Game in Review: Angels vs. the A’s

The Angels and A’s put on a great pitching duel last Saturday, with young stud Rich Harden on the mound for the A’s and Jarrod Washburn pitching for the Angels. Harden is a potential franchise pitcher, similar to Roger Clemens at a young age. He’s the guy that Billy Beane has considered untouchable, and one of reasons the A’s were willing to trade both Mulder and Hudson during the offseason.

Washburn, while not as heralded as Harden, is also a fine pitcher. You might compare him to Bobby Ojeda or a current pitcher like Mark Buerhle. Washburn throws a fastball, slider and change, and is capable of locating all three pitches “on the black” with movement.

Both Harden and Washburn were on Saturday night. Harden’s splitter was splitting, and his fastball reached the mid 90′s at times. Wasburn was locating and moving. The result was a nailbiter that wasn’t settled until the tenth inning:

At First

Marco Scutaro played shortstop in place of the injured Bobby Crosby, filling essentially the same role he played for the injured Mark Ellis last year. He looked about average in the first two innings, starting a double play in the first but then not reaching a grounder a bit to his right in the second. He didn’t have another fielding chance the rest of the day, though he played a key role in the end.

Did I mention that Washburn is a lefty pitcher? Oakland has a .553 OPS against lefties this year, as opposed to a .658 OPS against righties. Neither figure is very good, but their weakness against lefties was one of the keys to Washburn’s success Saturday afternoon.

In the bottom of the first, lefty Eric Chavez, who is off to a poor start (.190 Batting Average), singled a soft line drive to left after a walk, putting runners on first and second with two out. Next up: hitless Bobby Kielty (0 for 13 so far this year), although the Oakland announcers lamented the tough luck he’s had. In particular, they felt that he had hit a number of line drives with nothing to show for it. I thought to myself, “could this be true?” So I looked it up.

Yes indeedy, Bobby Kielty is the official Hard Luck Hitter of the first two weeks of the season. Here’s the list of hitters (minimum ten plate appearances) with the biggest differences between the percent of batted balls that are line drives and BABIP so far this year:

Player         Team     PA     LD%   BABIP    Diff
Kielty B.      OAK      14    .300    .000    .300
Spiezio S.     SEA      14    .200    .000    .200
Thomas C.      OAK      20    .154    .000    .154
Kata M.        ARI      13    .143    .000    .143
Estrada J.     ATL      33    .400    .267    .133
Conine J.      FLA      11    .375    .250    .125
Cairo M.       NYN      19    .417    .333    .083
Higginson B.   DET      16    .250    .167    .083
Macias J.      CHN      14    .154    .077    .077
Giles B.       SD       56    .281    .222    .059
Barrett M.     CHN      38    .176    .125    .051
Ginter K.      OAK      27    .118    .067    .051
Aurilia R.     CIN      28    .261    .217    .043
Bigbie L.      BAL      31    .320    .280    .040
Eckstein D.    STL      43    .333    .300    .033
Ford L.        MIN      44    .242    .226    .017

Yes, Kielty has three line drives in ten at bats, with nary a hit to show for it. Unfortunately, he struck out in this at bat. The A’s will get runners in scoring position only two more times during the game.

The Second Through the Ninth

As the game progressed, it was evident that batters were just not getting good wood on the ball. Most of the flyballs hung in the air, leaving plenty of time for fielders to get under them — the glare of the afternoon sun presenting the only real challenge for both teams’ flycatchers.

In The Hardball Times’ Baseball Annual, Robert Dudek wrote a great article documenting the effect of flyball hang time. Based on his relatively small study, he came to the conclusion that hang time is a more important factor than zone when it comes to catching flyballs. If a ball hangs in the air for more than five seconds, there is better than an 85% likelihood that it will be caught.

I thought of Robert’s study while watching this game, and wished I had a stopwatch. Both Harden and Washburn were inducing easy flyballs and grounders. Although most of the Angel lineup batted lefthanded against Harden, not a single flyball was pulled to right fielder Nick Swisher. Not a single flyball by either team reached the warning track. In the fourth inning, Keith Ginter popped out in foul territory — the third foul popout of the game. It seemed that neither team was destined to hit the ball very hard.

Harden and Washburn swapped goose eggs inning after inning. In a scoreless game like this, there is a natural symmetry to each team’s Win Probability. At the top of each inning, both teams have a 50% chance of winning. But as the innings march by, the stakes rise. The negative impact of each out increases. The first out of the first inning decreased the Angels’ WPA by only .022, but the first out of the ninth inning cost them almost three times as much, or .060.

At the same time, the A’s chances of winning at the beginning of their half inning increased from 55% in the first to 64% in the ninth. Each out induced by Harden and Washburn made the next out more impactful, and the tension rose with the stakes.

In the eighth inning, Harden threw a 96 mph heater at the knees to Macier Izturis, showing that he still had his stuff, but Izturis managed a single later in the at bat. Javier Molina followed with a sacrifice bunt that actually decreased the Angels’ chances of winning .024. The first out of an inning is the most precious, and a runner on first with no one out is better than a runner on second with one out.

Chone Figgins’ subsequent groundout did even more damage (-0.062 WPA) even though Izturis reached third — the second time a runner reached third in the game — and Darin Erstad grounded out to Ginter to end the threat (-0.090). In the bottom of the eighth, the A’s put runners on 1st and 3rd with two out thanks to an error by Izturis at third. However, Chavez struck out to end the threat.

That was it for Harden and Washburn, who both pitched eight innings of shutout ball. Washburn finished his stint with a .578 WPA, and Harden scored a WPA of .491. Washburn’s WPA was higher because his fielders didn’t contribute as much as Harden’s. Jason Kendall caught Figgins stealing in the third inning, and Izturis’s error had put Harden in a rough spot. Keith Ginter also made a few nice plays in the field.

In the ninth, Kiko Calero relieved Harden and Brendan Donnelly relieved Washburn. The A’s Erubiel Durazo singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, placing their WP at 71%. This was the game’s first “critical” at bat, but Hatteberg ground into a double play after fouling off a gazillion pitches, for the biggest out of the day (-0.178).

And the Tenth

Kiko Calero looked pretty good in the ninth and tenth. His ERA this year is 0.00 in seven innings, with nine strikeouts, one walk and three hits allowed, and in this game he was in command of the plate. For his two innings of critical work, he registered a WPA of 0.270.

Scott Shields came into the game for the Angels in the bottom of the tenth. Shields was the ninth most valuable reliever in baseball last year, contributing a WPA of 3.99. However, Nick Swisher singled to start the inning, once again placing the A’s WP at 71%. Then Shields threw the game away when Marco Scutaro bunted the ball.

Analysts like me tend to disparage the sacrifice bunt, as I did earlier in this article. However, things can happen when a ball is in play, even a bunted ball. A pitcher can pick up the bunt, for instance, and miss the tag on the runner. He can then throw the ball away when throwing to first. The runner on first base can scoot all the way around and score the winning run. Yes, these things can happen and, in this game, they did.

The A’s won the game, 1-0, on a final play that consisted of a misplayed bunted ball. It added 0.286 WPA to the A’s overall Win Probability, which I credited to “None” of the A’s (for the same reason errors aren’t counted as hits). Which is probably as it should be. The real stars of this game were on the mound. As was the ultimate goat.

Here are the WPA scores of all players:

Team    Player       Off    Pitch    Field      WPA
A's     Harden      0.000   0.491    0.000    0.491
        None        0.343   0.000    0.000    0.343
        Calero      0.000   0.270    0.000    0.270
        Durazo      0.072   0.000    0.000    0.072
        Swisher     0.010   0.000    0.002    0.012
        Kendall    -0.011   0.000    0.023    0.012
        Byrnes      0.002   0.000    0.002    0.004
        Kotsay     -0.061   0.000    0.011   -0.050
        Ginter     -0.096   0.000    0.038   -0.058
        Kielty     -0.086   0.000    0.000   -0.086
        Scutaro    -0.094   0.000    0.006   -0.088
        Chavez     -0.160   0.000    0.000   -0.160
        Hatteberg  -0.261   0.000    0.000   -0.261
A's Total          -0.343   0.761    0.082    0.500

Team    Player       Off    Pitch    Field      WPA
Angels  Washburn    0.000   0.578    0.000    0.578
        Donnelly    0.000   0.122    0.000    0.122
        Molina     -0.015   0.000    0.000   -0.015
        Izturis     0.025   0.000   -0.048   -0.023
        Anderson   -0.051   0.000    0.009   -0.041
        Cabrera    -0.078   0.000    0.003   -0.075
        Guerrero   -0.095   0.000    0.001   -0.094
        DaVanon    -0.129   0.000    0.000   -0.129
        Erstad     -0.159   0.000    0.024   -0.134
        Figgins    -0.145   0.000    0.004   -0.141
        Finley     -0.197   0.000    0.007   -0.190
        Shields     0.000  -0.072   -0.286   -0.358
Angels Total       -0.843   0.628   -0.285   -0.500

I’ll be back next week with another game in review.

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