Friday, October 28, 2011

"Twilight Zone" At The World Series

I was going to write about Tony LaRussa's "Twilight Zone" experience in Game 5 ("I keep calling for Motte. Where's Motte? When I tell Derek Lilliquist he's fired, will he think I said 'your fly is open'?") and decided to wait until the World Series ended, but after last night's bizarre Game 6 I'd like to get this on record before we see what the final game throws at us.

As someone with a low opinion of LaRussa, I was delighted on Monday to see the ultimate micro-manager done in by breakdowns in the most basic communication. His embarrassment and the changing stories he and his troops gave about the game's gaffes have been hashed over by others, though I have one question about his strategy that gnaws at me: why was Allen Craig running on those 3-2 pitches to Albert Pujols with nobody out in the ninth inning? The fact that the FOX announcers had no problem with it makes me doubly certain that LaRussa was misguided.

I can't recall the last time I saw a runner on the move in the ninth inning when his team trailed by two runs. The Cards had their three big power hitters lined up (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman), and with a home run needed to tie the game, it was imperative to keep that runner on base. I know the rationale behind running him was that LaRussa wanted to stay out of the double play. But just how likely was a double play in that spot. In 162 innings in the major leagues, Neftali Perez has thrown 11 double-play balls, and has struck out 164 batters. The guy is not Dan Quisenberry, throwing everything at the knees. He's a strikeout pitcher, and it was far, far more likely that he would strike the next batter out than that he would get a double-play ball. Yes, Pujols did lead the league in grounding into double plays this year for the second time. But he still struck out twice as often, and over his career has struck out three times as often as he has hit into a double play.

The proof that he was much more likely to strike out in that spot is that he DID strike out, on a waist-high pitch at least 6-8" outside. Two innings earlier, Craig had already demonstrated his ability to get thrown out by a mile trying to steal, so I thought at the time (when he ran on the first 3-2 pitch, a foul ball) that the risk of losing the baserunner on a K-CS double play was too great. In a one-run game it would be a different story, but with the Cards down two runs, there was no actual benefit from the other possible positive result, a base hit on which he could have advanced an extra base. That didn't matter. What mattered was keeping him on base so that even with two outs, Berkman would have a chance to tie the game. But LaRussa decided that it was vital to avoid an event that has occurred once every 7.3 games (Pujols' rate for grounding into double plays) while leaving himself virtually helpless against an event that has occurred once per inning (Feliz striking out a batter). He paid the price, and I was happy to see it.

Now, about Game 6, which was a "Twilight Zone" experience for me as I watched it. I'm thinking of the episode titled "Stopover in a Quiet Town," in which a couple wanders around a place where nothing is what it seems to be, until they discover they are merely the playthings of an alien child who just wants to mess with them. I think there was some voodoo involved, too, especially on those errors. Can't you see some impish kid watching from above the game--flailing at the Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal dolls on the missed fly ball, flicking a fingernail at David Freese's doll as he tried to catch a routine popup, and giving Michael Young's doll a vigorous shake every time he tried to handle a ground ball? Things happened, and you couldn't figure out how. The Cards had an inning in which they didn't hit the ball out of infield, yet they not only scored a run, they left the bases loaded and had another runner picked off.

Watching home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom's strike zone move around, I thought I was looking at some kind of fun-house mirror. Great-looking pitches were called balls, and so-so pitches were strikes, creating an unusually large number of funny and dirty looks from players (and some major-league yapping from Pujols when he was called out on strikes in the sixth inning. Even the pitchers were laughing at the Invisible Shrinking Strike Zone.

It was all part of a thrilling game in which 42 players were used (including 15 pitchers) and 44 batters reached base, which featured seven lead changes and five ties, and you could picture Nolan Ryan's cardiologist waiting for the phone to ring every time the Rangers failed to get that coveted final out. We saw a "prevent-doubles" defense prevent a double--by playing the double into a game-tying triple in the bottom of the ninth. We saw American League pitchers fail three times to lay down a bunt good enough to advance a runner--except for the time when the National League pitcher threw the ball into center field (someone check the Fernando Salas voodoo doll for a fresh puncture). We saw one star nearly break an ankle from being so surprised by that wild throw that he forgot how to touch second base, and saw another star leave a World Series game because of a bruised pinkie after he suddenly found someone foot between his hand and the base it was trying to reach.

We saw all that and a lot more--a little bit of everything--and we can only hope to see some semblance of it tonight in the finale of the most surprisingly great Series I've ever seen. I can do without the voodoo and the "Twilight Zone" effects, however, and hope to see something more along the lines of "The Best Games of Our Lives".


Cliff Blau said...

I have to disagree with your analysis re: Pujols. In fact, he was probably more likely to ground into a double play than to strike out. With a runner on first and fewer than two outs this season, he struck out 13 times, while grounding into 29 double plays. Granted that with two strikes, the odds change, and with the runner moving, the chance of a line-drive double play increases.

cheeseblab said...

Well, Cliff did the math, but I do feel compelled to scold you a bit for the apples & oranges comparison between Pujols's Ks (a possible result in 100% of his AB) and GIDPs (a possible result only when there's a runner at first [it has been a long time, but I think this is c. 30%] x the 0- and 1-out AB [67%], or about 20% of the time). I know you hate La Russa, and I won't argue whether that's legit, but you're better than to distort the argument like this--rather like that shoddy journalist who distorted your history for his own purposes.