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October 31, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Six Recap (Cardinals Edition)

by Ben Lindbergh

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The story of the Cardinals’ loss, both in Game Six and in the World Series as a whole, is simple: they didn’t hit, recording only a collective .224/.273/.299 line. And when you come right down to it, that’s not a very interesting story.

For one thing, over a short series—and by baseball standards, even a best-of-seven series is abbreviated—not hitting happens. And when it does, the dry spell often holds no special significance.

From September 8 through September 14—another six-game stretch—the Cardinals hit .198/.288/.289. That’s a .577 OPS, vs. a .572 mark for the World Series. From August 28 through September 3, they managed only a .429 OPS—extend that sample to September 5, and you get an eight-game stretch with a .484 OPS. We can keep playing this game. Seven games from July 25-July 30: .434 OPS. And so on. This sort of streak pops up at least a few times a season for every team, including the National League’s best offensive unit.

In the regular season, you might not even notice when one of these mini-slumps befalls a lineup. And even if you did, you probably wouldn't make much of it. At most, you might think, “the Cardinals haven’t been hitting this week,” followed by “I hope they start hitting soon.” In the World Series, though, a slump demands an explanation. We can’t just leave it at “they haven’t hit,” so we grope for a reason: they haven’t hit because they lack postseason experience, or because they’re a bunch of chokers. The irony is that one of these slumps rooted in randomness is even more likely to occur in October, when the cold and the caliber of opposing pitching combine to suppress scoring further.

So St. Louis didn’t hit, but we can’t draw much of a conclusion from that, other than that the playoff format can be frustrating. It’s not as if offense was a known weakness that came back to bite the Cards in October, like the Tigers’ defense, bullpen, and baserunning did in the ALCS. “I think there’s some randomness to it,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told Jesse Spector, and that wasn't sour grapes speaking.

Now, we could keep drilling down until we come to a more fundamental cause; in some cases, it could be a copout to blame a team-wide power outage on the vagaries of BABIP. For instance, maybe we discover that a team is whiffing more often than usual. That could help explain why they’re struggling. Then we could drill down even deeper: Okay, well why are they whiffing more? Maybe they’re swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone! But as a writer, that’s about where the potential for analysis ends. You can say, “Hey, slumping team, stop swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone,” but it’s not as if whiffing was their goal. They’ve either been induced to chase by good pitching, in which case it will continue to happen as long as the competition keeps it up, or they’ve fallen into a funk, in which case…well, it will sort itself out, either with time or with work. On talented teams, slumps resolve themselves. Just not necessarily before the guys in the other red-and-white uniforms win four first.

To make matters more complicated, the Red Sox didn’t hit much better than St. Louis in this series, triple-slashing .211/.291/.330. (The Cardinals “outhit” them, in the strict sense of the word.) So why was St. Louis outscored, 25 to 14? Sequencing, mostly, something St. Louis knows quite a bit about after setting a regular-season record for performance with runners in scoring position that prompted most analysts to declare their exploits unsustainable. In this series, the Cardinals batted .214 and slugged .238 with runners in scoring position. The Red Sox batted .250 and slugged .409, and that made much of the difference. “You look at all the games, when we had runners on, we hit balls right at them,” Matt Adams said to Spector. “So, a few inches here or there, it changes all the games.”

If there’s anything less meaningful than overall offensive performance over six games, it’s offensive performance with runners in scoring position over six games. We can blame the Cardinals for not coming through in the clutch, but since that performance tells us little about their true talent, it’s not very satisfying to do so.

And that’s how we wind up here:

Clearly, David Ortiz did more to send St. Louis home than Matheny might have. But as I’ve written repeatedly and discussed with Sam Miller on Effectively Wild, Matheny made a number of dubious decisions in this series. Game Six was no exception.

Matheny’s highest-profile, quantifiable crimes against the run-expectancy table were his intentional passes to Ortiz. Three times—the first of which was in the second inning—Matheny decided to put Ortiz on rather than pitch to him. The first two times, the inning ended up being bigger because of the IBB, as Ortiz came around to score. Only once in this game did the Cardinals truly try to get Ortiz out—and wouldn’t you know it, it worked. In that matchup, Matheny found the courage to go back to Kevin Siegrist, whom he seemed reluctant to use against the Red Sox slugger after the lefty—who shut down same-sided hitters all season—allowed a homer to Ortiz in Game One. The move paid off with a strikeout, much as it might have earlier in the game (and the series) had Matheny not allowed a single plate appearance to sway his bullpen approach. Matheny’s mistake was assuming that Ortiz’s hot streak was not only reflective of his underlying skills during that small-sample stretch, but predictive of plate appearances to come.

Matheny also made an odd move in the fourth, when he replaced the finally mortal-looking Michael Wacha with Lance Lynn. Down by four runs on the road in an elimination game, with two outs and men on first and second, it was crucial that the Cardinals escape the jam before Boston could bury them in an even deeper hole. This wasn’t the time to worry about regular roles; it was a situation in which the correct reliever was the one who would give St. Louis the best chance of getting the next batter (Mike Napoli) out. That might’ve been Trevor Rosenthal, and it might’ve been Carlos Martinez, but it wasn’t Lance Lynn, or—after Lynn allowed two more runs on a single, a walk, and another single—Seth Maness.

Matheny didn’t make a move for Martinez until the sixth, with St. Louis down 6-0, and Rosenthal stayed in the bullpen until the eighth, when the deficit was 6-1. Combined, the two got eight outs without allowing a run, but by the time they entered the game, the Cardinals were facing a steep uphill climb. Although it’s impossible to say whether things would have played out differently had the score been somewhat closer, the Cards probably weren’t going to win this one no matter what Matheny did. (To do that, they would have had to stop slumping.) But when we evaluate managers, we have to do so based not on whether their moves worked or made the difference between a win and a loss, but on whether they were sound tactics at the time.

As Will Leitch put it after Matheny’s sixth-inning screw-up in Game Four,

This is what Cardinals fans were concerned about when Matheny was hired. He's growing into becoming a better manager … but the Cardinals are trying to win a World Series today -- like, this second. This isn't a learn-on-the-job job; let the Cubs or the Astros hire somebody like that. There's little room for error for a contending team like the Cardinals, and none in the World Series. Mistakes like Matheny's cannot happen in the World Series.

As someone who didn’t watch to watch five-hour games, I was grateful that Tony La Russa wasn’t pulling the strings in this series. But if I were a Cardinals fan, I would’ve been happy to sit through a few more commercials if it meant that Matheny had learned to apply more of the lessons from La Russa’s bullpen-heavy 2011 championship run. No manager could have stopped the Red Sox assault, but La Russa might have made it closer. Hyperactive managing has its own pitfalls, but trusting your starter in every circumstance and overreacting to small samples isn’t the way to win a World Series. Both Matheny and the Cardinals will return to October in the coming seasons; if he adds some in-game savvy to his clubhouse skills and matures as a postseason manager, he might not have to watch while another team celebrates.

(Because this is the Cardinals recap, I won’t rehash my gripes with John Farrell, but the Red Sox skipper was far from flawless; tactically speaking, this wasn’t an especially well-managed series on either side.)

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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