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Two Plate Appearances from Tigers-A’s Game Two

A series between two teams full of unique individuals doesn’t really fit into a nice plot with themes, characters and nemeses. But when in setting up this series, it still made sense to highlight the depth and undervalued skills on the Athletics and the top-heavy, star-driven status of the Tigers team. Two plate appearances from Sunday’s game two between these two teams seemed to encapsulate the overall matchup well, and highlight many of those same themes.

In the top of the eighth with one out, with his team down by one run, Josh Reddick stepped to the plate.

After a Yoenis Cespedes single and a Brandon Moss fly out, there was one out and an athletic Cuban at first base. Reddick is one of the Athletics’ eight above-average players, which allows their lineup to have a bit more depth than their opponents: by almost any metric, Reddick is a better batter than the Tigers’ number five, Delmon Young. On the other side of the ball, the A’s bullpen had an ERA that was a full run better than the Tigers’, and though Joaquin Benoit was their best reliever, getting to the bullpen at all was a minor victory for the A’s.

Maybe depth created the situation, to some extent. What exacerbated the situation was speed, and the stolen base is something that may not seem very Moneyball. Only four A’s teams since 2000 have stolen more than 100 bases, and those teams, in order, are: 2010, 2009, 2012 and 2011. The 2000 team stole 40 bases. This year, they stole 122. They haven’t changed everything about themselves — they still are at the top of the league in walk rate, and even while stealing all those bases, they’ve maintained the second-best success rate in the American League since 2000 (74.6%) — but they are stealing more bases these days.

Cespedes stole second base.

The fact that Gerald Laird and Alex Avila have caught 26% of runners (good for 14th) hasn’t deterred many teams, since 74% is usually above the break-even point for stolen base value. The Tigers allowed the fourth-most stolen bases in baseball this year, and that seems to fit right into the idea that they aren’t a great defensive squad. Laird looked over to the dugout wondering why his teammates didn’t tell him that Cespedes was running.

Cespedes stole third base.

This time, Laird didn’t even get a throw over and had nobody to blame. Joaquin Benoit was on the mound, though, and he has had above-average control since his resurgence in 2010. He’d only thrown six wild pitches in those three full years. On the other hand, control is not the same as command, and Laird’s been below-average by the blocked pitches metric on our site (-1.2 RPP career). Laird expected the pitch to be low and down the middle. Benoit missed his spot by a foot.

Cespedes scored on a wild pitch.

Beyond base-stealing, the Athletics did two things way more often than the Tigers this year: hit home runs (195 to 163) and strike out (1387, the most in baseball, to 1103, third-best in the AL). Reddick had struck out six times in the first two games, but was still a threat. Benoit gave up ten homers in the second half. The booth had been saying that Benoit had to miss away, because if you miss in, the ball might find the seats. Reddick’s heat map (from Baseball Heat Maps) tells you the lefty loves it inside or high:

In the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Joaquin Benoit hung an 86 mph changeup right down broadstreet and Josh Reddick deposited it in past the right field wall. Score one for speed, power and patience over a mediocre bullpen.

In the bottom of the ninth, the scored was knotted at four when Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate.

The elephants may have a better bullpen than the Tigers, but the Tigers’ star power matters. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are the two best hitters on either team, and going into the ninth, they had three hits and yet only run between the two of them, with no RBI. Mostly, the Athletics had succeeded by keeping the bases empty for the two sluggers. But even the best pitching staffs will allow a baserunner, and after Omar Infante singled off Grant Balfour, Miguel Cabrera got his second at-bat with runners in scoring position.

Balfour threw him a curve to begin the at-bat. Cabrera took it for a called strike.

Cabrera kills most pitches, but by linear pitch-type weights, the slider is the pitch he likes sixth-best. Pitch-type linear weights say that the slider has been Balfour’s best pitch this season, but that’s just because the at-bats that have ended with a slider worked out well. Look at the whiffs his pitch gets among relievers that have thrown 200+ sliders, and he’s 123rd in whiffs per swing on the pitch (Brooks Baseball).

Balfour threw him a slider this time, now his third slider in his last four pitches. Ball.

It doesn’t seem like Cabrera or Fielder is the reason that the Tigers are in a decent position at this point in the series (and game). Cabrera had eight plate appearances with a walk and two hits and no RBI, and Fielder had seven appearances with a single hit and no runs and RBI. But you give these guys enough chances, and they’ll get on base enough to make it matter.

Balfour threw another slider. A beauty, just below the strike zone, and Cabrera missed it.

One of the amazing things about Cabrera is his combination of power and contact abilities. His .270 isolated slugging percentage over the last three years is third in baseball. Only Albert Pujols (eighth-best ISO) and Adrian Beltre (tenth-best) make more contact than Cabrera when it comes to that top ten list. So Balfour might have been keeping an eye on the worst-case scenario. His curveball gets his best grounder rate.

Balfour threw another curve. Miguel Cabrera touched it to shallow center field for a single.

That single pushed Omar Infante to third, and the Tigers’ win expectancy from 63.5 to 82.4%. Other than Cabrera’s misplayed fly ball to Coco Crisp — one of two cotly errors on difficult plays by the more-heralded Oakland defense — that single in the ninth was the second-biggest win probability added swing and one of the main reasons the Tigers won. Sure, Don Kelly made good contact (Tigers do) and actually got the game-winning RBI, but Cabrera put them in that position.

Even though Oakland’s deep staff has done their best to limit the damage from the Tigers’ stars, excellence is hard to keep down for very long. And even though Oakland has benefited from their depth on offense, and their speed on the basepaths, they haven’t been able to take advantage. After all, you have to put the ball in play to put pressure on an iffy defense and Oakland has struck out 23 times in the first two games. Going forward, it’s nice to note that they’ll be on home turf (52-30) and facing Anibal Sanchez, who is decidedly not Justin Verlander and who has averaged only a hair over six innings per start with the Tigers. Oakland should get another chance to take a bite out of that bullpen.

The depth, defense and bullpen story lines are there — intertwined with others — and we’ll see which ones dominate the series as it heads to Oakland.

[Pitch classification guru Harry Pavlidis pointed out to me that two of the pitches to Miguel Cabrera were curves. Thanks Harry!]