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October 24, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game One Recap (Cardinals Edition)

by Ben Lindbergh

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Throughout the World Series, we'll be providing two recaps of each game, one with a focus on the winner and the other devoting a longer look to the loser. This is the Cardinals entry for Game One. The Red Sox entry is here.

In retrospect, this sort of set the tone for Game One from the Cardinals’ perspective:

That’s the 6’7” Adam Wainwright making his way to the mound in the first and bumping his head on the roof of the visiting dugout at Fenway, whose home team in the ballpark's long-ago inaugural season topped out at 6’2”. Things got worse for Wainwright from there.

“If you like defense, then this isn’t the series for you,” R.J. Anderson wrote in his World Series preview. As R.J. noted, neither the Cardinals nor the Red Sox placed particularly well on the various defensive leaderboards this season, though St. Louis was worse, ranking 21st in defensive efficiency, 26th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, 27th in team UZR, and 22nd in team DRS. Boston wasn’t so much better that the team’s glovework constituted a massive advantage, but if you wanted to find a weakness in a matchup between two of baseball’s best teams, the Cardinals’ lack of leather was it.

As the Red Sox ran up the score on Wednesday, Tim McCarver and Joe Buck kept clucking about how atypical it was for a Cardinals team to look so sloppy. In a sense, they were right: the Cardinals committed three errors in the game, which was out of character for them (only the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles committed fewer errors in 2013). But errors aren’t a great proxy for overall defensive performance; the Cardinals' shortcomings in the field have more to do with the balls they don't touch. It seems like defensive inadequacy should be inconsistent with the Cardinal Way, but converting batted balls into outs is one aspect of the game at which St. Louis doesn’t excel.

Pete Kozma committing two of the errors last night was odd, in that he’s the one Cardinal who’s in the lineup solely because of his glove. Aside from Yadier Molina, no one on the team was less likely to flub two plays, the first of which potentially cost the Cardinals a double play that would have ended in an inning in which the Sox went on to score three runs.

Wainwright—for what it’s worth, a Gold Glove winner in 2009—hurt himself by not attempting to catch a Stephen Drew popup that dropped in front of the mound to start the second, and David Freese allowed Drew to score on a Dustin Pedroia grounder that got under his glove.

Defensive struggles from Freese, at least, made sense; the third baseman also contributed to Boston’s two-run seventh with a two-out throwing error that put Pedroia on first and gave David Ortiz a chance to go deep. Only four of the eight runs allowed by the St. Louis staff were earned.

As I watched the Cardinals fall further and further behind, I kept making mental comparisons to NLCS Game Six, in which Clayton Kershaw wasn’t quite as sharp as usual but the final score was less a reflection of his own failings than it was a product of bad defense and Murphy’s Law batted-ball placement. I made the case in my recap of that game that it very easily could’ve been a nailbiter instead of a blowout, and one could say the same about Wainwright’s Game One start (although this time, it was Jon Lester in the “unhittable opponent” role Michael Wacha played against the Dodgers).

The difference is that in the Cardinals’ case, one could also point to a play that made things much better than they could’ve been:

That’s the second extra-base hit Beltran has robbed in October; this one saved three runs. When he was removed from the game with what appeared to be a bruised rib, it looked like another callback to the NLCS. But in Beltran’s case, nothing is broken, so this isn’t Hanley Ramirez redux.

St. Louis got off to a lousy start in this series, but this wasn’t one we should have counted on the Cardinals to win. Only four teams—the Mariners, Marlins, White Sox, and Mets—had a lower OPS against left-handed pitchers this season than their .672 mark, so a matchup with Lester at Fenway was the game in this series in which their offense was most likely to struggle. Yes, the Cardinals looked a little lost along the way, and the score was more lopsided than one would’ve expected. But those extra Red Sox runs don’t roll over to today.

  • Sam Miller made a good point on the podcast: the fact that a team is facing a starter who hasn’t walked many batters doesn’t mean a patient approach won’t work. Wainwright walked 1.3 per nine in the regular season, so Fox’s “key for the game” for the Red Sox was “Change your pattern of taking first pitch,” the idea being that if the Sox tried to wait out Wainwright, they’d just find themselves taking called strikes and falling behind in the count. But Wainwright doesn’t avoid walks by pounding the strike zone: just over 50 percent of his pitches are in the typically called strike zone, a rate that puts him more or less in the middle of the pack. The righty avoids walks by posting the 11th-highest chase rate among the 150 pitchers who threw at least 1500 pitches; his balls look like strikes until it’s too late. It’s hard to lay off, but if a team can do it, they can still succeed without getting overly aggressive. In defiance of Fox, the first nine Boston batters took the first pitch they saw; all told, only seven of the 24 batters Wainwright faced swung at his initial offering. Mike Napoli's bases-clearing double came on a 2-0 count, as his patience with the bases loaded forced Wainwright to throw a pitch over the plate.

  • The umpire huddle and conferences with John Farrell and Mike Matheny following the blown call by Dana DeMuth in the first felt like they lasted forever, but only five minutes elapsed between the error by Kozma and the resumption of play. Still, that sequence was as good an illustration as any of why expanded replay could work without lengthening games. If a similar play occurs next season, the manager of the team the call goes against could challenge. The original ruling would still be overturned, but it would require a lot less discussion.

  • According to BP’s man in Boston, Zachary Levine, Matheny was asked if he considered pulling Wainwright with the Cardinals down 5-0 after two, the better to bring him back on short rest. “Well, we got him out pretty early still, so we’re not ruling out anything moving forward,” Matheny responded, which means that bringing Wainwright back on short rest for games four and (if necessary) seven is still on the table. Wainwright went five innings and threw 95 fairly grueling pitches. Technically, that’s an early hook for a guy who averaged 104 pitches and over seven innings per start in the regular season, but not so early that you’d expect him to feel fresh should he be asked to take the ball again on Sunday. The Cardinals’ odds of a comeback after the second stood at approximately 10 percent, and Wainwright was their best hope to keep the game close without draining the bullpen, so it’s understandable that Matheny stuck with him.

  • Much as I enjoy watching them work behind the plate, I’m always tickled when a Molina gets a taste of his own medicine, especially from another great receiver like David Ross:

  • I meant to praise Shane Robinson’s baserunning in the NLCS, but that blurb ended up on the recap cutting board. So I’ll tip my cap to him now for going first to third on a fifth-inning error by Jonny Gomes in Fenway’s short left field.

  • There are stranger postseason commercials, and there are more annoyingly repetitive postseason commercials, but there’s no other postseason commercial with worse writing than this:


    Money line: “Chevy Silverado delivers a quiet cabin that’s second to nobody in its class. And by nobody, I mean Ram and Ford.”

    In other words: If you want the third-quietest cabin in its class, the Silverado is the truck for you! You think about who had to have read the script for this ad and seen the completed commercial before it went to air—the Josh Hamilton lookalike actor, the director, the Chevy people, the ad agency people, and so on—and you wonder how so many people whose profession it is to make commercials could have signed off on a line that, read literally, sends the opposite of the intended message. Then you realize that this is the same world in which a perfectly positioned, veteran major league umpire could get a great look at Pete Kozma clearly dropping a feed from Matt Carpenter and still rule that Kozma had made the catch. The only possible conclusion to draw is that most of us have moments when we’re completely incompetent.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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