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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.

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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

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