Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top Ten Reasons to Watch the World Series

I've heard a few people complaining about the World Series this year, talking about how the "ratings" are going to be too low, how they were rooting for other teams to make it, and on and on. While this wasn't the matchup I was expecting, there are a ton of storylines that any good baseball fan should be excited about. Here are 10 I find appealing.

1. Old vs. New

Up until the Giants and Dodgers moved in 1958, the St. Louis Cardinals were the "western" team in Major League Baseball. They still have a huge fan base throughout the west. This is their 18th National League Pennant, and they are looking for their 11th World Series title - both are leaders among National League Franchises. They're the only team who has appeared in as many as three of the past 10 World Series. Their manager, Tony LaRussa, has won 2,728 games, third most all time. Their best player, Albert Pujols, is the greatest player in the game today, a sure bet Hall of Famer, and, by the time he is finished, may be one of the top 10 players of all time.

The Texas Rangers have never won a World Series. Before last year, they'd never even won a playoff series. They've spent their existence in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys. "It's a football town" people would say, and the Rangers never really did anything to prove otherwise. In the last couple of years, though, things have changed. Some shrewd moves by GM Jon Daniels and a new organizational philosophy led by team president Nolan Ryan, manager Ron Washington, and, with far less fanfare, pitching coach Mike Maddux has had the Rangers winning, and perhaps more importantly, the fans responding. The Ballpark in Arlington has been louder the last two years than any other stadium in baseball. The New Yankee Stadium has the louder fans pushed back too far - the place doesn't rumble like the old yard. Fenway Park has become too expensive, and the rabid fans of previous decades have been replaced by business customers and yuppies more interested in singing "Sweet Caroline*." Rangers' fans have really picked up the slack. Is it bandwagon jumping, or is this the real deal? It's hard to tell. Football will always be king in Texas, but that doesn't mean baseball can't be huge as well. The Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth metroplex is the fourth largest in the United States. The three who are larger (NY, LA, Chicago) each have two baseball teams who BOTH get tons of support. Doesn't it seem likely that the Rangers can join them? They've been well-run and have a huge population (a.k.a. revenue) base to work off of. They just signed a new TV contract last fall worth $80M a year. The word "dynasty" was thrown out in a couple spots, which is dumb, because they haven't won a World Series yet, but the Rangers have everything in place to be able to be an annual contender the way the Red Sox and Yankees are. They combine effective traditional scouting and development with smart statistical analysis. They are baseball's new school.

*Ok, I actually like Sweet Caroline. It's a good little ditty. But hearing it over and over in the midst of the Red Sox collapse made it, and the Sox fanbase, something of a laughingstock. The idea that it "rubbed off on the team" was preposterous - the Red Sox didn't lose their lead because they were complacent, they lost because their pitching stunk. The complacency of the fans singing whimsically while their baseball team collapsed around them is a pretty strong narrative of the change in mindset over at Fenway in the last 10 years. Anyway, that's the last I have to say about the Red Sox today. This is about the Cardinals and Rangers. I swear.

2. Star Power.

Albert Pujols. Josh Hamilton. Your 2011 World Series on Fox, coming up next.

That sounds... about right. I mean, doesn't it? Two of the best, most exciting and most popular players in the game, as the centerpiece of their pennant winning teams. Hamilton's season was off quite a bit from his 2010 MVP campaign, but his .536 slugging was still good for 8th in the American League. And his story is well-established.

Albert Pujols had the worst season of his career, when he hit .299/.366/.541. That should pretty much speak for itself. . During the first two round of the playoffs, he's hit .419/.490/.721. His first double of the World Series will set the record for most in a single postseason. gives him a career WAR of 89,1, good enough for 41st all time. At 31 years old, that puts him immediately below Randy Johnson, Warren Spahn and Cal Ripken. He's 18.3 away from the top 20. Whatever your feeling are on the WAR statistic, it seems to get the overarching career narrative down. Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time, and he's playing in the World Series. Isn't that enough of a reason to watch?

3. Chris Carpenter vs. C.J. Wilson


Neither pitching staff did especially much in the league championship series. Carpenter got the win with 5 mediocre innings against the Brewers. C.J. Wilson followed up his bad start in the LDS with a start that didn't get him out of the 5th inning and another where he gave up 6 runs in 6 innings. So far in the playoffs, he has an 8.04 ERA with 6 homers allowed in 15.2 innings.

That's only part of the story. Carpenter pitched a gem in game 5 of the NLDS, a 3 hit, complete game shutout against Roy Halladay. He NEEDED to be that good, too - Halladay gave up only one run. Carpenter was that much better that day, and it's the reason his team is still playing. He had two additional complete game shutouts in September. He's won one Cy Young Award, and also has a second place and third place finish on his resume. Since joining the Cardinals in 2004, he has 95 wins and a 3.04 ERA (good for a 134 ERA+). He is one of the few true, established aces in the game.

C.J. Wilson was a relief pitcher through 2009. Benefitting more than anyone from the tutelage of Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux, he's complied 427 innings over the past two years. After last year, I was skeptical of his, and the Rangers success. In this year's AL West preview, I wrote that "If he can get that walk rate down from 4.1 per 9 to the mid 3's, then he may be able to keep up his success. If that walk rate stays up though, his ERA will follow." Wilson did more than that - he got his walk rate to a flat 3.0 per nine, and his strikeout rate jumped from 7.5 to 8.3 - the jump in K/BB from 1.83 to 2.78 resulted in a drop in ERA from 3.35 to 2.94. The success of Wilson and the success of the Rangers seem to very much be the same story. Both proved me wrong - the Rangers proved to be a legitimate contender, and Wilson proved to be a legitimate ace.

4. Breakout performers in the 2011 playoffs who aren’t actually that young. 

David Freese. Nelson Cruz. Alexi Ogando. Mike Napoli. Marc Rzepczynski*. Jason Motte. 
Only Freese is younger than 28, and he just had one of the best LCS performances in history. Arbitration eligible, he's been a good player since being called up in 2009, but has probably won himself a nice raise and enough goodwill to not have to compete for the starting 3B job next year. Cruz might not totally belong on this list, because he's made an All-Star team, but his ridiculous ALCS performance demands it. Ogando was named ace of the All-Ugly team. Rzepczynski had a 1.93 ERA and a memorable Game 6 performance where Tony LaRussa actually let a reliever pitch to more than 3 batters. He also has a name that rather lends itself to memorability. Jason Motte has pitched 8 scoreless innings in the playoffs, saving four games. The playoffs lend themselves particularly well to previously little known relievers becoming household names - Brian Wilson appearing in Taco Bell commercials goes to show that power.

For me though, the most satisfying is Mike Napoli. His dominant offensive statistics and lack of playing time led people to write things that would make you think Mike Scioscia was some sort of evil dictator or complete fool. Ok, maybe he is those things, because HE DIDN'T PLAY MIKE NAPOLI. Evoke the name of Matt Stairs, and some smart people, like Bill James and Joe Posnanski, will tell you that if he'd gotten the chance to play in his 20's he might have been a Hall of Famer. People will be saying the same thing about Napoli, only there is more evidence to back it up. He's been a dominant offensive player for six years, and he now gets the chance to show everyone.

*Note: On my original draft of this, I correctly spelled Rzepczynski, but misspelled "Marc," ending it with a k. Sounds about right.

5. Bullpens – overused or just awesome?

In the NLCS, St. Louis starting pitchers had only 24.1 innings in six games, leaving 28.2 for the bullpen. Tony LaRussa made 28 pitching changes, 4.66 per game. Yet they managed to win 3 games and compile a 1.88 ERA. Lance Lynn, not even on the previous rounds roster, pitched in 5 games. He gave up zero runs. Rzepczynski also pitched in 5 games. In game 6, he pitched 2.1 innings; in the other four games, he pitched a total of 2.1 innings. 

In the ALCS, Texas starting pitcher made it 28.2 innings in their six games, leaving but a meager 27.1 for the bullpen. Ron Washington made 25 pitching changes, 4.12 per game. Yet their bullpen won all four games, with a 1.32 ERA. Mike Adams pitched in 5 games, Feliz and Ogando in four apiece. Ogando, arguably the teams second best starter all year, won two of their games and gave up only 1 run in 7.2 innings, striking out 10. What appeared to be a tired arm down the stretch appears to be revitalized pitching in shorter stretches. 

Can they keep it up? This sort of usage is extreme, and it's easy to say "if these teams want to win, they're going to get more use out of their starters. But the truth is that both teams, particularly the Rangers, have a TON of talent in their bullpens. I wouldn't ADVISE a strategy that involves taking out your starter in the 5th inning with the bases loaded and 6 runs already allowed, but both these teams have the offensive firepower and bullpen talent to overcome it.

6. Implications for Free Agents

Ok, this isn't something I'm personally interested in, because I hate to see good players leave good teams. Baseball is definitely better off if Albert Pujols stays on the Cardinals, and probably better off if C.J. Wilson does the same. Equally importantly, both players are probably better off if they stay in the same place, as the enormous goodwill for Michael Young shows. There's something to be said for a player being identifiable with a team. If Jorge Posada wasn't a Yankee in 1996, he wouldn't have been one in 2011. That said, the story is there, and will be talked about. 

The truth is, there's nothing Albert Pujols could do in this series to change his value, other than perhaps suffer some horrific injury. If he went 16 for 18 with 12 home runs, he probably wouldn't earn one cent more. If he goes 0 for 18 and strikes out 14 times, he probably won't get one cent less. His record of excellence is established, and anyone who thinks they're going to measure him based on four to seven games is a fool. Be ready, though, for a lot of "will this be Albert's final this, this and this as a member of the Cardinals."

Measuring CJ Wilson on the (possible) two games he'll pitch in this series is probably just as silly, but he certainly has a chance to set perception of him as an elite performer. He will be the best free agent pitcher available - I'm ignoring CC Sabathia who will almost definitely a) listen to some posturing about how the Yankees would not be happy to renegotiate with Sabathia if he opts out, b) exercise his opt-out clause, then  c) resign with the Yankees, for six or seven years, in relatively short order. There's little that shocks me anymore in baseball, but a chain of events that isn't as I described would at least surprise me. Anyhow, that leaves Wilson as the best starting pitcher available as a free agent. Wilson is on the cusp of ace-ville. He has 9.4 WAR over the past two years, going 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in 67 starts, striking out 376 and walking 176 in a pretty tough place to pitch. In the playoffs, though? He's 1-4, with a 5.40 ERA. He's completed six innings in just 3 of his seven starts, never completing seven. Fair or not, a mediocre or poor World Series will solidify him in the minds of many as a good pitcher, but something less than a franchise player. A big Series, and he could be looking at $100M plus. 

There are other free agents - Edwin Jackson probably has a nice deal coming - but Pujols and Wilson are going to get the bulk of the attention.

7. The impact of potential over-management.

 LaRussa, as I wrote here, took out Lance Lynn for no reason in Game 2. Washington, I wrote here, had Josh Hamilton bunt in a game he was losing 6-0. (It came out the next day that Washington did not put on the bunt sign, but he thought it was a good play. I'm sure that's just protecting Hamilton, but it would've been ok for him to say something like "I love that he was willing to give him up for the team, but we need Josh to be swinging there").

I discussed above the number of pitching changes both managers made. Part of that was necessitated by poor starting pitcher performance. Part was just overdoing it on the matchups. LaRussa loves the sacrifice bunt, with 57 non-pitcher bunts. Leading the way was Daniel Descalso, who sacrificed 10 times - including twice when he was put in as a pinch hitter. Neither manager employs the intentional walk frequently, which is nice. Washington used the second fewest in the majors, with 21. His intentional walk of Miguel Cabrera very nearly burned him - it took a fantastic Nelson Cruz throw to get him off the hook.

So, I don't think we'll be in a situation where it's a repeat of 2001's Game 4, when Bob Brenly THRICE had Craig Counsell sacrifice Tony Womack, a strategy that produced a run in zero of those three chances, and the Diamondbacks lost by one run. That is still my go-to bad managing moment. Keep an eye on the pitching changes, though. Both managers got good results on their pitching changes in the LCS, but good results aren't always the product of good decisions. Both of these teams have offenses good enough to make an ill-timed pitching change look really, really bad.

8. The re-emergence of batting average. 

Batting average has taken a lot of heat in recent years, and with good reason - it doesn't correspond to run scoring as well as on-base percentage or slugging percentage, and it is subject to huge variation based on luck in balls in play. However, that doesn't mean batting average is useless. Guys like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter hit for high batting averages for years, despite not hitting for much power. Why? Because hitting for average is a skill. It's true that there is variation based on luck, and it's true that some players fluctuate more than others. That doesn't completely devalue the statistic totally, it just means you need to be cognizant of possible external factors.

There's been a line of thinking, one that I'm trying to do some research on whenever I get the chance, that teams who are good at hitting for average succeed in the playoffs. Why? Because they are better at hitting good pitches. Teams with a low batting average that rely on walks and the home run have trouble in the playoffs, because the teams they are playing against are likely there because their pitcher do a good job avoiding walks and home runs. This was pointed to a lot when The Oakland A's lost in the first round four straight years in the early 00's, but that was partially because traditionalists were trying to find any reason the de-legitimatize the statistical approach of Billy Beane and, somewhat ironically, tried to use statistics to do it. "My statistic is better than your statistic" became the baseball version of "my dad could beat up your dad." In this case though, maybe there was something it. After all, it sounded reasonable.

So far in 2011, the team with the better regular season batting average has won all six series. That includes Detroit, who beat the higher scoring New York Yankees, and Milwaukee, who beat the higher scoring Arizona Diamondbacks. The story was especially prevalent in that Tigers-Yankees series, where the middle third of the New York order, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Nick Swisher, all notably struggled. All three hit below .280 and derive much of their value from power and patience. This is particularly true of Teixeira, who is now .207/.315/.322 in the playoffs in 143 plate appearances .

This is a small sample that doesn't "prove" anything, but if it had been the Moneyball A's rather than the Moneybag Yankees who did this, the narrative would be less that the players choked, and more that the organizational approach failed.

9. We’re on schedule for a really, really, really good one.

I've been watching baseball since 1988. The two best World Series of my baseball watching life were 1991 and 2001. There really isn't too much debate about it. Both are generally talked about as being among the best of all time. Following that pattern, 2011 should be classic.

10. The Yankees aren’t here. 

Which is awesome. The World Series is always more enjoyable to me when the Yankees are either not there, or lose. Either way. 

There's a larger point though. I've read a couple articles about how low the TV ratings are probably going to be for these two teams. So what? Do you choose your favorite TV show based on how many people watch? Are the best movies the ones that make the most money? Of course not. Baseball, as I've pointed out several times, shoots itself in the foot by constantly promoting the same teams. In the last seven years, the Yankees have been in one World Series, and the Red Sox have been in one World Series. The Cardinals and Rangers are both in their second in that span. 

So if you're choosing not to watch because of the way MLB chooses to promote themselves (or, more accurately, how ESPN and Fox choose to promote them - the MLB Network actually does a good job at least trying to promote the entire league), you deserve to miss out.

So that's it. 10 reasons to watch. If that's not enough for you, I'm sorry.

My prediction? Rangers in 7.

After all, they had the better batting average this year. 

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