Postseason Postmortem

Every region of the country seems to have its own insecurity. For example, my friend Caitlin is from Mississippi. She has an extremely sharp mind and an extremely thick Southern accent – but no matter where she travels in this country, she runs into people who assume that the latter negates the possibility of the former. And so this prejudice breeds an insecurity among Southerners that the rest of the world sees them as stupid and uneducated.

I live in Los Angeles, and invariably when I meet people actually born and raised in Southern California (a rarity given all the transplants out here), they quickly apologize for their roots, explaining that they’re not as shallow or air-headed as everyone perceives them.

In the Midwest, the great fear is not that we’re dumb or shallow – it’s that we’re negligible. The forgotten. The flyovers. You often see this stereotype in movies. Whenever a screenwriter wants give you a quick shorthand for Nowheresville, he’ll usually set things in Missouri, or Kansas, or Nebraska. This is why, when Something Big comes to town, St. Louisans are acutely sensitive – more so than most cities, I think – to what the rest of the world thinks of us. Will they notice us? Are we measuring up? Are we somebody?

Those were the big questions heading into this World Series. And I don’t just mean that in a regional/cultural sense. The 2004 Cardinals had been fighting an inferiority complex all year, from the Big Media types who’d written off the team in the preseason, to the naysayers who said the Cardinals had too many holes to maintain their big first-half lead, to the doubters who said the Cardinals lacked enough frontline pitching to go all the way.

So our beloved team – the one that won 105 games in the hinterlands of the NL Central – would be put to the test on the biggest stage imaginable. After all, this wasn’t some backwater skirmish like the ones they had in the 1980s (where they squared off against the hamlets of Milwaukee, Kansas City, and the Twin Cities) – this was Boston, East Coast megalopolis, educational hub of the country, darling of ESPN, trying to win their first world title in 86 years. This was Big Time.

That was the setting as of Saturday night. Five nights later it was all over, with the Cards seeming less like a powerhouse and more like a footnote, or perhaps the answer to a trivia question. And while Cardinals fans are scratching their heads, wondering how this all happened, some East Coast writers are wondering if the Series even happened at all. On Tuesday, for example, Rob Neyer wrote:

Nothing that happens in the 2004 World Series matters. Really matters, I mean … because what really matters already happened, last week when the Red Sox beat the Yankees.

And then yesterday Boston journalist Dan Shaughnessey offered this opinion on ESPN:

“Let’s face it, Red Sox-Yankees was the World Series.”

Forget for a moment how much this thinking insults the Cardinals. It unwittingly insults the Red Sox as well, by implying that they didn’t do anything to earn their victory over St. Louis – it was, after all, a foregone conclusion one week ago.

To be fair, though, this never seemed like a real World Series, if by World Series you mean a showdown between the best each league has to offer. Instead it seemed like the Red Sox were simply playing themselves, playing against their history, the way you might try to break your high score in a videogame. The end result was just terrible for baseball as a whole (the sound of one hand clapping). Or, as Joe Sheehan put it:

As much credit as you give the Red Sox for their comeback, for their pitching, for their performance, this was a lousy World Series. It was a four-game sweep with no lead changes, with three runs scored by Cardinals over last three games. That’s not good. Each of the last three games was the same: the Red Sox took an early lead, the Cardinals alternated quasi-rallies and 1-2-3 innings, had a ton of poor at-bats, and rarely mounted a credible threat… The story of the Red Sox is a powerful one, but when you evaluate this Series on its merits, you have to conclude that it was a clunker.

That’s bad news for Fox, of course, but even worse for the sport of baseball, which relies on so many would-be fans out there – the “undecideds” – to get seduced by the kinds of Fall Classics we saw in 2001, 2002, and 2003.

I can’t say this series hurt more than ’85, when the Cardinals blew a 3-games-to-1 lead and unraveled in the wake of the worst call in sports history, or even as bad as ’87, when the Cardinals had to take one of the final two games in the Goofydome to win their second championship of the ‘80s. But in some ways this series hit me on a more primordial level. It plugged into that regional shame I mentioned earlier – I couldn’t escape the sense that the Cardinals were some inconsequential nuisance, something to be passed over, ditched.

Even the other night at Busch, after the final out of the series, my brain was telling me that this was History unfolding before my eyes. I was sitting in the first row too – it was all right there – and yet it felt like it could have been taking place underwater or in a dream (or in the Twilight Zone that Flynn’s Mom was talking about). The most surreal moment of all was when I looked out and noticed, in the pile-up on the field, Mr. Jimmy Fallon celebrating with all the Red Sox players. He was hugging people, whooping it up, and then – here’s the kicker – he peeled off with his girlfriend toward second base and starting full-on making out with her as the Sox scrum shimmied nearby.

I have to say, it may have been the most FUBAR sports moment I’ve ever experienced. I flew into St. Louis to see the Cards win their first world championship in 22 years – or, failing that, to at least catch some spine-tingling games, some great duels between the two best baseball teams on planet earth. Instead I was treated to Jimmy Fallon, unfunnyman extraordinaire, with his tongue halfway down his girlfriend’s throat having his “once-in-a-lifetime moment” on our home field. Ugh. We’re gonna need round-the-clock crews of shamans, fumigators, FEMA aid workers, and witch doctors to get Busch ready for Opening Day.

* * * * * * * * * *

Quick: who had highest slugging percentage in this World Series? Would you believe me if I told you Larry Walker? He hit .357/.438/.929 for the four games and was the only guy to go yard more than once. And actually, if you squint your eyes, Renteria had a pretty good series too – hit over .300, reached base over .400, slugged over .500. Even the maligned Albert Pujols went 5-for-15 with a couple extra-base hits. My point is that some of the Cardinals showed up. It’s not like they just disappeared en masse (even though the team hitting line of .190/.261/.302 means they came pretty damn close).

But when the story of this Series is written (that is, when it’s not the story of the Red Sox and Yankees written by buffoons like Dan Shaughnessy), the undisputed goats will be Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Edmonds got only one hit all series, a bunt single. Rolen was totally whitewashed.

There’s this cool chart that Baseball Prospectus recently put up called Expected Win Matrix. Basically it shows you how your team’s chance of winning changes from situation to situation. Like if you’re batting with one out and the bases loaded and the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, your team should win 90.5% of the time. Ground into a DP and your chances of winning drop to 52.2%, meaning that double play was worth about .383 wins, on average.

If you take each of Scott Rolen’s at bats for this series, you can see that he only had one at bat out of 17 plate appearances that got St. Louis any closer to a win (when he walked with runners on first and second and no out in the bottom of the first on Tuesday). Every other AB was a negative. According to this accounting method, Rolen cost St. Louis .499 wins for the sum of his World Series at bats – half a win all by himself in only four games!

About the collapse of Edmonds and Rolen, Sheehan said:

I should have seen this coming. Earlier this month, I picked the Dodgers over Cardinals in the Division Series for just the reason the Redbirds lost to the Red Sox. I knew they could have a bad week at the plate if a couple of guys didn’t show up, and that they didn’t have the starting pitching to carry them through that kind of stretch… Without a complete, 1-9 lineup like the Red Sox have, the Cardinals would rise or fall on the bats of their lineup core. They fell.

I don’t really buy the “shoulda seen it coming” line. The implication is that the Cards rely so heavily on their four best players that if any one or two of them falls, the whole team falls.

But while that may be an apt description of the 2003 Cardinals, it does not apply to the 2004 Cardinals. Last year’s team had no starting pitching, no bullpen, and no hitting outside of Pujols/Rolen/Renteria/Edmonds (except on days when J.D. Drew was healthy). This year’s team had plenty of movable parts, better starting pitching, an infinitely better bullpen, and quite possibly a better defense. And while the Cardinals had a much shallower talent base than the Sox (the prime reason the Cardinals lost, in my opinion), that hoary cliché about a team having “plenty of ways to beat you” seemed to apply. The Cards won this year via the slugfest (31-13 in games decided by five or more runs) as well as the pitching duel (they won the most games in baseball when scoring only 1 or 2 runs). They seemed to be able to adjust their team on the fly depending on what was needed.

This series was the exact opposite. When their table-setters and their 7-8-9 hitters hit, the heart of their order did not. When Pujols did well, Walker did not. When Walker did well, Pujols did not. When the Cardinals scored 9 runs in Fenway, they gave up 11. When they held the Sox to seven runs over two games at Busch, they were virtually shut out. It was maddening. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the Cardinals lost a bunch of close games that could have gone either way. But I do think it’s striking how the team that had “plenty of ways to beat you” in the regular season found “plenty of ways to lose” in the last week of October.

* * * * * * * * * *

I don’t know a single person who ever believed in the Curse of the Bambino. In fact, my friends in New England were as sick of the “curse” talk as anyone (in some ways that’s been their regional insecurity, since the days of Johnathan Edwards and the Salem witch trials: that they’re hexed by dark forces). And yet…

Sox fans may not have believed in the Curse, but they probably felt it all the same. As my pal Brian Cook put it to me in an e-mail yesterday:

Even though I didn’t buy into the Curse, it was hard not to feel the other shoe waiting to drop … The summer romance with the Sox each year was like dating a great girl who you knew was going to move, break up with you, go to college at the end of the summer, whatever – you always had that nagging thing in the back of your head knowing that it wouldn’t last.

The common take on this series is that the BoSox “reversed the curse,” and were the beneficiaries of all the freaky-spooky things that used to afflict them in the past. In the ALCS the A-Rod karate chop went their way; the broken-bat dunker by Ortiz just happened to fall in and end Game 5; and Bellhorn’s ground-rule double was rightly converted to a homer. In the World Series the Sox benefited from the lousy call on Jim Edmonds for the called third strike in Game 1, and the moment in Game 3 when Jeff Suppan started doing elliptical-training exercises rather than going home with the tying run. The idea is that in the past the Sox would have been on the bad end of these mishaps, and the domino effect would have resulted in yet another World Series defeat.

Yet that’s not at all what happened in this series. If anything, the Sox were on the bad end of a lotta weird stuff. Who can forget Manny Ramirez dropping an easy fly ball to tie the score 9-9 in Game 1? Or eight errors in the first two games (some on account of freaky-sloppy weather)? If the Sox lost Game 4, how many people would be talking about Trot Nixon’s phantom grand slam, the one that missed by about a foot? Or about the 8th inning, when the team had bases juiced no one out and didn’t score?

The fact is that the Sox were good enough in all the most important areas that these oddities didn’t matter. That’s the key difference between Boston’s win in 2004 and their defeats in 1986 and 1975. In those years the Sox were, quite frankly, not nearly as good as the teams they were playing (the ’86 Mets and ’75 Reds may be the two greatest NL teams of my lifetime). It took everything in Boston’s power just to hang with those teams, so obviously when some weird play came about the Red Sox didn’t have the sturdiness to weather the storm.

You think that it wasn’t freaky that the home run by Fisk hit the damn foul pole against the Reds? But the Reds were the better team overall; they could withstand stuff like that, and they closed the series the next night. Same with this ’04 Sox team. All kinds of goofy stuff happened to them this past week — just as it happens to all teams — but the ballclub was good enough to transcend them. This is why Manny Ramirez’s gaffes in rightfield make him different than, say, Bill Buckner (or, let’s admit it, Don Denkinger).

We’re narrative creatures, and as a species we tend to look for turning points, plot twists, smoking guns – even, sometimes, when they’re not really there. Cardinal fans will no doubt look back on the Suppan Surprise or the called strike on Edmonds and say that was the difference-maker. That’s why the Cardinals lost! John Kruk went so far as to say the whole series turned in the third inning of Game 1, when Orlando Cabrera threw that high elbow at Tony Womack. Never mind that the Cardinals outscored the Sox for the rest of the game, in Kruk’s mind that one action had the Cards so scared that they went down like lambs in four straight. But this kindergarten fable ignores all the big “macro” ways in which the Red Sox won.

I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that the Sox weren’t cursed these past 86 years so much as they didn’t deserve to win. There were really only three years in that stretch – 1946, 1978, and 2003 – where I think you could make a plausible case that the Red Sox were the best team in baseball, and even in those years I think the better team won (not much better, but better all the same). But this year the Sox were the best team in baseball. They earned their win. They weren’t the beneficiary of some lifted curse.

* * * * * * * * * *

So yes, the Sox were better than the Cards – but how much better? This might just be useless hair-splitting, a dumb argument for the Hot Stove League. But I think it’s important to point out that while Boston’s run was historic, their dominance doesn’t represent the “true value” of these teams.

One of the bedrocks of sabermetrics is that players have a true level of ability, and just because a players succeeds over 5, 10, or 20 trials doesn’t mean he’s apt to do so in the future. You measure a guy not by how he did in his last at bat, but by what he’s likely to do in his next at bat, or in his next thousand at bats.

Teams work the same way, of course. And while it’s important to know the true value of a team if you’re, say, a GM deciding whether to go all-in or wait ‘til next year, for any given season the schedule can be a ruthless arbiter. Is it any consolation to the 2004 Cubs that they were better than their record indicates? For next year, yes; for this year, it’s just more salt in their wounds. Same thing with the Cardinals. Does it help St. Louis to know that the Cardinals can compete, and should have competed, with the Red Sox, or is that just more salt in the wounds?

Well, the best measure of a team’s true value is the third-order standings on Baseball Prospectus’ stat page. It adjusts team wins and losses according to constituent run elements, strength of schedule, quality of opponents pitching and hitting, etc. By that measure the Sox had 102.8 regular season wins; the Cardinals 98.2. (How you account for the difference with their actual records says a lot about how much you believe in intangibles, chemistry, things like that.)

So if we can concede that the Sox were fundamentally a .634 team, and the Cardinals were fundamentally a .606 team, you would expect the Sox to win any given matchup between these two clubs 53% of the time. That also means that a four-game series sweep was about 8% likely. (That seems high, but keep in mind that the Cards were 5% likely to sweep the Sox.)

Of course, no one but a few stat geeks measure teams by what should have happened. We measure teams by what did happen. My point, however, is that what did happen is an anomaly, and anyone who claims that this series proves the indomitable, everlasting superiority of the Boston Red Sox over the St. Louis Cardinals is an innumerate who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

(Oh, and one argument that’s come into vogue lately is that the American League is the superior league, which is why the Sox won. In fact, I’ve heard at least two people claim that the sweep settles the idea that the AL is superior to the NL. Nonsense. If this were so, then the NL was the superior league last year. The year before it was the AL; the year before that the NL, etc. It’s a silly argument.)

So if the Cards were likely to keep up with the Sox, what caused their downfall at this particular point in time? I think it had to do with terrible matchup problems for the Cardinals. They’re a team that thrives on nibbling at the corners; the Sox kill such teams. They have an all-righty starting staff; and of course, the Sox go crazy on righties. The Cards generate a lot of offense via the longball; the Sox kept the ball in the park all year long. Just a lot of headaches for St. Louis.

Notice what I did not say: I do not think the Cards won because they didn’t want it badly enough. I might buy the idea the team choked — that they were too tense or panicky to play well. But if anything I think that’s because they were pressing too hard. I’ll never forget Albert Pujols at the end of the series, in the final inning. He singled leading off, then Rolen flew to right. After Kapler caught the ball, Pujols started to tear down the line, like he was might tag up. He was conceding nothing.

And then as the last out was made, Pujols was charging into third, ready to score if the throw got away from Mientkiewicz. As the Sox players poured onto the field two seconds later, Pujols made a wide left turn and walked very slowly through the celebration. I swear he was either (a) burning the scene in his memory, building motivation for those grueling off-season workouts; or (b) hoping, daring some Red Sox player to touch him so he could start the first post-Series brawl in history. When he came into the dugout, not more than fifteen feet from me, he took off his batting helmet and threw it as hard as he could against the wall. That guy wanted this Series. As bad as anybody. And the fact that he didn’t says nothing about his character.

* * * * * * * * * *

Another debate raging among St. Louisans today: would you rather the Cardinals didn’t go to the World Series at all, or are you happy they went, even if it meant getting swept? This is sort of a masochistic pastime – like wondering whether you’d rather die by fire or drowning – but I think it’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s cool that the Cardinals went. I don’t care how bad it went down.

Until this year, the Tony La Russa Era was marked by many fine regular-season teams, but tons of frustration in the postseason. Three losses in the NLCS made St. Louis the bridesmaid to the bridesmaids, which was no fun at all. But this year the Cardinals got over a hump that had vexed St. Louis for 17 years. And even though the Cardinals lost more games than they won this postseason (damn, that’s a depressing thought), they were still very successful in October. The Cardinals won the first two rounds, had a great, balls-out series with Houston, and came out on top. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

But of course, the bad taste still lingers. Consider this: more major-league cities than not have won a world title since the Cardinals last won in 1982. Here’s the winners circle since then: Anaheim, Phoenix, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Miami, Kansas City, L.A., Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Oakland, and Toronto. I don’t want to compare angst here and say that St. Louis is “due” (after all, Chicago and Cleveland are far more ripe), but that doesn’t mean I’m not itching to climb the mountaintop.

A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, famously, that baseball “is designed to break your heart”:

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

It’s the death of summer – the subject of some of the greatest pop music, from the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” to Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” – that’s supposed to make the day after the World Series the chilliest, most hopeless day of the entire year. But I didn’t feel as bad as I’d have thought. The sun was shining, and the nightmare that ended in Busch was growing just a bit foggier. And I swear there was a brief moment, when I walked outside to get my mail yesterday, when springtime seemed, improbably, just around the corner …

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