WPS recap: LDS, 10/7/2013

Baseball overload returned on Monday, with four playoff games, the last three of them potential elimination affairs.

As I will periodically remind our readers, my WPS Index is not the only method for measuring the excitement of baseball games, and not the only one created by writers at The Hardball Times. We’ve had alternative methods drawm up by Dennis Boznango, Max Marchi, and the prolific Chris Jaffe.

More, Dave Studeman came up with a WPA-based method in the 2007 Annual that is close to identical to mine, save for the semi-subjective additions of Best Plays and Last Play that I made. I hadn’t read that Annual at the time, and that taught me not to miss them any more.

Okay, enough spreading around the credit. It’s time to drink from the firehose!

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9    F
A's        0   0   1   2   3   0   0   0   0    6
Tigers     0   0   0   3   0   0   0   0   0    3  
(A's lead series 2-1)
WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9
A's       19  13  37  25  42   3   2   2   3
Tigers     7   5   6  49  11  12   8  11   6  
WPS Base: 259.7  Best Plays: 47.4  Last Play: 1.5  Grand Total: 308.6

This game came right in at the median for WPS scores. It got there with some good action in the third through fifth, bracketed by the feeling-out process early and the A’s locking down a substantial lead late. There are probably more ways for a game to be average than to be very good or very bad. This was one, and if you were on hand for that nice three-inning stretch, it was quite satisfactory in the area of excitement.

Miguel Cabrera‘s nagging injuries may have cost his Tigers a lot today. A grounder in the third inning hopped off his glove arm to give Oakland its first run, and broadcast commentators speculated that if his legs were sounder, he could have gotten a better position to take the ball.

Worse was Cabrera’s long drive to the depths of right-center in the fourth inning that died in Coco Crisp‘s glove. If he was healthy, if he was getting his lower body into his swing better, would that have been a two-run homer? The Tigers accept his defensive problems at third, but they need his offense as compensation.

The lost homer might not have been critical. The runner on base would score anyway in that three-run fourth for Detroit, and Oakland did win by three. But an extra out in a rally inning can turn a rough patch into an avalanche, and A’s starter Jarrod Parker did manage to pull things together, close up the fourth, and have a perfect fifth. What if, what if … ?

Anibal Sanchez had a much worse time for Detroit, giving up three home runs, the second being a Brandon Moss bomb that Torii Hunter in right not only didn’t bother chasing, but barely turned around to watch. It was that much of a no-doubter.

The third and last was to Seth Smith, with Sanchez laboring past 100 pitches and relievers vigorously warming up. Jim Leyland tried to stretch Sanchez one more batter, against a man who has done well against him. It cost the Tigers, and they couldn’t afford multiple things costing them today.

The ninth frame got a jolt of excitement that few systems are capable of measuring. Closer Grant Balfour, always a yakky kind of pitcher, got into a heavy exchange of profanity with Victor Martinez, a confrontation that emptied both dugouts (and bullpens).

No fisticuffs ensued, but it seemed to affect the highly-strung Balfour just a bit. Martinez hit a pitch hard but right at Josh Reddick in right; Jhonny Peralta got ball four from Balfour but swung and missed at it for strike three; Alex Avila did draw the walk, and Balfour’s pitch count was rising. It came to naught, but it gave a nice frisson to the game’s end.

Just keep it clean from here on out, guys. Don’t cost us the ambient sounds from the field.

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9    F
Cardinals  0   0   0   0   0   2   0   0   0    2
Pirates    0   0   0   0   0   0   0   1   0    1 
(Series tied 2-2)
WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9
Cardinals  7   5   5  15  22  36   3   2   3 
Pirates    4   5   5   5   6  18   7  35  26
WPS Base: 207.8  Best Plays: 47.7  Last Play: 8.3  Grand Total: 263.8

As tense as this game was for a number of reasons, it underperforms on the WPS Index. Why? Mostly because the pitchers were too good for too long. Almost no offensive action occurred in the first four innings, and virtually none by the Pirates for the first seven.

Without baserunners raising the chance of some scoring when the game is close, WPS cannot move much. This is a limitation of the system: it cannot measure things that we value subjectively outside the actual competitiveness between the two teams.

The offensive blackout (no, I don’t mean what the Pirates fans were wearing) did have a distinct upside: a good pace to the game. The first four innings were finished in an hour flat, while the A’s-Tigers game that began two hours before was still a while from completion. If I ever switch to a WPS-per-hour stat, this game will come into its own.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

As virtually everybody watching or hearing the game must have heard, Michael Wacha came one out away from a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season. Even after a walk to Russell Martin opening the sixth cost him his perfect game bid, after seven innings it looked quite likely that Wacha might come one infield single away from duplicating Johnny Vander Meer‘s double no-hitter.

The Pittsburgh stands, so famed this year, had showered him with Waaaaa-chaaaaa! chants at the start, but his invulnerability had damped the volume inning by inning. When he batted in the top of the seventh, his Cardinals up 2-0, there was nothing. When he started pitching in the bottom of the inning, there was a little, but it was dying with Pittsburgh’s hopes. That is how well he had pitched.

Then Pedro Alvarez bashed one just short of the Allegheny River, and the crowd was like a bursting dam. One batter later, he was gone.

And less than one batter later, so was Pittsburgh’s rally, as pinch-runner Josh Harrison tried to steal second. His slide began a couple of furlongs from the bag, and he was out easily. There was still an out to go, but the inning had been killed.

The ninth brought a revival at the last possible time. Neil Walker did what he was named to do, on four Trevor Rosenthal pitches, and Andrew McCutchen came up. I cannot have been the only one to whom Kirk Gibson and Dennis Eckersley came to mind. Down a run at home, a two-out walk, the winning run to the plate. If you’ve seen the grounds around PNC Park, you know what I mean when I say this was a potential statue moment.

But McCutchen flied out harmlessly into short center, costing Pennsylvania’s sculptors some business. For a game that seemed to be building up to something, it was a ledown. Maybe that low WPS number was right, after all.

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9    F
Red Sox    1   0   0   0   2   0   0   0   1    4
Rays       0   0   0   0   3   0   0   1   1    5
(Boston leads series 2-1)
WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9
Red Sox   22   4   4  22  29  14   8  42  46
Rays      13  20   6  31  71   7  24  51  56  
WPS Base: 469.0  Best Plays: 98.3  Last Play: 47.1  Grand Total: 614.4

My cutoff for a great game is 500 points. This game blew past the mark with a tension-filled, back-and-forth final two innings. The early stages contributed a hefty share, as well, and not only when teams scored. Just five half-innings in the entire game went one-two-three, meaning scoring threats kept popping up, raising the score even when they were hammered down.

The one time a team moved ahead by more than one, its opponent struck right back to knot it up. A walkoff home run by backup catcher Jose Lobaton just ties a storybook bow on this game.

Through the first five innings, though, I would have been in no mood to call it great. That is due to pitcher Clay Buchholz and his pace. Watching Buchholz pitch is like watching glacier migration. A fellow could catch up on his reading between pitches. I’m not saying I did that—and I’m not saying I didn’t.

The Cardinals-Pirates game this day came in at roughly two and three-quarter hours, thanks mainly to Mr. Wacha. The first five innings of this game took two and a half hours, and with a mere six runs scored. Buchholz lasted six innings, which was quite enough. If Boston advances, we’ll be seeing him again, so now you can guess my rooting interest in this series.

The fans took a little time to get into this game. I heard significant cheers for the Red Sox during their first-inning rally, the Rays fans not even trying to drown them out. By the second, though, Tampa Bay’s supporters started making their presence felt, which in a domed stadium can be a lot. And they ended up with ample cause for making those efforts. They weren’t at Pittsburgh levels all the way through, but they were by the end. My Buchholz slowdown rant notwithstanding, this game really was great, when it was being played.

Both managers were emptying their rosters to win this game, and in Maddon’s case because Wil Myers came down with bad leg cramps. That cost him the designated hitter, when he had to move Matt Joyce to right field to take Myers’ place.

Boston’s first notable substitution was sending Quintin Berry in to run for David Ortiz in the eighth. This almost became the focus of huge controversy when Berry stole second on a play where the video appeared to show he was out. Jake McGee and the Rays buckled down to keep Boston off the board that inning, taking the matter from a firestorm to a footnote.

With a one-run lead, Boston’s defense came unglued in the last of the eighth. With the leadoff man getting on, Desmond Jennings‘ bunt toward first had too many defenders converge on it, leading to a hit. Jarrod Saltalamacchia responded with a fine play on Joyce’s foul pop bunt, but then something happened I’ve never seen before. On a grounder, middle infielders Stephen Drew and Dustin Pedroia slid into each other playing for the ball and ended up with no play, loading the bases with one down.

Delmon Young entered to bat for catcher Jose Molina and hit a hot shot to Mike Napoli at first. Napoli smothered it but found in frustration he had no chance for the force at home. Sam Fuld, who ran for James Loney to start the inning, was too fast for him. Two of Joe Maddon’s moves cashed in at once, and there’d be another.

Boston countered with a fresh pinch-running move in the top of the ninth, sending Xander Bogaerts in when Will Middlebrooks got a leadoff walk against Fernando Rodney. This one paid, too, or at least didn’t hurt. A bloop single and sacrifice got Bogaerts to third, and he scored on a grounder to short, no chance being taken to try to nail him at the plate. The Boston rally died out, though, when Ortiz’s place came up and John Farrell had to send up Mike Carp, who struck out.

Extra innings seemed certain when the first two Rays were disposed of by Koji Uehara. Due to the Myers-DH shuffle, the pitcher’s spot was coming up—or would have been, had Maddon not made a double-switch after the eighth. He put Molina’s backup, Lobaton, in the five hole and the pitcher in the ninth spot, where Young had pinch-hit. An unfamiliar move for an AL manager, but it didn’t seem likely to affect matters in the ninth, not with a backup catcher hitting.

Well, whoever had Jose Lobaton in the walk-off win pool—no relation to the ray pool in center field where Lobaton’s home run splashed down—can go enjoy his winnings.

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9    F
Braves     0   0   0   2   0   0   1   0   0    3
Dodgers    1   0   1   0   0   0   0   2   X    4
(Dodgers win series 3-1)
WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9
Braves    12  10   5  41   9   7  38   9  14 
Dodgers   22   4  20  17  13  27  24  65   X
WPS Base: 337.3  Best Plays: 77.4  Last Play: 3.0  Grand Total: 417.7

This followed the Red Sox-Rays pattern fairly closely, though not to such great effect. An early lead, promptly caught up to when it got past one run, and late long-ball heroics to decide the affair. This one never matched any of the three huge innings the earlier game boasted (three scoring at least 93 points), so it ends up merely good.

Don Mattingly got people buzzing when he tapped Clayton Kershaw to start on three days’ rest for the first time in his career. It turned out to be a good move. Kershaw had his stuff in a start slightly truncated at six innings. His only bad inning came due to one error, a wild pitch, and a bad throw on what should have been a double play that let the second run of the frame across.

Fredi Gonzalez got scrutiny similar to Mattingly’s when he sent Freddy Garcia in to pitch the elimination game. Similarly, it worked out pretty well for Atlanta. Carl Crawford tagged Garcia for two solo home runs, but that was all the damage Garcia allowed. He matched Kershaw’s two runs surrendered over six innings, and the twin controversies ended up just being the gateway to a three-inning bullpen duel.

Once Crawford’s two-fer was over, Yasiel Puig once again made himself the center of attention. (You may have heard, he’s good at that.) After a fourth-inning single, he tried to show off arguably the weakest part of his game, his stealing ability. A mere 11 for 19 in the regular season, he got himself thrown out. It likely didn’t matter, though, as the subsequent 5-3 grounder easily could have been a 5-4-3 twin killing.

Puig’s next showcase was another negative one, his bad route cutting off Elliot Johnson‘s first and only hit of the series. The ball scooted past Puig and around a panicked security guard, giving Johnson a triple. He would come across with the go-ahead run one batter later.

This didn’t daunt Puig—what does? He smacked a leadoff hit in the eighth, brazenly stretching it to a double. This extra base didn’t matter in the end, as Juan Uribe drove one down the left-field line and out, overhauling the Braves to put L.A. ahead 4-3. Kenley Jansen came on in the ninth to strike out the side, and the Dodgers became the first team into the LCS.

We will not be repeating last year’s divisional round, when all four series went the maximum five games. If we can get a couple of more games like the two late ones on this day before the LDS is over, I don’t think we’ll mind a missing game here and there.

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

You mean Jhonny Peralta, not Joel Peralta smile

Way to do the Yeoman’s work Shane. Thanks for the recaps.

Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte

Yes I did, Brad, and it’s fixed now.  The other J. Peralta has been in the playoffs often enough in recent years that I brain-cramped on the name.

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

No worries, I made much bigger mistakes in my daily fantasy column including infrequently recommending players who were injured (and not recently).

Morgan Conrad
Morgan Conrad
Sorry Brad, I must conclude that this WPS weighing system, though nicely objective, is badly flawed if the Cards/Bucs game (and the first two As/Tigers games) come in so low. For example, in the Verlander/Gray duel, every single at bat was a possible game winner.  A HR is worth a Win, and merely a hit or walk is worth a good chunk of a win, as a followup double (or two followup hits) would lead to a win.  Geez, getting to a three ball count was a huge deal.  (I was there)  So either I’m missing something, or this WPS… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson
I would describe that as a feature, not a bug. The system doesn’t descend down to count level (at least I don’t think it does), so it is missing that. Something like 96% of balls in play are not home runs, so once you run out the math, there’s about a 2.5-3% chance that a given batter will hit a home run (absent of knowing anything about that batter). So it makes sense that each out doesn’t add much to the WPS score. What we’re seeing instead is a disconnect between our measurement of excitement and what is actually found… Read more »
Morgan Conrad
Morgan Conrad

Apparently, having your closer blow the save makes the game more “exciting” to WPS.  It probably is.  But it mainly means that Rodney isn’t very good.  Vulture wins are exciting!

Likewise, the Dodger’s/Braves game was full of errors and mistakes.  As shown in your summary.

It seems like the WPS system likes mistakes as “exciting”.  Well pitched games with good defense, like the strike em out throw em out DP you noted in an earlier post, seem to get devalued.

Can’t wait for a Houston-Miami series.  grin

If I were to suggest something that might help address the lack of regard this system has for games like Cards-Pirates (which by any reasonable fan standards was a classic), I think I’d focus on proximity to 50-50 chance to win. I understand and appreciate the mathematical simplicity that your current system has, just tracking WPA changes. So I’d certainly understand not wanting to make major changes. But I think if you tracked proximity to 50-50 chance to win, weighting it more as the game went on, you’d be able to account for the tension resulting from a close pitcher’s… Read more »