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American League Championship Series Preview

In poker, there is a concept called “misplaced aggression.”  It’s a fairly advanced concept in the sense that a beginning player would first learn that “aggressive poker is winning poker” and that realization only comes after a good deal of playing. Often at the poker table, the end result of misplaced aggression is that the aggressor is left in a situation with only two outcomes; he will either win a small pot or lose a big one.

Three times in their last two games, when a victory would have advanced them to the National League Championship Series, the Phillies were victims of their own misplaced aggression.  Hunter Pence tried to steal second with nobody out, Chase Utley tried to go from first to third on a routine grounder to shortstop in one game and steal second with one out in the other.  Both of Utley’s base kills occurred in late stages of the game with the Phillies down one run.  All three cases of aggression tested the throwing arms of reigning (and multiple) Gold Glove winners Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina.

I wish I had a psychological test that could measure a person’s discomfort with trailing as opposed to not winning.  That probably sounds like word salad so I’ll try to elaborate.  There are many times in a baseball game (and come to think of it, the “baseball” modifier could be replaced by either “basketball” or “football”) when a team that is losing has a better chance of winning than if the game were tied.  For example, it’s better to be losing by two runs in the bottom of the 7th inning and have the bases loaded with no outs than it is to be tied at the end of the 7th inning.  You have a better chance of winning in the former situation.  And yet, I’ll bet there are a ton of managers (and fans cheering along) who would employ whatever strategy they could to maximize the chances of just getting the game tied. 

(Aside:  One of the biggest mistakes that both professional traders and amateur investors make is to pray to the trading gods to “just get me even and I’ll never take this position again.”  The best traders learn (and virtually nobody learns this quickly) that that is a terrible mindset.  Graphically, that strategy of playing to get even leaves you without any distribution to the right -- where all the profit lies.  The trader finds himself in the same position as the poker player who can win a small pot or lose a big one.)

While the bases loaded situation was not exactly analogous to either of Utley’s outs on the base paths, I’m fairly certain the mindset was.  Further, it’s important to ask why the Phillies were playing for one run with no apparent consideration of the hitters who were at or coming up to the plate.  Additionally, it’s a questionable assumption that once the starting pitchers were out of the game, the Phillies were even the equal of the Cardinals and should therefore want to extend the game.  In my view, they couldn’t afford to forego the chance of a big inning which is exactly what happened three different times with their season on the line.

In any event, I think that Charlie Manuel’s desperation to remove the discomfort of trailing in the game caused him to employ a strategy that undermined the ultimate goal which is to win the game.

(By the way, you can make an extremely strong case that in bunting with two on and no outs while down by one in the top of the ninth inning while on the road of their Game 5 yesterdayArizona fell prey to exactly the same line of thinking.) 

ALCS - Detroit at Texas

The Tigers have the best pitcher (Justin Verlander) and the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera); the Rangers probably have the edge everywhere else.  The question is can Detroit ride their two superstars to victory?  Detroit will find that Texas’ line-up is very similar to the Yankees in that there are very few, if any, soft spots.  But Joe, you could protest, the Tigers proved in the Yankee series that their pitching could handle a line-up no matter how strong it is from top to bottom.  I’d counter, “Did they really?  And if so, is it repeatable?”

The Tigers beat the Yankees three games to two despite being outscored 28 to 17 and out hit 45 to 36.  Justin Verlander threw just nine innings and had an ERA of 5.00.  It’s not that the Tigers didn’t deserve to win, they absolutely did by winning every high leverage situation in the three games they won.  My point is, they didn’t shut down the Yankees powerful line-up, they constantly got themselves out of trouble in the most precarious situations like a blackjack player drawing a string of 8s every time he has 13 while the dealer is showing 10.  Those wins count, but it’s fair to question just how repeatable the execution is.

My math, and the basis for the model that my book revolves around, has the Rangers as a solid favorite for the series and even in Game 1 with Verlander on the mound.  To summarize from the ALDS previews:  Thanks to a starting line-up stronger than the collection of players who got them to 96 wins in the regular season, and thanks to being on the wrong side of “cluster luck” – my term for describing outlying hitting efficiency – both at bat and on the mound, the Rangers are a 106 win team dressed in 96 win clothing.  The Tigers, especially now with Delmon Young deactivated for the series, get no such boost from line-up changes and when I crunch their 2011 production they look like a 91 win team, just a little less potent than the appearances of a 95 win team, which is how they finished the regular season.

Throw in the Rangers’ home field advantage in the first of Verlander’s starts and this makes the Tigers a sizable underdog from my standpoint.  Since they will have a mild starting pitching advantage in games 2 and 3 as well, it’s not imperative that they win Game 1, but their path to the World Series looks a lot more promising if they do.

In previewing the divisional series I foresaw this match-up taking place almost exactly as it played out (Texas won in 4 rather than 3) so I see no need to try to outthink what the numbers are saying for this series.  They say Texas in 5.  As far as Game 1 goes, I’ll officially release the model’s selection, with percentage edge, on Twitter (@MagicRatSF) when the starting line-ups are announced later this evening, but at even odds right now (+100), Texas rates as a very strong play, regardless of any changes in the projected starting line-ups.

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