World Series Preview:
Detroit Tigers vs. San Francisco Giants
The Houston Astros were the lowest-scoring team in baseball in 2012. They scored 583 runs during the season, or an average of 3.6 runs a game. During the second half of the season, after first-half transactions had settled the roster, the most runs the Astros scored in any 9-game stretch were 40. That means that over its most prolific 9-game stretch since the All-Star break Houston averaged 4.4 runs a game, or 720 runs over a 162-game season. 720 runs would have ranked 12th in baseball in 2012. To restate: The worst hitting team in the majors, playing its best 9-game stretch of baseball on offense, scored runs at a rate of the 12th best team in baseball.
The Cleveland Indians allowed more runs to be scored against them than any team in baseball in 2012, ex-the Colorado Rockies*. Teams scored 845 runs against the Indians last year, or 5.2 a game. During the second-half of the season, the fewest runs the Indians allowed in a 9-game stretch were 38. That means that over their stingiest 9-game stretch of games since the All-Star break, the Indians allowed 4.2 runs a game to score, or 684 over the course of a 162-game season. 684 runs would have ranked 15th in baseball at preventing runs. To restate: The pitching staff with the worst ERA in the majors, playing its best 9-game stretch of baseball at preventing runs, allowed runs to score at a rate of the 15th best team in baseball.
* Colorado allowed more runs but can’t be used for this example because of the park-effect of playing at Coors Field. There are really two Rockies teams for skill evaluation purposes – one that plays 81 games at home and allowed 523 runs and one that plays 81 games on the road and allowed just 367 runs. Obviously, with a disparity like that, you either have to perform park adjustments, or discard the Rockies.)
Keep those two tidbits in mind for a little while.
* * *
What is it about the New York Yankees that makes otherwise rational analysts, commentators, etc. lose perspective? Joe Posnanski, twice named the best sportswriter in America, and the showcase writer around which the new website Sports on Earth is centered (in SAT terms, Bill Simmons is to Grantland what Joe Posnanski is to Sports on Earth) went so far as to compare the Tigers sweep of the Yankees to Buster Douglas’ epic 1991 upset of Mike Tyson, aka, the Baddest Man on the Planet. Posnanski didn’t make this reference in passing; he devoted the first five paragraphs of his piece to the analogy.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
There are two elements of the Buster Douglas/Mike Tyson fight that made it an epic upset. Let’s compare both of them to the Tigers/Yankees series:
1) It was inconceivable at the time that Mike Tyson could lose a fight to anyone, let alone a non-descript opponent. The Yankees have been to the playoffs 11 times this decade, missing the post-season in 2008. They won the World Series in 2009. Here are the ten teams they’ve lost a playoff series to this decade:
Detroit (three times!)
Los Angeles Angels (twice)
Only one of those Yankees teams, the 2007 squad with 94 wins, had fewer victories in the regular season than the 95 wins this year’s team amassed. To equate the 2012 Yankees with a human machine so destructive that Will Smith wrote a rap song about him is absurd.
2) Buster Douglas was an underdog of such huge proportions, reportedly, only one casino in Las Vegas would even offer odds on the fight, and listed Douglas as a 42-1 underdog. By contrast the Tigers were barely underdogs for the series going off at a price of +105 or +110. Considering that home field advantage is worth a 4% boost in win probability in baseball, the line for a visiting team between two evenly matched teams would be +117. (implied chance of winning: 46.1%) Factoring in a spread for the bookmaker, the Tigers were, at worse, considered the equal of the Yankees on a neutral field.
Hand-wringing about New York’s performance instead of praising Detroit’s is insulting to the Tigers. Their starting pitchers, who were markedly better than the Yankees staff right down the line, absolutely dominated the Yankees batters for four games and any call to overhaul the Yankees as a result of it is an overreaction. Joe Posnanski is a friend of Bill James, incorporated sabermetric analysis into his newspaper columns for more than a decade and I’d wager has used Billy Beane’s quote about what “doesn’t work in the postseason” a number of times in his writings. Acting as if the sport and the Yankees franchise have been changed forever because of four games last week seems a tad silly.
It’s true many thought the Yankees would win, (I picked the Yankees in 6) and a four-game sweep was eye-opening. The interesting analysis though isn’t tearing down the Yankees, it figuring out why a Tigers team that struggled to win its division and not only won less games than every other playoff team in the American League but also less than two AL teams that didn’t make the playoffs (Tampa and the Los Angeles Angels) is suddenly a huge favorite to win the World Series despite ceding home field advantage.
* * *
Recall the opening two paragraphs of this piece, please.
The Detroit Tigers were the worst fielding team in the American League during the 2012 season, and third worst in baseball. This is measured not by errors but by a team’s ability to turn a batted ball in the field of play into an out. 4,096 balls were hit into the field of play against the Tigers last year and 1,310 of them resulted in baserunners. Since there are errors in there, I won’t calculate a batting average but instead express it this way: The Tigers converted 68.0% of batted balls into outs. The best fielding team in the majors, the Los Angeles Angels, converted 70.8% of batted balls into outs. A nearly 3% difference may not sound like a lot but consider this: Despite having 72 more balls hit into play against them, the Angels allowed 93 less runners on hits and errors. 93 less runners converts to nearly 50 runs which converts to about 5 wins. Now you know why Detroit had so much trouble in the regular season. Look at what they’ve done in October, however. Over its 9 playoff games this year, the Tigers have converted 75.4% of batted balls into outs – a much, much, MUCH better rate than the best fielding team in baseball.
That’s why Detroit is 7-2 in the post-season and why they are perceived to be huge favorites in the World Series. Everyone is assuming its defense against the Giants will be as good as it was in the last 9 games as opposed to how they played in the preceding 162 regular-season games. To be sure that can happen because, as I wrote in the very first summary of the Tigers when the playoffs began, if you’re going to bring a glaring weakness to the postseason table, make sure it’s defense. As shown at the top of this piece, even over just nine games, the worst hitting team in the majors can’t turn themselves into the 1927 Yankees, and the worst pitching team won’t similarly transform themselves either. But the worst fielding team can.
Turning to the San Francisco Giants, I want to focus on one of its strengths because it’s going to run smack into one of Detroit’s strengths as well. Detroit’s starting pitchers struck out 21.6% of the batters they faced in the regular season, the third highest rate in baseball. Aided by playing the team that struck out at the highest rate in the AL, the Oakland A’s, in the first round, as a team Detroit has upped that rate to 26.5% in the playoffs. The Giants starting eight, however, struck out less frequently than any other team in baseball in 2012, just 16.6% of the time. So which team’s strength will cancel out the other’s effectiveness?
Every caveat regarding small sample size applies to this illustration, but I still think it’s a fascinating angle to consider in handicapping Game 1, and by extension the series, in which the visiting team is such a big favorite. Two AL teams with similar strike out rates to the Giants were the Kansas City Royals (72-90) and the Cleveland Indians (68-94) who happened to be in the AL Central and Justin Verlander (17-8) happened to make seven starts against them. In those 7 games Verlander went 2-3 (Tigers were 3-4), threw 52 2/3 innings and allowed 21 runs for an RA of 3.59. 3.59 RA per 9 innings is still above average but it’s materially above Verlander’s season average of 3.06 (which would be considerably lower without the seven games against the Royals and Indians included.)
Now let’s look at the other side of the equation. The Giants faced three NL pitchers this year with strikeout and walk rates similar to, or better than, Justin Verlander’s – Stephen Strasburg, Cole Hamels, and Clayton Kershaw. Against these three stellar pitchers, who were 46-21 overall, the Giants had a winning record going 4-3. Within the details, there is hope for both sides. The Giants got to both Hamels and Strasburg but were more or less stymied by Kershaw. It’s only seven games apiece worth of evidence but there are clues there that if you’re going to have relative success against Verlander it’s best to be a low-strikeout team and the Giants are just that type of team.
Summary: In the Division Series round of the playoffs I went 3-1 with the lone miss being the Tigers vs. the A’s. In the just completed Championship Series round I went 1-1 with the miss being the Tigers vs. the Yankees. I am not going to insult nor worry Tigers fans by reversing things here and jinxing their team. If the Tigers strikeout more than 25% of the Giants they face and continue to field better than the best team in baseball, the Tigers will win this series in 4 or 5 games. Change the “and” in that last sentence to “or” and the Tigers will probably win in 6 or 7 games.
However, I’m going to continue to type what I’ve written all October – the Giants have a better offense than nearly everybody realizes. Once they settled on the current line up shortly after the All Star break, they scored runs at a pace of 5 a game in the second half of the season, something the Tigers, even with a DH, did not do during any 81-game stretch. After sputtering in their first two games, the Giants have scored 51 runs in their last ten playoff games. I’d feel extremely confident about this pick if Madison Bumgarner, Game 2’s announced starter, were as healthy/effective as he was fir the first five months of the season. While no one should expect Barry Zito to toss another gem tonight, I love the way Bruce Bochy used Tim Lincecum (and the rest of the bullpen) in relief when Zito struggled against the Reds. The far better pitcher faced hitters in much higher-leverage situations.
Given the edge in starting pitching, it’s not illogical that the Tigers are favorites in both the series and Game 1. But the degree to which they are favored (implied odds in excess of 60% in both cases) is too high by a material amount, for reasons I hope I’ve demonstrated above. I see the Giants hitters making contact, causing the Tigers’ fielders problems in the tricky confines of AT&T Park (remember converted-DH Vlad Guerrero’s misadventures in right field during Game 1 of the 2010 Series?). The call here is Giants in 7 and a second World Championship in three years for the franchise.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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