One of my biggest pet peeves in professional sports announcing is when, at the end of a very close game, the announcers ascribe the victor's outcome to the fact that they "wanted it more." Or that they "played harder."
At the end of a game, if the center fielder misses the catch, then guess what? That was the proximate cause of the loss. Were there other things that could have contributed? Sure. But we can't forget that certain situations just matter more, and how teams perform in those situations is determinative of the outcome.
In all the hoopla about whether or not the Wild Card is a good thing, or whether or not baseball has parity, we can forget this sometimes. But tomorrow, it will be unmistakeable that some games matter more than others.
That's right, we've got a one-game playoff, which means free baseball!
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The ever-essential Retrosheet also offers a special section for such playoffs, so you can peruse box scores of all the playoff games ever played. Now that I've effectively lost my audience, who are now pouring over box scores, I'll point out some highlights.
This one is a personal favorite if only because I was lucky enough to attend. In 1995, the Mariners topped the Angels in a one-game playoff that was a real nailbiter until the 7th inning, when Mike Blowers (who is damn near a psychic) got a rally going and Luis Sojo, having a career year, drove in three with a double.
This is also the second consecutive year in which the AL Central needed a 163rd game to resolve itself. Last year, Nick Blackburn and John Danks faced off in a truly entertaining pitchers' duel. Despite Blackburn's solid line (6.1 4 1 1 3 3), John Danks had the better day (8 2 0 0 3 4).
It was fitting, then, that it was John Danks who failed to defeat the Tigers on Sunday, which set up the one game playoff. Isn't baseball wonderful like that?
Tomorrow's matchup has received a fair bit of attention, and rightly so. Both Rick Porcello and Scott Baker have interesting careers (even if they vary widely in length). Porcello, the young bonus baby (Have you heard he's young? Cause he's young.), faces Baker, the opening day starter who nevertheless struggled for much of the season.
BDD's Craig Brown decided to drill down into the data and see what he could find. He finds that most of Baker's success came against the no-hit Indians, but he struggled against the Tigers. However, I would point out that Baker's 15/5 K/BB rate in 20 IP against the Tigers isn't as bad as his 6.75 ERA split against them would suggest.
Brown also notes that Porcello has fared better against the Twins, even against Joe Mauer. I am somewhat skeptical of the predictive nature of splits against particular teams (especially based on four starts), and doubly so for splits against individual players. But it does give some interesting grist for the debate.
Even more enlightening is Dave Allen (who is so good at R he could be a pirate). He looks at the location and type of the fastballs for Porcello and Baker. Porcello throws a sinker but he is also very good at keeping it down in the zone. Baker, on the other hand, has an average fastball location that is actually in the upper half of the zone.
While Porcello generates plenty of ground balls (54% GB rate) but few strikeouts (4.42 K/9), Baker is just the opposite. He gets more strikeouts (7.42 K/9) but fewer ground balls (33.9% GB rate). The difference in the fastball location appears to be highly correlated with this phenomenon.
So as a thinking baseball fan who has perhaps not followed the AL Central very closely so far this year, what should you know? I can't claim to be an expert (though my friends and Twitter followers can attest that I have been a Twins believer since summer), but I can offer you some insight from those in the know.
First, if you ask most stat-heads for their first impression of Delmon Young, they would probably say something about The Dugout or cringe at how terrible he is. And both of these answers would be mostly right (the first one definitely is).
But Twinkie Town has something to say. They write:
A - 95 PA, 29 H, 5 2B, 2 HR, 11 RBI, .330/823
B - 104 PA, 32 H, 7 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 18 RBI, .344/869
Player B is Delmon Young in games in September and October of this season.
Player A is...Delmon Young in games in September and October of 2008.
So is it possible that Delmon Young turns it on when it counts? He hit two home runs on Sunday (one of which was a grand slam). Does that mean he's Mr. September?
I'm not quite convinced, and I still wince at his .313 wOBA from left field. Not only has he been a terrible hitter, he's also been 15 runs below average with his glove this season. WAR says -1.0 (note that is a negative sign). But hey, flags fly forever and if he gets a game winning hit, maybe the reputation will be cemented.
Aaron Gleeman notes that Porcello has been pitching especially well of late:
Porcello is 5-2 with a 3.19 ERA in 12 starts since August 1, including 6.1 innings of one-run ball versus the Twins last week. He doesn't miss many bats with 81 strikeouts in 165 innings and subsequently has allowed a .270 opponents' batting average, but makes up for it by inducing the most ground balls in the league. Don't expect the Twins to do much power hitting, but they'll have some chances to string hits together and Porcello's modest workloads should mean several innings from the Tigers' bullpen.
He hasn't induced a ton of ground balls over that period, nor has he allowed especially few hits, nor has he limited his walks, nor has he struck out very many batters. Porcello remains a bit of a mystery, but just like with Delmon Young, if he pitches well, no one will care how he did it.
One last thing you may not know is just how good the Twins offense has been this year. Before adjusting for park (and the Metrodome typically favors pitchers), the Twins have the 5th highest walk rate in the Majors and the 7th highest wOBA. Their defense is somewhat suspect (second lowest UZR/150 in the Majors), but they can hit more than you might realize.
So, who do you like? The loser has to play the Yankees in New York the next evening.