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Miggy Cabrera, the Sandman, close games and Christmas gifts

Joy among 2013's missed opportunities and hope for 2014

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes baseball can bring us fleeting moments of pure joy. On the morning of August 9th, the Tigers had won 12 straight games and were basking in the glow of a seven-game division lead after a four-game sweep in Cleveland. The string of success left Detroit with the best record in the American League and superstar Miguel Cabrera was well on his way to another MVP season. The winning streak fell into jeopardy that night in the Bronx, however, as the Tigers trailed 3-1 going into the ninth. Enter Sandman accompanied the great Rivera to his circular cubicle as he searched for save number 644. But there was hope for the visitors. Just one baserunner would bring Cabrera to the plate as the tying run. Austin Jackson doubled for his fourth hit of the game and the stage was set. Two outs in the ninth. Two future hall-of-famers squaring off. 46,545 spectators, including those with the expensive seats, getting more than their money’s worth.

The pendulum swung in favor of the pitching legend as Rivera jumped ahead 1-2. The great closer then induced Cabrera, who was perhaps looking for a cutter away, to foul an inside two-seamer off his front leg. The violence of the impact left Cabrera limping around the home plate area and brought Jim Leyland and Kevin Rand out of the dugout to comfort their ailing slugger. Rivera waited patiently while the Triple Crown winner writhed in agony. As pitchers often do, Mo went right back inside with another two-seamer and Cabrera fouled another one off the same leg to add pain to misery. Eventually, the wounded warrior worked his way back into the box. Rivera missed with a cutter away to even the count and set up his next pitch. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Mariano came back inside with yet another 2-seamer. But Miggy was ready this time and the ball flew 427 feet into the monuments. As Cabrera limped around the bases and announcers screamed the word unbelievable, Rivera, like many pitchers before him, made a bewildered face for the camera. The game was tied.

Looking back months later, I realize that my level of joy as a Detroit baseball fan in 2013 peaked at that moment. Including the postseason, the Tigers went 30-30 the rest of the way and failed again to bring a World Championship to the city. Both second and third-order wins showed a team that was easily the best in the majors and entitled to the most wins in franchise history. But it was not to be. As we've learned this offseason, the team was so good that even an aging billionaire could ill afford to keep it together for another year.

I won’t question your fandom if you’ve forgotten the rest of August 9th. Veras retired the Yankees in the ninth to send the game to extras and the Tigers got the go-ahead run to second with one out in the 10th. But Girardi consulted his binder and went against conventional wisdom to leave southpaw Boone Logan in to strike out Jackson who would finish 2013 with just a .213 average against lefties. Then he called on hard-throwing right-hander Shawn Kelley to get Torii to pop up a slider on the outside black to end the threat. In the New York 10th, Alburquerque walked the lead-off man, allowed a ground ball hit through an infield that was holding the runner and thinking about a bunt, threw a wild pitch, struck out a pair, and watched as Gardner rolled a grounder through the left side as the winning run scored. Perhaps this story sounds familiar. The Tigers went 6-13 in extra inning games in 2013. Jim Leyland was still in high school and Ted Williams was playing left field for the Red Sox the last time a Detroit baseball team lost more games in extra innings.

Many theories have been advanced as to why the Tigers fared so poorly in close games. The 2013 team relied on station-to-station baserunning and extra-base hits to score. This approach can bring big innings that win games, but extra-base hits are low-probability events compared to the alternative sequences that can bring across a single run when a single run is what's needed. The odds against scoring by slugging get even steeper when facing top relievers late in games and there's evidence that Tiger hitters made things worse by making adjustments to try to hit home runs in these situations.

On the run prevention side, there was no shortage of good arms in the Detroit bullpen. But when an opponent needs just one run to win a game, certain skills become important. These skills, sad to say, were severely lacking among Tiger relievers. We can start with the 9.5 percent walk rate that was well above league average. Then there was a bullpen wild pitch per inning rate that was the highest in the majors. But the problems didn't end there. Tiger relievers allowed the second most stolen bases per inning among ML teams and the 88.2 percent opponent success rate (45-for-51) was also second highest in the big leagues. These factors provide opportunities for baserunners and advancement without even putting the ball in play. When you add in poor fielding pitchers and a slow collection of infielders with range that's further compromised by holding runners and looking for bunts you get a story that will rarely have a happy ending.

As usual, I bring the gift of numbers. Let's consider situational baseball in its purest form: plate appearances in tie games in the 9th inning or later. We'll start with the bases empty and no outs. The goal here is to get on base any way you can. And Tiger hitters did a good job in this regard. Over 56 plate appearances Detroit batters hit a robust .340 and even with only three walks managed a solid on-base percentage of .375. Detroit opponents did slightly better with a .377 OBP over their 61 PAs but arrived there via a different path. They hit only .269 but took advantage of nine walks by Tiger pitchers which was the most given up in these situations by any major league staff. Perhaps for Christmas we can all chip in to buy a ``Don't walk the leadoff man'' poster for the Tiger bullpen.

Next we can ask what happens after the leadoff man reaches. So we'll consider the tie game, 9th or later PAs with a man at first and no outs. The tables suggest that for neutral context a successful sacrifice in this situation leads to a small decrease in win expectancy. Context, of course, is never neutral and depending on where we are in the lineup and the expected batter/pitcher matchups a bunt can make sense. Tiger batters faced 18 of these PAs this season. The results were one hit, one walk, eight bunts or other outs that advanced the runner, five failed bunts or other outs that didn't advance the runner, and three double plays. We can summarize these outcomes in one number as a win expectancy added (WPA) of -0.81 or a WPA/PA of -0.045. Both numbers were easily the worst in the American League.

Tiger pitchers faced 19 of these plate appearances in 2013. There were four hits with three coming on ground balls, three walks, nine successful sacrifices including one in which the batter also reached, a strikeout where the runner advanced on a wild pitch, and just two outs that did not result in runner advancement. These outcomes sum to a 1.01 WPA and 0.053 WPA/PA for Tiger opponents. In this case, both Detroit numbers were the worst by a major league pitching staff in 2013. If you want the bottom line, the Tigers were terrible both at the plate and in the field with a man at first and no outs in a tie game in the 9th or later.

There's one thing left to look at. How good were teams at getting that go-ahead run in? The ML RISP batting line for the 9th or later in tie games last year was .234/.411/.324. There are a lot of walks in these situations because the defense is able to carefully choose who they want to pitch to. The Detroit Tigers, for example, had 40 of these ABs in 2013 but only one went to Miguel Cabrera. Unlike other sports, a baseball team cannot put its fate in the hands of a superstar when the game is on the line. The Tigers hit an anemic .175/.377/.225 (55 PAs) for their opportunities in 2013. Their opponents earned more RISP chances (67 PAs) with their superior runner advancement ability and hit .229/.424/.312. More chances combined with better performance meant more runs and more wins for the other team.

These situational numbers are over small samples and there's very likely a bad luck component that will regress back towards neutral. With Castellanos replacing Fielder, Kinsler replacing Infante, Iglesias replacing Peralta, and Davis replacing Tui the team has become more athletic on both offense and defense. This should help late in games. We'll have to see what happens with the bullpen, but on the bright side the new manager has been talking about playing the game the right way and doing the little things. Will this actually happen? Hope springs eternal.