October 21, 2006
World Series Prospectus
Detroit Tigers versus St. Louis Cardinals
Metro versus Retro? The Battle of Orange (and Blue)? Scratch that. Like just about everyone else on the planet, I was assuming that the Mets would dispatch the Cardinals in the NLCS, depleted rotation and all. Instead, thanks to a couple of very nasty curveballs by Adam Wainwright, we're left with what Will Carroll has begun to refer to as Murdoch's Nightmare.
Not that this World Series is without its own compelling angles. For two teams that neither play in the same league nor share any obvious geographic connection, the Cardinals and Tigers have a fair amount of shared history. Detroit and St. Louis have tended to rise and fall together, both as cities and as baseball clubs, and this becomes one of a bare handful of World Series matchups that have occurred at least three times and haven't involved the Yankees:
Cubs-Tigers, 4 Meetings
Cardinals-Red Sox, 3 Meetings
Cardinals-Tigers, 3 Meetings
You can also position this series as the meeting of two great baseball towns, although as I and the rest of the press corps will discover, a great baseball town is not the same thing as a great baseball city.
The bigger problem, frankly, is that this year's iteration of the Cardinals just isn't very good. The team finished the regular season with an Elo Rating of 1484, which is below the average of 1500. Although that rating has since risen to 1507 as a result of the Cardinals' postseason success, this nevertheless represents the lowest Elo Rating for a team entering the World Series in my database, which goes back to 1960. In fact, you can make a good case that the 2006 Cardinals are the worst team to ever play in a World Series, since the two-league, one-winner structure of elder days would have prevented an 83-78 entity from ever playing in October.
Nevertheless, Cardinals fans can find some hope in the fact that the second-worst team ever to play in the World Series, the 1987 Twins (1514 Elo Rating after the LCS), went on to win the damned thing, beating none other than the Cardinals. And for a team that played so flatly for much of the year, the Cardinals have genuinely sparkled in the postseason, as four of their seven October victories have been by at least three runs.
Let's go to the matchups...
SS-R David Eckstein (.292/.350/.344/.244/9.2)
CF-L Curtis Granderson (.260/.335/.438/.269/23.4)
You might be more likely to see this version of the Tigers lineup in Game Six or Seven than in Game One. The rumor at press time is that Sean Casey will be ready to play on Saturday, but will do so as the DH. That could mean removing Marcus Thames from the lineup in favor of someone like Omar Infante (or even Ramon Santiago), with Carlos Guillen moving from shortstop to first base. Jim Leyland is a big believer in getting defense from his first baseman--anyone remember Sid Bream?--but this is all going a bit too far to get a gimpy, past-peak Casey into the lineup, especially given the palatable alternative of Chris Shelton, who might or might not be added to the roster.
It's tempting to relate to the Tigers' offense by making a comparison to the 2005 White Sox, but it doesn't entirely work. Like last year's champs, the Tigers mainly rely on power and on good production throughout the lineup, rather than a superstar core. But the Tigers scored half a run a game more than the White Sox, while playing in a substantially more difficult hitting environment. While the emphasis on the White Sox's smallball offense was misplaced, the Tigers simply don't run at all; only Guillen reached double digits in stolen bases. The better comparison might be to a team like the 1996 Braves, but those Braves could take a walk, while the Tigers don't bother, with the sometime exception of Guillen.
Indeed, the Tiger offense is historically unique. On the season, the team's walk-to-strikeout ratio (or "eye ratio," as Ron Shandler calls it) was a paltry .38. Since World War II, no team with an eye ratio under .4 has matched the Tigers' 822 runs. In fact, none of these clubs have scored 800 runs, or even 750. The 2001 Brewers were closest, with 740 runs scored on an eye ratio of .75. That Brewers team finished 68-94.
This is not to suggest, however, that the Tigers' offensive output is a fluke. Indeed, a point-by-point comparison of the Tigers' Equivalent Average performance to their closest PECOTA percentile forecast reveals a mix of good and bad luck:
C Rodriguez .267 40th 1B Casey .256 25th 2B Polanco .245 10th 3B Inge .266 50th SS Guillen .314 90th LF Monroe .265 40th CF Granderson .269 25th RF Ordonez .282 50th DH Thames .292 75th
Seven of the nine Detroiters finished between their 25th and 75th percentile forecast, with one outlier on each side: Guillen on the high end and Placido Polanco on the low. It's an unusual collection of hitters, but nevertheless a pretty good one.
What is true about the Tigers offense is that they can run a little hot and cold. The team scored three runs or fewer on 63 occasions during the regular season. By comparison, the Red Sox and Mets scored about the same number of runs as the Tigers overall, yet did so 53 and 56 times, respectively. There's also truth in the notion that the Tigers are mistake hitters. They hit a remarkable .371/.404/.624 on the season against what ESPN.com defines as finesse pitchers. Fortunately for them, the Cardinals staff is chock full of finesse pitchers once you get past Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
As for the Cardinals, who knows what crazy lineup arrangements Tony La Russa will concoct, especially with the DH in play for the first two games of the series. Would it really surprise anyone if Yadier Molina was batting cleanup on Saturday night? That said, unlike the Mets, which would have faced some Hobbesian choices in getting a ninth position player into the lineup, the Cardinals should actually be better off in the DH games, since that allows two of the three players in the Duncan/Wilson/Scott Spiezio group to play. That should go a long way toward helping a team that completely punts offense from the catcher spot, and is hoping for no better than field goals from shortstop and second base.
Nevertheless, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Cardinals' offense is doomed to the same fate it faced in 2004, when the lineup produced just 12 runs in the four-game sweep by the Red Sox. As in 2004, Scott Rolen is banged up, and Jim Edmonds looks worn down, though the latter gave the Cardinals a handful of good at-bats during the NLCS. Otherwise, it's Pujols, Pujols and pray for… well, you get the idea.
C-R Gary Bennett (.223/.274/.331/.206/-6.0)
INF-R Omar Infante (.277/.325/.415/.259/5.8)
After sticking with the same starting nine for the four games against the Yankees, Jim Leyland spotted starts to Ramon Santiago, Omar Infante, Neifi Perez and Alexis Gomez in the sweep of the A's. Some of this was triggered by the injury to Casey, but for the most part, it was Leyland playing his hunches. On paper these things are pretty clearly a mistake, but if a manager likes the way a guy is swinging the bat against a batting practice pitcher, who am I to tell him otherwise?
No, I'm not being entirely sarcastic. Statheads tend to assume that performance is the same over each and every day of the season-a .300 hitter today is a .300 hitter tomorrow, subject to predictable adjustments based on the opposing pitcher, the weather, and so forth. But that assumption has never really been tested, and in practice, performance levels are probably a lot more fluid than that. Fluid enough to put Neifi Perez into a post-season lineup? Probably not. Regardless, this is a pretty hopeless group of players, unless the Tigers come to their senses and include Shelton on the roster.
In contrast, the Cardinals have a bench that could be genuinely helpful. John Rodriguez is a fantastic pinch-hitting option against right-handers, although for propriety's sake we should point out that Pujols would be a fantastic pinch-hitting option too if La Russa refused to insert him in the starting lineup. Spiezio has the "wrong" platoon split to complement Rodriguez (he also tends to hit better against righties, especially for power) but is nevertheless a pretty useful player. So Taguchi does the little things well that you'd expect of him, whether it's pinch-running or laying down a bunt. The willingness of La Russa to deploy his bench in the DH games of the series--meaning pinch-hitting for the likes of Molina--could well be the decisive factor in a close contest.
Verlander will start Game One for the Tigers, which is a gutsy decision on Leyland's part. Kenny Rogers, after all, started the regular season opener and the All-Star game that gave the Tigers their home field advantage, and has yet to allow a run in the postseason. Nevertheless, Verlander is probably the better pitcher. Verlander's peripherals are a little bit funky, but I'm convinced that he does an exceptionally good job of managing the game situation, which includes everything from turning it up a notch when he needs a strikeout to completely shutting down the basepaths.
While there's more room to quibble with Nate Robertson being slotted into the #3 slot, thereby limiting Jeremy Bonderman to just one World Series start, the Tigers have a fairly idiot-proof rotation. None of these pitchers make a lot of mistakes, and all of them make good use of the Tigers' defense. Rogers pitched the most over his head during the regular season and would be my third or fourth choice against a generic opponent, but the Cardinals' difficulties against left-handed pitching ought to mitigate a lot of that.
The Cards will counter Verlander with Anthony Reyes in Game One. That almost necessarily has to be a better option than Jason Marquis, although it's worth remembering that La Russa left Reyes entirely off the NLDS roster. Not that Reyes is any great shakes; I attended his June 22 start against the White Sox and remember coming away distinctly underimpressed, in spite of the fact that he had limited the (outgoing) World Champs to one hit. But Reyes' biggest problem is with the long ball, something that will be alleviated in Comerica Park, and he has a slightly funky motion that can make the ball hard to pick up coming out of his glove, which can be trouble for a team that has never seen him before.
The Cardinals are a favorite, of course, in any game in which Chris Carpenter starts, although he might not be quite as sharp as he was in mid-summer after having thrown more than 500 innings since the start of the 2005 regular season. On the other hand, I have trouble believing that Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver have magically found themselves. Between the two of them, they've allowed 16 walks against 14 strikeouts thus far in the post-season, and as mentioned, finesse pitchers have had particular problems against the Tigers. In fact, I suspect the Cardinals are catching a bit of a break, in that Suppan looks to be the Cardinal who will be limited to one start.
RHP Adam Wainwright (3.12, 65.0, 2.82)
RHP Todd Jones (3.94, 64.0, 2.3)
Speaking of serendipitous breaks, is there a bigger case of addition by subtraction than Jason Isringhausen finally getting shut down, yielding the closer's job to Wainwright? It's slightly unconventional to see a closer that depends so heavily on a curveball--sliders, splitters and plain ol' heat seem to be the more popular choices. But as we saw against the Mets, Wainright sets up his curveball well enough for it to be a real out pitch for him, and he does not have Isringhausen's command problems.
The rest of the Cardinals' bullpen is mediocre, however, and continues the parade of finesse pitchers. There's a good argument, in fact, for using Wainwright in the eighth or even the seventh inning; he's only a year removed from having been exclusively a starting pitcher. But considering that La Russa was solely responsible for the introduction of the term "LOOGY" into the baseball lexicon, this seems unlikely at best.
OfcourseofcourseOFCOURSE Joel Zumaya should be the Tigers' closer, provided that his right wrist is healthy. In Leyland's defense, he has not used Todd Jones the way Joe Torre has used Mariano Rivera in the postseason, inserting him in the eighth inning or in tied games. Zumaya's leverage index (1.49) was not that far below Jones's (1.80) during the regular season, and he made up for some of that difference by pitching a relatively high innings total (83.1).
For that matter, it's not clear whether Jones' 3.94 ERA during the regular season is indicative of his true level of performance. Yes, that's about where PECOTA expected Jones to be, and his tendency to throw in the strike zone could get him into trouble against a hitter like Pujols. But Jones pitched much better in the second half (1.80 ERA, 17 K, and 4 BB), after having fully recovered from his hamstring injury. The Cardinals have to rate as having a slight edge in the closer's spot, but the Tigers have the better bullpen overall.
Two very good defenses here, helping the Secret Sauce Theory to retain at least some of its integrity. The Tigers are unusual in that they have a considerably above-average defense in spite of a considerably below-average shortstop, which is a testament to Curtis Granderson's grace in center and Polanco's precision at second. Brandon Inge's progress at third base has also been remarkable.
Jim Edmonds has clearly lost a step for the Cardinals, but the team's defensive assets lie elsewhere. The infield corners are very good; look for Pujols to win his first Gold Glove this year, and Yadier Molina really does alter the running game completely, although that's of limited utility against the station-to-station Tigers. Left-field defense might have been a big problem if Comerica Park had retained its former dimensions, but now the park is configured more like the old Tiger Stadium, deep in center field but relatively shallow in the alleys.
La Russa should remember Ken Macha's fate, because for all the warm fuzzies that Suppan and Molina's heroics generated on Thursday night, he could still be managing for his job. A competitive performance by the Cardinals should buy him some more time under Walt Jocketty, but if the Tigers win in four games or five, the stench of failure could be too much for Jocketty to ignore, especially after the Cardinals' shaky regular-season performance. Beyond that, there's the mutual passive-aggressiveness between La Russa and Scott Rolen, and the general feeling that the PETA-supporting La Russa is a little too blue for the red-state Cardinals. We're getting a little ahead of ourselves, of course, but one suspects that the underlying dynamics might further augment La Russa's compulsion to over-managing, which could translate to something silly like Taguchi making an unexpected start in left field.
As far as Jim Leyland goes, I'm willing to give him a mulligan until we have more than one season's worth of results to look at. He pretty clearly makes some technical mistakes, like the resistance to using Zumaya as the closer, or hitting Perez toward the front of the lineup. But the more important function of the manager is to get the best performance that he can out of each man on his roster, and on that front Leyland scores well. Part of that might be psychological--Leyland pretty clearly has his fire back after being after his burnout in Colorado, whereas the Tigers had suffered under the leadership of a never-ending string of ex-jocks who seemed all too complacent with the team going 70-92 (or much worse) every year. It's also a matter of Leyland not asking his players to do what they aren't capable of doing. Granderson isn't asked to steal bases, in spite of being the leadoff hitter; Jones isn't asked to strike people out, in spite of being the closer. One suspects it's this same tendency to that makes Leyland extremely reluctant to use his defensive players out of position. There are days when the Tigers' lineup would probably have been better off with Marcus Thames playing at first base, or something of that nature, but Leyland plays to win the war rather than the battle.
The Tigers are pretty clearly the superior team, with no one area of particular dominance but small edges across the board, with the mostly trivial exception of the bench. My hunch, however, is that this will be a competitive series, with the Cardinals getting a good performance out of Reyes in Game One and winning Carpenter's start in St. Louis. We'll take the Tigers in six, but if the series goes the distance, setting up a probable Carpenter/Robertson pitching matchup that represents the least favorable permutation for the Tigers, we could see an upset.