October 21, 2005
World Series Prospectus
Houston Astros vs. Chicago White Sox
Remember the 1918 World Series? Wait, didn't we hear everything we needed to hear about 1918 last year? It was, after all, the World Series on everyone's mind as the Red Sox charged to their first World Championship in 86 years. But the 1918 World Series has one other distinguishing characteristic: it was the lowest scoring post-season series ever and while the 2004 Fall Classic was about reversing that famous curse, the 2005 World Series has as good a chance as any in recent memory to surpass 1918's display of offensive impotence. In six games that fall, the Red Sox and Cubs combined for 19 runs, an average of 3.17 R/G total. We're not predicting the White Sox and Astros to reach those levels of offensive ineptitude, but without a doubt, they're two of the best candidates to come around in years.
If you're a fan of low-scoring ballgames, pitcher's duels, sacrifice bunts, rally-killing offensive strategies, over-reliance on antiquated one-run strategies, and Bob Gibson, this is the World Series for you. It's only a matter of time until MLB proclaims the success of these two light-hitting squads a result of the steroid testing. After all, the White Sox don't hit home runs, right?
LF-L Scott Podsednik (.293/.354/.353/.265/12.6)
CF-R Willy Taveras (.291/.325/.341/.241/11.9)
There's just no friendly way to say this: the White Sox field a bad offense in every department except the long ball. Chicago finished the season tenth in the AL in Adjusted Equivalent Runs, meaning only the Blue Jays, Royals, Twins, and Mariners were expected to score fewer runs given their individual offensive performance, the quality of their competition, and their home park. Everyone who was impressed by those four offensive outputs, raise your hand. (Thanks, Rany.) Chicago ranks in the bottom five teams in the AL in batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), unintentional walks (UBB), unintentional walks per strikeout (UBB/K), and stolen base success rate. In the ALCS, they struck out 36 times while drawing only 16 walks (a number buoyed by 12 in the last two games), stole five bases while being caught four times (one of which was erased on an Angel error), and were thrown out on the basepaths a handful of times to boot. Their five dingers against the Halos weren't as impressive as their output against a Red Sox pitching staff that could have gotten help from Jose Lima. The matchup with the NL's best pitching staff, fresh off shutting down a much more impressive offense than the White Sox employ, isn't going to make things any easier.
Not to be outdone, the Astros ranked eleventh or worse in the NL in AEQR, AVG, OBP, slugging percentage (SLG), and UBB. As a team, they batted .256/.318/.408, or what you'd expect from nine clones of Vinny Castilla or Daryle Ward. The reliance on Ensberg and Berkman has been well documented and a platoon of Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell at DH isn't going to solve anyone's problems, so the 'Stros are stuck hoping that the Brad Ausmuses and Mike Lambs of the world don't suddenly remember that they're just not that good with the bats. Like the Sox, their best asset is their power and while their UBB/K rate is better than that of the South Siders, the Astros didn't achieve that by walking, but by not striking out.
IF-R Pablo Ozuna (.276/.313/.330/.236/-1.0)
PH-R Jeff Bagwell (.250/.358/.380/.268/3.3)
At this point, who really cares? The White Sox bench has notched three plate appearances in the postseason, all in the ALDS. Aside from two pinch running appearances by Ozuna in the first two games of the ALCS, the bench might as well have been in the back making sure the champagne was cold and the beer didn't have any of those annoying pieces of ice stuck around the tab. What's more, can you blame Ozzie for sticking with his starters? After all, he might be the best hitter in the dugout if only because Tim Raines in the first base coaching box. It seems likely that at some point, the Sox are going to have to send some of their leftovers to the plate given the lack of a DH in Houston, but Everett will be the first and, if the Sox rotation continues its impressive pitch efficiency, possibly only man needed. They've gotten lucky that no one has exploited this weakness yet, but in a series likely to be low-scoring and just as likely to involve a few extra inning affairs, the absence of any quality hitters on the bench may cost Chicago dearly when they're most needed.
The Colt .45s, meanwhile, have gotten some highlight reel fodder from their dugout men, if only because the 18-inning affair in Atlanta forced Phil Garner's hand. To be fair, Garner has employed his toolbox full of rusty screwdrivers and broken hammers as best he could by understanding what each man does well and what he does not. But while the White Sox have no viable options on the pine, at least the Astros have Bagwell or Palmeiro, players who have shown some ability to get on base and hit for a little power. The only glaring omission at this point is another left handed bat, given the overwhelming right handedness of the White Sox's pitching staff, but Garner will have to make due without that one tool in his shed.
It may be easy to pick apart the hitters in this series, but this is where the real power lies. The White Sox have gotten notably impressive performances from their starters in the ALCS and from the pen in the sweep of the Red Sox; there's no reason to expect otherwise in the World Series. American League teams batted a collective .249/.308/.397 against White Sox pitching, but interestingly, they also hit .252/.306/.389 against Chicago's top six pitchers (the four men above plus Bobby Jenks and Damaso Marte). The Sox aren't as front-loaded as their opponents, but they certainly are consistent and with only Berkman and Ensberg to worry about in the Houston lineup, there's little reason to expect a drop off. Chicago pitchers did an impressive job of pounding the strike zone against the Angels, a strategy that should continue to work well against their new foe.
Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt are the meanest three-headed monster since Cerberus (or the '97 Braves if you measure things by SNLVAR). All season long they've been better than any other troika at keeping hitters trapped on the wrong side of the River Styx with a healthy mix of styles that converge in the form of low HR rates and healthy, if not overpowering, strikeout and walk totals. Combine those three with Backe, Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler and hitters managed only a paltry .234/.289/.355 line, or about what Jason Phillips "batted" this year. Pettitte still has one of the game's best pickoff moves and neither he nor the rest of the staff gives up home runs, so the White Sox will have to find some other way to beat them. Hercules tried kindness, but Aeneas's approach--drugged honeycakes--may be the best shot Chicago has.
Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)
RHP Bobby Jenks (39.1, 2.75, 1.4)
RHP Brad Lidge (70.2, 2.29, 4.7)
Jenks is getting well-deserved plaudits for his performance down the stretch and in the ALDS, but it's hard to find a more underrated relief performance this season than Politte's. His 2.00 RA (and ERA) actually underrates him given his 12.5 Inherited Runners Stranded (second in the AL to Toronto's Jason Frasor) and 0.72 Fair RA (FRA). Combined with Hermanson and Cotts, the top three White Sox relievers have prevented 63.3 runs above average this year, the third best total in the majors for a team's top three relievers behind only the Yankees and Athletics. If Jenks can keep up his impressive late season performance, the White Sox will have four fresh, dominant relievers on which they can call at any time. Leaving McCarthy off the roster once more will keep his already sizable inning totals down, but there's a good argument that he's already a better pitcher than Hernandez. With the top-to-bottom strength of the rest of the pitchers on the roster, the small difference between the two is unlikely to be a major factor.
With all these capable arms, both in the rotation and the bullpen, one has to wonder if another bat would make a bigger difference than Vizcaino. Obviously if Frank Thomas wasn't hurt this might not have been an issue, but Ross Gload, Brian Anderson, and even Joe Borchard had respectable seasons in Charlotte. Sure, Gload didn't look good in his 42 major league at bats this season, but he hit .321/.375/.479 in limited time in 2004 and .364/.421/.657 in 60 games at Charlotte this year, plus he's not going to play in the field, and he's left-handed. Given the overwhelming right handedness of the Astro bullpen, a lefty like Gload on the bench--even if he never saw the plate--would at least make Garner think twice about his calls to the bullpen. Given Guillen's substitution patterns so far, it likely won't make a difference, but if the series is as low scoring as it appears to be on paper, small moves late in games are going to play a much bigger role than they did against Boston or Anaheim. And no one on the South Side wants to see Willie Harris march to the plate with the season on the line.
The Astro pen is nearly as good, though not quite as deep. Garner has shown that he's willing to bring Lidge into the game early, so if he gets enough innings from his starters, he can avoid using anyone except Wheeler and Qualls to get there, though the former is certainly preferable to the latter. With virtually no dangerous left-handed bats in the White Sox's coffers, there's little reason to expect Gallo to pitch any meaningful innings, but then again, no one expected an 18-inning game in the ALDS, either. If the Astros get into trouble early in any game, Garner's best move may be to use one of his starters who's on a throwing day or to switch to a three-man rotation and throw Backe in there. It's as unlikely as someone mercilessly naming their child "Wandy," but this is the World Series and, as we all know, flags fly forever.
It's been noted before that the Sox were second in the league in defensive efficiency, but they leapfrog the A's for top honors once the difficulties of playing defense in US Cellular are weeded out. On the flip side of the coin, the White Sox are distinctly middle of the pack when it comes to preventing doubles and triples on balls that do touch the grass and they give up a higher ratio of triples to doubles than most of the league. But that's nitpicking about an otherwise excellent defense that also ranks sixth in the league in double play percentage. The pitching may be very good, but it's the defense that makes it great.
While fourth in the league in Defensive Efficiency, the Astros play in one of the game's easier defensive yards--a surprising fact given the haphazard outfield configuration, Tal's Hill, the flagpole, and everything short of tigers bursting forth from trapdoors in the outfield--and thus they rank only 13th in the league in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE). Their double play percentage and performance on extra base hits in play are all very close to league average. Their pitching staff isn't the kind to need a lot of help behind them, but the glovemen are a deceptively average group. Only Ausmus, Ensberg, Everett, and Taveras post Fielding Runs significantly above average, but at least they're in key defensive positions.
Guillen's best moves so far have been sitting tight and letting his players play. After running themselves out of Game 1 and the early part of Game 2 in the ALCS, the White Sox appeared to put on the brakes and play it safe. It paid off. His real strength--handling the pitchers--was largely a non-issue as the starters were so effective and efficient that there wasn't much of a decision to be made. If the pen falters early, we will likely hear about relievers being too rested or rusty, but given the six days between the end of the ALCS and the World Series, only sending players down the Arizona Fall League is going to keep them fresh.
Likewise, Garner has done very well with what he's been given. Say what you will about Lidge's brief struggles against the reigning best player in the NL, Garner's continued use of his top reliever early--much like 2004--and the ripple effect has helped the Astros avoid situations in which the bottom feeders of the bullpen are called on in game- and season-changing situations. After the 18-inning game with the Braves, the limited moves required in the NLCS must have seemed routine, but Garner has shown that he puts his players in a position to succeed and if he's going to lose, he's going down with his best. That kind of tactic will bite you in the butt occasionally, but it's the smart play in the long run.
More than any series this year, the World Series is going to turn on the smallest of events, those tiny differences that are smoothed out over a season but are impossible to predict in a short series. The umpires have come under fire in both Championship Series (and rightfully so), and in a series as low scoring as this one is likely to be, their decisions will be cast in even starker relief. Don't forget that they're also the best in the world at their jobs and significantly better than the group that was purged a few seasons ago. Discussing the many miscues up until this point is a waste of time. Instead, let's just hope we've seen them make their last headline for nine days.
This year's World Series games are going to be tight and more than a few will likely be decided by a single run. While the Sox were an MLB-best 35-19 in those contests this year, it's also true that one-run games are subject to high variation from overall winning percentage, so placing faith in Chicago's ability to win the close ones is foolish. This isn't to say that the best team will lose or that the outcome is purely luck, but with an extreme premium on runs, neither squad is going to find it easy to compensate for small mistakes on the field. These teams are incredibly similar--mediocre offenses, top-notch run prevention, and a heavy reliance on right-handed players--and picking between them is nearly impossible. But let it be said that at Baseball Prospectus we never shrink away from a challenge: Astros in seven.