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October 11, 2000
New York Mets vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Mets weren't supposed to get past the Giants, and everyone sort of had the Braves set as the default option to always keep the western world safe from a subway series. Praise be to the power of the unexpected, as two teams built to win this year managed to upset the favorites and tackle each other in the NLCS.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)
(Ed. Note: For players who played for multiple teams, their EqA only reflects their performance with their current team.)
2B Fernando Vina (.300/.380/.398/.265)
RF Timo Perez (.286/.333/.369/.270)
On a certain level, the Cardinals' numbers listed above don't mean anything, in that the Cards can count of seeing a left-handed starter in four, possibly five of the seven games. For a team that went 16-28 against lefties this year, that's a critical disadvantage, even when Tony LaRussa doesn't have Mark McGwire's .830 slugging percentage against lefties available in the starting lineup. To make matters worse, LaRussa refuses to let Fernando Tatis play, and considering Tatis hit .261/.393/.602 against lefties, they need to get him in the lineup in one of the infield corners. There's also the LaRussian misfortune of letting Ray Lankford play against lefties after his feeble .135/.286/.284 performance against them this year. Lankford's only the best example of the Cardinals at their worst: Will Clark only hit .248/.344/.372 against them, and J.D. Drew goes from .295/.401/.479 overall to .257/.345/.297 (with no homeruns) against portsiders. Even Jim Edmonds drops from a MVP candidate to a good hitter, and he's had years in the past where's disappeared against lefties. Eric Davis is probably the critical player for the Cardinals in the series: if he can do a convincing impersonation of the great hitter with the world's quickest wrists that he was ten years ago, he'll do the Cardinals a world of good.
The Cardinals aren't a fast team or one loaded with bat control mavens, so they aren't well suited to manufacture a run here or there, even if Mike Piazza's arm is a limp noodle at this point of the season. Runs will be at a premium for the Cardinals during the series.
The Mets offense is... well, sort of a rough sketch of an offense, where Bobby Valentine isn't locked into batting anyone in any particular slot, and where he isn't afraid to start or use anybody. The Mets offense isn't significantly worse than the Cardinals overall, and considering the platoon advantages that the Mets will have over the Cards during most of the series, it's actually a better offense inside the short series. Edgardo Alfonzo is the best hitter on either team, and while Mike Piazza is scuffling, he's still available for more than an at-bat per game. Robin Ventura seems to be hitting more like himself lately, while Todd Zeile seems to have fallen from favor after a rough first series.
The Mets' strengths are that everyone's available, they don't have the same kinds of team-wide platoon weaknesses, and Bobby Valentine isn't going to waste outs on running or creating runs; he's no Dusty Baker. His lineup is slightly more balanced, where the worst hitter is Jay Payton. That's not a bad thing, although Payton has problems against right-handed pitchers, so he deserves to sit against someone like Darryl Kile. With Valentine calling the shots, he just might.
PH Mark McGwire (.305/.483/.746/.379)
C Todd Pratt (.275/.378/.463/.290)
The Cardinals bench is stocked with three of the best hitters on the team, which on a transparent level makes the Cardinals appear to have a strong bench. While Mark McGwire clearly can't play the field, you really need to ask why Tatis has to sit behind Placido Polanco or why J.D. Drew is being treated as the junior partner in the three-man rotation in the corner outfield slots, but the regular lineup's weakness translates into a bench filled with useful weapons. Now we have to wonder whether or not Tony LaRussa will use them to advantage, or whether America will get treated to more/too much of Craig Paquette or Shawon Dunston in prime time. While much has been made about how LaRussa has the world's best pinch-hitter, unless the bases are loaded or the score is out of control, we can expect McGwire to be the world's best walk, intentional or (wink wink nudge nudge) unintentional. In Eli Marrero, the Cardinals have a catcher every bit as effective as Carlos Hernandez, so LaRussa should take advantage of using his pinch-hitters in any key situation. In part, he sets up his lineup to do that by batting Hernandez seventh, thereby hoping to avoid an intentional walk to set up the pitcher's slot and having to use another pinch-hitter.
Bobby Valentine has a bench which plays to the free-wheeling approach he takes with who bats and how often among his outfielders. If the Mets reach the World Series, they've got a pretty solid DH in Bubba Trammell, and Darryl Hamilton is a fine alternative to Payton in center. There is an obvious problem in-series if anything happened to one of the starting infielders, because neither Joe McEwing or Kurt Abbott bring much to the table offensively or defensively. One position where the Mets do not have to worry is catcher; while Todd Pratt may not be Piazza, he'd be starting for the Cardinals (or the Mariners for that matter). The dilemma for Valentine is how to take advantage of Pratt's hitting without leaving himself without a backup catcher. At least notionally, Todd Zeile could catch in an emergency, but overall, it probably means Pratt will have to while away his time on the bench.
Rotations (Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement, ERA)
Darryl Kile (3.91, 4.0)
Mike Hampton (3.14, 4.2)
I'm falling in with the party line here by using SNWAR, but I don't think we get the full story of the teams without considering Michael Wolverton's Support Neutral Value Added: the Cardinals end up with 4.1 total points (Kile and Rick Ankiel at two apiece, Andy Benes adding .1 point, and Pat Hentgen contributing no points), while the Mets total 6.5 if they use Glendon Rusch in game four (Mike Hampton has 2.3, Al Leiter 2.2, Rick Reed 0.9 and Rusch 1.1). Even leaving aside the platoon advantage that the Mets will get using Hampton and Leiter, this is a convoluted way of saying that the Mets have a serious advantage as far as the men they'll be asking to start three games as opposed to the pair of starts the Cardinals will get from Andy Benes and Pat Hentgen. However, the series isn't going to be a linear set of matchups, as LaRussa's intention is to have Darryl Kile start three games, and while we have some good example of guys tossing three games in a series where it worked out (Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series comes to mind), there are examples where it did not (Dave Stieb in the 1985 ALCS). It's a risk, which means LaRussa could look like a genius if he gets a Game Four Kile versus Jones matchup, followed up by a Game Seven Kile-Reed matchup.
For the Mets, the critical decision is whether or not they choose to reward Bobby Jones for his brilliant game against the Giants, or whether Valentine instead elects to play to the Cardinals' platoon weaknesses and start Rusch. If I'm the Mets, I go for the kill and start Rusch, but perhaps even Valentine will be unable to resist the pressure to start Jones after his one-hitter. I already expect the Cardinals to score early and often off of Rick Reed (Ray Lankford owns him, let alone the rest of the ripple as far as unleashing the Cardinals' lefty bats), and getting to face Jones may present the Cardinals with an excellent opportunity to even the series.
Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)
Dave Veres (2.85, 15.6)
Armando Benitez (2.61, 13.4)
While anybody can have a good relief outing here or there, this is a completely one-sided Mets advantage. Dave Veres is a good reliever relegated to closing, and stuck without a lot of useful middle relief support. Jason Christiansen is the lone lefty to bring in to try to get Robin Ventura, and given Christiansen's inconsistency, it's not a matchup that should have Valentine worrying. Mike Timlin was Walt Jocketty's other ex-famous reliever acquisition, and he has not been an asset. The one element of the pen where the Cardinals can expect a boost is with Britt Reames, who gives them a long man capable of a good three- or four-inning stint in case a starter has to leave early. If Matt Morris was able to pitch multi-inning outings, he'd make a big difference.
The Mets have five quality relievers, none of whom really need to be pigeonholed into situational usage patterns. While Cook is coming off of a bad year, he's been much more effective lately. It's a managerial godsend to really only have to worry about pitching changes on the basis of when the pitcher's slot in the lineup comes up.
Both teams have obvious defensive strengths, which hints towards a tight series. The Cardinals are extremely strong up the middle. Jim Edmonds gets plenty of attention, but the Vina-Renteria combo on the deuce is a bonus for the Cardinals' starters. J.D. Drew will provide good range and a good arm wherever he's employed. While much has been made of Mike Matheny's absence, having Hernandez catch will make very little difference in terms of controlling the running game. First off, the Mets don't really have one, and second, one of LaRussa's pet projects has been to kill opposition running over the last couple of years, starting with having his pitchers work on controlling the game and looking to first often enough to make Jim Deshaies blush.
This Mets team is almost the opposite of the old squads anchored by Keith Hernandez in terms of infield defense: Alfonzo and Ventura are outstanding, and Bordick is solid, while Todd Zeile will not be mistaken for a field general over at first. Piazza can't throw, and while the Giants failed to take advantage of it, I won't be surprised if the Cardinals take a few risks on the bases in the series, especially as they get more and more desperate for some runs. Mets outfield defense is a mixed bag. Agbayani and Trammell make swell DHs, while Payton covers his responsibilities in center well enough.
As far as speaking my piece, I've busily sung Valentine's praises while betraying my continued ambivalence about Tony LaRussa's skill as a manager. The Polanco starting at third thing bugs me. Having Thomas Howard on the playoff roster bugs me. I don't care how long you've talked to George Will about the theory of managing, those are gambles that make giving Darryl Kile three starts look uninspired by comparison. Keep in mind LaRussa was outmanaged by both Cito Gaston in 1992 and Bobby Cox in 1996, and whatever their strengths, neither opponent was considered a tactical wizard. I expect Valentine to outmaneuver LaRussa a few times, especially as far as defanging McGwire's potential impact. For better or for worse, Valentine will probably make sure everybody notices.
The key element of the series is LaRussa's decision to start Kile three times. The Mets have a strong advantage in pitching, and there's nothing the Cardinals can do to make their problems against left-handed pitching disappear. If Darryl Kile pitches like the guy who shut down the Mets in September and wins the NLCS MVP, the Cardinals could pull it off. Sometimes, one guy having the series of his life makes all the difference, but it's hard to count on as opposed to speculate about. If the series is six games of fewer, the Mets will have won. If it reaches the seventh game, all bets are off. In a reenactment of the desperate quest to avoid having to lose Mike Scott in Game Seven of the 1986 NLCS, I'm picking the Mets in six.
Chris Kahrl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.