What the Cardinals and Red Sox Can Teach the Giants

It’s been fascinating living in Boston this year, watching people react to the Red Sox. At first, it was apathetic (Napoli who?), than it was resignation (we’re going to suck again), then it was mild interest and excitement (we don’t suck), than it was sentimental (Boston  strong and cute beards), then it got serious (playoffs!), and then it got out of control (the city nearly threw the parade after the game victory).

Now it’s back to worrying about curses, and can a team without stars actually win a world series (um, yes).

Anyway, those are just some thoughts, and now for the real heart of the matter: what this world series teaches our beloved SF Giants.

  • The Red Sox Way:

We’ll begin here because their situation most closely resembles where the Giants are at right now. Last year everything fell apart for the Sox, which led to a major, house cleaning, trade with the Dodgers. In the wake of all that transition the Red Sox did two things: (a) take short term gambles on players who could potentially produce what the needed most (power, defense, and character). (b) they hoped and prayed their starting pitchers who used to be good, got good again.

This is applicable to the Giants because they do not have tons of money to spend on free agents. And there aren’t any big name free agents that really get your blood pumping. And recent history suggests it is very unwise to go all in on name brand free agents anyway (just ask the Angels).

In fact, the Red Sox stole strategy A from the Giants (Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, Gregor Blanco, Marco Scutaro, etc). The Giants are going to need to replicate this success somehow this offseason.

And it sure looks like strategy B is where we are headed as well. The resign of Tim Lincecum follows the same kind of logic the Red Sox have employed with John Lackey and Jon Lester. Hope the magic comes back. And it has. I have no idea how, but it has. I’d be shocked if Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t in the rotation to start 2014. Same strategy.

Employing these two strategies together seems foolish (more on this later), but it worked for the Red Sox (and aren’t the Giants the Red Sox to the Dodgers Yankee’s in this crazy new baseball world?).

  • The Cardinals Way:

The Cardinals are in the World Series (and are the best organization in baseball) because they produce their own quality players year in and year out. And there are more on the way. It’s actually quite scary and hard to fathom.

For a while this was the Giants‘ strategy. The core of the two championship teams includes a long list of home grown talent (Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Wilson, Romo, Posey, Sandoval, Belt, Crawford, even Jonathan Sanchez and Nate Schierholz helped with their play and by getting traded for good things).

And there is another wave coming, especially in the pitching department. But, not much help for 2014.

  • And what about Moneyball?

This might seem like a non-sequitur, but hear me out. Let us all remember that Moneyball is not about on-base percentage, it is about market inefficiencies and exploiting resources other teams neglect.

Over the past couple of years, the Giants have (to the surprise of many around baseball) been on the front edge of a couple of trends: (a) run-prevention (i.e. pitching and defense), (b) minor-league free agent gold (like Juan Uribe or Santiago Casilla or Ryan Vogelsong), (c) dramatically undervalued veterans (like Aubrey Huff and Marco Scutaro), and (d) creating a contact heavy, low strikeout lineup.

[a quick aside about D. recent post-season history has borne out the reality that high contact teams are much better suited for playoff success than low contact/high power teams…the last 3 world series bear this out, as does the on-going frustrations of the Atlanta Braves and the Detroit Tigers, two teams that strikeout way too much. the current world series matchup is, perhaps, the greatest test of this to date: the Cardinals should win this series because they strike out dramatically less than the Red Sox. so far, games 1 and 2 hold true: whoever strikes out the most at the plate loses.]

All of which leads us to the Giants strategy this offseason: last year they pretty much brought everyone back and it didn’t work. So far, the are doubling down on that strategy and paying a steep price for it. Most pundits have been very critical of both contracts, seeing them as overpays and pre-reactions to a yet-to-be-determined market.

Are the Giants crazy, lazy, or are they on to something? 

Both the Red Sox and the Cardinals are testament to the importance of doing hard things. Many, many people in Cardinal nation thought the world was coming to an end when Albert Pujols left. That turned out fairly well.

No one thought there was any way the Red Sox could really get out from underneath the mess they had made with bad contracts and bad hires. They did it (thanks to the Dodgers), and they went deep into the unknown and came out of it with a pennant.

The Giants, though, like to return to what they know. The did it with Barry Bonds, they did it with guys from the 2010 team and with the 2012 team. They are doing it again now.

I’d love to see them be bit less sentimental and more imaginative. However, the Giants have proven to be able to see things that others have not been able to see, and so maybe we’ll never regret paying Hunter Pence so much and maybe Tim Lincecum will pull a John Lackey.

In sum, every pennant winning team is a strange combination of design and great fortune, and if the Giants return to the heights in 2014 this will no doubt be true of them.

In a strange way they reflect both of these “ways” of team building. Here’s to hoping they do know what they are doing.

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On Pujols

I should admit upfront that I am a bit of an Albert Pujols fanboy. Maybe it’s because we are the same “age”. Maybe it’s because I’ve never lost a fantasy baseball league where I had him on my team. Maybe it’s because I called that moon shot he hit off Brad Lidge in the playoffs a few years back. I don’t know. But he has been my favorite non-Giants/non-Red Sox player for years now.

Since I’ve moved to Boston I have actually met a number of people from the midwest. Far more than I ever knew in California. Which means I’ve met some Cardinals fans. The response to Pujols-to-the-Angels has been somewhat surprising. A little sadness but a whole lot of relief. As in, “I’m so glad we didn’t forfeit our future just to keep El Hombre around.” And I understand that…Cardinals fans look at Pujols and see the next A-Rod, but know the team has much less ability to absorb a bad contract when compared to the Yankees. They knew keeping Pujols meant seeing a lot of good young talent walk away over the next ten years. I get it.

But I also get the Angels. The Angels have been taken to task by the national media over the past few years for all of the free agents they have not signed. Especially last year when they were supposed to get Carl Crawford and/or Adrian Beltre (and before them it was Konerko, Sabathia, Texeria, etc). Everyone thought: “They play in a huge market, make money, won a World Series, and a have an owner willing to spend, why do they keep chickening out at the last-minute.”

Because Pujols. Now, I’m sure they have not been sitting around for the past 3-4 years with a plan to grab Albert when he hit the market, but he did, and because they had passed on some of these other guys they were ready for it.

seriously, who would you rather have for the next 7 years? Carl Crawford, Mark Texeria, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols? No brainer.

Because here’s the deal. Pujols is a once of a lifetime opportunity. My apologies to the Prince Fielder’s of the world, but this guy is the best player of this free agent class, of the past 5 years, and of this generation. He will slow down a bit, but barring a catastrophic injury, Pujols is going to hit 700 home runs. He is going to be a force at age 40. He is going to guarantee they have a good offense every year for the next 10 years. There are not enough superlatives.

Now, I am not as cynical as I once was, and so if the Giants don’t win the 2010 WS I probably don’t look back on the Bonds’ years the same way, but I’ve lived the reality of having a once-a-generation player as the heart of the team. The Giants had a chance in 1993, ’97, ’98, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’03, and ’04. Yes, it didn’t happen to any of those teams, but as we all know, it could have. How are the 2010 Giants really all that better than the 2000, or the 2002 versions? Pujols himself has won two rings with teams no one thought had a chance, and has lost with teams that were juggernauts (2004, 2005).

Bottom Line: when a player like Pujols comes along, you go all in and you see what happens. No guarantees, but the Angels will be competitive, interesting, and relevant for a decade. Done.

So, while I get all the arguments for letting him go, I don’t fault the Angels for opening the bank vault and rolling out the red carpet. It’ll be interesting to see how we think about this 10 years from now, but I can tell you this, having lived through Bonds, you WILL enjoy every minute of it Angels fans. You will.

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Closing the Book on 2011

As I wrote earlier, this World Series had the air of 2002 written all over it. Turns out that was more on point than I imagined. Team with a rally animal gains a 2-1 advantage, then falls behind on the road 3-2, but then wins a Game 6 for the ages and defeats its deflated opponent relatively easily in Game 7. I’ve seen this one before.

The Cardinals are frustrating to me for two reasons: (1) I was not so secretly rooting for the Rangers because I felt like their taking home the title would somehow validate the Giants World Series victory of 2010. (2) The Cardinals do not neatly follow my pitching addition/emergence theory that I’ve been harping on all year.

But here’s the interesting thing. In some ways the Cardinals validate the Giants run of a year ago by showing that a hot team that gets in at the last-minute is a dangerous, dangerous foe. In fact, in the system might actually favor this type of team (see paragraph 6).

And, if you break down the season, the Cardinals actually follow the pattern I set out, but they did it in compressed time (over the course of the season instead of the offseason). This happened in part because of the injury to Adam Wainwright. But, over the course of the season the Cardinals witnessed the emergence of a closer (Jason Motte) who posted an ERA+ of 162, career years from Kyle Loshe, a strong sophomore (injury free) season from Jaime Garcia, and the midseason reinforcements of Edwin Jackson (who ensured that Jake Westbrook would not pitch in the post-season), Mark Rzepczynski, and Octavio Dotel (who ensured that Ryan Franklin would not pitch in the post-season).

All of that translated to season-best-production in September/October. They set season best marks in Strikeouts, ERA, K/BB ratio, OBP, SLG, OPS+, WHIP, and K/9.

Of course, and this will always burn me a little, if the Houston Astros played the Cardinals as well as they did the Giants, we’d be writing a very different story right now.

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Game 5

Bullets:

  • I was totally prepared to write a post-game article about how Ron Washington is going to lose this series by going to the Alexi Ogando well too many times. Seriously, Wash, you have Mike Adams and several other dudes down there in the pen and Ogando is still pitching, still walking guys, still leaving 95 mph fastballs up in the zone? Maybe I’m biased towards Adams because I saw him get so many Giants out, maybe he’s hurt, but that bullpen has other arms! Use them.
  • Instead we have another LaRussa gem. I know the guy is smart, I know that he’s won a ton of games and been successful for a long time. I know that everyone has bad days and no manager gets it right even most of the time, but I really do wonder if some of the teams he’s managed could have/would have done better under someone else. Those A’s teams (’87-’91)…the ’04/’05 Cards…now this team. Hindsight is always perfect, but I think the question needs to be asked.
  • This point has been made several times already but what were the Angels thinking when they traded Mike Napoli? Obviously, they wanted Vernon Wells. Obviously, they like Jeff Mathis. But their 2011 team needed: (a) Power (b) A first baseman (c) anyone who can hit. Unbelievable. Texas has improved its bullpen over the 2010 version of the team, but Napoli is the real big difference between this year and last year.
  • Game six of the World Series is important. I know this because I like the Giants. I highly recommend that the Rangers end this thing on Wednesday. Still hoping for a game 7 though!
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Game 2

Baseball is such a humbling sport. Yesterday all the World Series analysis focused on the wizrdry of Tony LaRussa and how his cagey wisdom and guttiness allowed to pull all the right strings to help his team win. Now he’s a bum. Well, maybe not a bum, but no other job in sports is as second guessed or as misjudged as the baseball manager. We almost always over (and/or under) estimate how important the manager really is.

Then there’s the Pujols situation. The greatest player of his generation is a huge goat today. Baseball is the best sport at making even its best practitioners look horrible in small sample sizes. Plus the skipping out on the media thing doesn’t look good.

Also, there’s been some pitching in this series, which is a welcomed development. The bottom line is these teams are incredibly evenly matched. 90ish win teams with good, not great starters, the ability to hit some home runs and score, and bullpens that have a lot of options. What’s the X factor? Is it the managers? Is it the stars? Is it Allen Craig? I say whoever can get two more quality turns out of its starters takes this series, which is going to go seven. That’s about all I am convinced of so far.

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Game 1

Chris Carpenter is good. Chris Carpenter is old. Baseball is going through an adjustment period right now. There aren’t too many players in MLB older than me who are still really good. Chris Carpenter is one of those players. He’s been hurt a lot over the course of his career, but he’s also turned in some amazing seasons. (Go back and check out his 2009 numbers, only pitcher better that year was one Timmy Lincecum).

Chris Carpenter was born in New Hampshire. How much do the Red Sox wish they had a guy like him this year?

Thank you for pitching like a wily veteran who can get batters out, Christ Carpenter. Needed to see that.

One last thought: How badly did the Rangers need to win game 1 from a psychological standpoint? They have now lost 5 of the last 6 Word Series games played. Will the questions start to creep in, or can they refocus, get game 2, and head home with a split?

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World Series 2011

My goal for this Series is to offer my thoughts of each game…we will see if I’m successful or not. I’ve got to say, I’m surprised the Cardinals are still alive, but even more surprised at the Phillies and Brewers for not stepping up and winning winnable series. I’m not saying the Cards backed in, but I do think they are the benefactors of good fortune and hot streaks. (Some would argue like the Giants last year, but the pitching man, the pitching is the difference).

Seriously, I am surprised by how bad the starting pitching has been in this postseason. Every team has had good starters. It’s not a matter of talent. But no pitcher has put his stamp on the playoffs in 2011.

I think that will change to a degree in the World Series. It won’t quite be the 2010 Giants, but I think the Rangers will pull a dominant start out of CJ Wilson and Derek Holland and then cobble together two more wins out of their bullpen. Rangers in seven.

(-SB)

A Couple of Classics

Friday night brought the drama, and it also brought the pitching. I complained yesterday about the lack of dominance by pitchers in the post-season in what was supposed to have been the year of the pitcher. (Side note: someone is probably going to write an idiotic article about how Roy Halladay is great, but not super great, because he can’t win in the post-season…it will be ludicrous but it’s going to happen). Last night however provided everything we love about baseball: suspense, great pitching, unlikely heroes, and surprising results.

Saturday Morning Thoughts:

  • Great job Cardinals. You continue to mess with my pitching model of success (although they really turned it on in the 2nd half…their season stats are not super impressive, but their second half stats are Giant-esque: 7.8 k/9, sub 3.30 ERA. Should have paid more attention to that), and you constantly annoy me with the terrible way you build your team, and yet you just keep on winning. I don’t get it and it frustrates me, but credit where credit is due. You just pulled off one of the greatest upsets in MLB history. Well done!
  • I’m all in with the Brewers now. Might even go buy a hat. Probably not, but if 2011 turns out to be a repeat of 2006, I’ll be upset. Just saying.
  • Sticking with the Rangers in the AL and I’m going to say Brewers in 7 in the NLCS.
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Playoff Thoughts…

So, that squirrel thing was kind of funny. Other than that, despite the three game 5’s, I am not finding these playoffs to be super enjoyable thus far. Last October was so awesome, such an experience, and this year just can’t match that.

Some thoughts:

  • While there is a lot of evidence that pitching was better overall in 2011 than 2010 the post-season is not supporting that. Verducci writes about it here, but that would have been my top observation anyway. Again, it highlights the tragedy of Posey: I really think the Giants could have run this table if they had made it back.
  • Not surprised to see the Yankees go down to Detroit in a short series. I don’t think Detroit has enough to get past the Rangers, but in 5 games with Verlander and Cabrera and company, Detroit had plenty of weapons to deal with a Yankees team that had a nice regular season, but was always way too thin to inspire tons of confidence.
  • For a second there I believed that Tampa might be on the verge of something magical, but that was quickly erased by three nice, efficient games from the Rangers. There’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind seeing them win it all. Feels vindicating in some way for Giants’ fans. My ALCS prediction: Rangers over the Tigers in 6.
  • Tonight’s games: Still think the Phillies pull this out. They’ve been exposed by the Cardinals a lot more than I expected, but they should get out of this and on to the next round (and the World Series for that matter). Phillies over Cards 4-2. The other series continues to be a total coin flip in my opinion. I guess I’ll go with the Brewers since they are at home and that seems to really matter in this matchup. Brewers over D-Backs 5-4.
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Playoffs and Pitching

We’ve established the importance of pitching to winning championships on this site this year. So, with that in mind let’s look at the pitching performances of the 8 playoff teams and see if that lends any insight into what might happen in October.

American League:

1) New York Yankees: 2010 7.2, 4.06, 1.31, 106 2011: 7.5, 3.71, 1.32, 120 Somehow the Yankees have the best pitching staff in the AL (based on ERA+). I still don’t really buy it. I do not think they have the depth of starting pitching to make it all the way through (which may just mean they lose to the Phillies in the World Series), but the numbers wouldn’t make it a surprise. Sorry Detroit, the Yankees make it out of round 1.

2) Texas Rangers: 2010 7.3, 3.93, 1.31, 114 2011: 7.4, 3.81, 1.24, 118 The Rangers improved nicely this year even without Cliff Lee and I had them going head to head with the Yankees in an all out 7 game brawl in the ALCS until the Rays pulled off their miracle last night. Now, I’m not so sure.

3) Detroit Tigers: 2010 6.6, 4.30, 1.37, 97 2011: 7.0, 4.04, 1.32, 102 Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball right now (my apologies to my boy Timmy). But, in this day and age a team needs more than one stud to make it through the three rounds of the playoffs. I think they could pull off an upset in the short first round, but I still think the Yankees prevail.

4) Tampa Bay Rays: 2010 7.4, 3.78, 1.26, 103 2011: 7.1, 3.58, 1.22, 105 The Rays have created a love/hate situation for me. Love that they proved me right in making the playoffs, hate that they knocked the Sox out and that they have now really messed up the playoff picture. They have the kind of staff that can make a deep playoff run. My main argument against them though is that they have not had the ability to line up their rotation for the short opening series. I’m going to reluctantly pick the Rangers, but I’m rooting for the Rays and will not be surprised at all if they move on.

National League

1) Philadelphia Phillies: 2010 7.3, 3.67, 1.25, 111 2011 7.9, 3.03, 1.17, 128 No team in recent memory has so perfectly followed the model I’ve been touting this year as the 2011 Phillies. The addition (Lee) and emergence (Worley and Madson) of excellent arms has the Phillies poised for a deep run. As long as Halladay doesn’t pull a groin throwing a first round no-hitter this team is going to the World Series and anything less would be one of the great baseball upsets of all time.

2) Milwaukee Brewers: 2010 7.9, 4.58, 1.44, 88 2011 7.9, 3.65, 1.24, 107 The Brewers also masterfully followed the pattern by adding pitching and have seized the moment presented to them this year (likely the last with Prince Fielder). Timing, however, is everything and I am not sure they will even make it out of the first round, let alone take down the mighty Phillies. Before St. Louis overtook the collapsing Braves, it was a no brainer the Brewers would take out Atlanta. Now, they are in the most intriguing first round match up with…

3) Arizona Diamondbacks: 2010 6.7, 4.81, 1.43, 89 2011 6.6, 3.78, 1.29, 105 Arizona’s improved bullpen has gotten a lot of press, but the emergence of Ian Kennedy and Josh Collmenter, and a full season of Daniel Hudson have been just as, if not more, important. In fact, they are so improved I can actually see them beating Milwaukee and giving Philadelphia a huge test. So, for now I am saying D-Backs in 5.

4) St. Louis Cardinals: 2010 6.8, 3.57, 1.30, 109 2011 6.7, 3.81, 1.31, 96 So, the Cardinals have defied the pattern before (see 2006), but that team didn’t have to face the 2011 Phillies in the first round. Sorry, Cards, fun story, but time to get on with re-signing Pujols.

By the numbers I see the Phillies taking the title by beating the Yankees in 6. However, the romantic side of me will say this: don’t be shocked if the Rays and Phils meet in a replay of 2008, only this time the little team from Tampa takes it all.

(-SB)