MLB: ALCS-Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a smart, analytics-driven guy who once made a glib comment that he, at this point, probably wishes he kept to himself. In a New York Times profile of Morey and the way he runs his Rockets, author Michael Lewis quotes the Northwestern grad uttering a now-infamous credo* for stat nerds the world over – “Someone created the box score, and he should be shot.”

* – it’s a very mild form of infamy, meaningful only to management-worshiping shut-ins and aspirant bean counters. Basically anyone in khakis.

As a basketball talent evaluator trying to build a winning team, Morey tosses off this line as it relates to the tyranny of real-time counting stats as a tool to quantify a given player’s contribution to the greater good of winning. A familiar refrain for analytics wonks from every walk of life. The baseball box score is a simplistic creation that, more often than not, completely omits the most crucial details of a game.

The Detroit Tigers did not just lose Game Two of the ALCS – they blew the game in the most dramatic fashion possible. Their starter cruised, dominating Red Sox bats for the second straight night – until a revolving door of relievers loaded the bases for David Ortiz, one of the most revered sluggers of his era.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland calls on his closer Joaquin Benoit to stop the Red Sox rally in its tracks. Get Ortiz out and then clean up the ninth inning and the Tigers are homeward bound with a 2-0 series lead.

This, of course, didn’t happen. David Ortiz happened. David Ortiz “happened” the living shit out of a first pitch splitter from Benoit with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a very close playoff baseball game. But let’s rewind back to the start of the inning.

Jose Veras started the fateful eighth for the Tigers. He retired lead off man Stephen Drew then allowed a double to Will Middlebrooks. Leyland yanked Veras for a lefty, calling on LHP Drew Smyly to retire Jacoby Ellsbury (he didn’t.) After Ellsbury walked, Jim Leyland went back to a right-handed pitcher to face former switch hitter Shane Victorino. Al Alburquerque quickly made Victorino look like a man who spent much of his professional life watching sliders from the other batters box, striking out the Flyin’ Hawaiian for the second out.

Dustin Pedroia stepped in against Alburquerque and singled to right field, loading the bases. With Boston folk hero and left-handed slugger David Ortiz due up, Jim Leyland went to his best reliever who also happens to get out lefties very well. It was now time for Benoit, the man who saved 24 games for the Tigers this year. We know what happened next.

Grand slam. Tie game.

With Fenway Park buzzing and Torii Hunter possibly bleeding, Benoit retired Mike Napoli to end the inning. The damage, however, was done. The Tigers called on Rick Porcello to start the ninth inning so the final line for Joaquin Benoit looks like this:

0.1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER.

But what of our other two right-handed relievers? Will Middlebrooks, the responsibility of Jose Veras, was on third base when Big Papi drafted his latest “put me in Cooperstown” proposal. Dustin Pedroia, the handiwork of Al Alburquerque, was on first. Oritz’s blast closes the book both Veras and Alburquerque. The final toll on their respective stat lines?

0.1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER.

Those three pitching lines are similar. By ignoring the type of outs (strikeouts versus ground outs) and the type of hits (singles vs. homer/double), I made the three pitching lines look identical! Two of those three pitchers had very, very different nights from the third man. When Veras left the game, the score was still 5-1. The Tigers still had a 94.9% chance of winning, according to win expectancy. The situation was much more dire for Alburquerque, who walked off the hill knowing his Tigers only had a 92.5% chance of winning.

The Tigers didn’t win this game, they lost.

Three players who pitched in the same inning of a baseball game and produced, superficially, the same results. Only after we turn to the old, storytelling stat “win probability added” does the stark difference between their respective night’s work crystallize.

Alburquerque: 0.02 WPA
Veras: -0.07 WPA
Benoit: -0.425 WPA

Joaquin Benoit’s pitch to David Ortiz reduced the Tigers odds of winning this game by more than 45%. That’s a lot. But he didn’t do it all himself. Their final baseball card numbers might look the same but, uh, Joaquin Benoit probably feels a lot worse about the outcome than the other three relievers charged with runs that inning. ignominy earned/notoriety gained.

It’s the nature of the gig. Somebody has to be the last man. Somebody is left to bar the door alone. To Benoit’s credit; if you’re going down, you might as well take a bunch of people with you on the way.

Truth be told, nobody will remember Jose Veras and Al Alburquerque and their roles in this collapse. Maybe that’s what WPA measures – ignominy gained. Not sure if you’re the goat? Check WPA, it’ll clear it up in no time.

Bonus Pity Context!

 Baseball is just the cruelest sport imaginable.