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MLB’s Second Season Gets Weird

A wild weekend in baseball has October living up to everything you want it to be

During the height of the Moneyball era, the Oakland A’s earned a reputation as being ferocious in the regular season and pushovers in the postseason. Rightfully so: From 2000 through 2003, the A’s averaged 98 wins, only to lose in the first round each time. They’ve made the playoffs twice since then, bowing out once in an ALDS and getting swept another time in an ALCS. Those repeated failures were enough to make Billy Beane utter one of his most famous lines: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

A cynic would read that statement as a copout, one meant to excuse the A’s, and Beane, for falling short in October. But there’s a deeper meaning at work here. The idea behind Oakland’s Moneyball approach is, as we know well by now, to exploit market inefficiencies. But the advantages gathered from exploiting those inefficiencies can be small, requiring weeks, months, full seasons, or more to fully play out. So really, when the A’s general manager says his shit doesn’t work in the playoffs, he means the small sample size of a five- or seven-game series allows for all kinds of random, one-off events to happen. We can’t quite say that the luckiest team always prevails in the playoffs. Still, a ballclub is far more likely to ride a wave of good luck to 11 wins and a World Series title than it is to win 95 and get to October in the first place.

Last weekend’s playoff action saw multiple unlikely events propel teams to victory. That doesn’t mean those teams necessarily feasted on luck. But it does make you wonder how many more times we would see those events unfold the same way if we replayed them 162 times. One of the biggest and most impactful of such moments happened Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Pirates lead St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 in the series

Bottom of the eighth inning, Game 3, score tied 3-3. The Pirates have runners on first and second with one out. The Cardinals have just brought in left-hander Kevin Siegrist to face lefty-swinging Pirates slugger Pedro Alvarez. In the right spot, Alvarez can be one of the scariest hitters to face, having tied for the National League lead this year with 36 home runs. This was not one of those spots. In fact, of all the matchups imaginable in baseball not involving a pitcher holding a bat, Siegrist vs. Alvarez would normally rank as one of the very worst for the Pirates’ chances.

For the season, Siegrist posted a 0.45 ERA, the lowest by any reliever in baseball history with more than 30 innings pitched. Left-handed hitters were especially impotent against him this season, going just 8-for-68 with one extra-base hit — good for a .118 batting average and a .147 slugging average. Meanwhile, Alvarez hit just .180 against southpaws this year, the fourth-worst mark for any qualified hitter. ESPN Stats & Info passed along more gruesome facts:

• Siegrist made left-handed batters miss on 25 percent of their swings against him this year.

• Alvarez whiffed an incredible 44 percent of the time when swinging against lefty pitchers.

• Alvarez saw 147 pitches against lefties in 2013 at or near the outside corner, missing on 27 of his 59 swings against those pitches, making 33 outs, and producing zero hits.

Having faced Siegrist five times before, and receiving two straight mid-90s fastballs in this at-bat, he might have expected a third. Still, all the data suggested that a grim result awaited Alvarez, and that the Pirates would need someone else to come through. Alvarez did make contact this time, hitting a ground ball to the right side. But with the infield at double-play depth, Alvarez’s hopper had just enough juice to scoot between Matt Adams at first and Matt Carpenter at second, scoring Josh Harrison with what would prove to be the winning run.

Restricting our summary of the Pirates’ feats to Alvarez’s seeing-eye single would be selling the Buccos short. Andrew McCutchen had a huge Game 3, reaching base four times in four plate appearances, via two walks, a single, and a double. Marlon Byrd cashed the first two runs of the game with a first-inning single, cracked a double that helped set up what it looked like might be the winning run (before the Cardinals retied the game in the eighth), then drew the walk that preceded Alvarez’s winner. And Francisco Liriano turned in his second straight strong playoff start, limiting the potent Cardinals lineup to two runs over six innings despite struggling at times with his command. All of that might have gone for naught if not for Alvarez’s once-in-a-blue-moon base knock.

Boston Red Sox lead Tampa Bay Rays 2-0

Picking the Rays to nip the Red Sox in five games, we cited David Price as the key to the series.

After a slow start to the season, Price was one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball over the final three months, tossing 122⅔ innings over his last 17 starts, with 98 strikeouts, 12 walks, and an opponents’ line of .233/.254/.339. He had pitched brilliantly in a brutal environment at Arlington on Monday, slashing through the Rangers lineup and ceding just two runs as he earned a complete-game victory. And while head-to-head matchups can invite both sample-size issues and questions of relevance if we’re dealing with old data, Price had made five starts this season against Boston, striking out 30 batters and walking just three over 32⅔ innings, good for a sparkling 2.48 ERA against the league’s most potent offense. (In 10 career starts at Fenway, he flashed a tiny 1.88 ERA.) If the Rays could extend the series to five games, that would likely mean two starts for Price, whose track record made it fair to call him the best starter on either team. In that scenario, you had to feel at least somewhat optimistic about Tampa Bay’s chances.

Then David Price went out and stunk up the joint. Price tossed 102 pitches in his seven-plus innings, surrendering seven runs on nine hits, including two David Ortiz home runs. He became the first pitcher in at least a century to give up seven or more runs in a playoff game while throwing seven or more innings. The Red Sox laying a seven-spot on the Rays ace doesn’t really tell the whole story. It was Price’s inability to locate his pitches that really stood out. Check out this pitch chart from Brooks Baseball to see how many pitches Price grooved right down the middle, in many cases leaving those pitches up, too:

David Price

As if that predictable pitch location weren’t bad enough for Price, he exacerbated the problem by being even more predictable in his pitch selection. Once relying almost entirely on hard stuff, Price has started leaning on other pitches more often over the past couple years. In 2013, he threw curveballs at the second-highest rate of his career and fired more changeups than ever before; Price ranked eighth in the majors among qualified starters in generating positive results from that changeup. But in Saturday’s Game 2 debacle, 86 of the 102 pitches he threw were fastballs of some type, be they sinkers, cutters, or four-seamers — only 14 were changeups, and only two were curves. Little wonder that he generated just six swings-and-misses all game, or that Boston’s hitters cuffed him around so thoroughly.

If you want one pitch that sums up Price’s disastrous start, it’s not either of the two gopher balls he served up to Ortiz. Instead, it’s this one to Dustin Pedroia: Down 2-0, Price threw a 90-mph, dead-straight, do-nothing fastball, belt-high and right down the heart of the plate.

The Red Sox took advantage of all the fat pitches they saw, because they’re a terrific offensive team. They also played much better defense than the Rays, turning inning-ending double plays in three straight innings (compared to Tampa Bay’s many defensive adventures, which included the normally sure-handed Evan Longoria bobbling a ball and equally adept Ben Zobrist airmailing a throw to his first baseman by 15 feet on the same play, and David DeJesus turning the Green Monster into his own personal source of anguish). John Farrell also out-managed the Rays, with Joe Maddon making errors in judgment ranging from riding Price way too long to starting Delmon Young over Matt Joyce because he wanted to ride the hot hand. (Young did manage a single and an RBI, but going with a player based on his 50 most recent at-bats rather than a career’s worth of results isn’t exactly sound process.)

It’s entirely possible that the Sox would have beat Price and gone up 2-0 anyway, even if the Rays lefty had pitched much better than he did, because the Red Sox were the best team in the AL during the regular season and have done nothing to make anyone think otherwise since. But we’ll never know, because in what might be the final start of his Tampa Bay career, Price couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted or where he needed.

Justin Verlander

Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s are tied 1-1

Game 2 of this series ranks as one of the best-pitched playoff games we’ve seen in years.

Justin Verlander, who a couple years ago was considered the best pitcher on earth, took a step back this season, posting his highest ERA in half a decade. That dip in performance, combined with Max Scherzer’s emergence as arguably the best pitcher in the league, dropped Verlander to the no. 2 spot in the ALDS. Verlander responded to being demoted with a performance that told all the doubters to shove it. In seven innings, Verlander struck out 11 Athletics, walked one, and allowed just four hits and not a single run. He induced 20 swing-and-misses, throwing all three of his primary pitches — hammer curve, changeup, and a mid-90s fastball — anywhere he wanted.

Meanwhile, Sonny Gray was a revelation. Facing a loaded Tigers lineup, Gray did Verlander one better, going eight innings while also allowing no runs and just four hits, striking out nine. Most of the baseball world didn’t know Gray, much less suspect he could go toe-to-toe against Justin Verlander with Oakland’s season more or less on the line. A’s fans knew better. A first-round pick two years ago, Gray broke into the big leagues in July and looked great. In 64 innings pitched this year, the right-hander struck out 67 batters, walked 20, and allowed only four home runs, holding opponents to a line of just .214/.272/.298. Bartolo Colon had the most impressive body of work among A’s starters this year, putting up a 2.65 ERA over 190⅓ innings. But if Oakland can make it past Detroit, the pitcher who could end up doing the most damage from here on out might be Gray.

Still, in a game that stayed scoreless for the first eight innings, two other factors decided the outcome. The first came courtesy of Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Detroit’s two best relief pitchers this season, by far, were closer Joaquin Benoit and lefty setup man Drew Smyly. After Verlander left the game, Leyland inserted Smyly. Uncharacteristically, the southpaw struggled, ceding a double to Alberto Callaspo as well as a walk. Leyland then brought in Al Alburquerque, a hard-throwing righty with a nasty slider who is a strikeout machine … but also one of the wildest pitchers in the AL, walking nearly one of every six batters he faced this year. Alburquerque did strike out both of the batters he faced in the eighth, getting his team out of a jam. The best option for the ninth, however, was Benoit, who’d put up much better numbers than Alburquerque had all year. Sure, he’d pitched 1⅓ innings the game before. But he’d also handled that assignment with ease, retiring all four batters he faced on just 17 pitches, with three strikeouts. Instead, Leyland left Alburquerque in. Two singles and an intentional walk later, the Tigers were on the verge of losing. Not having Benoit even make an appearance in a potential season-turning game counts as another misguided attempt by a manager to save his closer for a hypothetical future situation, rather than use him in a high-leverage present one.

The other deciding factor was the man who bagged the game-winning hit. We mentioned in the ALDS preview that none of Oakland’s nine starting position players were drafted and developed by the A’s; the closest were Yoenis Cespedes, who’s never played for any other major league organization but was signed by Oakland out of Cuba, and Josh Donaldson, who was acquired in a trade with the Cubs but played all but four months in the A’s organization. Through shrewd trades, the A’s were able to field one of the most productive lineups in the game this year. But they were especially short-handed at catcher, with a John Jaso concussion thinning their ranks. On April 6, they made what seemed like a minor depth move, one pulled off to cover for just such a contingency. Still, few people expected much from Stephen Vogt. He’d gone 0-for-25 in his short major league career before the trade, and people didn’t think too much of his defense, either. He seemed to be a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of option. Instead, he saw ample playing time down the stretch, taking over the most frequent part of the catcher platoon and performing at least semirespectably, hitting .252/.295/.400 and playing better-than-expected defense.

Still, of all the big bats in Oakland’s lineup, it figured that Saturday’s winning hit would come from a cast-off like Vogt, whose line-drive single sent 48,292 crazies home happy.

Los Angeles Dodgers lead Atlanta Braves 2-1

There aren’t many unlikely stories or enduring lessons to pass along from this series. In Game 3, Julio Teheran hung what seemed like a thousand sliders, and Hyun-Jin Ryu didn’t look much better; neither pitcher made it to the fourth inning. The Dodgers offense was unstoppable, led by Hanley Ramirez, who singled, doubled, and tripled, hiking his series numbers to .538/.571/1.231. Los Angeles annihilated Atlanta 13-6.

The Dodgers aren’t perfect, and their manager looks like one of their biggest weaknesses. In a pivotal moment in Game 2, Don Mattingly pulled off a series of moves that ensured that left-hander Paco Rodriguez would face lefty-swinging Jason Heyward. In a vacuum, that’s merely a pretty bad idea, given that Heyward is one of the best hitters in the Braves lineup and hardly a slouch against lefties, having posted a .401 on-base percentage from June 1 on, following a slow start to the season. No, the much bigger problem here was that Mattingly chose that matchup instead of sticking with right-hander Chris Withrow against left-handed hitter Jose Constanza. This was the same Constanza who is a career .272/.324/.342 hitter against righties. It was the same Constanza who once attempted one of the most befuddling swings in baseball history.

Though that move did play heavily in the Dodgers’ Game 2 loss, there’s a good chance it won’t matter in this series. The Braves are calling Freddy Garcia to the mound with the season at stake, trusting a pitcher near the end of his career, 27⅓ solid innings with the Braves down the stretch notwithstanding. If Atlanta can somehow ride Garcia to a Game 4 win at Dodger Stadium, it will still have to deal with the nearly unbeatable Clayton Kershaw in Game 5. Still, even if the Dodgers prevail, they’ll still have to get by two more opponents to win it all. You have to wonder if Mattingly learned his lesson … or if having a manager so obsessed with gaining the handedness advantage that he’d rather face Jason Heyward than Jose Constanza might come back to haunt the Dodgers at some point.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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