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Tony, Tony, Tony . . . . Has Done it Again

Because I never get tired of dating myself with early to mid-80s pop culture references that make the under-30 readers shake their heads sadly, my thoughts on Game 5 of the 2011 World Series are brought to you by Willie and Frankie.  Who are Willie and Frankie?  The two lovable, self-mutilating, slow-witted characters played by Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest on the ’83-84 season of Saturday Night Live.  You may recall that the two of them spent their time seeing who could self-inflict more pain upon themselves.

Can you think of a better symbol for the managerial decisions made by Tony LaRussa and Ron Washington on Monday night?  In the last seven innings of the game, LaRussa willingly gave away three outs via the sacrifice bunt and squandered two other outs via caught stealings.  Here’s an illustration of how valuable three outs are with just seven innings left to play.  If the Cardinals were playing the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, in a 7-inning game in which the Astros got three more outs, or in essence one more at-bat than St. Louis, that change in rules would make Houston the favorite as the Cardinals would be giving away about a 10% edge in win expectancy.  Over the long run, you cannot overcome the handicap of giving away 1/7 of your scarce resource.

That calculation doesn’t even factor in the caught stealings.  Those five free outs given to Texas put the Cardinals at a monumental disadvantage.  Rather it should have put them at a monumental disadvantage.  Via the intentional walk though, Ron Washington was determined to offset Tony LaRussa’s flawed strategic thinking with additional free base runners.  It's like two guys wrestling over the check for an expensive dinner, each determined to be the one to pay.  These are the kind of coaching decisions you’d expect to see in the NFL this coming December, if the chance to draft Andrew Luck hangs in the balance. 

To recap:  Game 5 of the World Series featured three sacrifice bunts, six intentional walks, and two caught stealings.  Those are classic “small ball” strategies.  “Small ball” strategies have the most value in a low run scoring environment when runs are scarce.  The problem is that Texas and St. Louis are the farthest thing possible from low run scoring teams.  Did you know that no other pairing of two different World Series teams in 2011 could have produced a match-up of higher-scoring teams?  It’s true.  The Rangers and the Cardinals scored 1,617 runs in 2011 and no other pairing of different AL and NL teams can touch that.  (The Red Sox and Rockies scored 1,610 runs.)  Playing “small ball” – in Arlington Stadium no less – is the investment equivalent of employing a low-vol strategy (selling straddles) in a high-vol environment (the start of the financial crisis.)

My favorite “don’t you dare try to lose this game while I’m trying to do the same thing” move by Washington occurred in the top of the 7th inning when Allen Craig inexplicably tried to steal 2nd base with one out and Albert Pujols at the plate. He was promptly thrown out by 5 feet.  Blessed with this gift from the Cardinals, Washington took one look at a two out, no base runner, tie game situation and acted as if he were insulted that his win expectancy had just gone up.  Looking to remedy this unpleasant development, he intentionally walked Pujols to put a runner right back on first base.

On a couch in San Francisco, I simply threw up my hands in resignation.  Matt Holliday promptly singled, advanced to second on a throw home, leading to an intentional walk of Lance Berkman and suddenly the Cardinals had David Freese at the plate with a chance to absolutely bury Texas for Game 5 and in the process put a hammerlock on the series.  Freese made an out, but that was an example of Washington needlessly playing Russian roulette.  (Even getting out of that jam, all those walks allowed the Cardinals to recycle their line-up faster which brought the heart of the order, featuring Pujols, up again in the 9th inning.  More on that below.  This is how intentional walks hurt you in multiple innings.)

It turned out that was just the appetizer to a buffet of dumb decisions to come.

LaRussa’s handling of the bullpen in the fateful bottom of the 8th inning along with the attendant phone-gate has already been dissected by writers nationwide.  Short of Lt. Daniel Kaffee getting LaRussa to admit what really happened, we’ll probably never know exactly to what extent LaRussa’s gaffes, and not “crowd noise” contributed to the Cardinals defeat.  The 9th inning debacle though, is all on LaRussa.

Here’s what bothers me most about the 9th inning fiasco.  I seem to be the only person who realizes how self-destructive Neftali Feliz is.  Tim McCarver called him “one of the great young closers” right before he took the mound.  Why?  His high 90s fastball might look electrifying but as I pointed out two issues ago, the results of his relief work over the entire season are well below average.  Not to put too fine a point on it but recall Feliz strikes out batters at a rate lower than Kyle Farnsworth!  He’s extremely wild to boot, walking batters at a rate 50% higher (12% of batters faced vs. 8%) than pitchers across all of baseball in 2011.  Every time he’s pitched this series he’s instantly gotten himself into trouble.

Monday night was no different.  Protecting a two run lead, Feliz hit Allen Craig to lead off the 9th inning.  His pitches were all over the place.  He was destined to blow this game with the Cardinals best three hitters coming up next.  He reminded me, in a comparison sure to result in shudders from my fellow Phillies’ fans, of Mitch Williams, circa 1993.  Craig had already been thrown out stealing by five feet his last time up.  He should have been nailed down to the first base bag like a Little Leaguer in a “no lead” game, but with the count 3-2 he ran on the pitch not once (foul), not twice (foul), but three times (resulting, finally, in a strike-out double play.)

There have been some stupid attempts to steal this post-season but this had to be the most insane.  Based on the hit batsman, Pujols’ swing at ball four with Craig running, and Holliday’s subsequent walk, it’s possible the Cardinals could have loaded the bases for Lance Berkman by sending three cardboard figures up to the plate against Feliz.  He will self-immolate if you let him, but instead the Cardinals simply tossed him a fire extinguisher and a suit made of asbestos.

World Series, Game 6 – Texas at St. Louis

Tonight’s (weather permitting) pitching match-up (and presumably the starting line-up of each team) is identical to the Game 2 match-up.  In that game, featuring Colby Lewis and Jaime Garcia as the starting pitchers, the Rangers were a -120 favorite, meaning their implied odds to win were 54.6% (120/220).  As a +110 underdog the Cardinals implied win percentage stood at 47.6% (1 – 110/210).

Yet for Game 6, the Cardinals are listed as -115 favorites (53.5 implied win percentage) and the Rangers +105 dogs (48.8% chance of winning, implied).  That is a 5% to 6% shift towards St. Louis in implied odds for two identical teams, in the identical venue, just six days apart.  There’s a mispriced security in there somewhere.

Texas actually won Game 2 but although both pitchers were very sharp, Garcia pitched the better game.  Still, I see no reason for a shift in odds.  I thought the odds were fair in Game 2 so, subject to line-up changes, the Rangers are the pick to end the Series in Game 6.  The only question is how big a percentage edge will be reflected in the game time odds. (Official pick, along with stated edge, to be released, once starting line-ups are announced, on Twitter @MagicRatSF.)

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