Well, just like Tim and John S always predicted (don’t bother looking it up), the 2011 season comes down to the Rangers and Cardinals. Will Tony La Russa prove his genius? Will a starting pitcher reach the seventh inning? Will Joe Buck emote? All that and predictions are discussed….
John S: Man, can you believe Jonathan Lucroy didn’t win NLCS MVP?! And can you believe someone almost as unlikely–David Freese–DID? You know, I usually hate the discussions that media outlets have every year that the Yankees/Phillies/Red Sox miss the World Series, where they make jokes about how angry FOX must be. But this World Series DOES seem conspicuously lacking in star power. At least last year the Rangers had Cliff Lee–the closest this year’s team has to such a star is Josh Hamilton, who had a disappointing season. The Cardinals, of course, have Albert Pujols, but after him their biggest star is Tony La Russa, who seems to wear out his welcome more and more every year. But while my instinct is to say that these two teams are mediocre, the evidence doesn’t really support me. The Rangers were better this year than they were in 2010, and even the Cards won 90 games, which is more the 2006 championship team won. Perhaps I should be more excited for this World Series… Am I off base about the lack of compelling personalities in this matchup?
TIM: No, I cannot believe Jonathan Lucroy didn’t win NLCS MVP. His .294 average in the six games was bested by only four Brewers, and like the four best Brewers in Randy Wolf, Jerry Hairston, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Ryan Braun. It was practically half of what Freese hit! I hate these traditionalist writers who always vote for the guy with the ..500+ average on the winning team.
I always hate the “These teams are boring” conversation going into the World Series; the San Antonio Spurs don’t play baseball. While I am generally unexcited for this series, it stems from anti-Cardinals sentiment that I will get into later. To address your star power point, you’re definitely wrong. This series features Pujols, who is indubitably the best player in the game, and has been for a half-decade now.* Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday are two of the great secondary stars in the game. Chris Carpenter has a Cy Young to his name and a defining performance this postseason. The Rangers have the reigning AL MVP, and he’s like the fifth-best hitter on his team. Some people seem to think Michael Young has a case for the Hall of Fame. C.J. Wilson is going to be the best pitcher on the free-agent market, and he seems pretty cool according to his Twitter. And Nelson Cruz just went all Senor Octubre on the Tigers. When are Yankees and Red Sox fans going to realize most baseball teams have lineups with multiple Marco Scutaros?
JOHN S: Allow me to defend myself: First of all, I granted you Pujols. I won’t even quibble with “indubitably.”* But surely you don’t think that “best” means “biggest star,” and you will grant that Pujols is notoriously surly with the press. If anything, his greatness is almost boring at this point. Also, I think my opinion of Lance Berkman was forever tainted by his stint on the Yankees last year, which I’m sure virtually every non-Yankee fan (and non-Twins fan) has forgotten by now. Beyond that, I think you’re REALLY overreaching if you want to call Wilson, Holliday, Young, and Cruz “stars.” Wilson is the best of a bad free agent class for pitchers… he’s baseball’s Andrea Bargnani. The Rangers were about to trade Young in the off-season, and how many casual fans knew who Cruz was before this ALCS?
*Though it’s interesting that you think “indubitably” could be challenged. Who else could you make a case for?
But I grant that these are mostly tedious distinctions. Who cares how famous these players are? I think my complaint is more that these teams are boring. The Rangers lineup is intimidating, but mainly through its depth–there is no big bat to fear. Note that they were the only division winner in the AL to not feature a viable MVP candidate (please don’t try to make a case for Young) this year. The Cardinals are more front-loaded offensively, but I can only take so much of Marc Rzepczynski in the playoffs.
Which leads me to my next question: Can we all finally agree that starting pitching doesn’t matter in the playoffs?
TIM: Yeah, well, you can’t go all “There are NO stars in this NBA Finals except LeBron, Wade, and Dirk” now, can you? And I think it’s you agreeing with my already-established view of Pujols as surly there.* And Wilson as Bargnani? Come on, John. Shaun Marcum is the Bargnani of this postseason, and we all know it.
*The “indubitably” qualifier really comes down to the period of time you’re evaluating. For instance, I don’t think Pujols was the best player in baseball in 2011; that honor probably goes to Jose Bautista or Miguel Cabrera. Those same two would have good cases for best player in 2010-2011. Any longer period of time, however, it’s Pujols hands down.
I really hope casual fans knew who Nelson Cruz was before the ALCS. Did you?
You know I traditionally like seeing traditional narratives destroyed–it’s what makes Borges’ “Death and the Compass” so much fun–but one basic premise of baseball I don’t like seeing crushed is that “Starting pitchers mean something.” My goodness, these teams’ rotations were awful in their respective LCS. The eight starting pitchers combined for one LCS win, by Carpenter, who was the only Cardinals starter to even pitch long enough to qualify for a W. Wilson was the only starter to pitch into the seventh for either team.
What it really is, for St. Louis at least, is a one-off of LaRussa’s old plan from the ’93 A’s to construct a pitching staff of nine pitchers all capable of going three innings.* Every game is a bullpen game, with the possible exception of Carpenter’s starts. It’s interesting, and I’ve always wanted to see something of this ilk tried out in Major League Baseball. But I don’t like LaRussa seeming all smarty-pants again. I mean, soon he’ll be batting his pitcher sixth because, you know, he can pinch-hit for him earlier.
*I’m getting the details on this from Scorecasting.
But I’m judging from the phrasing of your question that you think this is a good idea? And isn’t Alexi Ogando, right now, the closest thing we’ve seen to ’96 Rivera in 15 years?
JOHN S: Of course I knew who Cruz was, but I don’t consider myself just a “casual” fan.
Anyway, your love affair with Ogando is getting old. No, I would not compare him to Rivera in ’96, since Rivera did it for a whole season, and Ogando was a starter this year. Also there have been pitchers who’ve done similar things in the intervening years: K-Rod in 2002, David Price in 2008, etc. Let’s not just compare every good relief pitcher to Rivera in ’96. It’s like trying to find the next Jordan or the next Springsteen: It’s not fair.
As for starting pitching, I like to see traditional narratives destroyed even more than you do, and so I kind of like this trend. Part of it, though, is that I realize that the “starting pitching is the key to the postseason” myth is so strong that it’s going to take a lot more than one weird postseason to destroy it.
But I do think it ought to be destroyed. I’m not saying they’re not important, but I think we tend to really overvalue starters in the playoffs. The way everyone obsessed over how often Justin Verlander pitched in the LCS and LDS was obscene–it was as if he and Valverde were the only competent pitchers on the Detroit Tigers, a team that won 95 games.
People like to act as if the rules change in the playoffs, but the key to winning in the postseason is the same as it is in the regular season: Score more runs than your opponent. You can do that with great starting pitching that limits your opponents, OR you can do it with great lineups that score a lot. Both of these teams do the latter.
Of course, I wouldn’t like it if EVERY year were like this, but we’re not in any danger of that. I mean, we just had a postseason that ALL ABOUT starting pitching in 2010. This year is about sluggers, like David Freese, and dominant closers, like Jason Motte. And that last sentence was only like 98% sarcastic…
TIM: With Ogando, I met not just the quality of his relieving but the quantity of it as well. He’s going multiple innings on a consistent basis (seven games, 10 1/3 IP) in a fashion reminiscent of pre-closing Rivera (eight games, 14 1/3 IP in ’96). That’s all. That’s why I said “right now.” I’m not projecting 600 saves in Ogando’s career. Cool your jets.*
*Funny story: The other day, on one of my “Let’s tarnish a Yankee” whims, I was looking up the stats of Eric Gagne, which are pretty ridiculous, and I asked myself, “You know, is it so, well, indubitable, that Rivera is the greatest closer ever when so many other guys had dominant stretches like this, or is Mariano just the Emmitt Smith to someone like Gagne’s Barry Sanders? Then I looked up Rivera’s stats, and the question seemed pretty stupid.**
**Gagne’s two-season run in 2002-03, though, is the second-best ever, behind only Eck’s ’89-90. In those two years, Eckersley struck out 128 batters and walked seven. He had more wins than walks, and he’s a closer!
It’s unfortunate that the postseason doesn’t stick to the same basic plot each year. That way we’d know what wins in the playoffs. Instead, you get teams with no competent starters in the World Series a year after the champion didn’t even bother fielding an offense. I don’t completely agree with your assertion that the rules don’t change in the playoffs, as I will point out that the depth of a starting rotation–particularly your fourth and fifth guys–means a lot less come October. This is why the 2001 Mariners, for instance, were fatally flawed.
And before you make fun of the disappointingly mortal Verlander’s postseason performance, did you see Game 5 of the ALCS? When Leyland was like, “Since I can’t use Valverde and Benoit, Phil Coke is the only reliever I can bring in”? First, how insane is it to approach a game like that basically saying you will use only one reliever, and second, how much more insane is that concept when the reliever is Phil Coke?
To get back to the matter at hand, the success of the Texas bullpen hasn’t been that unforeseen. Neftali Feliz and Mike Adams are really good, and Ogando adds another weapon when he’s in the ‘pen. But the Cardinals’ bullpen? Let’s just say Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski weren’t exactly hailed as great deadline deal maneuvers? What does St. Louis’ success tell you about the National League, and do you think LaRussa’s long-standing beef with Colby Rasmus has paid off?
JOHN S: I’m not sure how much of your assertion that the 2001 Mariners were “fatally flawed” was in jest. After all, the 1998 Yankees were similarly built around depth in starting pitching, and nobody calls them fatally flawed. It’s just that weird stuff happens in the postseason and we tend to extrapolate more than we should from it.
ANYWAY, back to the Cardinals. Is there another manager in baseball who has had multiple known feuds with players the way La Russa has? How ridiculous is that? And the idea that a decent postseason from Dotel and Rzepczynski might actually make it seem like part of La Russa’s genius really, for lack of a better term, grinds my gears.
It’s a key distinction you make between the Texas bullpen and the St. Louis ‘pen. I’ve gone on record before as saying that it’s almost impossible to tell how much of team’s middle relief is luck and how much is genuine skill. Having said that, the success of the Cards bullpen seems like COMPLETE luck. This whole postseason I’ve just been waiting for the other shoe to drop…
Speaking of which, it seems very strange that, given the strain that the short appearances by starters and the rain delays have put on the bullpens, we’ve only seen one blown save this postseason (Milwaukee in Game 5 of the NLDS), and that team didn’t even lose the game. I mean, the most insane thing about the Phil Coke game was that it actually WORKED.*
*Also perplexing: Why did Leyland essentially announce the fact before the game? Aren’t you supposed to keep that stuff a secret?
This World Series has to compensate for all that, right? We’ve got to see, like, five blown saves in this series…
TIM: Who else has LaRussa publicly sparred with besides Scott Rolen? And something must work: They won the World Series that year with an inferior team, as well.
It’s hard to see the Dotels and Mottes and Lance Lynns and Fernando Salases of the St. Louis bullpen holding up for four more wins. And a lineup with the Rangers’ depth–rather than Milwaukee’s star duo, plus Lucroy–should prevent some of the easy innings the Cardinals accumulated in the NLCS. At the same time, their starters can’t pitch worse, can they?*
*Answer: Yes. And they probably will.
I mentioned earlier that I was anti-Cardinals, and I’d like to elaborate that here. The idea that the Cardinals could win another World Series–with another of their least impressive teams in the last 12 years–does bother me. And it’s less about a mediocre team that sneaked into the playoffs winning it; I would have gladly rooted for Tampa Bay. It’s more that St. Louis never gives off the sense of being an underdog, that with the exception of Berkman the Cardinals aren’t very likable (just ask Zack Greinke), and that they already won a World Series like this five years ago. It’s like when the Yankees won in 2000; big-market teams shouldn’t be allowed to win when they’re having down seasons.
How do you feel about the Cardinals, and are you ready to embrace the Rangers as your top competition in the American League?
JOHN S: To your main point: Yes, I’m with you on the anti-Cardinals sentiment, though I reject your “big-market teams shouldn’t be allowed to win in down seasons” bias. The Cardinals are just too dislikable, unlike the cuddly Rays, to embrace being an underdog, and they’re not good enough to be intimidating.
As for the Rangers, I have my reservations about rooting for a team whose owner is so buddy-buddy with George W. Bush, but they are at least intimidating. That lineup is so deep that Young’s subpar ALCS was barely noticed until he finally broke through in Games 5 and 6. It’s also worth noting that the lineup isn’t likely to be adversely affected by losing the DH the way so many AL lineups are, since they can just play Young at first and sit Mitch Moreland.*
*And before we rehash this old argument, let me point out that the Cardinals will get the much-needed ability to play someone besides the ailing Holiday in left without losing his bat.
Last year the Rangers bothered me, probably because they beat the Yankees, but I’m mildly in favor of this year’s team. And I think you’re right: That lineup is the kind of AL lineup that teams in the NL are not used to seeing: There are no Yuniesky Betancourts or Jerry Hairstons. It’s hard for me to see the Cardinals pulling this one out, but I’ve been wrong on them before…
TIM: I do, for once, agree with you on the old DH rule. The Cardinals will do fine with it, if only because LaRussa would probably have been subbing Holliday out for defense in like the third inning anyway to find a way to double-switch Adron Chambers into the game ASAP. That said, I half-expect Nick Punto to DH Game 3, just so LaRussa can stick it to the man.*
*I suppose I owe it to Nicky to point out that Punto had by far his best season this year, with an OPS 30 points better than David Wright. Sigh.
I also find the Rangers more likable this year than last, but that’s probably because they’re playing the detestable Cardinals instead of the charming Giants. They still don’t really do it for me; outside of Endy Chavez, Wilson and possibly Napoli, I don’t really like anyone on that team. The constant pandering and camera panning to Nolan Ryan (and thus George W.) doesn’t help matters.* Also, those people are Cowboys fans.
*How come we aren’t hearing about how tough Nolan made those pitchers this postseason? Huh?
So, since I went first in our two LCS posts, I’ll ask you: Who ya got?
JOHN S: Rangers, obvs.
…Oh, you’d like me to elaborate?
I think the Cardinals will take Game 1 behind a strong Chris Carpenter performance and home runs from Pujols and Holliday. Garcia actually pitches well in Game 2, but La Russa pulls him too early, and the Rangers come back against the Cardinal bullpen, with Young getting the go-ahead hit.
Back in Texas, Game 3 goes to the Rangers who go Lewis-Ogando-Feliz to win a close one. The Cardinals hit Matt Harrison hard in Game 4 to win a blowout and even the series. Carpenter pitches well again in Game 5, but so does Wilson, and the Cardinals bullpen blows ANOTHER save, giving Texas the 3-2 edge.
In Game 6, La Russa pulls Garcia after two innings, despite having allowed only one run. The bullpen pitches well for a while, with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver going on and on about the confidence La Russa showed in his bullpen and how gutsy the call was. But in the sixth, the Rangers turn a 4-1 deficit into a 7-4 lead, capped by a 3-run homer from Ian Kinsler. Ogando pitches a scoreless sixth and seventh, but gives up two runs in the eighth before getting pulled for Feliz, who closes out the win with a four out save capped by a strikeout of Rafael Furcal.
TIM: These detailed predictions are harder to do when I can’t find St. Louis’ rotation anywhere. I’m operating under the assumption, like you, that Garcia, Jackson, and Lohse follow Carpenter in that order.
Texas wins a wild Game 1 reminiscent of the ’04 World Series, with both starters getting knocked around early and the bullpens doing little better. Ian Kinsler’s two-run double in the eighth puts the Rangers ahead for good in an 11-8 win.
In Game 2, Garcia is pulled after two perfect innings because LaRussa really likes matching up Octavio Dotel with Nelson Cruz leading off the third. It’s risky, but pays off when Cruz flies out to left. No, Garcia actually finishes five, but he gets hit around a bit in the sixth, with a Cruz single driving in two to cut St. Louis’ lead–built against Colby Lewis–to 5-3. The Cardinals bullpen has some shaky moments, but Motte brings it home, 7-6.
The to-this-point shaky Derek Holland delivers one of those gems he pulls out of his hat every once in a while in Game 3, holding the Cardinals to a Berkman homer in seven-plus. Texas’ depth is too much for Edwin Jackson in a 7-2 win.
Harrison and Lohse retire a combined 15 hitters in a Game 4 that reminds people of the first World Series game I ever remember watching. It doesn’t get that awesome, though, with the Cardinals eventually claiming a 12-7 win.
Wilson and Carpenter acquit themselves much better in Game 5, each pitching into the seventh. C.J., though, folds when a Pujols grounder down the third-base line somehow hits off the bag and hops over Adrian Beltre’s head, propelling a four-run St. Louis frame and a 5-2 win.
Back home with two chances to clinch, the Cardinals promptly blow the first. Garcia is beat up, Lewis isn’t, and the Rangers force the first Game 7 in nine years with an 8-2 victory.
The narrative entering Game 7 is whether this is, in fact, a great series. Only idiots will think so.
Holland and Jackson will stutter their way through four innings each before bowing out in the fifth with the game tied at two. The heavily used Ogando will get Texas into the seventh before he surrenders homers to Holliday and Freese that send St. Louis wild. Marc Rzepczynski continues his series-long dominance of the once-again dormant Josh Hamilton, striking him out with the bases loaded in the seventh to preserve a 4-2 lead. In the bottom of the eighth, Pujols will hit an opposite-field two-run double on one of those seemingly unhittable Mike Adams sliders. Motte will close it out in the ninth for a 6-2 win.