The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

 

Bandwagoneering

On the eve -- or rather afternoon -- of the World Series opener, I'll apologize in advance to the Detroit Tigers and their fans. I've got a lousy track record of rooting in this postseason, whether out of genuine affinity (the Dodgers and Yankees, who both lost in the first round), geography (the Mets, who of course were eliminated on Thursday night), philosophy (the Padres, whose front office impresses me, regardless of their rivalry with the Dodgers), or professional preference (the Twins, who I'm covering for Baseball Prospectus 2007, trump a very uninteresting A's team no matter what appreciation I have for Moneyball). The Tigers' win over the A's in the ALCS is the only time I've come out ahead this fall, and I'm 0-2 rooting against the St. Louis Cardinals.

That said, there's no other way my rooting interest could fall here. I've got no love lost for the Cards -- who may be the worst team ever to make the World Series; they hold the lowest Hit List Factor of any team to make it to the big show -- but I have to hand it to Tony La Russa for going against his own tendencies and riding the hot hands of Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan to the World Series. Time and again in the NLCS, opportunities to pull both pitchers for more favorable platoon matchups reared their heads, and time and again, La Russa stuck with his guns and was rewarded for his faith. I'd still never want to be caught with a rotation like his in the playoffs -- my memory for Weaver goes back far too long to be swayed by three good starts in a row, particularly with a K/BB ratio of 5/7 -- but it worked out for the Cards in the most unlikely of ways.

Despite the wrong team coming out on top, the NLCS was a fascinating series, the Mets an enjoyable bandwagon to climb aboard. As a carpetbagger in the New York baseball scene, I've never been somebody who could justify a hatred for the Mets simply because I root for the Yankees, and while I love lording the Dodgers' 1988 NLCS victory over Mets fans, my view of the team has changed since moving here. I've got enough Mets fans for friends that my empathy for the team is genuine, as is my desire for them to uphold the "Our City Can Kick Your City's Ass" worldview.

This particular team also had such a cast of familiar characters, from former Yankee coach Willie Randolph to former Dodgers Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca and Jose Valentin (the Matador, as my friend Nick likes to call him, is a particular favorite), to the injured El Duque, to the admirably outspoken Carlos Delgado, and so on, that rooting for them under the circumstances came easily. Randolph's calm demeanor echoes mentor Joe Torre's, and while so does his postseason bench management, his ability to manage his depleted pitching staff made for fascinating viewing this October.

Lost in all the hoopla about Oliver Perez as the worst Game Seven starter ever was the fact that it wasn't too long ago we were talking about him as a future Cy Young candidate. Yes, he had a miserable year with that 3-13, 6.55 ERA line, but how many other pitchers in the running for the dubious distinction struck out 239 hitters two years before? The upside for Perez is clearly still there, so you have to tip your hat to Omar Minaya for acquiring him as a throw-in via the Roberto Hernandez-Xavier Nady deal. Even if Minaya intended to flip Perez back to the Padres but missed the gun at the deadline, in pitching coach Rick Peterson he's got a much better shot at solving the enigmatic Perez's mechanical and woes than most other teams (Yankees = shudder).

From a pure baseball standpoint, Game Seven was a pleasure, a taut drama full of unlikely storylines, where one mistake would mean the difference between success and failure. From Perez's early dominance and Albert Pujols' struggles to Endy Chavez's brilliant catch to rob Scott Rolen of a home run -- quite possibly the best I've ever seen given both the context and the sheer unlikelihood of him snagging that ball -- to .216-hitting Yadier Freakin' Molina knocking the pennant-winning homer to Cardinal-killing Carlos Beltran looking at strike three with the bases loaded to end the series -- what's the last backwards K you can remember in the final out of an elimination game? My mind is blank -- this one had everything. And it's a game that will justifiably be long remembered.

But know this one thing: whatever Randolph's similarities to Joe Torre, the latter wouldn't have been caught dead with anyone less than Mariano Rivera out there on the mound with a ninth-inning 1-1 tie in an elimination game. Randolph stuck with Aaron Heilman, who'd tossed the inning prior, and he was afraid to call upon Wagner, who'd been torched for five runs in 2.2 innings by the Cards in the series. Now, I don't know if there's something physically or mentally not right with Wagner at this point in time, but for all of the hoopla that greeted his coming to town, and all of the high-profile shaky performances that the stats belie -- he was second in the NL in Reliever Expected Wins Added, and as dumb as the save rule is, his five blown saves aren't a ridiculous number (26 pitchers including sainted Jonathan Papelbon blew more, and another nine, including sainted trevor Hoffman, blew as many) -- I was pretty surprised not to see him out there with the season on the line. Exit Sandman.

It's been a week since I thought much about the Tigers, but I still have to hand the way they buzzsawed their way through both the Yankees and A's this month. Their young arms -- Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, tendonitis-striken triple-digit tosser Joel Zumaya -- should be well-rested, and the likeable Jim Leyland can seem to do no wrong these days. Their lineup is full of potholes and will likely be rusty from a week off, but I'm guessing the rested staff makes up for that.

Leyland and La Russa will be managing for the right to join Sparky Anderson as the only managers to guide winners from both leagues to a World Championship (Anderson completed the task with the last Tiger champs in 1984, of course. By way of offering even a modicum of analysis instead of rambling and procrastinating my other work, I'll point to Nate Silver's preview at BP, where he had this to say about the managers:
La Russa should remember Ken Macha’s fate, because for all the warm fuzzies that Suppan and Molina’s heroics generated on Thursday night, he could still be managing for his job. A competitive performance by the Cardinals should buy him some more time under Walt Jocketty, but if the Tigers win in four games or five, the stench of failure could be too much for Jocketty to ignore, especially after the Cardinals’ shaky regular-season performance. Beyond that, there’s the mutual passive-aggressiveness between La Russa and Scott Rolen, and the general feeling that the PETA-supporting La Russa is a little too blue for the red-state Cardinals. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, of course, but one suspects that the underlying dynamics might further augment La Russa’s compulsion to over-managing, which could translate to something silly like Taguchi making an unexpected start in left field.

As far as Jim Leyland goes, I'm willing to give him a mulligan until we have more than one season’s worth of results to look at. He pretty clearly makes some technical mistakes, like the resistance to using Zumaya as the closer, or hitting Perez toward the front of the lineup. But the more important function of the manager is to get the best performance that he can out of each man on his roster, and on that front Leyland scores well. Part of that might be psychological -- Leyland pretty clearly has his fire back after being after his burnout in Colorado, whereas the Tigers had suffered under the leadership of a never-ending string of ex-jocks who seemed all too complacent with the team going 70-92 (or much worse) every year. It's also a matter of Leyland not asking his players to do what they aren’t capable of doing. Granderson isn’t asked to steal bases, in spite of being the leadoff hitter; Jones isn’t asked to strike people out, in spite of being the closer. One suspects it’s this same tendency to that makes Leyland extremely reluctant to use his defensive players out of position. There are days when the Tigers’ lineup would probably have been better off with Marcus Thames playing at first base, or something of that nature, but Leyland plays to win the war rather than the battle.
Besides my willingness to continue riding the Tigers' bandwagon for the rest of the month, another reason I'm looking forward to this World Series is because I always enjoy hearing about the two teams' storied Series history. Their 1934 matchup pitted the Gashouse Gang against the Tigers of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane, with the Cards winning in seven thanks to Dizzy and Daffy Dean, who started five of those games; Diz shut out the Tigers in Game Seven on one day's rest. Their 1968 rematch featured nothing less than the defending champion Cardinals sending Bob Gibson (1.12 ERA that year) to the mound three times, losing the finale to rotund Mickey Lolich, who went 3-0 while tossing three complete games.

As for predictions, I'll say Tigers in six games, with Kenny Rogers and Carlos Guillen leading the way (man, who'd have thought I'd ever type that sentence?). Ultimately, I'm less concerned with who wins and loses here than the opportunity to ride another week of exciting baseball into the October sunset. We've got far too much darkness ahead of us not to enjoy this matchup while it lasts, so here's hoping it lives up to its storied history.

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