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Welcome once again to Game of the Week. We keep on promising you Jered Weaver in this space, but we never deliver. The promised Angels/Blue Jays tilt between Weaver and Roy Halladay isn’t being offered on the Extra Innings package, and so we’re going to the AL Central, where the Detroit Tigers are facing the Twins in Minnesota.

The divisional race in the AL Central was thought to be over as recently as a month ago. On August 7, Detroit had a ten-game lead in the division. Since then, the Tigers have a 10-21 record. They’ve lost two out of their first three in a crucial four-game set against Minnesota. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the White Sox have taken two in a row from the extremely disappointing Cleveland Indians. Just like that, the AL Central race is now down to a three game lead, three and a half over the White Sox, the tightest race in the AL.

Starting for the Twins, we have the prohibitive Cy Young favorite, and possible MVP candidate, Johan Santana. Santana’s a special person, easily the best pitcher in the majors over the last three years. Here are some numbers, courtesy of Keith Woolner:

NAME                 IP   BB   SO   HR   ERA    RA SNLVAR  VORP   RA+

Johan Santana     666.0  140  722   68  2.76  2.91   24.7  223.3  1.66
Roy Oswalt        670.3  142  535   51  3.20  3.42   20.1  183.7  1.40
Roger Clemens     517.0  161  482   32  2.40  2.68   20.7  183.5  1.82
Chris Carpenter   614.3  126  523   61  3.06  3.30   20.5  175.6  1.45
Carlos Zambrano   626.0  271  578   54  3.16  3.51   19.4  168.9  1.39
Jake Peavy        546.7  158  579   52  3.16  3.38   17.8  145.0  1.42

What’s impressive is the margin by which Santana is better than his peers. His Support Neutral Value, SNLVAR, is four wins better than the nearest competitor over this span, Roger Clemens-about 19% higher. His pitchers’ VORP is 21% higher than Roy Oswalt‘s.

Like Santana, Jeremy Bonderman is a repeat customer here at Game of the Week, having pitched against the Yankees in our first game this year. After Bonderman was featured in this space, he went on a nice run in June and July, going 6-1 with a 2.67 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 75 innings, a flash of the ace potential everyone has seen in Bonderman since he came up to the majors at the age of 20. However, since the beginning of August, Bonderman’s 0-2 with a 5.75 ERA. Let’s look at the lineups these fellows will be facing:

Detroit                                 Minnesota
                       EqA     VORP                           EqA     VORP
Brandon Inge, 3B      .264      6.5     Luis Castillo, 2B    .260     17.4
Craig Monroe, LF      .270     12.2     Nick Punto, 3B       .271     11.7
Marcus Thames, DH     .293     20.5     Joe Mauer, C         .320     59.3
Magglio Ordonez, RF   .274     18.6     Michael Cuddyer, RF  .293     29.2
Carlos Guillen, SS    .302     51.6     Justin Morneau, 1B   .310     47.6
Chris Shelton, 1B     .278     11.4     Torii Hunter, CF     .270     20.3
Neifi Perez, 2B       .128     -5.1     Jason Kubel, DH      .239     -4.5
Vance Wilson, C       .242     -0.4     Jason Tyner, LF      .244     -0.5
Brent Clevlen, CF     .365      7.5     Jason Bartlett, SS   .285     19.6

By releasing Dmitri Young last week, the Tigers showed that they’re factoring in considerations other than performance when establishing their roster. Young was released after the waiver trade deadline, and after rosters expanded–in other words, the team didn’t think simply burying Young on their bench was good enough. Despite initial claims that Young’s release was “performance related”-and unrelated to Young’s problems with alcohol-later in the week sources within the organization were calling Young “a growing cancer.”

We see a similar mindset at work in a few spots of today’s lineup. Neifi Perez bats seventh in the DH league, because apparently, no-one has noticed his string of sub-.300 OBP seasons, and sub-.400 slugging seasons. September recall Chris Shelton gets the start at first base, after spending the month of August in lovely Toledo, Ohio. In April, Shelton announced his presence with authority, hitting 10 homers in 92 at bats. From that point until his demotion, he hit only six homers in 262 at bats-although his overall performance was strong enough that he ranked as one of the Tigers’ best bats at the time he was sent down. The demotion did not work wonders for Shelton–he hit .266/.372/.440 in the International league, with 3 homers in 109 at bats.

Today’s centerfielder, Brent Clevlen, was the MVP of the Florida State League last season, on his second go-around at that level. He’s a 22 year old corner outfielder by trade who stumbled in his first taste of AA this season, batting .230/.313/.357. In the Tigers’ universe, that performance not only earns you a call-up to the Show, but you get starts in center field, in the middle of a pennant race. To his credit, Clevlen’s hit a ton in a miniscule sample size.

Meanwhile, for the Twins, the focus has been on Ozzie Guillen’s favorite players, the so-called “piranhas.” Depending on whom you ask, group consists of Nick Punto, the three Twins named “Jason” (Jason Bartlett, Jason Tyner, and Jason Kubel, who really doesn’t fit the mold), and Luis Castillo. While the emergence of Bartlett and Punto is a great story–both players are operating somewhere north of their 75th percentile PECOTA projections–it’s a mistake to ignore the bigger fish out of love of little ball. The last time the Twins were featured on Game of the Week, Justin Morneau was struggling with a .264 EqA. He’s now being mentioned in MVP discussions, along with Joe Mauer, who leads the AL batting race. Morneau’s MVP argument comes down to the typical homers/RBIs/winning club trifecta, with the added bonus of several prominent clutch hits. Meanwhile, Mauer is having the third-best season by an American League catcher since 1960:

Year     Name            PA      VORP
1993     Chris Hoiles    503     60.4
1979     Darrell Porter  679     59.5
2006     Joe Mauer       533     59.3
1995     Ivan Rodriguez  630     58.3
2004     Ivan Rodriguez  575     55.9

What Mauer has over Chris Hoiles and Darrell Porter is time: he has three weeks to add to his VORP total, and is likely to pass both players, to get into first place. Still, restricting that list to American League catchers was a bit of a cheat. Here are the major league VORP leaders at catcher since 1960:

Year     Name            PA      VORP
1997     Mike Piazza     633    101.7
1996     Mike Piazza     631     76.8
1998     Mike Piazza     626     73.9
2003     Javy Lopez      495     72.3
2000     Mike Piazza     545     70.2

Indeed, the National League–and by the National League, I primarily mean Mike Piazza–controls the top 11 spots in the catcher’s VORP list. Mauer’s got no shot at Mike Piazza’s amazing 1997 season, and is not a lock to break the top five. Still, if the vote were held today, he’s probably my choice for AL MVP. The biggest mark against Mauer is that his teammates will probably split the vote, leaving the door open for a Derek Jeter or perhaps David Ortiz.

All this talk, I almost forgot there’s a pennant race going on here. On to the action:

  • After Santana retires the side in order in the top of the first, Jeremy Bonderman goes to work against the Twins lineup. Bonderman throws 95 MPH heat, of both the four-seam and two-seam varieties along with a big slider, from a high three-quarters release point. Bonderman’s all fastballs against Castillo, striking him out on a 2-2 pitch. Bonderman gets ahead of Punto, 1-2, but the Piranha doesn’t give up against the young righty’s heat, he fouls balls off, until on the ninth pitch of the at bat, he grounds a ball hard to first base, off Shelton’s glove. Neifi Perez intercepts the carom and looks to have a play on Punto, but he throws wide of Bonderman streaking toward first. As Ozzie would say, “chomp!” Bonderman then falls behind Joe Mauer, who sends the 3-0 pitch deep to the opposite field, down the line. The ball falls in front of Craig Monroe, who doesn’t field the ball cleanly. Double and an error, and Nick Punto scores without a throw. The score is 1-0, Twins.
  • Leading off the bottom of the second, Torii Hunter grounds one of Bonderman’s sinkers up the middle, a single. As Bonderman works to Jason Kubel, Hunter is taking a gargantuan lead off first. On a 1-1 slider, Hunter takes off, stealing second. Bonderman goes back to the slider, down and in, to strike out Kubel–however, backup catcher Vance Wilson can’t handle the breaking ball, forcing him to throw for the out at first. Hunter catches the defense napping, and breaks for third base, making it with just one out. Jason Tyner comes to the plate, popping the ball out to foul territory, in short left field. Again, Hunter catches the defense on its heels, sprinting for home. Monroe gets a throw off toward the plate which drifts wide, and Hunter scores standing up. Bonderman has to absolutely hate his defense right now. Just to be safe, Bonderman strikes out Jason Bartlett to end the inning.
  • In the top of the third, announcer Dick Bremer welcomes into the broadcast booth a couple of soft core porn stars–er, I mean, soap opera stars from the new primetime soaps “Desire” and “Fashion House.” I’ve seen this before: some new semi-network based upon soap operas has stepped into the vacuum created by the merger of UPN and the WB. It turns out that lots of the former UPN local channels which have picked this network up, also broadcast baseball, so the casts of these shows are touring baseball stadia, doing interviews during the action. This makes sense because…um, actually, it doesn’t make any sense.

    While light banter is going on in the booth, Johan Santana is pitching. He’s only allowed a walk to Carlos Guillen so far, but Santana hasn’t looked sharp. His mechanics are visibly off, and he’s obviously overthrowing–he’s off-balance, falling to the third-base side on every pitch. While the actors are talking about their Midwestern home towns, Santana issues a leadoff walk to Vance Wilson.

  • Now, we’d all love to hear a broadcaster comment on Santana’s mechanics, but instead we get Bremer asking a question I thought I’d never hear on a baseball broadcast: “Can you tell us about the plot of ‘Desire’?” This is what happens when you suspend Bert Blyleven. Santana’s all over the strike zone against Brent Cleven, throwing a couple of pitches which fly six, seven feet above the plate. On a full count, Santana manages to freeze Clevlen with a fastball on the inside corner for his third strikeout.

    Brandon Inge follows with a sharply-hit grounder to short. Bremer apologizes for interrupting a plot synopsis for “Fashion House” in order to do his job for a moment, then allow the actor’s monologue to continue. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! Bartlett bobbles a perfect double play ball, scooping the ball to second. The split second lost to the bobble and the scoop allow Wilson to throw a good takeout slide at Castillo, disrupting the throw to first. Now it’s Monroe’s turn to run the count full before grounding sharply to third, where Nick Punto makes a big diving stop, then airmails a throw to first for the out. Through three innings, Santana has thrown 57 pitches, only 31 of them strikes.

  • In the bottom of the third, with the announcer’s booth re-tasked to handle baseball, Punto hits a one-out triple to the right-center gap, but is stranded when the Tigers intentionally walk Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer and Mauer are caught in a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play. The caught stealing is only the fourth of Mauer’s career, against 21 successes. It’s also a horrible call by second base ump Greg Gibson, since Mauer was safe by a fair margin–Wilson’s throw was high, and Perez didn’t get the tag down in time.
  • In the fourth, Mauer isn’t the only one who is unhappy with the umps. Marcus Thames strikes out on a pitch which just moments before was called a ball–Santana’s slider, which home plate ump Charlie Relaford first thought missed the inside corner, then thought caught the inside corner. Relaford’s had trouble with that pitch all game, and Thames gives him an earful. Santana doesn’t need Relaford’s help to strike out Ordonez and Shelton–sandwiched around a double by Guillen, the Tigers’ first hit-both men swing over the changeup, diving out of the strike zone.
  • In the top of the fifth, with the score 2-0, Santana’s mechanics finally click. Suddenly, Santana’s down in the zone, and his weight is headed more toward the plate than third base on his follow-through. The results are awe-inspiring. Santana strikes out the side, on ten pitches. Sure, it was the bottom of the order, but the Tigers weren’t getting to Santana even when he was struggling. What chance do they have now?
  • In the bottom of the inning, Jason Tyner leads off, and comes within about four feet from clearing the baggie in right field. A little higher, that would have been Tyner’s first major league homer in about 1,000 at bats. Instead, Tyner settles for a leadoff triple. Bonderman follows by hitting Bartlett in the upper arm. Bartlett gets some measure of vengeance by stealing second base. Then Castillo walks, loading the bases with one out.

    Just when things look their worst, Bonderman’s defense picks him up a bit. Punto grounds to the right side of the infield, and Shelton gets some payback for the play he didn’t make in the first inning, making a great grab and an accurate throw to home for the force. Mauer flies deep to left, but only enough to score the runner from third. With two out and two on, Cuddyer lines one to third base, where it’s handled by Inge. Only one run scores.

  • In the sixth, the Tigers go down in order. The first out of the inning, a grounder up the first base line by Inge, is fielded by Santana, a backhand catch with a deadly-accurate shovel pass to first. Santana collects another strikeout, despite more inconsistent calls from Relaford.
  • In the Twins’ turn at bat, everything falls apart for the Tigers. Down 3-0, Bonderman surrenders a single to the opposite field from Morneau, and then Torii Hunter goes five-hole on Carlos Guillen, a “single” between his legs. Add bad official scoring to the bad umpiring in this game. Jason Kubel does his piranha duty, bunting down the thirdbase line for a beautiful sacrifice. Making for second and third, two outs for Jason Tyner.

    They say that if you live long enough, you’ll see everything. What we get to see now, is an intentional walk to Jason Tyner. That’s the first of his career. Bases loaded, Bonderman gets ahead of Jason Bartlett, 0-2, but then nibbles poorly enough to run the count full. Jason Tyner gets enough of a fastball to get a sacrifice fly to deep center for a run. Twins lead 4-0.

    With men on first and third, two outs, Bonderman becomes obsessed with the runners, throwing to first, stepping off, faking throws. Bonderman is distracted by the runners, but he makes a quality pitch to Luis Castillo-a slider low and in which Castillo simply golfs out to right-center, and to the wall, the Twins’ third triple of the game!

    We go to commercial break, with Bonderman hitting the showers and the Twins leading 6-0. By the time we come back from commercial, the baseball’s being fielded in left, a single by Punto against lefty Jaime Walker. Castillo scores. Mauer caps things off with another opposite-field double off the southpaw, scoring Punto again. It’s now 8-0 Twins.

  • In the seventh, Johan Santana comes out to start the inning, but it’s evident that he’s back to the bad mechanics of the early innings, allowing a single to Magglio Ordonez, throwing a couple of pitches wild to advance Ordonez to second, before striking out Carlos Guillen and leaving the game after 108 pitches. Juan Rincon takes over and preserves the shutout for the time being.

In the bottom of the seventh, Jordan Tata comes into the game and faces a barrage of singles from the Twins, allowing four runs on five hits. If this was a little league game, the mercy rule would be invoked. The Tigers will go on to score a run in the ninth to make it 12-1, the final score. Around this same time, Victor Martinez is hitting a solo homer in Cleveland, breaking a 2-2 tie against the White Sox. C.C. Sabathia goes the route in a 5-2 win, so the Chicagoans fall back in the Wild Card Hunt. That pitcher’s duel in Anaheim? Kinda disappointing. The Good Weaver held up his end of the bargain, but Halladay gets featured in Under the Knife-he leaves in the first inning, after getting hit by a liner.

For our next installment, I’m offering you a choice: Friday night, the Phillies are taking on the Houston Astros, which would afford us one more chance to see Roger Clemens in what could be one of his final appearances; or we could catch the most-frequently requested pitcher in the National League, Brandon Webb, pitching against the Humidor Kids and southpaw Jeff Francis. Tell me what you want, and keep your eyes peeled to the newsletter.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek’s other articles.

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