How the Cardinals Shocked the World* and Won the World Series

(*or at least the Metro St. Louis Area).

Mike and Maria Schneider are an L.A. couple who run a blog called Franklin Avenue, which is more or less a cultural guide for local Grups. Over the past year Mike and Maria have been asking their infant son Evan to pick the winners in various political races and sporting events. Their method is simple—they just lay out two paper plates before him, write the names of various choices on each plate, and ask him to choose one, seemingly at random.

Weirdly enough, Evan has proven to be some sorta pocket-sized Nostradamus. He picked the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, Crash to win Best Picture, Florida to win the NCAA hoops tournament, and overall went undefeated, at 9-0, before the start of the 2006 World Series. That’s when baby Evan pondered two paper plates laid before him and chose the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first world title in 24 years (you can see the video here). Considering the odds stacked against St. Louis, it was a risky move.

Turns out the kid knew more than all of us—more than me, more than Vegas, more than just about any pundit or analyst or expert you can name.

How did this happen?

After all, the Cardinals were nobody’s idea of a great team. They won but 83 games in the regular season. They had three losing streaks of seven or more games. They had a worse record than the Pirates—the Pirates!—after the All-Star break. And they barely outlasted a so-so Astros team to limp across the finish line in the worst division in baseball. In fact, I know more than one Cardinals fan who was openly rooting for their team to lose the division so that it would expose a few roster flaws and encourage more aggressive rebuilding from the team brass.

Even a couple of weeks ago, when it became clear the Cardinals were playing superlative October baseball, there were doubters on all sides. A World Series promo ran on Fox during Game 7 of the NLCS, and it featured film clips of four National League players: Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, and David Wright. Not a Pujols or a Cardinal in sight. Around that same time a group of American Idol contestants sang versions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” with a scoreboard backdrop featuring the Detroit Tigers vs. the New York Mets. And of course, even after the Cards won a nail-biter in the Big Apple, USA Today had a Dewey-Defeats-Truman moment when they predicted, rather famously, “Tigers in 3.

And yet the St. Louis Cardinals are the champions of the world.

Again: how did this happen?

Winning Ugly

This should have been a great Series. You had two classic franchises who had hooked up in October twice before, both teams a study in contrasts. Consider the differences:

  • The Tigers had no superstars to speak of, but their talent was extremely broad-based, with no holes whatsoever. The Cards, on the other hand, had the game’s best player (Albert Pujols) and perhaps the league’s best pitcher (Chris Carpenter), and yet they were full of weaknesses up and down the roster.
  • The Tigers also had some of the hardest throwers of any pitching staff in history, including triple-digit gas from both Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. The Cards, who finished near the bottom of the league in team strikeouts, went more with fluffball artists.
  • Perhaps most strikingly of all, the Tigers have been a floundering franchise for years, setting a league record for losses in 2003 before bursting like a pop-up book into 2006 American League champions. On the flip side, the Cardinals were used to the postseason—before Friday night they’d played in more playoff games than any team of the wild-card era without a world title.

So this should have been a true Fall Classic, featuring teams with wildly clashing backgrounds and playing styles. Instead, the Series was kind of a dud. Not for me personally—I’m a huge Cardinals fan, so I had the time of my life—but objectively speaking, it wasn’t exactly a repeat of ’86 or ’75 or ’91. There was incredibly sloppy play, the depressing controversy surrounding Kenny Rogers‘ sticky hands, two teams who were perceived as mediocrities, dismal ratings, a rainout, mental errors galore, and it was all over in five games. After Game 4, Jim Rome declared it the worst World Series ever. Come to think of it, maybe most people were glad it was over in five games.

Think of it this way … Pretty much every World Series can be distilled into one signature moment—2001: Gonzo’s nubber floating past Jeter’s outstretched glove; 1993: Joe Carter leaping around the bases; 1988: Kirk Gibson hobbling past a stunned Dennis Eckersley. So what was the signature moment of this World Series? Probably Curtis Granderson somersaulting out on the wet outfield grass, which set the stage for a Cardinals rally in the late innings of Game 4. Pretty it was not.

In fact, nearly all the memorable moments from this Series were more eye-rolling than eye-popping: not just Granderson’s gaffe, but Brandon Inge blocking Scott Rolen, Verlander throwing it away, Zumaya throwing it away, Rodney throwing it away, Verlander throwing it away again, Inge getting picked off second, Monroe’s bad route on Eckstein’s game-winning double, etc.

As a Cardinals fan, I reacted to all this largesse with a weird mix of elation and shame, the same way you’d feel if a casual friend gave you a Rolex for Christmas—”No, really, this is very kind, but I can’t accept it …” After all, I really like the Tigers. Who doesn’t? They’ve got a great backstory, a stand-up manager in Jim Leyland, perhaps the most underrated player in baseball in Carlos Guillen, and a bunch of self-deprecating guys who owned up to their miscues throughout the series. I mean, sure, I could do without Kenny Rogers—not just for his cheating, but for his Pascual Perez antics on the mound—but otherwise they’re a thoroughly likable bunch. So it never gave me unadulterated joy to see them play so poorly.

However, I think it would be a mistake to say that the Tigers merely gave away the World Series. Yes, they were fundamentally inept (Mark Mulder had an interesting observation about all the pitching errors—none of their hurlers were using their legs and hips to push off on their throws; they were all winging it, tentatively). But it wasn’t just a passive deal. The Cardinals consistently put themselves in a position to exploit all those blunders. Note that all eight of Detroit’s errors in this series occurred with runners on base. More than that, they occurred, for the most part, because there were runners on base. And St. Louis put a lot more runners on base than Detroit did—24 extra-base runners in their four wins.

On the offensive side of things, this was the biggest difference between the two teams. The Cardinals never really did solve the problem of their Swiss Cheese lineup (Dan Patrick joked that Preston Wilson struck out four times on Wednesday night, which was, of course, a rainout); Albert Pujols had an off series; and collectively the team hit only .228. But they took a number of tenacious at bats, wearing out Detroit pitchers and out-walking the other team 23 to eight. The Tigers, despite a couple of rare instances (Games 1 and 4 of the ALCS come to mind), were virtually incapable of grinding it out like that. As Joe Sheehan put it:

[T]he 2006 Tigers were one of the most one-dimensional teams you could find—they don’t run, they don’t draw walks, and they don’t have great average or doubles hitters. They hit home runs, that’s all they did, and when they stopped hitting them, their season ended in short order. Even the 2005 White Sox had some speed; these Tigers had none. Where’s the hue and cry over their one-dimensional offense and how it failed them in the postseason?

So yeah, those errors sure do stand out, but it would be wrong to say they just materialized randomly out of thin air—they were the byproduct of a much more patient, much more fundamentally sound approach by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Flukes and Rebukes

Larry Borowsky, who runs the terrific baseblog Viva El Birdos, had an interesting article in Slate last week, subtitled “Why is everyone so annoyed that St. Louis is in the World Series?” He points out that in playoff tournaments of other sports, Cinderella teams are generally embraced. Think of, say, George Mason’s exhilarating run during this year’s March Madness. Or Patriots over the Rams in the Super Bowl. But in baseball, says Borowsky, fans don’t much care for Johnny Come Latelys. Baseball honors consistency, dailiness, endurance, the long slog of a 162-game season. (That’s the biggest reason Cal Ripken is one of the game’s most revered players.) Our relationship to baseball is much like a marriage, and we certainly don’t like autumn flings. It’s no surprise, then, that many fans were revolted by the Cardinals’ world championship, as if a wedding crasher had stolen off with the bride.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that the Cards won only 83 games, and if they played in the AL East or AL Central they probably would have finished no better than 4th. Nevertheless, I don’t think that cheapens their title much, and I don’t think there’s any reason to get too bent out of shape about it. Three reasons why:

1. The Cardinals team that won the World Series was better than its regular-season record.

When Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein were assembling their list of baseball’s dynasties, they reminded us to consider teams over a two- or three-year period. It’s important, they write, that a team be something more than a one-year wonder. Well, the core of the world-champion Cardinals is virtually unchanged from the team that won 105 games in 2004 and 100 games 2005, and overall the franchise averaged 96 wins over the past three years. As much as it’s fair to say that the 2006 Cards overachieved in the postseason, it’s also fair to say that they underachieved during the regular season.

What’s more, the team the Cardinals put on the field in October was not the same team that stumbled its way through the dog days of the NL Central. Consider that half of the Cards’ regular-season rotation—Mulder, Jason Marquis, and Sidney Ponson, none of whom even made the World Series roster—combined to allow 5.49 runs per game over 63 starts. The remaining Cardinals starters (essentially Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, Anthony Reyes, and Jeff Weaver) gave up only 4.20 runs per game over 98 starts.

You can do a little math to figure out just how huge a difference this made. Overall the Cardinals scored 781 runs and allowed 762, for a Pythagorean mark of 82-79 (which pretty much mirrored their actual record). Now remove the chaff of Mulder/Marquis/Ponson from the rotation, prorate the remaining runs allowed over 161 games (which is how many games the Cards played this year), plug them into the Pythagorean formula, and you come up with a much improved team: 91-71, a considerable nine-game upgrade.

Or as Neyer points out, the combined ERA of the Cardinals’ four postseason starters—Carpenter, Weaver, Suppan, Reyes—was 4.02 during the regular season, good enough for second in the National League. Of course, there’s a little sleight of hand going on—every team would improve if they could drop their 5th best starter—but you get the idea: the Cardinals team that took on the Padres, Mets, and Tigers were much better at run prevention than anyone realized going into the postseason.

The upgrades don’t stop with the rotation. The Cards bullpen was extremely young, and it took them several months to find themselves. But by the time October rolled around, they started to click. Joe Sheehan observed that the four rookie relievers for St. Louis (Josh Kinney, Randy Flores, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Johnson) pitched 29 innings in October, allowing only one run on 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that was better than 4-to-1.

And of course the guy getting the highest leveraged innings was not Jason Isringhausen, who blew 10 saves and finished 70th in the league in Adjusted Runs Prevented, but Adam Wainwright, who finished 12th. Again, these enhancements on the mound were much more indicative of a 90-95 win team than they were a team flirting with .500.

The comparison with the 2004 Cardinals is instructive. That year Scott Rolen found himself injured and tired at the end of the year (whereas this year he refound his stroke in time for the World Series), Carpenter was injured (unlike this year, where he pitched well deep into the season), and the Cards had a dependable pitching staff that could toy with teams like the Pirates and the Brewers, but couldn’t overpower top-notch offenses in the postseason. None of those factors applied to the 2006 Cardinals. They weren’t mere flashes in the pan; rather, they used superior depth (i.e., swapping out Mulder for Jeff Weaver) to endure over the long haul.

So yes, baseball is a marriage, a long slog, but that’s precisely why you have to honor the Cardinals team that stepped up so gracefully in October. You cannot simultaneously extol the virtues of the marathon season, and then not reward teams for improvising on the fly, for enduring the longest, for having the durability to withstand fatigue and injury, and for pacing themselves so that they’re at their strongest when it matters most. Unlike, say, college football, where one bad Saturday in September can doom your national title hopes, baseball gives you several months to discover your stride, which is exactly how this Cardinals team succeeded.

2. The Cardinals’ success in October was unexpected, perhaps even unrepeatable, but it would be wrong to call it luck.

In last week’s SI, Tom Verducci wrote:

The World Series of the wild-card era is the pull of a slot-machine lever, a game of chance ignorant of form. Regularly populated now with second-place clubs or flavor-of-the-month teams more than dominant regular-season franchises, the Series is where unpredictability, not greatness, reigns.

Let’s leave aside the fact that this is the same Tom Verducci who wrote the year’s most ridiculous sports article, the one that defined Alex Rodriguez’s greatness solely in terms of his performance in crunch time. Postseason success really can seem like a game of roulette. Consider this wild stat unearthed by Rich Lederer: the team with the inferior record has now won 3-of-the-last-4, 6-of-the-last-8, 10-of-the-last-14, and 21-of-the-last-37 World Series. At first glance it sure looks like dumb luck.

But Aaron Schatz, who runs the brilliant site Football Outsiders, makes a pertinent point about luck on the playing field:

At Football Outsiders I like to use the term “non-predictive events” to describe things like successful onside kicks that aren’t really “luck” per se but don’t indicate that the team will win more games in the future. I would think that some of the things termed “luck” in baseball would fall into that same category—it isn’t that they don’t take talent and/or quick thinking, but rather that they only explain the past and do nothing to help you figure out the future. A triple play, for example—I assume that [Baseball Prospectus’] stats account for double plays but don’t even consider triple plays, even though clearly they do require skill. And A.J. Pierzynski’s little stunt against the Angels last year certainly required quick thinking but wasn’t really an indicator that Pierzynski was going to be reaching base on phantom dropped third strikes on a regular basis.

The same applied to this past postseason. You can look at all those wild throws by Detroit’s pitchers and say that they’re non-predictive of future value—after all, we’re not going to see something like that from those pitchers ever again. Or you can look at So Taguchi‘s home run off of Billy Wagner in the NLCS and say it was a fluke that tells us nothing about So’s ability to go yard one week or one year from now. But that doesn’t mean it was luck.

At a particular time, in a particular place, Taguchi fouled off several pitches to work the count, read Wagner’s pitch selection, got a good, efficient swing on a flat fastball, and hit it out of the park. If you replay this scenario over and over and plot it out on a graph—which of course you might do if you were projecting value going forward for Taguchi or Wagner—you’d discover that this same outcome is extremely rare. But that’s a far cry from saying that it didn’t take actual skill.

3. Our current system is the best we have for determining the world champion.

Like Churchill’s quote about democracy, baseball’s current playoff system is the worst that’s been devised, except for all the others. After all, even in the olden days, when only two teams made the postseason, there were huge upsets in the World Series. In 1906 the team with the best winning percentage of all time was wiped out by a team with 23 fewer wins. In 1960 the Yankees scored more than twice as many runs as the Pirates in the World Series, yet still fell short. So these so-called flukes have been with us for awhile.

There are, of course, more postseason surprises these days, what with eight teams making the brackets every year. This might be a good thing. (You could even make an argument that the current system—which has seen seven different franchises win a world championship over the last seven years—is a useful way to correct some of the market-size imbalances that persist during the regular season). But even to the extent it makes you uncomfortable, it’s difficult to conceive a better system. Would a nine-game series help us any more? Or a 19-game series? Of course not. At some point you have to leave aside a team’s theoretical value (or, to put it philosophically, their Platonic value) and see how its skills and talent play out in the actual world, on the field of play.

People said after each of the Cardinals playoff series that the other team was “better”—the Padres were “better,” the Mets were “better,” the Tigers were “better.” But “better” in what sense? I mean, sure, each of those teams would perform better than the Cardinals if you took their constituent parts, assessed their contributions in terms of runs produced and runs allowed, filtered out all randomness from balls in play and park effects and the like, plugged them into a Markov-modeled game simulator, and played a million games to determine the best team. But what kind of game is that? It’s certainly not anything that resembles actual baseball.

Am I defensive about this? As a Cardinals fan, I probably am, and I hope I’m not coming across like one of those dreaded respect mongers—you know, those chat-room whiners who demand national recognition for this or that favorite player or team. But until this year, the Cardinals made it to the postseason five times in this decade. All five times they were knocked out by a team with a worse record. Did anyone complain about that back then? Did anyone take away, say, the Astros’ victory in the 2005 NLCS, even though the Cards won the division by 11-games and thumped the Astros head to head, 11-5, in regular season? Of course not. Because there was an understanding that games are ultimately won by actual people making actual choices on an actual field, and the Astros fully deserved their title.

During Game 1 of the World Series, baseball writer Neil deMause emailed his friend Derek Jacques and said:

You know, it’s games like these that make me realize what a sham the World Series is. Nothing that’s happened tonight indicates that Anthony Reyes is a better pitcher than Justin Verlander, let alone that the Cardinals are better than the Tigers. It’s exciting and all, but you might as well decide the MLB champion on penalty kicks.

From this I can only conclude that deMause is opposed to the whole idea of a postseason. Of course Verlander has better stuff than Reyes, and if you were a scout drafting players for next season, you’d take Verlander over Reyes every day of the week. But in a particular place and time, when it mattered most, Reyes made better pitches than Verlander. That’s not luck. That’s skill.

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching

There were two giant questions about the Cardinals coming into the World Series. The first was: Can they get production from their lineup outside of Pujols? That was answered affirmatively from Scott Rolen early in Game 1. Tiger pitchers came up and in with fastballs in Rolen’s first three times up, and by the time he wheeled on them for a homer and a double it became clear that the Cards were no longer a one-man wrecking crew. (I know people love that Scrappy Doo feistiness from Eckstein, but with the way he abused the left field corner in all five games, Rolen would’ve been my pick for Series MVP. For a guy who came into the series with one of the worst postseasons résumés of all time—0-for-12 vs. the Dodgers in ’04; 0-for-15 vs. the Red Sox the same year; 1-for-11 vs. the Padres in ’06—his series was an act of redemption almost on par with Jeff Weaver’s.)

The other big question for the Cards: Were their pitchers for real? Could Weaver and Suppan and the young arms out of their pen duplicate the success they had against San Diego and New York?

The numbers are pretty definitive—a 2.05 team ERA against the Tigers. But where did that come from? Was it a result of good pitching by the Cardinals, or bad hitting by the Tigers? Any time a team’s ERA is that low it’s probably a bit of both. And there’s plenty of evidence of hackery from the Tigers’ lineup. They saw only 13 pitches per inning throughout the five games!

But I’m not so sure the Cards hurlers don’t also deserve a ton of credit. After all, as ESPN’s Inside Edge noted after Game 4, Detroit’s hitters were taking a lot of first pitches. As a group they saw 57 first pitches in the strike zone and took 39 of them for strike one. That’s even greater patience than they showed in the regular season. The problem was the strikes themselves. When the Tigers connected on the first pitch, they were 7-for-15, a .467 batting average. But when they took the first pitch and fell behind 0-1, their OPS was a minuscule .340. So it would be easy to say that the Tigers should have been more patient and taken more pitches, but the Cards repeatedly made them pay for this by keeping the ball in the zone.

All series long Cardinals pitchers walked a fine line between coming right at ‘em and keeping the ball off the heart of the plate, and they worked this tension like a drum. Chalk up much of this to superlative advance scouting. “We went back and forth with our game plan,” said Chris Carpenter. “We started off by trying to throw a lot of balls inside, and when they adjusted to that, we started moving stuff off the plate. It worked out, going back and forth.” Or as Granderson put it during the Series: “They know our weaknesses and they’re coming right at them.”

The Cards pitchers knew you could fool Granderson with curveballs, and exploited that in a way the Yankees and A’s did not. Once they made mistakes by challenging Monroe with fastballs (he homered in Games 1 and 2), the Cards staff crossed him up by pounding him with sliders. In Game 1 the Tigers game-planned for a parade of changeups from Anthony Reyes. Instead he threw a first-pitch fastball to every single batter he faced. Of the 24 outs he recorded, 21 were on fastballs.

Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, like Leo Mazzone, is one of the more stubborn pitching coaches around, a big proponent off working the corners and keeping the ball off the heart of the plate. This approach failed miserably against the Red Sox in ’04, because the Red Sox were too patient to give into a staff that picked and nibbled. But against a jumpy lineup like the Tigers, it worked out beautifully.

Snapshots

There’s a moment in the movie Diner, when the character played by Daniel Stern (back when he could act) rails at his wife Beth for getting his record collection out of order. He pulls out an old single and demands that she quiz him about the date, the artist, the label, the B-side. She says, “Who cares what’s on the flip side of a record?”

“I do!” he explodes. “Every one of my records means something! The label, the producer, the year it was made. Who was copying whose style, who’s expanding on that—don’t you understand? When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, okay? … You—the first time I met you? Modell’s sister’s high school graduation party, right? 1955. And ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ was playing when I walked into the door.”

When I try to explain my passion for baseball to someone, I frequently think of that scene. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the games for what they are, but they’re more than just games. They’re portholes into my past, my memories, my shared experiences with loved ones. In 2004 the Cards got steamrolled by the Red Sox in the World Series, but my most enduring memory from that October wasn’t anything that happened on the field—it was taking a flight home after Game 4 and returning to an empty apartment I had shared with my ex-girlfriend, and in my mind that emptiness has become a kind of metaphor for that Series (or vice versa).

In 1985 the Cardinals lost the World Series in part because of a botched call at first base, and somehow the image of that moment, with Todd Worrell stepping awkwardly on first base, gets muddled up with my memories of life at age 15, when I felt out of place and gawky and started learning for the first time, “Life doesn’t turn out so great,” or, “Aint’ that a shame.”

When I look back on this World Series I’m sure I’ll hold onto a few key images—Eckstein’s double caroming off the tip of Monroe’s glove, Rolen legging a single into a double in Game 4, Pujols sprawling out to save a leadoff hit in Game 5, Wainwright lowering the hammer on Brandon Inge to end the series, the look on Inge’s face afterwards (which disturbingly reminded me of Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot), and Jeff Weaver tearfully hugging his little brother in the celebration.

But above all these I’ll remember my own little brother racing over to my house—he had to work late—and making it just in time to catch the final out. It was a glorious moment, with a whole bunch of us in my living room, friends, family members, losing ourselves in a scrum of rapturous glee. I’m not sure the Cards will be back in the Series anytime soon, and I suspect the comedown from their victory might eventually result in some form of postpartum depression, but that instant in my living room will still be enough to keep me warm these next few months, if not for the rest of my life.

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