By Rick Morris
The historic run of the St. Louis Cardinals continues, with the franchise not merely running down Atlanta for the wild card spot in historic fashion, but having beaten Philadelphia in the NLDS – an upset of unbelievable proportions. As we noted in our series preview, the Phils were the most prohibitive favorites baseball had seen in October since at least the 1998 Yankees and maybe even Tony LaRussa’s old As teams from 1988-90. This postseason, LaRussa has gained a bit more historic salve for his record, which was tarnished by only reeling in one of those titles in Oakland. Of course, in fairness to LaRussa, that tarnish is only relative to where he fits on a list of the game’s greatest all-time skippers. His crew clashes with the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers, who ground out a steady-but-strong season with a smaller degree of limelight than some of the game’s signature franchises of the moment.
St. Louis was extraordinarily unlikely to make it this far for the reasons covered above, but the dark cloud over their heads as they turned into September had been brewing all season. Ace Adam Wainwright – can you imagine this team with him healthy right now? – blew out his arm and the Albert Pujols impending free agency turned into the kind of soap opera that doesn’t generally touch this franchise. Meanwhile, in the AL, the Rangers also lost an ace before Opening Day when Cliff Lee moved to Philly and, while their team seemed pretty solid top-to-bottom, it was hard to fathom them being as good or better than they were in 2010 minus one of the game’s top stoppers. And they tasted a bit of soap opera themselves when Michael Young voiced displeasure about apparently getting cast aside by the team after he had willingly made position changes for them repeatedly.
In our LDS preview, we instituted a brand-new feature this year comparing the playoff teams in many different phases of roster composition: a rating of each team in five key categories with a numerical rating that correlates as follows:
Great – 5 points
Very Good – 4 points
Decent – 3 points
Poor – 2 points
Horrible – 1 point
Lineup Explosiveness: Great
Lineup Depth: Great
Starting Pitching, Top-End: Decent
Starting Pitching Depth: Decent
ST. LOUIS (19)
Lineup Explosiveness: Great
Lineup Depth: Decent
Starting Pitching, Top-End: Decent (upgraded from the initial poor ranking at the start of the playoffs purely because of Chris Carpenter)
Starting Pitching Depth: Decent
A year after San Francisco won the World Series with starting pitching that stood with some of the great staffs of recent decades – and seemed emblematic of the young “Era of the Pitcher” – two good-but-not-great staffs are represented in the Fall Classic. So much for last year foretelling the immediate future!
Partly due to managerial style, partly due to exceptional bullpen depth, partly due to necessity with starting pitching not holding up, both League Championship Series saw an extreme emphasis on the relievers. As a matter of fact, the Cardinals joined the 1979 Pirates (who accomplished their feat in the World Series against Baltimore) as the only teams to win a postseason series when their bullpen tallied more total innings than the starting rotations!
Before we hit the differences – and there are certainly a few – let’s cover the remaining areas of commonality. Both teams led their leagues in batting average (Texas at .283 and St. Louis at .273), although the Cards’ superior selectivity at the plate led to an OBP that was one point higher than Texas’ .340 tally. Even that selectivity, though, is very close on a net basis: St. Louis had 67 more walks, but also 48 more strikeouts.
Oddly, neither team is very disadvantaged by the games that will be played by the other league’s rules. Young, who had maybe the greatest “superutility” season in baseball history with a .338 batting average and 111 RBI, can be shifted all around the diamond as NL rules and pitching changes sometimes dictate (he will actually start the games in St. Louis at first base as Mitch Moreland, the “Paul Sorrento circa 1995 of the Texas lineup,” comes off the bench). And Allen Craig, with the power (11 home runs) and contact (.315 batting average) he flashed in a mere 200 at-bats for St. Louis, is the ideal extra hitter to add to the lineup for the games in Texas. Truly, it’s very rare for neither team in a World Series to avoid running into a competitive disadvantage in terms of the orientation of their team when the games shift to the opposing league’s park.
And while Texas, unsurprisingly with their diversity and depth of weapons, finished a strong third in the AL with 855 runs, the Cardinals – with inferior total power and speed to the Rangers – distinguished themselves by finding a way to lead the NL with 762 runs. Clearly, St. Louis didn’t just start discovering means of scratching out victory in their red-hot autumn.
All year long, the Cardinals have made the most out of their incredible core of a lineup: the hottest free-agent-to-be to hit October in quite some time in Pujols, steady power raker Matt Holliday and refurbished slugger Lance Berkman. With the Rangers bringing in a rotation that is more tilted to left-handed starters than most, you might think that these three righties (Berkman is a switch-hitter, but it’s hard to imagine him swinging left against CJ Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison) would be licking their chops. Well, not quite. Strangely, Pujols hit almost the same against both types of pitchers (actually, five points lower against lefties), while Holliday hit 50 points worse against lefties and Berkman was 30 points worse. These numbers are statistically improbable for top hitters, but they may come into play here.
Given that the left-right factor doesn’t tilt against Texas, it’s extremely hard to disagree with the conventional wisdom that they are favorites, perhaps significant ones. While the experience factor that the defending American League champs bring into the World Series is negligible (given that the Cards made it this far five years ago and key players like Berkman and Holliday who weren’t around then have been here with other teams), they have a significant edge in power given that they are deeper with Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli all at 25 or more home runs (and everyone except the injury-shortened Hamilton, their greatest hitter, at 29 or more home runs!). And at 143-57, Texas outpaces St. Louis in stolen bases to a degree that is nothing short of shocking (and the Cardinals were only thrown out six fewer times, which is truly pathetic).
The Cardinals bring a few factors that they hope can be equalizers against the powerful and supremely balanced Rangers:
^ Their ace, Chris Carpenter, has shown that he is still more of a shutdown ace on a given night than CJ Wilson.
^ Catcher Yadier Molina works very well with their pitchers to hold baserunners and thus hold down steals.
^ As should be expected in a league when pitchers are subject to getting pulled for pinch-hitters, the Cardinal starting pitching is marginally fresher (and, as we covered above, did not get stretched during the NLCS!). Matt Harrison is the only Texas starter not to average 100 pitches per start (just narrowly missing at 99.7), while Kyle Lohse tallied 93.5 and Jaime Garcia came in at 93.3.
^ Slappy David Freese, the NLCS MVP, is the “Mark Lemke Unlikely Underdog Story” of this postseason.
^ Whether or not the Cards re-sign Pujols, the core of this team is aging and the mere fact that their greatest player since Bob Gibson is about to hit the market indicates that they’re not able to spend big money easily. So they’ve got some urgency in this run, which history will probably slot late in the LaRussa era of success. The Rangers, while appreciating just how hard it is to get back to the final round once you’ve lost, are more likely to be in the front part of their run, given the ages of their key players, their minor-league talent and the payroll flexibility that they will gain with a new TV deal that prices them properly in the good-sized Metroplex (along with the probability that their winning ways will probably bring in enough fan income to help them compete as a “bigger market,” as has happened with the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies over the last 15 years). St. Louis will surely be playing with more desperation.
^ And of course, as we covered at the top of the preview, they’re on a run that ranks with the greatest in baseball history.
Will those factors be enough? It says here that they will not. The Rangers are the best-balanced team in baseball and an explosive one in a postseason that, for once, favors the shootout over the grindout. The maxim is that good pitching will beat good hitting, especially in the postseason, so running into the buzzsaw of the San Francisco staff a year ago was very bad for this offense. This year, a much-improved offense will relish slugging it out with a St. Louis team that will be bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight. Rangers in five.