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October 23, 2004
World Series Prospectus
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Boston Red Sox
Two classic franchises. Two fan bases yearning for a championship (one a little more desperately and Calvinistically than the other). The crowds will be vocal, the Nielsens will be high. If it's anything like the LCSs, expect more than your quota of joy, angst and white knuckles. Let's light this candle…
Boston Red Sox
CF-L Johnny Damon (.304/.380/.477/.295/52.4)
St. Louis Cardinals
2B-L Tony Womack (.307/.349/.385/.262/33.3)
In the 2004 regular season, the Red Sox's offense scored 949 runs to pace the AL, while the Cardinals scored 855 to lead the NL. Of course, the Red Sox had the structural advantage of playing with a DH in the lineup all season, so run totals alone don't tell the full story.
Plugging the basic rate stats into a rough run-approximation formula, we find that Cardinal pitchers at the plate contributed, again roughly speaking, 13 runs on the season. Replace those 13 runs (using the same number of plate appearances) with a league-average AL DH (who hit .263/.344/.445 in 2004), and it's a net gain of about 39 runs, which would give St. Louis 894 runs on the season. The Cardinals' likely DH in the World Series, John Mabry, has been better than that this season, but his numbers are somewhat out of step with the rest of his career. But, what the heck, let's say he continues hitting in 2004 (or 2002) form. That's a net gain of nine runs over a league-average DH, and comes to a tally of 903 runs. Throw in the fact that Fenway inflated run scoring by more than 7.0% over Busch, and you can muster a case that the Cardinals, after correcting for rules and environment, had the better offensive attack.
When the series shifts to St. Louis for the middle three games, the Red Sox will be without the DH spot and therefore must not only countenance the defensive stylings of David Ortiz at first base, but also do without Kevin Millar's bat in the lineup. A possible Millar platoon in right field with Trot Nixon is rendered meaningless by the fact that the Sox won't face a lefty starter in the Series.
The Sox offense must also face a beast that's by now all but mythical to them after taking on the Angels and Yankees in the postseason: the lefty reliever capable of getting outs. Anaheim had no left-hander in the bullpen, and the Yankees had only the much dreaded Felix Heredia. The Cardinals, meanwhile, can deploy the best lefty tandem in recent memory--Steve Kline (if healthy) and Ray King. As such, it makes good horse sense for Francona to move Ortiz up to third and drop Ramirez to fourth in the lineup so as to break up Big Papi and Nixon in the order.
As for the Cards, they'll need to abuse the lesser lights of the rotation--Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe--for this to be a series. This is also a powerful team, which, for the Cards, dovetails nicely with Curt Schilling's lone weakness: the home run. Also heartening for them is that Rolen's bum knee and calf look better of late. He started hitting the ball against Houston, and in Game Five made a number of nimble and smooth plays to his right at third. To the naked eye, he doesn't look quite 100 percent, but he's closer to the Scott Rolen of midseason than he has been in quite a while.
Summarily speaking, the Boston lineup is better top to bottom, but St. Louis' heart of the order is tougher (and, conversely, their back end is weaker). This point is germane to our next section …
Boston Red Sox
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.281/.368/.525/.300/15.8)
St. Louis Cardinals
2B/OF-L Marlon Anderson (.237/.269/.379/.224/-1.3)
This is a fairly prominent advantage for the Red Sox. The value of a strong bench in the post-season is generally overstated, but the Red Sox are certainly better equipped. That'll especially be the case in Fenway, when Mabry, the Cardinals' only decent pinch hitter, will be in the lineup at DH. Imagine if you will, Keith Foulke in the game in the late, fraught innings at Fenway and the likes of Mike Matheny at the dish with a critical runner on second base awaiting rescue. Mabry's already the DH, so is it … Marlon Mothertrucking Anderson with the game on the line instead? You get my drift. The bench normally isn't that big of a deal, but when the DH rule whisks away your only pinch hitter and renders the rest of your bench an unpalatable smattering of Alan Knicelys and Max Venables, it may become quite a big deal indeed.
Now consider the Boston pine corps. When the scene shifts to St. Louis, on the bench they'll have power (Millar, Mirabelli), speed (Roberts), OBP chops (Youkilis), defense (Mientkiewicz, Reese) and a nice blend of handedness. Pretty much everything you want and need from a bench.
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Cardinals
The decision by Francona to order his rotation as listed above is a puzzling one. Wakefield becomes the first true knuckleballer to start a World Series game since Eddie Cicotte way back yonder in 1919. More to the point, however, is that Wakefield, for all his charms, hasn't been very effective this season. Another source of consternation is that Francona managed to exclude his third-best starter, Bronson Arroyo, from the rotation altogether. Lowe will get the nod in Game Four mostly, I suppose, as an honorarium for his yeoman efforts in Game Seven of the ALCS. He certainly doesn't merit it on performance of a wider scale and scope.
Francona could have given everyone ample and proper rest and had the following World Series rotation:
Game 1: Martinez
Instead, we have this:
Game 1: Wakefield
The difference is acute. Both alignments provide four Schilling and Martinez starts, which is obviously a desired outcome. However, Francona's actual rotation gives us two doses of Wakefield and one dose of Lowe, whereas the optimal arrangement apportions those three starts to Arroyo, Wakefield and Arroyo. To put a sharper edge on it, in SNVA terms, the hypothetical rotation has a cumulative SNVA advantage of 4.6. In other words, the first rotation, over the course of a full season, would be almost five wins better than Francona's rotation. That's a significant difference, and it constitutes a poor job of exploiting one of the notable advantages Boston has in this series, which is quality of rotation.
Suffice it to say that if Schilling's patchwork ankle doesn't hold up, the tenor of the series is quite different. Sox GM Theo Epstein says the semi-experimental procedure that allowed Schilling to pitch in Game Six of the ALCS is repeatable for his next two starts. Boston better hope that's the case. Last time out, Schilling popped two of his three essential sutures, which were holding his ankle tendon in place, so there's most assuredly cause for concern. In other news, next summer look for a slew of Hub-area beer league softball teams to be named the "Boston Cadavers."
The Cardinals, with the continued absence of Chris Carpenter, their best starter in 2004, will trot out the hydra-headed mediocrity that's gotten them this far. The frightening prospect is that the Cardinals really haven't faced a lineup like this. There's one putative easy out (two when the Cards host) in the entire lineup. That head-to-toe quality in tandem with Boston's pitch-taking tendencies could be murder on a rotation that tends toward hard-won five-inning outings as it is. The operative for the St. Louis starters will be to keep the score within hailing distance and hand it over to the bullpen in that condition ideally at some point later than the third inning. The story of the series is whether an aging Williams, a "ridden hard and put away wet" Morris and a presumably heretofore fortunate Suppan and Marquis can hold serve against one of the game's best offenses.
Also worth noting: For the first time since 1989, no lefty will make a start in the World Series for either team.
Bullpens (IP, ERA, ARP)
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Cardinals
RHP Jason Isringhausen (2.87/75.1/20.7)
The best reliever in the World Series is Foulke, but the Cardinals have a clear advantage in terms of depth. Not many teams can run out five relievers with sub-3.00 ERAs, but the Cardinals do. It's a big reason why they were able to able to lead the NL in fewest runs allowed despite a generally middling rotation. King and Kline can defang Nixon and Ortiz, especially in Boston, where Millar will be in the lineup and, ergo, the right-handed pinch-hitting options for the Red Sox will be far less imposing. Tavarez, Calero and Eldred can capably bridge the middle innings, and Haren is there to work the second or the 14th inning as circumstances arise.
The idea of having the likes of Timlin and Embree square off against the St. Louis two through five hitters is a harrowing one for Sox partisans. That's why, if Francona is going to foul up the rotation, he might as well make Arroyo his high-leverage middle man. It's hard to see the point of having Myers around, since Edmonds and Walker both hit lefties and Myers, for a lefty specialist, isn't all that great at getting them out. Whatever your angle, this is a distinct advantage for St. Louis.
The Sox, after swapping Nomar Garciaparra for Cabrera and late-inning bites of Mientkiewicz, are squarely a better defensive team than they were earlier in the year. They'll be substantially less smooth with Ortiz at first when senior-circuit rules hold sway during Games Three, Four and Five. When possessing late leads, with Cabrera, Mientkiewicz and Roberts on the diamond, they're quite good. Still, an edge to the Cards, who are probably above average at every position.
Francona made some strange bullpen decisions in the ALCS and was woefully tardy (and apparently wildly ignorant of history) in lifting Martinez in Game Five. He hasn't inspired much confidence thus far in his ability to make pressurized, high-leverage pitching decisions. That could be critical, since the Sox's main problem figures to be getting the ball from their starter to Foulke.
As for La Russa, these days his missteps are mostly predictable, vaguely rankling, yet non-calamitous. He's done fine work with this team and made no critical mistakes in either the NLDS or NLCS. In previous seasons, the problem has been that his fingerprints have been conspicuous on the construction of the roster. This year, however, there weren't many difficult decisions in that regard.
The head says Red Sox in seven, so that'll be my official, board-certified position. I'll bet on a healthy enough Schilling and an ill-equipped St. Louis rotation. Lots of runs, and, one hopes, lots of drama.
The heart, however, says my Cardinals will win it in five, which means not only will they win the World Series but they also will be spared the gnawing bathos of clinching it in front of an unsupportive crowd. Here's to heart over head.