For the sake of efficiency, I’m abandoning the usual format of discussing each game’s “good, bad, and/or ugly/impressive” moment. Instead, I’ll just make some brief comments before the NLCS kicks off today.
Game Four

True to form, the Cardinals continue to trick me into writing them off. Before Edwin Jackson had even recorded an out, their win expectancy dropped to 27.9%. Thanks to a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play, Jackson quickly escaped from the inning and proceeded to lead the pitching staff by adding 12.7% win probability while striking out four and only walking one batter – good for 2.19 FIP.

Some have likened Edwin Jackson’s role in 2011 to Jeff Weaver’s in 2006 (only have one link). Is that true? How do they compare as pitchers? Well, 28-year-old Jackson is probably better right now than Jeff Weaver was at any point in his career, though it was admittedly closer than I would have guessed. While their overall FIPs are comparable (Jackson – 4.34; Weaver – 4.41), Weaver peaked in his early years while Jackson has improved with age. At first glance, you’d probably think Weaver posted the best overall season in 2002 when he performed 16% better than league average (FIP- of 84), but he didn’t give up as many homeruns that year as he probably should have since pitcher’s have relatively little control over the amount of homeruns they surrender per fly ball allowed. Weaver was 25-years-old in 2002, and his performance steadily regressed thereafter. Considering his post season success, it’s easy for Saint Louis fans to forget that his performance was pretty terrible leading up to October (5.71/5.11 FIP/xFIP for Cardinals in 2006′s regular season). While he did pitch somewhat better in October (slightly improved K/BB ratio), his results were exceedingly improved, suggesting that there was probably some luck involved. Maybe the defense helped him out, but the Cardinals weren’t exactly a great defensive team that year. He also had an unsustainable strand rate (84.4%).

Point? While their overall numbers might not be too far off, the Cardinals acquired Jackson at a much more favorable point in his career. In contrast to Weaver, Jackson struggled as a young pitcher but has spent the last three years improving his strikeout to walk ratio and has started coaxing more ground balls. He has career best numbers to show for it (3.55 FIP in 2011).

28-year-old Edwin Jackson is not the same as 29-year-old Jeff Weaver. Edwin Jackson may not end up with better results than Jeff Weaver’s memorable October in 2006, but he is the better pitcher.

Take a look at the above graph and you’ll notice that two of the largest swings in win probability have little notes about the hometown hero, David Freese. His 2-run double in the 4th and 2-run homer in the 6th added 38.2% in win probability alone.

As the 2011 season has unfolded, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how strange Freese’s career has looked thus far. I’m not the only one who thinks so; see Dan Moore’s late-September post at VEB. After posting a .538 slugging percentage in more than 700 triple-A plate appearances, his power has dropped 100 points as a major-leaguer. You’d think that such a power drop-off would lead to less productivity, but that hasn’t really been the case as he’s still been well above average with the bat (.348 wOBA in 667 plate appearances). While his impressive line-drive rate might allow him to float above the usual .300 BABIP watermark, his career .356 BABIP just seems unreasonable. Having said that, statcorner’s wOBAr adjusts for batted ball rates and park effects… and Freese still looks pretty good (.332 in 2010 and .355 in 2011). Maybe I’ll take a more in-depth look at this in the future.

Game Five


When the green line hovers right around the 50% mark, you know you had yourself a pitcher’s duel. Sometimes, Chris Carpenter just looks like he makes a decision to throw a shut-out… and then does it.

Objectively, I’m not sure Carp really outpitched Roy Halladay. He certainly left more to chance as Halladay allowed fewer balls in play with 7 strikeouts (compared to Carpenter’s 3). At least two of those balls looked like serious trouble off of the bat, but instead of being game-changing home runs in late innings, they fell safely into the gloves of Lance Berkman and Jon Jay who each had to retreat to the warning track.

Overall, however, one might say that Carpenter’s balls in play were less dangerous since 66.7% of them stayed on the ground while Holliday only induced 40% grounders.

This all resulted in a fantastic pitchers duel and, for Cardinals fans, it was a special moment to behold.

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I was lucky enough to be in attendance for game three. TLR has been questioned extensively for several decisions he made over the course of the loss and I wanted to spend some time sorting through all of the second guessing.

In the bottom of the 6th inning, Jaime Garcia was left in to hit for himself despite having men on first and second base. At FanGraphs, Jack Moore argued:

“…if any situation calls for Matt Holliday – he of the 154 wRC+ – it was the bottom of the sixth… When Garcia came up to the plate against Hamels, there was a leverage index of 2.51, the highest of the game to that point. By leaving Garcia in, he effectively conceded the baserunners, assuming his pitching staff could hold the Phillies down long enough for the Cardinals to start another rally.”

He goes on to explain other ways in which TLR’s decision-making process was flawed:

  • The Phillies bullpen (namely, Bastardo, Worley, Lidge, and Madson) are nearly as difficult to hit as Cole Hamels. By forfeiting the inning, TLR will require his offense to start a whole new inning against pitchers nearly as talented.
  • The attempt to save the bullpen was unnecessary since Cardinals’ relievers were relatively fresh despite covering six innings in game two.
  • TLR’s decision to leave Jaime in to pitch suggested that he was managing in regular season mode rather than taking a win-now approach where leads are sought as immediately as possible.

Jack brings up some fine points, but I’m not sure that I completely agree. Let’s take them one at a time.

  • Should TLR have pinch-hit Jaime Garcia in the bottom of the 6th inning since Matt Holliday was available? This is kind of splitting hairs, but that situation actually wasn’t the most crucial moment of the game to that point; that happened in the top of the sixth inning when Jaime induced a grounder from Ryan Howard with runners on first and second base. And overall, it only rated 7th or 8th by the time the game had ended. When Holliday did eventually pinch-hit, the leverage index was 2.29; that’s not too far off in terms of importance when compared to allowing Jaime to hit for himself. Maybe TLR kicked himself from withholding Holliday when it all played out, but he managed to use him in a potentially game-changing moment later on anyways. Offensively for the Cardinals, the most crucial moment (6.05 leverage index) occurred in the 8th inning when Allen Craig game to the plate with the bases loaded. He hit the ball about as hard as he could, but it headed right towards the sure-handed Utley, who turned the double play. What can you do? This one decision didn’t cost the Cardinals the game. I count at least seven other times when the leverage index was higher than 2.53.
  • Yes, by forfeiting the inning, TLR required his offense to start a whole new rally. But guess what? They did. In fact, they did so each of the next three innings. The offense had their chances. If you have to hang the loss on somebody, pick the luck dragon, the Phillies making quality pitches, or the Cardinals hitters for failing to deliver more often.
  • The suggestion that TLR was trying to save the bullpen is an assumption I’m not ready to make. I think it’s entirely possible that TLR simply wanted to leave his best pitcher in the game as long as he was dealing. Up to that point, Jaime’s pitch count was still relatively low and he had yet to allow any runs. Jaime’s had a 3.44 FIP in 2011. Other pitchers with better FIPs that were available that night included Octavio Dotel (3.23 in 54.0 IP), Jason Motte (2.48 in 68.0 IP), Scrabble (3.14 in 62.0 IP), and Fernando Salas (3.16 in 75.0 IP). Jaime Garcia pitched 194.2 innings this year with comparable results. As a general rule, you want your best players on the field as much as possible in October, right? In that regard, it’s hard for me to blame TLR. It would have been more difficult to cope with the decision to pull Jaime prematurely only to lose the game with less talented pitchers on the mound.

Others have questioned whether TLR should have opted to pitch to Carlos Ruiz rather than challenge Ben Francisco. In principle, I’m against awarding the opposition free base runners. Honestly, though, if you take a look at the win expectancy after TLR’s decision to walk Ruiz, it only dropped from 52.4% to 51.1%. Now, win expectancy assumes that the players involved are average. Intuitively, TLR knows that he has created an unnecessarily dangerous situation in which three runs could score instead of two in the worst-case scenario (the guy at-bat hits a home run), but he decided that Francisco is a considerably worse hitter than Ruiz to the extent that he was willing to take that chance. Francisco has a career .333 wOBA (approximately league-average) over 1514 plate appearances. Ruiz has a .327 wOBA over 2164 plate appearances. Neither of them have demonstrated trending platoon splits over that time, so they have each been nearly as successful at hitting lefties as righties. Their productiveness as hitters is nearly identical, and that suggests that TLR made the wrong call in pitching to Francisco over Ruiz, even if it only meant a 1% chance difference in winning the game.

Furthermore, I do take issue with TLR’s reasons for intentionally walking Ruiz:

“Well, if you follow our club with Ruiz over the years, he’s gotten as many big hits as the guys in the middle of the lineup. He just terrorizes us, and he’s already hit two balls hard. The matchup we liked, I liked. I made the decision. Francisco has had a tough time with Jaime, so it really wasn’t a tough call.

Ruiz’s “success” against the Cardinals has come in all of 100 at-bats. As for Francisco, he had faced Jaime in all of 6 at-bats. The most frustrating part of TLR’s decision-making process is that it is often based in ridiculously small sample sizes rather than larger career arcs that provide more meaningful data. It’s disheartening to realize that the guy calling the shots for the team that we’re hanging our hopes on this October is turning to these types of numbers for spur of the moment decisions. I wouldn’t argue against TLR being a good manager. He’s won a lot of games and has taken this team further than I believed it could go. I’m appreciative of that. It’s irrational to discredit his role in the Cardinals’ resilience. But decisions are magnified in the playoffs, and I hate the thought of their season hanging in the balance of a decision resting on an inconsequential 6 at-bat sample size. The implications could be profound.

And that brings us to the last talking point: Should he have brought in Dotel to face the right-handed hitter? Here’s my logic. For TLR to walk Ruiz suggested that he had doubt in Jaime’s ability to get him out. And for all practical purposes, Ruiz and Francisco are similarly productive batters. Dotel has a career 2.92 FIP against right-handed batters and has been particularly effective lately (striking out six times as many right-handed batters than he walks). If TLR had any doubt in Jaime’s ability to retire either of these average hitters, bringing in Dotel was probably the correct play. In that sense, it’s conceivable that it would have been better for Dotel to face Francisco since Ruiz puts the ball in play more often.

All in all, this was an extremely winnable game. My concerns about TLR’s decision-making process aside, I don’t think he’s deserving of blame for this particular loss. While he had to make some tough calls, none of them were obvious transgressions in my estimation.

I was planning on writing a reaction to game four as well, but I think I might be all blogger-ed out for the night. We’ll see. Feel free to leave comments if you agree/disagree with my thoughts.

I’m downright giddy about watching Carpenter oppose Halladay tomorrow night. Hope this crazy season continues.

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If you told me the Cardinals would trail by two runs before Chris Carpenter even recorded an out, I’d be hard pressed to imagine a scenario in which the Cardinals were victorious. It certainly wouldn’t have looked like last night.

The Good: The offense continued hitting and ended up tying Cliff Lee’s previous career high in hits allowed (12). At Crashburn Alley,  Bill Baer argued that Lee had fallen prey to poor luck on balls in play. That is, the Cardinals twelve hits were a function of luck in that they did not seem particularly hard hit but just managed to find holes in the defense. There’s certainly some merit to this position. After all, Lee pitched well in some aspects. He was missing bats (9 K’s in 6 IP), throwing strikes (only 2 BB’s), and compiled a 1.03 FIP in the process. At one point, Bill tweeted:

The Cardinals have put 20 balls in play. Arguably two of them were well-struck.

Obviously, some of the hits were lucky (e.g. Pujols’s broken bat single, Berkman’s bloop to RF), but I can recall at least five that were hit very hard: Furcal’s triple to lead off the game, Theriot’s double down the left field line, Craig’s triple that was misjudged by Victorino, Pujols’s single to score Craig, and Berkman’s groundout that Polanco snagged and saved a run.

As a whole, the offense accounted for 23.7% of the win probability. Jon Jay lead the hitting group with a .300 WPA. In that respect, maybe the Cardinals were a little lucky since Jay’s 2 RBI’s both came on seeing eye singles that he grounded through the infield defense. So maybe a little luck was involved, but when isn’t that true of baseball?

The Bad: It seemed rather obvious that starting on three days rest did bother Chris Carpenter. He was uncharacteristically falling behind in the count and walked more batters (3) than he struck out (2). Per Joe Lefkowitz’s site, Carpenter’s velocity was down compared to the rest of 2011. I wonder if he threw fewer warm up pitches before the game in order to preserve his arm to compensate for going on short rest. He did have an efficient third inning of work and started throwing more strikes as the game progressed. Should this series reach a fifth game, I’ll look forward to seeing the real Carpenter take the mound. Unfortunately for us, he’ll probably oppose the real Roy Halladay.

The Impressive: The Cardinal bullpen only allowed one hit in six innings. The transformation of this unit has been remarkable. Azruavatar had a nice piece about it on VEB the other day. It’s no longer composed of “control” guys or “experience” guys, but players with discernible skills. Several of them can light up the radar gun and they’re missing bats in the process. Jason Motte (11.9%), Scrabble (11.7%), Fernando Salas (11.2%), and Dotel (13.4%) all induce above average swinging strike rates. Boggs has resurfaced after a baffling year of (non)use. Dotel has been incredible against right-handed batters (1.43 FIP). Add Eduardo Sanchez and Lance Lynn to this mix (possibly subtracting Dotel) and it’s easy to imagine the bullpen to mature into a veritable strength in 2012 and beyond.

As for last night, the bullpen was good for .59 WPA. Boggs entered the game at the most crucial moment, getting out of an inning that started with Scrabble hitting Utley with a pitch. The Cardinals were only leading by one run and Boggs got the first out of the inning when Pence grounded into a fielder’s choice. Motte accumulated the most win probability out of the bullpen (.235 WPA) by recording the final four outs.

And with that, the Cardinals won their first playoff game since finishing off the Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Let’s hope they make it a winning streak tomorrow night, eh?

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