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October 21, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Series

by Joe Sheehan

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Nate Silver broke down the Tigers/Cardinals matchup in detail, so here's some disconnected thoughts just hours before the World Series begins.

  • Both of these teams, above-average defensively during the regular season, have allowed unnaturally low batting averages on balls in play in the postseason. The Cards beat the Mets because they gave up just a .242 number in the series, and they're at .263 in October. The Tigers are also at .263 this month. During the regular season, the two were at .296 and .288, respectively.

    The fantastic defense, or if you prefer, pitching and defense, is the biggest reason why these two teams are in the World Series. Each shut down two good offensive teams, and each beat the best lineup in its league, to get here. With that said, those figures are likely to climb a bit, regress towards the established level of ability, over the next week. For that reason, we may see a few more runs in this series than is expected.

  • You could argue that the best defensive player on each team is the catcher. Both Ivan Rodriguez and Yadier Molina destroy the running game with quick releases and powerful arms. The Tigers led the AL in fewest steals against, fewest attempts against, and best caught-stealing percentage. The Cards were second in the NL in the first two categories and third in the other. You can't run.

    What makes this funny is that this particular skill is essentially a wasted strength in this matchup. The Tigers stole just 60 bases at a 60% clip this year, the worst percentage in the AL. They don't run often, and the only even moderate threats to go are Carlos Guillen (20/9 SB/CS) and Curtis Granderson (8/5). The only Cardinal to crack double digits in steals was reserve outfielder So Taguchi, with 11. As a team, the Cards were 59/32, tied for 14th in the league in attempts and success rate, all alone in that slot in stolen bases.

    When you combine great throwing catchers with teams that don't run well or often, you'll get one of two things: a lack of attempts, or an awful lot of wasted outs. The manager that doesn't force the issue here is going to have an advantage.

  • In the immediate aftermath of the NLCS, I was in favor of starting Jeff Weaver and Chris Carpenter on short rest in the first two games of the World Series. The more I think about it, the more I like the decision to go with Anthony Reyes in Game One. Preferring Weaver on short rest to Reyes is an overreaction to the most recent information. I called Reyes' the Cards' second-best starter six weeks ago, and while Jeff Suppan has laid claim to that title, Reyes is a good, mid-rotation starter with the stuff to keep the Cardinals in a game. As has been pointed out, he hides the ball in a manner that may make it hard for a team unfamiliar with him to hit him hard. If he can get through the Tigers' lineup twice, he'll have done his job.

  • While the Cardinals are the worst of the three teams the Tigers have faced this postseason, they match up fairly well with them, especially their pitching. The Tigers like fastballs, and the Cards' pitchers work primarily with their offspeed stuff. Even their top relievers, Adam Wainwright and Josh Kinney, use a curve as their best pitch.

  • Despite playing two of the most disciplined teams in the American League, the Tigers' pitchers have been very efficient in the postseason, averaging 15.3 pitches per inning. The combination of not allowing hits on balls in play, and not allowing a lot of walks to two teams for whom bases on balls are a big part of the offense, is why they gave up just 23 runs in taking out the Yankees and A's.

    The Cardinals aren't as walk-happy as the Tigers' first two opponents, but the approach the Tigers; pitchers have established-get ahead in the count, pitch to contract, force short at-bats, let the defense work, keep the game moving-will be just as successful against them. It will also keep the back end of the Tigers' bullpen out of games, allowing them to go from the starters directly to Joel Zumaya and the quietly effective Jamie Walker.

  • If history is a guide, the Tigers' edge in rest days isn't likely to be a factor in this series. Since 1985, when the League Championship Series grew to a best-of-seven, six teams have won their LCS in at least two fewer games than their World Series opponent. Those teams are 4-2 in the World Series. Teams that sweep the LCS-just three, the 1995 Braves and the 1988 and 1990 A's-are just 1-2 in the subsequent World Series.

    If you want more evidence that rest may not mean much, consider that it was just a year ago that the Angels had to fly twice in 30 hours, going from New York to Anaheim, winning a Game Five and then going to Chicago to open the ALCS. Behind a terrific start by Paul Byrd-basically the only option the Angels had-they beat the White Sox 3-2. If Anthony Reyes throws two shutout innings to start the game and Albert Pujols pops a solo homer, no one is going to remember the gap in days off.

We've had six postseason series this year, and I've been wrong about every one of them. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in that, but that doesn't make me feel any better.

I'm comfortable with all the picks I made aside from the Tigers/A's call. As with the White Sox last season and the Marlins in 2003, a team whose signature strength is run prevention has done an excellent job of shutting down its opponents in a short period of time. I'm not going to use any buzzwords to explain my misses; I definitely misjudged the Tigers, and probably the Dodgers in the other direction.

The Tigers are the obvious choice in the World Series. They had a better record and much better indicators in the regular season than the Cardinals did, while playing in a better league and in a tough division in that league. They've looked much better this month, shutting down two teams better than the Cardinals to get to the World Series. They're basically healthy-losing Sean Casey doesn't mean much, although Zumaya's forearm/wrist issue is a concern-and coming with a rested staff and a set rotation.

I'm just not convinced any of that matters. Winning postseason series doesn't seem to have a whole lot of connection to any factors we can identify. Even the Secret Sauce was less than tasty this October. The two teams in the World Series are the ones who played the best over the past three weeks, but I don't think that's predictive in any way. Either of these teams can take four of seven from the other.

The Cardinals have the best player and the best pitcher in the Series. They have a bullpen with a variety of looks and a lot of depth. As recently as early September, many people would have considered them the second-best team in the National League, while the same accounting would have relegated the Tigers to the second tier of teams in the AL.

Eight games shouldn't change all that. These teams are much more closely matched than the most recent results would indicate, and I think that's going to become clear this weekend. The Cardinals take one of the first two, on their way to winning the World Series in seven.

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

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