MLB Playoff Wrap: A Quadruple-Header for the Ages
Four games. Twelve hours of glorious playoff baseball. Here’s what went down:
THE BINDER GETS IT RIGHT
If you ever want to drill down to the essence of Moneyball, there’s a single mantra that gets spouted in both dugouts and boardrooms. Greg Maddux preaches it, and so does Dean Smith. The secret to smart decision-making in any field, we’re told, boils down to three simple words: Process over results.
By emphasizing process over results, we can better understand how to succeed in the future. So if a decision goes your way but that decision wasn’t grounded in sound thinking, you should ignore the positive result and start over. If a decision blows up in your face but you used all the right ideas to get there, stick with that thinking and you’ll be rewarded in the future. Like this, basically.
In the bottom of the ninth inning of Wednesday’s Yankees-Orioles game, New York manager Joe Girardi had 40-year-old Raul Ibanez pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez, taking one of the best players in baseball history out of a one-run game and replacing him with a hitter who struggles to get on base and doesn’t have 1/10,000th the pedigree that A-Rod does. Ibanez homered to tie the game. Then he homered again to win it in the 12th. Just like that, Joe Girardi became a full-on genius, with a little help from his much-maligned binder.
But wait! We can’t laud Girardi for his decision to pinch hit Ibanez for A-Rod unless the process he used to arrive at that move was sound. So was it?
On a macro level, maybe not. Ibanez did hit for power this year, but he also hit just .240 with a .308 on-base percentage. Even in the worst full season of his career, A-Rod was a more productive hitter than Ibanez, especially if you value OBP. Ibanez had posted an .811 OPS vs. righties this year, vs. .717 for A-Rod, with a better split at home than Rodriguez. too. Rodriguez might’ve been slumping, and the world might’ve been calling for Girardi to move him down in the order. But we’re always taught to look at the bigger picture, and to ignore smaller sample sizes, and especially what the masses think. Even the matchup didn’t seem to favor Ibanez: Throughout his career, Orioles closer Jim Johnson has actually been slightly more effective against left-handed hitters than righties, a 2012 split the other way notwithstanding.
Still, Girardi had other data to consider. Rodriguez had been plagued by injuries this year; whether it was because of those injuries, random variance, or tangible signs of decline, he hit just five home runs in his final 51 games of the regular season. He’d also looked terrible against Johnson lately, including a game-ending strikeout in Game 2 on a 96 mph sinker that missed his bat by about a foot. Plus Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right always makes an enticing target for left-handed pull hitters like Ibanez.
Of course, those are all factors we can easily see, and measure. It gets tricky the minute we start delving into variables that we can’t easily see, or measure.
Nate Silver, a former writer and analyst for Baseball Prospectus who parlayed his knack for predictions into a career in political forecasting with the New York Times’ Five Thirty Eight blog, recently published a book on predictions called The Signal and the Noise. The book goes into detail about the many challenges that forecasters face, even when they believe they’re using the right process to inform their projections. In the book, Silver repeatedly discusses analysts’ tendency to underestimate the opinions of insiders. There’s a tendency in the analytical world to believe data to be pure, and those too close to a situation — like, say, a baseball manager — to have fatally flawed opinions that can’t possibly be objective. But Silver argues that insiders can offer rational, objective views even when they’re immersed in a situation. It’s just that those views might be difficult to measure.
To bring this back to the Yankees’ spectacular Game 3 win, we know from glancing at data that a diminished A-Rod is still a better hitter than Ibanez, at least from the broad view. But to make an informed decision, we need to consider new information too. We don’t want to overemphasize 51 games of weak power, let alone a couple of at-bats against a specific pitcher, or even Ibanez’s amazing late-game performance just eight days earlier. But it’s certainly possible — maybe even probable — that Girardi has access to data that we as outsiders do not. It’s even possible that he has a feel for difficult-to-measure factors which would inform his decision to roll the dice with Ibanez. Girardi’s postgame comments certainly suggested as much.
“I just had a gut feeling,” Girardi explained. “We talked about it in the pregame, about being a great pinch‑hitter, and you’ve got a left‑handed hitter who’s a low-ball hitter in a sense and you’ve got a low-ball pitcher. I just kind of had a gut feeling.” There are hints of data in there, but also a tougher-to-quantify hunch.
We can’t take this idea too far. Blindly trusting those closest to a situation leaves us vulnerable to a fallacy called appeal to authority (or argument from authority), where the insider is seen as automatically right, the outsider as automatically wrong. In this case, it’s also possible that Girardi had the right idea in using Ibanez, but didn’t do it at the right time. If Ibanez was likely to succeed in this game, maybe he should have started the game over A-Rod, or come into the game earlier in a medium-to-high-leverage situation, such as pinch-hitting for Russell Martin leading off the eighth.
Whatever the case, Girardi had a plan, he implemented it, and it worked. We can question the process based on all the data at our fingertips. But a good analyst (or even an informed fan) should also take a step back and consider his own data, and how he uses that data to make predictions. If we’re going to question others’ ability to use the best process, we need to do the same for ourselves.
(All right, that was a little heavy. OK, go back and watch the clip of Ibanez’s pinch-hit homer, and how A-Rod freaked out when the ball soared into the right-field stands. Then dig this quote from friend-of-A-Rod Kobe Bryant, courtesy of ESPN L.A.’s Arash Markazi: “I don’t like that. That’s not good for the chemistry of the team. I’m going to have to call A-Rod.” Yup.)
UN GRAN PROBLEMA
Justin Verlander took home the two big awards, and Miguel Cabrera got the plaudits for his bat. But one player who got a huge amount of credit for the Tigers’ 95 wins and AL Central title last year was Jose Valverde. Papa Grande saved 49 games in 49 attempts last season, which too many people took to mean he’d had a perfect season. Turns out Valverde struck out fewer batters than he ever had before, still struggled often with command, and saved a bunch of games in which he dug himself a huge hole before squirming away to safety. Saving games beats blowing them, certainly. But the mythology that arose around him in some circles, capped by Valverde actually earning a second-place MVP vote, blew a good season way out of proportion. It also understated how tenuous a closer’s existence can be, Valverde’s own in particular.
Consider 2012 Valverde’s collision with regression. The Tigers closer saved 35 games in 40 chances this year, roughly in line with the average results for other full-time stoppers. But there were other, far more troubling signs, like Valverde’s swinging strike plunging to just 7.1 percent, by far the lowest swing-and-miss rate of his career. At 93.4 miles per hour, Valverde’s fastball did tick down to its lowest level in half a decade. But it was also down just 0.5 mph from last year, suggesting that other factors contributed to his diminished whiffing abilities.
Something was definitely wrong with Valverde’s fastball during Oakland’s heart-stopping 4-3 comeback win. It averaged just 91.5 mph, and had all the movement of a newborn sloth. You could see it in Seth Smith’s monstrous game-tying double in the ninth. His splitter was equally flat, as Coco Crisp ably demonstrated by cracking the decisive hit in Oakland’s 15th walk-off win of the year. Detroit’s bullpen has now allowed five runs in 10 innings pitched this series, with Valverde continuing the ugly pitching that saw him cede eight runs and 20 base runners in 13⅓ September innings. The Tigers would still figure to have the advantage in the deciding game, starting Justin Verlander. But if today’s decisive Game 5 comes down to a fight between the A’s dynamic Doolittle-Cook-Balfour combination and the contributions of Valverde and friends consider DadBoner a little worried.
THE MISSING ACE
When the Cardinals roughed up Edwin Jackson early in Wednesday’s 8-0 blowout win over the Nats, the conversation instantly shifted to the pitcher who wasn’t on the mound — Stephen Strasburg.
Rany Jazayerli did yeoman’s work in describing how and why the Nationals were wrong to shut down Strasburg in early September, presumably keeping him out for the rest of the regular season and the entire postseason. Based on decades of historical precedent, and the massive adjustment teams made in how they managed their young talent, there’s reason to believe that the pendulum might’ve swung too far, to the point were the Nationals overreacted in shutting down their best pitcher in early September.
But let’s not get carried away here. It’s just as big an overreaction to say — as Bob Costas did repeatedly during Wednesday’s game, as others have in other forums — that the Nats are on the brink of elimination because Strasburg is watching from the bench.
We don’t want to put too much stock in a three-start sample. But the fact remains that Strasburg got rocked in two of his final three starts of the year, surrendering 12 runs on 15 hits in eight innings during two starts against the Marlins, albeit sandwiching six innings of shutout ball against the Cardinals on September 2. That shaky stretch might’ve been a function of simple variance, or a sign of fatigue that the Nationals might’ve seen coming. Had Washington kept Strasburg on his regular turn in the rotation, it’s conceivable that he could have worn down further going through September, and ended up a diminished rotation candidate for the playoffs.
We do know that Jackson got strafed, giving up four runs on five hits through his first inning-plus, capped by a Pete Kozma three-run homer. Jackson repeatedly missed location badly, so much so that Kurt Suzuki actually had to hop to his left to receive the pitch to Kozma that never made it to the catcher’s glove.
After that, all we can do is speculate. Maybe Strasburg would’ve been a better rotation choice than Jackson, since that would negate a supposed advantage the Cards have in facing a pitcher who toiled for their side just a year ago. Maybe Strasburg would’ve operated as the team’s number-four starter in the playoffs, thus giving them a better on-paper option than Ross Detwiler in today’s potential elimination game. Maybe Jordan Zimmermann pitches better at home if he’s the number-three starter and Strasburg pitches Game 2 in St. Louis.
Could the Nationals have handled the Strasburg situation differently? Sure. Options ranging from starting Strasburg in the minors from Opening Day to skipping a few of his turns in the rotation to giving him a chunk of bullpen work might’ve seen him pitching in the playoffs rather than gathering splinters. There’s also the matter of playoff opportunities being rare and fleeting for many teams, and the theoretical folly of losing an actual benefit (your best pitcher working in the postseason) for a theoretical benefit (Strasburg possibly staying healthier in future seasons as a result of a few saved innings at the end of the 2012 season).
But we don’t know much of anything for certain, just as we don’t know the full extent of the data and medical opinions the Nationals examined before deciding to holster one of the planet’s most electric arms. And then there’s this: Maybe the Nats ride Strasburg all the way, he pitches like an ace into October then gets trampled by an incredibly potent Cardinals offense anyway.
Put it this way — theoretical omniscience isn’t a good look.
THE VALUE OF AGGRESSIVENESS
Bruce Bochy has a very deep, very good bullpen. He’s not afraid to use it. And it just might help the Giants pull off a huge comeback in their NLDS battle with the Reds.
You might’ve expected Bochy to be conservative with his pen after closer Sergio Romo and lefty setup man Jeremy Affeldt tossed two innings apiece on Tuesday. Never happened. Bochy didn’t dwell on the Giants’ streak of 12 straight wins in Zito starts, or San Francisco’s 3-2 lead in the third inning. Zito had walked in a run in the first and struggled throughout his first 2⅔ innings pitched, needing 76 pitches to get those eight outs and giving up eight base runners in the process. Long man George Kontos doused a burgeoning rally in the third, and the rest of the bullpen took it from there.
The star of the game, other than unlikely power-hitting heroes Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco, was Tim Lincecum. Exiled from the rotation, Linecum entered Wednesday’s game with two outs in the fourth, and proceeded to chuck 4⅓ innings of one-run ball, giving up just two hits and no walks against six strikeouts. Lincecum’s heavy lifting and dazzling changeup (he threw the change a season-high 42 percent of the time and got six outs with the pitch, per ESPN Stats and Info) helped ensure that Romo and Affeldt could return for Game 5 after a full day’s rest.
It would’ve been interesting to test Dusty Baker’s own threshold for aggression with his Game 4 starting pitching choice. With staff ace Johnny Cueto hurt, Baker could’ve opted for the talented Mat Latos on three days’ rest (but coming off a manageable four-inning/57-pitch outing) or the rotation’s clear worst starter, Mike Leake. As it turned out, Latos came down with a nasty case of allergy-related congestion, forcing Baker’s hand toward Leake, and ultimately a Game 4 loss. Still, whether through circumstance or hard decision-making, Cincinnati now faces a decisive Game 5 pitted against Giants ace and elite starter Matt Cain. It’ll be interesting to see if Baker matches Bochy’s bold moves in Game 5, whether with his bullpen use or through other means.
THE BEST OF THE REST
• Raul Ibanez vs. left-handed pitchers during the regular season in 2012, before his game-winning homer off Orioles lefty Brian Matusz in extra innings: .197/.246/.246, with no homers.
• Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Orioles had never had a rookie hit a postseason HR. Rookies Manny Machado and Ryan Flaherty both went yard in Game 3.
• The Orioles are 16-3 this year in extra-inning games. All three of those losses have come against the Yankees.
• Coco Crisp gets pied, and Gatoraded.
• Peter Brand is psyched.
• Seth Smith is confused.
• Jim Leyland on losing a thrilling but heartbreaking Game 4: “That’s why this is the greatest game of all.”
• Chris Carpenter helped himself, and got help from others, too. The Cardinals starter smacked two hits against Edwin Jackson, the second one a double off the left-field wall that just missed being a home run. He also benefited from Jim Joyce’s latest blown call at first. Joyce is a veteran umpire who undoubtedly tries his best. But between the Armando Galarraga thwarted-perfect-game call and now this blown one, Joyce is developing a reputation as a guy you don’t want at first in big spots. You can be sensitive to Joyce’s humanity and still want better. We have the technology to make his job, and the jobs of other umpires, easier. It’s pigheaded stubbornness and cheapness that’s preventing what should have been done long ago.
• Gregor Blanco had hit four career homers in 934 regular-season plate appearances against right-handed pitching before teeing off on whackable Reds starter Mike Leake in Game 4.
One last quadruple-header today, including two decisive Game 5s. And hopefully at least one more chance for Kobe Bryant to teach us how winning ruins team chemistry.