Saturday, September 15, 2012

Crystal Ball 2 (Rainout Boogaloo), or How a Rainout Could Have Saved a Season

We can help each other.
Can we find a way? We can find a way.
Wiley, “Electric Boogaloo”

Lonely at the Top: It's not too early to say the season is in Liriano's shaky hands.
[Note at 3:33 p.m. after a sublimely dominating Francisco Liriano win over the Twinkies: 

Never has it been so sweet to be revealed as a ninnied hand-wringer. If the White Sox's 4-5-6 starters Jose Quintana, Liriano, and Hector Santiago can stay in the groove of their last starts, it will take every bit of the dominating finish I foresee from the Tigers to hold off the Pale Hose. For now, you have to splash a sunny tint over the dour forecast that follows below.]

To wit, with 19 games remaining
In advance of the latest Series of the Season vs. the Detroit Tigers, I took a look ahead at how September would play out for the Chicago White Sox. As promised then: It wouldn’t end well.

But then, the Lord has provided durable evidence that indeed He believes good guys wear black.

With a washout on Thursday, the White Sox avoided what was almost certain to be a third consecutive free-fall out of sole possession of first place at the direct manhandle of the Detroit Tigers. The insipid return to April weather allowed the White Sox to avoid their executioner, Justin Verlander. The showers provided a pause for a club in dire need of a breath—as well as an excuse not to start Francisco Liriano in a game, ever again.

I wrote the above paragraph before it was announced that Robin Ventura was going to eschew the solid Gavin Floyd vs. Tigers matchup in the Monday makeup, give Jose Quintana a day of extra rest (hey, why ride him while he’s temporarily re-found his Rookie of the Year stuff?) and pitch—eek—Liriano on Saturday night at Target Field.

Liriano is much too scattershot at this moment to be pitching in a crucial game—yes, all 19 games remaining are crucial “playoff” games—and yet here he is, pitching Game 133, turning a likely victorious outcome behind Quintana into a tossup. Now, instead of a Minny sweep, I see a mere series win. With Detroit devouring its remaining schedule, that is foolhardy confidence on the part of Sox brass.

At a time when Robin should be finding reasons for Chris Sale or Jake Peavy to get an extra turn on short rest in order to remain ahead of Detroit, he’s essentially giving a game away in an attainable, necessary sweep. Woe is the White Sox.

Crystal ball
I’d originally revised the remaining season figuring on regular rest for the rotation of Peavy, Quintana, Floyd, Sale and Hector Santiago. Santiago should earn the fifth starter’s spot in spite of an inability to go more than, say, six innings in a start. Why? How about basing it on the fact that he’s been, like, unhittable in his two career starts (nine innings, six hits, six walks, one earned run, 14 strikeouts), with game scores of 60 and 61.
Screwy: Santiago should start any fifth-spot game to come.

Liriano over the same previous two starts? Nine innings, 10 hits, 11 walks, eight earned runs, nine strikeouts, with game scores of 40 and 35.

This giveaway game (I’m generously considering that Robin will realize the mistake of starting Liriano for the White Sox ever again and attributing the three future starts in the stretch run to Santiago) becomes the difference between trailing by a single game at the end of the season (making the Tigers catchable in the season’s final week) and two games (uncatchable without a massive 2008-everybody-wang-short-rest-tonight scenario).

One game—one loss—making that much difference? You betcha. Liriano, why oh why oh why oh why…

The results
Instead of using Thursday’s rainout to aggressively reshuffle the rotation and keep the pedal to the metal enough to stay within a game of Detroit, the season now plays out the same: Detroit takes the division at 89-73, with the White Sox two back, at 87-75.

Many of the same facts apply now, five days after my first crack at this. The White Sox have a fairly easy road the rest of the way—as do the Tigers.

The home/away advantage now actually does tilt in Detroit’s favor, with the Tigers getting 10 home games of the final 19, the White Sox eight.

Discounting the Detroit makeup, the White Sox play against two clubs (seven games) who are better than .500 and in the heat of the playoff race, the Tigers just one (three games, a home set vs. Oakland).

The White Sox are 36-32 against their opponents the rest of the way (including 5-12 vs. Detroit and 5-10 vs. K.C.), while the Tigers have gone 40-30 vs. their foes (under .500 against only Cleveland, at 7-9). So Detroit has an even easier trip into October than the White Sox.

The proper strategy
I made the point five games ago that the White Sox rotation is out of gas and tattered. That remains true. But if anything, that’s an excuse to push Peavy or Sale—perhaps even Floyd—out a day early at some point in the stretch run. (Of course, in a stretch run that involves trotting Liriano back out to the mound on September 15, don’t bother.)

The best chance Robin has to catch Detroit—because the division lead will be done for good as soon as Monday—is to push his best starters a bit.

I am not proposing a four-man rotation in the season’s last two weeks. But if Robin had skipped this Liriano start tonight by keeping his reliable four starters on regular rest, that alone would have added a win to the ledger.

Then, with Peavy being the best and perhaps only candidate to be run out on short rest, we could have seem him take a future Quintana start in the K.C. finale on September 20 or the Tampa finale on September 30. Q would still get his extra rest, and one of the more doomed Liriano/Santiago starts could be eliminated entirely.

These two simple but aggressive steps would both end the season in a tie with Detroit and re-set the rotation so that Sale is starting in the season finale vs. Cleveland. I already have the White Sox winning that game (perhaps improbably, although let’s nod to 2005 in predicting a season finale sweep vs. the Wahoos), but tell me, you feel better starting Sale there, or Floyd?

In the tiebreaker, then, you ask Peavy to come back again on short rest, with Floyd/Santiago/Liriano/Septimo/Marinez/Barojas/James/Thigpen all ready in case there’s a need to shatter glass to win the division.

The dirty details
Detroit shows cracks, largely with a defense that the whole of the Netherlands couldn’t plug. But where it really counts, the starting rotation, the Bengals have an advantage. The Tigs boast a Big 3 in the rotation (Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer) and even the back end is more stable than Chicago’s, with Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

If we generously call the bullpens a wash (seems there’s more stability at the moment in Motown), Detroit’s offensive advantage can be cancelled out by the White Sox’s defensive one. So it will come down to the rotations.

With Robin giving away the rainout advantage, I see the two teams tied for the last time on Monday, before the Tigers go out and, for the third time this season, take a division lead from Chicago by beating it head-to-head.

I’m giving gold stars to Sale, Peavy, Fister and Verlander for going undefeated the rest of the way. Here’s how the games will break down per pitcher:

White Sox: Peavy (White Sox go 4-0 in games he starts), Santiago/Liriano (1-3), Quintana (1-3), Floyd (1-3), Sale (3-0).
Tigers: Verlander (3-0), Sanchez (1-3), Porcello (2-2), Fister (4-0), Scherzer (3-1).

Detroit still will end up coming in and taking three of four from the White Sox, albeit in delayed fashion. But because of Chicago’s inability to properly take advantage of those Thursday raindrops by starting Liriano on Saturday, Detroit will leave town two days later in first place and will never look back.

Attacking series with a sense of "desperation" (yeah, with all of a one-game lead in the division) would have struck former manager Ozzie Guillen as symptomatic of the typical zeal of an out-of-touch analyst. Ventura at least regards such expert onlookers with, if not more respect, less expletives.

But in the end, it’s the same. If treating the remaining 19 games as one-game playoffs seems too stressful on the White Sox, they can take up golf. Pinning the meter, especially given a disadvantageous scenario vs. Detroit, is the only way to preserve what has been glorious surprise of a season.

It’s a shame the Sox are approaching it fat and sassy as opposed to having any sense of what lies ahead. Such laxity will cost them the division.

The grace of a September rain turns into a form of water torture.

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