Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs and the hardest single of the night in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series Wednesday, as the San Francisco Giants beat the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander 8-3. Sandoval hit only 12 home runs during the regular season, but the power wasn’t a shock. He has the upside to hit many more bombs than that, and has eclipsed 20 homers in two other big-league seasons. What was surprising, or seemed to be so, was that Sandoval’s massive game came mostly at the expense of Verlander. Two of his homers were off the Best Pitcher in Baseball, on 95 miles-per-hour fastballs, one to center field, one to left, batting left-handed. The first was on an 0-2 pitch. It all seemed incongruous. For me, it called to mind a mid-week afternoon in June, at a hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Vince Gennaro, a respected baseball scholar and president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), was giving one of the first research presentations of SABR42, the organization’s annual convention, on various roster-building strategies. One adjustment Gennaro felt was too often overlooked in player evaluation was quality of competition. The imbalanced schedule makes for some very uneven statistical samples of ball players’ abilities, even over a long season. Gennaro demonstrated that some players face a substantially higher level of overall competition during their season than others, and that this should be accounted for in rating them. Taking it a step further, he contended that some batters may have a true talent for hitting a broad distribution of pitchers well, while others might simply pick on bad pitchers. He didn’t provide comprehensive data, or even acknowledge that he HAD comprehensive data, but he did give an illustrative example: Andre Ethier, Gennaro showed, hit very well against pitchers in the two lowest quintiles of overall skill, but struggled against good pitchers. He compared Ethier to Sandoval, who had very similar overall numbers, but hit pitchers of all talent levels with relatively equal success. Gennaro mused, without undue conviction but rather hopefully, that a guy like Sandoval might better stand up to the increased level of competition come October. That certainly seemed like a plausible theory on Wednesday. It might be time for someone to undertake a real and exhaustive study on the existence of a batter’s skill in hitting different tiers of pitching. In the meantime, let’s talk about Barry Zito and Justin Verlander. What is going on there? Verlander seemed to have everything so well in hand in the early going of this postseason that his sudden problems–not that they were as dire as they’ll appear in the box score, but problems they were–came as a shock to the system. Of course, it’s not the first time for Verlander, though. He also struggled last year at this time, in an ALCS the indelible image of which was a Nelson Cruz home run yanked down the line against 99-mph Verlander heat. One theory, the best one I can offer, is that we have (until now, perhaps) underestimated the degree to which Verlander’s success the last four seasons has been the result of his willingness and ability to change speeds on his fastball, to throw it 91, 95, 93. 96 and 92 miles per hour in successive efforts, and to control the slower of those immaculately. He’s openly forsaken that approach in key playoff games, and it seems like teams feel relieved when he makes those pronouncements. In the book The Psychology of Baseball, author Mike Stadler discusses in great depth the competing theories about how hitters track a baseball that can not physically be seen all the way through its delivery, and about the experiments performed to test them. As it turns out, more than anything else, hitters use their perception of velocity and depth cues to determine where and when to swing. Of the experiments Stadler talks about, the one with the dreariest results for hitters was that in which the speed of the pitches they were asked to hit varied randomly from 70-87 miles per hour. Verlander often talks about throwing less hard in the early going as if it were only a means of self-preservation, and a way to establish his rhythm and command. Maybe the truth is that that tack is the optimal way to shred big-league lineups. Whatever the reasons, Giants batters found ways to beat Justin Verlander Wednesday night, and now the Tigers face a situation that probably seemed unfathomable in the clubhouse until it started to look inevitable: They trail 1-0 in the Series, and will not have a pitching matchup this favorable again until Verlander returns to the hill in Game 5 in Detroit. It’s not all Verlander’s fault, though. It isn’t even mostly his. The Tigers’ batters were too liberal of swing and too conservative of intent Wednesday night. They chased everything from Barry Zito, and kept right on chasing when Tim Lincecum came on in relief. The right-handed batters crowded the plate against Zito, perhaps trying to force him to pitch to the outer half. Instead, he threw at their back knees all night, and they had no answer. No Giants pitcher made big mistakes and gave them a golden opportunity, but Detroit didn’t even battle for a good opportunity. They allowed themselves to be jammed. They swung timidly at everything, as though trying to place the ball in an open space. Their defense struggled all night, too, and it could have been even worse. San Francisco dominated in a dozen ways Wednesday, and while that has no predictive validity, we can safely say that in Game 1, every facet and dimension of the game went one team’s way. A few other, less coherent notes: -Jose Valverde proved he can’t be a part of the Tigers’ plans in any moderately close game in this series. His implosion only reached a new nadir in what was supposed to be a confidence-building exercise tonight, the World Series being known widely as a good place to restore one’s confidence, and confidence being by consensus more important than having a plus pitch or good command. He’s just not a good pitcher, and the Tigers’ faith in him took them into the rapids without a good oar. -Madison Bumgarner gets the ball for Bruce Bochy Thursday. He’s one of three or four real question marks on the Giants’ pitching staff, but the good news is, it sort of feels like a freebie now. The Giants will be quick to pull him if needed, but as one Bay Area reporter noted Wednesday, the coaching staff’s decision to let Tim Lincecum records seven outs reflects confidence Bumgarner has righted whatever was wrong with him in the second half of the season. -Hunter Pence continues to look baffled for the Giants. Not only is there now some hope for the (long overdue) measure of dropping him below Brandon Belt in the batting order, but Pence’s projected salary through arbitration in 2013 makes him a candidate to be non-tendered by San Francisco. -I noted in a previous post that the Tigers were outscored on the road. They really did look lost against Zito and Lincecum. Hard to blame the venue, but they might get a big boost from the flight East after Game 2.

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