may have had a better game, but as far as intangibles and leadership are concerned, Justin Verlander was the winner. If there is to be a turning point for the Tigers this last week of the season, it'll be when Justin told Jim Leyland "I'm FINE!" in the eighth inning and managed to get out unscathed with 130 pitches. (By the way, I left the room when Wilkin Ramirez got tagged out at 1st --when he was brought in as a pinch runner no less-- thanks to his being asleep at the wheel. I came back in when Curtis Granderson misplayed that ball in the 9th, and left again in anger. C'mon Tigers!)

I think one thing that should be considered in regard to Justin and his stats is the amount of pitches, and innings, he's been giving on average per outing. If Zac Greinke threw as much or as long as Justin does in a game on average, his ERA would be a lot higher. Or, to flip it, if Justin pitched the same amount as Zac, his ERA would be a lot lower. IF either of them pitched for the Yankees, they both would be approaching 30 wins. Or to flip it, if C.C. Sabathia pitched for the Royals or Tigers, he'd have 14 wins.

Sep 30, 2009 15:01 PM
rating: -12
 
WholeLottaGame

Verlander 232.1IP in 34 starts, Greinke 223.1 in 32 starts. So Greinke actually averages more IP/GS than Verlander, though Verlander does have 16.43P/IP to Greinke's 15.14. But that just means he's less efficient.

Sep 30, 2009 17:03 PM
rating: 10
 
Cris E

Verlander got the same slap on the ass a couple weeks ago in very similar circumstances against MN and lost that one (Sept 19).

The high pitch counts say more about Leyland and his (mis)trust in his pen than Verlander himself. Pretty much any MLB pitcher has to have the competitiveness to ask for the ball, to want to stay on the mound, and to say "I'm fine" any time they've surrendered less than five runs in an inning. He's a horse, so this discussion can occur at 120 pitches rather than 95, but if Jamie Moyer was rolling the way Verlander was he'd have been credited with similar "leadership".

Oct 01, 2009 08:13 AM
rating: 1
 
eighteen

"If Zac Greinke threw as much or as long as Justin does in a game on average, his ERA would be a lot higher."

Greinke would have to give up 38 ER in 9 IP to match Verlander's ERA. Greinke's performance, particularly given team context, has been vastly superior to Verlander's this season.

Oct 01, 2009 10:46 AM
rating: 2
 
Eddie Bajek

Seay has a minor injury of his pectoral muscle.

Oct 01, 2009 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
cliffvoliva

The point I was alluding to on Wednesday was that, unless you're in the dugout, you don't know everything that's going on. I've been in the dugout. Sometimes relievers warm up, but they can't get "ready." This may be true especially for Moylan, who has a history of injuries. But there are dozens of other scenarios we'll never know, and to Cox's credit, he'll never tell.

Oct 02, 2009 20:13 PM
rating: 0
 
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