Saturday, October 28, 2006

Congratulations, St. Louis

So the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that almost missed the playoffs after stumbling to a humiliating finish, the team that got huge performances from Jeff freakin' Weaver and Scott Spiezio in the playoffs, have won the 2006 World Series.

Honestly, it's a pretty cool story. Most neutral baseball fans have been hoping Albert Pujols would get a title, if only for his monstrous home run off of Brad Lidge in the 2005 playoffs. It's only due to the capriciousness of the MLB rulebook that the Cardinals didn't get to just win the NLCS after that homer - a moment of high drama, and the hardest hit ball I've ever seen, in any game, in any sport.

Clearly, Pujols is an other-worldly talent, and this postseason offered the closest we'll ever see to a true test of the entire theory of VORP. What does that mean? It means that the Cardinals line-up is dangerously close to a collection of AAAA or replacement-level satellites, all orbiting a single offensive star. Saber-researchers have been wondering for years what would happen if you surrounded a Ted Williams, a David Ortiz, a Manny Ramirez, an Albert Pujols, with 8 scrubs. The MLV stat is clearly aiming at quantifying this hypothetical sitatuation. Ladies and gentleman, we just witnessed the result.

I don't mean to minimize the Cards achievement here; they clearly deserved the win, thanks in large part to the utter inability of the Tigers to catch and then throw a baseball. But we've all been raising our eyebrows at the line-ups involved here: Yadier Molina slugging the Cards into the series? David 'Look Again Player of the Year' Eckstein as the 'hitting' star of game 4? Jeff Suppan as staff ace? So Taguchi, corner outfielder? Really?

Yes yes, they had Scott Rolen, MLB All-star, and Jim 'Hollywood' Edmonds, but did anyone but their respective mothers expect much out of those two this World Series? Scott Rolen has been busy defining the concept of replacement level at 3B so far, with only a solo shot and a series of ugly errors to his credit (before his big RBI hit tonight), and Jim Edmonds was a wreck down the stretch after suffering the aftereffects of a concussion and a shoulder injury.

It's worth pointing out that the heavily-favored Tigers started ex-Rainier Ramon Santiago at SS in Game 1, and kept Neifi Perez around, just to add insult to injury in the event of a Detroit win. Still, the Tigers hitters simply went cold, their pitchers got the yips in the field, and St. Louis walked away with one of the easier Series wins you'll see.

So what does it all mean? The biggest casualty here isn't Jim Leyland, who honestly couldn't have done much differently (except for pitching to Pujols in Game 1)... it's the entire concept of 'building a team for October.' This idea, popular around baseball following the Diamondbacks 2001 triumph, was on life-support following the out-of-nowhere wins of the Angels, Marlins, Red Sox and White Sox, which produced a string of 'explanatory' articles describing how each winning team constituted a blueprint for success (until the next year, when a fundamentally, utterly, totally different type of team won and defined a new blueprint). Not only did this sad procession highlight just how different the recent champs have been, but it also cast the spotlight on sportswriters' quixotic quest to divine a pattern from what was patently random. A pair of aces in the rotation! No no, a swing first, ask questions later approach at the plate (combined with hit and run/stealing/productive outs)! No, a big leader at catcher, one big ace, and a random venezuelan kid who has virtually no MLB experience! No no, a bunch of sluggers who keep the clubhouse loose! Forget that, what you *really* need is 4 above-average starters, a lock-down bullpen, and the world's your oyster - trade your sluggers for stolen-base threats. Or maybe what you need is a collection of also-rans, waiver-wire acquisitions, fading stars held together by hope and Re-animator-level medicine, and clutch hitting.

The big loser here is the idea that great players win the big games. Clearly, scrubs and patently sub-MLB level hitters can win a game or two as well - just not as often as the good players. If you find yourself in a seven-game series, as opposed to a 162-game season, it's entirely possible (though not all that likely) that Willie Bloomquist could be the slugging star, and that Joel Pineiro could put up a sparkling ERA (yes, it helps to play a team who finished 12th in the AL, one spot ahead of Seattle, in OBP). It makes you wonder which unlikely players could have been WS heroes, but for the lack of line-up chaos that would necessitate ABs for them... is it possible that the M's could've slipped past the Yankees in 2001 if only we'd gotten Luis Ugueto some at bats? Did we just need to light the Lampkin a few more times? Is that any more ridiculous than David Eckstein winning the Series MVP, or Yadier Molina slugging the Cards to the series?

Bill Simmons quoted approvingly from a yankee fan/reader who said "There is actually TOO MUCH talent [on the '06 yanks]. Are you honestly going to bunt with runners on first and second and no one out with the 25-million-dollar man up? Of course not. But if former eighth-place-hitter Scott Brosius is up, it's a no-brainer. So it's not just their lack of chemistry but the fact that playoff teams thrive off role players." I'm terrified that this post-facto 'explanation' of a random event will gain traction amongst baseball fans, or, worse, the M's front office. Yes, Yadier Molina came through with some big hits. Yes, he succeeded where Pudge Rodriguez/Jorge Posada failed. Does it follow that what playoff teams really need to do is trade MLB hitters for guys who hit .216/.274/.321 because hey, you never know, and at least they'll put down a bunt upon request? Um, let me wait to gauge the league-wide interest in Rene Rivera before I answer that...

Seriously, we need to bury the entire concept of a 'blueprint' for success in the postseason. There are no rules, dude. It's total anarchy. That's both scary and and liberating. The M's could get a hell of a lot better next year and be in the same position as the Mets and A's this year, or they could field the exact same team, and win it all. This isn't science; it's a game of chance. Support your team, and let the chips fall where they may.

Edited by PositivePaul to bump this ahead of his much lamer post...


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