Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It All Comes Down To This

Tonight it begins. The World Series is the big, flashy, and exciting number that ends the musical that is the Major League Baseball season. In the spring, 29 teams set forth to conquer the baseball world, and one set forth to re-conquer it. The 750 players who began the season on the 25-man rosters of each team clawed tooth and nail, legging out doubles on bloop hits to the outfield, running from left-centerfield all the way to right-center to make a diving catch, and blocking every breaking ball in the dirt in order to attain baseball glory. Unfortunately, for all but 50 this season did not turn out the way they had hoped. Injuries, coaching changes, trades, interviews gone wrong, hanging breaking balls, mental errors, and of course randomness caused 28 teams to falter, and only two to prevail.

The Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants will begin the 2012 World Series tonight in the chilly city by the bay to duke it out for the right to be crowned 2012 champions. So, there is little left to do but evaluate the two teams, and pick a winner, knowing that the chances of the series playing out like any of us think it will is ludicrous. Let's go step-by-step, and delve into each team, by looking at their starting rotations, offenses, bullpens, and defenses, to see which team should be more hopeful entering the World Series.

Starting Rotations:

Justin Verlander
In order to get this far, both teams must have good pitching, it is far to difficult win games without above-average pitching. In general, there are three types of outs, ground balls, balls in the air, and strikeouts. Pitchers control strikeouts without the aid of their defense, which makes them quite valuable. Also, the lack of a ball being put in play leaves little room for mistakes, or freak hits like the one that hit Hunter Pence's bat three times before landing in play. The Tigers not only have the best pitcher in the series, Justin Verlander, but they have the two top starters in terms of strikeouts. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander each had K/9 above 9.00 this season, something no other starter in this series can claim. Consequently these two starters rank 1st and 3rd in fastball usage amongst the other starters in this series, meaning they come at the hitters trying to blow them away, as well as set up their off-speed stuff.  In fact, three of the Tigers four starters have the lowest contact percentages of the pitchers in the series, while all 4 Giants pitchers get contact on 80% of pitches they throw. All 4 Giants starters had 90 or higher FIP- this season while all four Tigers hurlers had sub 90 FIP-.

Tigers pitchers don't allow many base runners, but when they do, only Justin Verlander is able to pitch well with runners on. Fister, Sanchez, and Scherzer give up wOBA's of .310 or greater with runners on base while no Giants starter has a wOBA that high with runners on. So, if the Tigers can keep men off base, they should perform well, but when the Giants pitchers run into trouble, they prove up to the task of keeping production down. So, a good strategy might be to allow Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to reach base, but then shut down the rest of the Detroit offense. The same sentiment is true in high leverage situations. The Giants starters, as a group, have a lower wOBA against in more pressure filled situations than do their American League counterparts.

Overall, it seems like these two teams' starters each have their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. The one factor that truly favors the Tigers is that they begin the series with Justin Verlander, and if Jim Leyland decides it is best, he can have Justin start game 1, game 4, and game 7. The Giants counter with Barry Zito in game one, having used Matt Cain to secure the NL pennant in game 7 of the NLCS, and thus would be at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the only team to use a three man rotation in the last 3 World Series was the 2009 Yankees, so the trend is to use a four man group. In the end, this is the playoffs, and it isn't about power pitching as much as it is about smart pitching. The Giants 4 pitchers all deal well with base runners, men in scoring position, and pressure filled situations, three situations that arrise often when two evenly matched squads play. I give a slight advantage to San Francisco's staff.


A team's offense has many parts to it. Some teams hit better for power, others have higher on base percentages, some cause opposing pitchers to work harder than usual. A team's offense is often built around the park in which the team plays. The Giants play in spacious AT&T Park, which yielded the fewest home runs in the majors this season, thus their lineup isn't filled with sluggers like Miggy Cabrera and Prince Fielder, but instead with hitters who make more contact like Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Buster Posey. The Tigers play in a spacious park as well, but they were able to hit 163 home runs this season in comparison to the Giants who managed only 103, good for last in the Majors.

Buster Posey

Contact %
This chart shows where the two offenses stood in during the season. In order to get this far, the Giants offense has used its strengths. They do a great job of making contact, not striking out, hitting line drives, and most importantly, performing well in the clutch. The Tigers offense looks to score most of its runs when Austin Jackson, Quintin Berry, and Omar Infante reach base because the two hitters that follow them produced the most runs of any two hitters in MLB this season. Cabrera and Fielder will provide the best at-bats in the World Series, but those at bats mean much less if the Giants can keep the hitters who precede them in the lineup from reaching base safely. The more games played in the series, the more it favors the Giants offense, due to their much-increased ability to put the ball in play. On the other hand, the Tigers offense is far superior to the Giants in high leverage situations, and with runners on base. So, if the Tigers can get men on base, their offense has a great chance to do some damage. Overall, offensively, the Tigers have the advantage. Even if this series only goes 5 games, it will be difficult to keep Jackson, Berry, and Infante from reaching base, which makes it more difficult to pitch to Cabrera and Fielder. The Giants pitching is very good, but I don't think it can hold the Detroit hitters from scoring runs.

Relief Pitching:

When it comes to bullpens, which are important in playoff series, let's look at the most used relievers because they are the pitchers the managers trust most, and thus will use most often. For the Tigers those pitchers are Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and despite recent performances, Jose Valverde. Bruce Bochy uses Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, George Kontos, Santiago Casilla, and Javier Lopez most often. Lopez is a situational lefty, so let's leave him out for now.

In the regular season, the advantage would have gone to the Tigers, with Coke, Valverde, and Dotel pitching very well out of the Detroit bullpen. On the other hand, the Giants pen has been outstanding this postseason, a sign of a winning team. Last year, both the Rangers and Cardinals sported great bullpens in the playoffs, but the Cardinals were able to get more out of their hard throwers than the Rangers did out of their ground ball relievers.

In the NLCS, the only two Giants relievers to let up a run were George Kontos and Guillermo Mota, while the only Tigers reliever to allow a run in the ALCS was Jose Valverde. Tigers relievers threw 11.2 innings in the ALCS and struck out 11 batters while the Giants relievers threw 16.2 innings and struck out 18 Cardinal hitters. In the regular season, Giants relievers relied on ground balls much more than strikeouts while the Tigers bullpen went the opposite way, sporting low BABIPs but also low ground ball percentages. Most importantly, when it comes to clutch situations, neither team's bullpen had the advantage in the regular season, both sported relievers with clutch numbers to the left of the number line and some relievers whose clutch numbers were positive.

Using only the eye test, I would say the Giants bullpen looks better heading into this series than does the Tiger's pen, but the statistics show more of a push. The Giants have used their bullpen more often than the Tigers in the playoffs, and often times, pitchers who don't rely on strikeouts gain an advantage from pitching more often. In the end, the slight advantage goes to the Giants, purely because they have more reliable relievers than the Tigers. Jim Leyland has little confidence in Jose Valverde, and may have too much confidence in Phil Coke, while Bruce Bochy seems confident going to his bullpen whenever he needs to.


When it comes to defense, these two teams couldn't be further apart. The three main defensive metrics in use are FRAA, UZR, and DRS. FRAA is a metric used for individuals, but Baseball Prospectus uses a version of Defensive Efficiency called PADE, which was developed by Bill James, to calculate a teams defensive efficiency while factoring in park and league effects. Here are the results.

Angel Pagan Diving to Make a Catch

These statistics are generally seen quite obviously on the field. Just from the eye-test everyone who has watched baseball this season can tell you that the Tigers have a horrible defense. On the other hand, the same visual test makes the Giants out to be a bit better than they are. None of the Giants team defensive numbers is that great, but in comparison to Detroit, they are stellar. A 0.84 PADE is considered above average in comparison to Detroit's -2.36, which BP considers to be horrendous, their word not mine. A positive UZR is above average, and while a negative DRS isn't good, the Giants defense is nowhere near as porous as the Tigers'. The advantage is overwhelmingly in favor of San Francisco. 


Base running, especially in a series where only 4 wins does the job, can be quite important. According to Fangraphs' base running statistic, the Giants had a 5.5 BsR while the Tigers ranked towards the bottom in the Majors with a -10 BsR. The Giants ranked in the top third in the Majors in base running, whereas the Tigers' mark puts them as the 5th worst base running team in MLB. Advantage here goes to the Giants.

Both of these managers are quite good. Both have won World Series, and have created job security for themselves by leading their team to winning seasons. I can't say there is a distinct advantage for either one, so I give this a push.

The Giants are far more tailored towards doing well at home than are the Tigers. The Giants don't hit home runs, and their pitchers don't strike people out. The Tigers rely on the top part of their order to produce most of their runs and need to get strikeouts in order to win. The Giants' style of play favors both parks in this series because both are larger than average. Advantage here goes to the Giants.

Finally, the Giants have home field advantage, which does not create as big a gap in Baseball as it does in other sports, but has been shown to have some affect. This obviously favors San Francisco.


In the end, while three out of the four best players in the entire series reside on the American League side, Baseball is a team game, and the Giants have the better team. It will be close, as neither team has a great overall advantage, but the Giants perform better in more difficult situations and don't rely on specific aspects as much as the Tigers do. Have a well balanced team can have extreme value in a 7-game series.

Prediction: Giants in 6

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