For a quickie analytical cheat sheet to the World Series, which starts Wednesday night in San Francisco, Keeping Score caught up with Dave Cameron, managing editor of FanGraphs.com — one of the more reader-friendly baseball stats sites out there. Here are three things to look out for, or to discuss around the water cooler if you’re looking to fake your baseball smarts.
1. Coke Is It? One of the most intriguing variables of this World Series: the Detroit bullpen. Detroit closer Jose Valverde is entering this series as damaged goods. As the Associated Press points out:
Valverde had a 3.78 ERA and 35 saves in 40 chances this season, down from a 2.24 ERA and 49 saves in 49 opportunities last year.
He allowed a tying two-run double to Oakland’s Seth Smith in Game 4 of the AL division series as Detroit lost 4-3, then wasted a 4-0 lead against the Yankees when he gave up two-run homers to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. Detroit rebounded to win 6-4 in 12 innings and went on to sweep New York.
Lefty Phil Coke filled in for Valverde against the Yankees, and flummoxed his former team. But the Yanks were lefty-heavy. San Francisco, on the other hand, is chock full of righties and switch hitters: star catcher-first baseman Buster Posey, for example, is a righty, as is the NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro, who hit .500 against the St. Louis Cardinals in that series. And Coke is a disaster against righties. As Cameron writes:
Of the 492 pitchers who threw at least 10 innings versus [right-handed batters], Coke ranked 491st in batting average allowed (.381), 489th in on-base percentage allowed (.446), and 482nd in slugging percentage allowed.
Against the Giants, Tigers manager Jim Leyland must hope that Valverde can bounce back from his playoff failures. “If [Tigers manager] Jim Leyland now thinks Phil Coke is a proven closer,” says Cameron. “He could be screwed.”
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2. Verlander Factor. Detroit ace Justin Verlander, who is starting Game 1 against San Francisco fully rested, is 3-0 this post-season, with a lights out 0.74 ERA. He has struck out 25 batters in 24.1 innings. He’s the best pitcher in the world right now. He’ll face Barry Zito in Game 1, and likely in Game 5 too, if it’s necessary. But Zito’s last start was a beauty: he threw 7 and 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 5 of the NLCS, sparking San Francisco’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Cardinals. But since signing with San Francisco in 2007, Zito’s ERA has been north of 4.00 every year. In his first playoff start this year, against the Cincinnati Reds, he did not survive the third inning. “Those two games are as close to gimmies for Detroit as you can get,” says Cameron.
3. Where’s Melky? During the World Series, a designated hitter is used in the American League parks. When the series shifts to the Motor City for Game Three on Saturday, the Giants will struggle to fill that spot. “The Giants don’t have any qualified candidates,” says Cameron. Options include Joaquin Arias, a utility infielder, Aubrey Huff — “he’s done as a player,” says Cameron — and backup catcher Hector Sanchez. These players intimidate no one.
The Giants could solve this problem by activating Melky Cabrera, who was hitting .346 when he was suspended in August for testing positive for performance-enhancing drug use. He has served his 50-game suspension, but the Giants have refused to reactivate him, because his return would cause a distraction. In the World Series, however, any extra bat — especially in the hands of Melky Cabrera — can help. “Even if you’re mad at him, let him help you win the trophy,” says Cameron. “Then you can be mad at him again in the off-season — when you’re celebrating.”
Overall, Detroit has more headline talent in this World Series, with Verlander, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, who just became the first batter to win the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. San Francisco, Cameron says, is deeper, especially in the bullpen. Verlander, says Cameron, gives Detroit a “55-45″ advantage, maybe “54-46.” Still, he says, “I wouldn’t go betting all of my money on Detroit. I expect a competitive, close World Series.”
That’s all we can ask for.