It’s not that Game One of the 2013 World Series completely defies analysis. It’s just that, all things considered, it probably engenders more bad analysis than good. Hopefully this Series gives us more competitive and well-played games from now on. In the meantime, a few notes about last night, and then some wandering thoughts:
- When teams with somewhat disparate styles square off in the postseason, it’s sometimes a question of which one will be able to inflict its style on the other. Whoever can force the games to emphasize their strengths and mitigate their faults has an upper hand. I don’t think this is universally true, but it’s intuitive, anyway.The Red Sox had their way from the get-go Wednesday night. Jacoby Ellsbury set the tone with a seven-pitch leadoff walk, and away we went. Good (even average, even below-average but not miserable) Cardinals defense would have stopped Boston from scoring its first five runs, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the Sox forced Adam Wainwright into stressful innings by refusing to make quick outs. Joe Buck noted, with Jonny Gomes at bat in the first, that each of the first six Boston batters had taken not only the first pitch, but the second. That’s how you ensure that the game tilts toward your style of play.
- Pete Kozma’s defense became a big story when he committed errors that blew open the game, in each of the first two innings. Good. It’s past time for Kozma’s preposterous inadequacy to catch up to the Cardinals.Back in August, I wrote, with no small amount of righteous indignation, about the glaring failure of several contenders to make even modest improvements at the trade deadline. It’s fairly clear that the second Wild Card (along with other factors, like the first Wild Card) has lowered the bar for entry in the postseason, and that in turn, teams have lowered the standard they’re trying to meet.Pete Kozma is the worst imaginable manifestation of that phenomenon. He’s no better, and often worse, than an average defensive shortstop. He’s also, with a big hat tip to the VORG’s Series preview, basically the worst hitter to get regular playing time in over two decades.
Pete Kozma playing for you means you’re throwing up your hands. Darwin Barney would have been a substantial improvement. John McDonald would have been better. The length of the list of even fringe Major Leaguers that could have provided more value than Kozma would drop your jaw. St. Louis’s refusal to give up whatever organizational detritus it would have taken to make Brendan Ryan or Alexei Ramirez or Ramon Santiago or Brendan Harris or Eduardo Nunez or are-you-starting-to-see-just-how-low-that-bar-is a Cardinal is a sin against baseball, a sin of pride and arrogance that the universe was overdue in punishing.
- That said, Kozma will probably get too much of the blame for those two Red Sox rallies. Shane Robinson misplayed Mike Napoli’s first-inning double, messing up his angle, then dropping the ball as he tried to field it, letting David Ortiz (!) score from first base. The best defensive catcher in baseball, maybe the best ever, failed to call his pitcher off and catch a pop-up in front of the mound. The fourth-best pitcher in the National League either lacked command or got way too cute with a Red Sox team that doesn’t chase junk early in counts. For St. Louis, the loss was a team effort.
- Tim McCarver said, late in the game last night, that the way David Ortiz is swinging the bat, John Farrell has to start him when the Series goes to St. Louis. I hope I don’t have to spend too much energy to convince you that that statement is nonsense. For one thing, the other guy in that conversation is Mike Napoli, who is kind of killing the ball himself. For another, defense matters, even at first base. If it all came down to offense, and you could only start one, David Ortiz would start over Mike Napoli against every right-handed pitcher on Earth. It’s simply not that way, though.The last refutation meets McCarver’s most insidious insinuation. He seems to think Ortiz’s good game Wednesday will inevitably carry over, not only into Thursday, but all the way to Saturday, and beyond. The first two series of the postseason should be sufficient evidence that that’s stupid. Ortiz hit .385/.556/.923 in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, then .091/.200/.227 against the Tigers in the ALCS. He hit that grand slawm in Game Two of the ALCS, and drew a walk in that game. In the four remaining games, he reached base three times in 17 games, without an extra-base hit. It’s just not that easy to predict player performance over short stretches.
Last tidbit on that: McCarver also overlooked the fact that Ortiz nearly killed a first-inning rally with a double-play grounder. If not for a bad play by Matt Carpenter and Kozma, he’d have needed his late homer just to shake off the goat horns.
- Moving away from the Series: Tim Lincecum signed a two-year, $35-million contract to stay with the San Francisco Giants. The general consensus is that that’s an overpay for a pitcher already past his prime, and that’s a perfectly acceptable way to read it. I’m not sure it’s accurate, though.The game is just awash in money. I think you’re about to see just how true that is. The new national TV deal kicks in for 2014, and affords every team about $25 million to spend that they didn’t have before. Not every dollar of that will go to players, at least not right away. Still, it’s a lot of new money, and the free-agent market has been fairly lucrative even without that free money for the last few years. There are going to be deals that make this one look much less offensive, maybe even like a bargain.
It’s also unfair to treat Lincecum as washed up. He’s not going to contend for any more Cy Young Awards (is he?), but we underestimate the volatility of pitcher performance, over two-inning stretches and over two-start stretches and over two-year stretches. Ubaldo Jimenez was Tim Lincecum, only worse, one year ago. Like Lincecum, he was valuable only in that he at least took the ball and pitched every fifth day. He walked way too many people, and just generally stunk. Then, he had his 2013. He fixed his messy machanics (to some extent), trimmed his walk rate, rediscovered some velocity, started striking people out again, got a good run of luck on fly balls (they stopped leaving the park) and slashed two runs from his ERA, relative to 2012. He did this at age 29, after lost seasons at ages 27 and 28. Tim Lincecum hasn’t even lost his strikeout skills, and is only 29 himself.
The more I talk about this, work it through, the more I actually think the Giants made the perfect move here. They diodn’t commit to four years of Lincecum, and they didn’t let him hit the market and possibly strike gold. They paid the premium to keep a guy in-house for the short term, and they left themselves, to my eye, some real upside.
- Lincecum’s deal ensures another spin on the merry-go-round for, more or less, the same Giants that won the 2012 World Series. The roster turnover out there has been stunningly minimal. While I decried the decisions to pay so handsomely to hang onto Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro last winter, I have to, on some level, applaud the decision to lock up Lincecum and Hunter Pence this year. It’s an acknowledgment of the role of variance in baseball, and the fact that any team good enough to pop up and win one World Series is probably good enough to pop up and win another, even if the players comprising the squad have aged in the meantime, and finished 76-86 in the interim.I don’t love the chances of that in the Giants’ case, but it’s not impossible. Besides, it’s a charming idea. Rare are the teams that, having won a title and then collapsed, are willing to try it again, to keep the same guys around and ride them to victory or defeat. Contemporary baseball doesn’t just encourage roster turnover; it forces it upon every team. The Giants’ successful resistence to that is fascinating, and while it might not work, it also might, and if it does, I can barely imagine a team whose fan base would more easily and exuberantly embrace it.
- Last note about the Giants: This team has some real upside risk going into next year. That might be one reason Sabean was willing to double down on the core of the team. Theirs is an underrated lineup, and if Lincecum and/or Matt Cain rebound a bit and they add another starting pitcher this winter, they’re a competitive team.
- There are two major candidates for the title of Best Outfielder Available in free agency this winter. Shin-Soo Choo ruled that conversation for most of the year, but (whether because he’s the one who’s had October to make impression, or because he’s a more dynamic and multifaceted player) Jacoby Ellsbury is taking the lead, in my estimation.Ellsbury walks about seven percent of the time. That’s been the number, more or less, in each of his four full seasons. That’s not quite ideal for a leadoff hitter. He doesn’t strike out much, though, and has power. The two things that make him most appealing, of course, are his very good defense in center field, and his efficient application of great speed. Those things tend not to age all that well, but he has them in his favor, and in his case, I find myself (perhaps naively) optimistic about their staying power.
Ellsbury also has an injury history of some concern, although the injuries have generally been acute, not chronic, things. Choo is, if only marginally, more durable.
Choo is a poor center fielder, though, and not even a sparkling right fielder. He’s a great and very patient hitter, with better (although not miles better) power than Ellsbury.
This is one case wherein the profiles don’t help all that much. Choo is better at bat. Ellsbury is better in the other aspects of the game. Neither has major strike-zone-control red flags. I think I prefer Ellsbury, though if he pulled a hamstring or tore an ACL tomorrow, I’d change my mind on the spot, even considering each as long-term investments.
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