A Bad Hand

So, let me take one more crack at explaining precisely why the 2006 Cardinals winning the World Series bothered me, and then I’ll shut up on the topic, or at least move on to something else.
Obviously, of course, as a Mets fan, I was bitter at the way the NLCS ended. But that’s not really the heart of it – I was bitter at the end of the 1999 NLCS, but I didn’t think the Braves didn’t belong in the World Series. If the Mets had lost to the Tigers, I would have felt the same way.
Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos had an article in Slate that captured one part of the equation:

St. Louis’ surprising run seems particularly galling now because this era of playoff randomness coincides with the height of baseball’s statistical age. While random chance governs the sport from game to game, the opposite is true on a season-long level. The gradual accretion of outcomes – pitch after pitch, at-bat after at-bat, game after game – yields a deep body of evidence about which teams and players are the best. By the end of the season, we know not only who’s more valuable, but by how much. And Yadier Molina isn’t valuable.
Stat-centric analysis holds such sway over fans and sportswriters that when it clashes with the outcomes on the field, we tend to sneer at the outcomes. Next to the rich trove of data we’ve acquired throughout the season, a seven-game series seems like a ridiculously crude instrument for determining the best team. The Cardinals’ October accomplishments, however stirring, don’t seem as believable as those recorded by better teams over the long haul. I’m a huge Cardinals fan, and I still can’t convince myself that they’re the best team in baseball.

The problematic aspect of the Cardinals’ victory is that it is a defeat for rationality. There is, of course, more than one way to build a champion, and nobody wants to see the team with the best record or the scariest roster on paper win every single time – that would be boring. But most of the winning teams in the game’s history had at least a plausible case for why they could represent a model for postseason succcess, like this column I wrote on the Angels after the 2002 Series. The 2002 Angels were a healthy team all in its prime, specializing in putting the ball in play and pressuring the defense. The 2003 Marlins had young power pitchers, who could rise to the occasion in October; the 2001 D-Backs had two veteran aces who seized control of the postseason; the 2000 Yankees, who were one of the weakest champs in memory, represented the fruits of keeping a championship core together past their prime. Past Cardinal teams offered clinics in fielding and baserunning. And both the strong teams and the overachievers generally played to their strengths in the postseason. If you predicted the 1988 Dodgers to win it all, it would be on the back of Orel Hershiser, and so it was. If you expected the 1973 Mets to topple the Big Red Machine, it would be with outstanding starting pitching and Tom Seaver throwing the clincher, and so it was. I always loved Bill James’ analogy to baseball, which he borrowed from a friend’s description of chess, as being an argument without words about how the game should be played. Different arguments can win at different times, but you’d like to see the winner at least have an argument.
But what of this Cardinals team would you imitate in building a roster to win in October? Pujols, of course, is the best player in baseball, but while Pujols contributed at key junctures he was not the dominant figure in any of St. Louis’ three series victories. Carpenter, the ace, wasn’t especially effective, and Reyes, the young power pitcher, had his moments but didn’t blossom overnight like Ryan in 1969 or Rivera in 1995. Rolen and Edmonds played hurt and were not consistent contributors. You just would not ever try to build a championship team by assembling veteran mediocre hurlers like Suppan and Weaver and anemic hitters like Yadier Molina; and even David Eckstein is at best a complimentary player.
Of course, there is still room in any sport for the unexpected Cinderella team. But the great Cinderellas come from humble origins – the 1914 Braves were a moribund franchise for a decade and a half and were in last place on the Fourth of July. The 1969 Mets had never finished higher than 9th; the 1973 team had been doormats again in 1972 and was in last place at the end of August. Same dynamic goes for the worst-to-first 1991 Twins and Braves, and the 1987 Twins. The Cards don’t seem like any kind of a Cinderella; this team won 105 games in 2004 and 100 games in 2005, has been a powerhouse in its division for a decade, and was running off with the division until a late season collapse. The Cards were, essentially, a veteran team on the way down – with some young talent, yes (Wainwright, for example) but not the kind of Talent that presages a return to glory in the immediate future.
They aren’t a small market team, either, or a city that has suffered long awaiting a championship – St. Louis may lack the resources of the New York and LA markets but as one of baseball’s most storied franchises (only the Yankees have won more championships) they are vastly more financially successful than neighbors like the Royals and division rivals like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, and in recent years they have regularly imported guys the A’s could no longer afford (McGwire, Mulder, Isringhausen) or other pricey veteran stars (Rolen, Edmonds). That’s not a reason to root against them, given the presence of other, larger payrolls in the annual postseason picture, but it is yet another reason why the Cards don’t fit the “miracle team” mold.
I love the drama of the postseason as much as anybody, but when the storyline goes in the books, I want it to make some sense, whether the strictly rational sense of the most talented or best-suited-to-October team winning or the best player carrying his team on his back, or the Hollywood poetry of a good dramatic arc. This championship, at the end of it, doesn’t feel like a good ending to a story so much as an ordinary June hot streak for a just-above-.500 team that just happened to come in October. That’s anticlimactic for anybody outside St. Louis, and it makes the whole season seem like an exercise in random sample sizes instead of a coherent narrative the way so many postseasons past have been. That’s why I think the Cards winning this one was bad for baseball.

17 thoughts on “A Bad Hand”

  1. I too am a bitter Met fan but there is a fair argument to be made that perceptions were colored by the Cards collapse in Sept. If you go back to the beginning of the season, the Cards were the favorite to represent the National League in the World Series. The bulk of the team that started in April was there at the end. The Mets were not the pre-season consensus choice with a healthy Pedro, et al. To put it another way, if the Cards had played .500 ball in Sept. they would have finished with close to 90 wins and no one would be talking about how bad they were. In that context, the win isn’t so fluky.
    My two cents….

  2. I think what really haunts you guys is the Cards win total for the season. I agree that is a very suspect number. I also am not a big LaRussa fan, but I do believe this may be the best managing job he has every done.
    Every team has to deal with injuries, but the ’06 Cardinals dealt with one of the most devastating group of injuries in a winner that I can recall. All three of the big three hitters have been hurt most of the season. The staff ace and the number two (Mulder) missed time and the closer was lost late in the season. The last month was spent rebuilding the bullpen and the rotation.
    As I have said multiple time, the ’06 Cardinals were not the best team this year, but they were the hot team. I don’t think anyone really thinks the ’04 Red Sox were the best team either, but they were the hot team. Hot pitchers make cold hitters and that is what baseball is all about.

  3. Is it so much about the Cards winning? Or is it about the other teams playing poorly?
    It was my impression it was more about poor play on their opponents part. Neither the Mets nor the Tigers hit in their series, and the fielding was poor too I thought.
    I just didn’t think the Mets or Tigers played anywhere near their potential.
    Anyway. Next year. =|

  4. No one thinks the ’04 Red Sox were the best team? I don’t think that a comparison between these 2 squads is very apt. The only team in the Red Sox league that year was the Yankees and everyone thought they were pretty even and their season series as well as their post-season series bore that out. No other team in baseball was within a mile of those 2 teams in 2004. They were a pick ’em, it just ended up playing out in a strange way. The Cards on the other hand, by the end of the season, were clearly not the pick in the NL and if you lined them up on paper against the top 7 or 8 teams from the AL you would have been hard pressed to choose the Cards in any of the match ups.
    The Cards didn’t even seem like the hot team to me for a long time. The Mets were busy bungling away the series until Game 6 when I thought they had re-seized momentum then Heilman hangs that pitch, Molina hits a totally improbable HR and Wainwright strikes out Beltran with the bases juiced (sorry about the re-cap) and they are on a tear. Didn’t hurt that the Tigers played hot potato either. C’mon, anytime Eckstein is the MVP of anything you have to think things are pretty strange.

  5. Maybe in the short run like the playoffs, season stats mean less and matchups mean more? Maybe because mental approach means more during crunch time? Maybe desire to win and being unafraid to lose comes out in the playoffs?
    Anyway, while I was rooting for the Tigers, but the Cards winning is fine with me. They found a way to win while the Tigers found ways to lose. That to me is the mark of a good team!

  6. Given the playoff setup, it’s inevitable that a mediocre team will win a short series. Like hockey, a couple of hot pitchers can change the balance. However, over the last few years, better Cards teams had to feel the reverse.
    On the plus side, the Mets know they have two young pitchers with no fear in a tough spot. Think Omar can pull of a Heilman and Milledge trade to get Willis?
    Shame you have to trade cheap salary for salary though.

  7. Albert Pujols had the go ahead to stay rbi in both Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS at San Diego. That help provide the winning margin in two of the three wins the Cards needed to advance to the next round. Okay, he only had 1 home run and 3 rbis while batting .333 in the NLDS. Because of when he produced I would say That Albert was a close cousin to “dominate” in the NLDS.

  8. OK Crank, just so I understand it, the Cards winning was bad for baseball, but you are not in favor of changing the playoff format? If that is the case, what is the complaint? The Cardinals played by the rules and won fair and square. You seem to imply that an *undeserving* team such as the Cardinals should some how be excluded from the playoffs. I mean, if the Cardinals didn’t deserve to win The Series, they didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, right? I would suggest that the Cards championship was indeed deserved but that it was not just (*right*), but injustice is a common phenomenon in all sports. Anyway, I hope I haven’t made you mad. I really enjoy your site.

  9. You don’t change the rules over one bad result. If this sort of thing was a regular occurrence I would potentially be in favor of changing the system.

  10. So the Cards victory is bad because they weren’t the best on paper but they weren’t so bad as to qualify as a Cinderalla story.
    A real tragedy….I think you may need a vacation Crank.

  11. Bitter? Um, okay.
    Like it might feel if you were an Indains fan and those Braves pitchers got the outside by 2 inch call.
    Like it might feel if you were a Bills fan and missed wide right by a foot.
    Like it might feel if you were qa Sabres fan and had your top 4 of 6 defensemen (the last because of a – dammit – streph infection) out for the final game of the Eastern Finals.
    That’s all I mean to say. I could… COULD… aqctually point out that your team actually won two World Series titles in my lifetime. You know – SOME MINE COULDN’T. And just to rub THAT fact in – point out that one of those two was ONLY because a Boston 1B let qa damn groundball between his legs.
    But damn, That would sound like I’m whining. Just a bit.
    Peace, dude. You have to give it up. Or else it’ll kill your blog.
    At least it’ll lose this subscriber to your feed. I really do NOT need to hear such senseless whining.

  12. Uh Dave, stop blaming Buckner.
    First, that was the winning run, they already made up the 3 runs.
    Second, on a ground ball to first, the pitcher has to cover, and Stanley did not. Considering Bucker’s well known history of flipping to the pitcher, Stanley blew it, McNamara not putting in Stapleton blew it, Buckner just was sort of on the receiving end. NOt as bad as Branca (Dressen blew it–a good manager puts his assets in the right place at the right time–kind of like having Beltran up there with the bases loaded).
    So stop blaming Bill Buckner. And who told the Red Sox to blow game seven as well?

  13. So, if the Cardinals would not have gine in that late-season nosedive and won, say, 93 or 94 games, would the victory be more legitimate?
    I ask because I am wondering what you reaction would be if the Indians would have not choked in the 9th inning in game 7 in ’97 – and an 86-win team would have been world champs (ironically, take away the 100-win team in ’95 and 86 wins is the least of their other division winners (99, 89, and 97))

  14. I rarely add comments, but this whote topic is too much to take. The only WS winner that was bad for baseball was when there was none, like in 1994. Nobody will ever look back on the 2006 Cardinals as the greatest in history, nor are they the best Cardinal team in recent years. One may even argue that they caught a few breaks in the playoffs, but you have to put yourself in the situation in the first place to catch any sort of break.
    The baseball season is a marathon and that race is not just about September and how some team pulled out a playoff spot in some amazing run. As a Cardinal fan, I would have prefered some great triumph into the playoffs, but it is hardly bad for baseball.
    The Cardinal victory is good for baseball because the message is how important it is to show up with a quality organization year after year and compete. Its about building experience in your players so that when it comes down to the big game, your players step up, or in some cases, don’t collapse under the pressure. It is about not giving up when things don’t seem like they are going your way. Its about believing in yourself when the experts say you can’t do it. Its even about the fact that a 5’7″ 160lb guy who goes out and consistently busts his ass can wind up with not one, but two world series rings. The Cardinals have proven that persistence pays off and that if you “play a hard nine” over the long haul, eventually it will pay off. Perhaps not an exciting story for the history books, but a lesson for life.
    For all the bitter fans out there who believe their team was better and the Cardinals undeserving winners, they reserve that right because there has been many a Cardinal team without a WS ring that was better than the winner, but none of it has been bad for baseball.

  15. Mets fans are still crying in their beer? What a bunch of sour grapes – reads like a confederate veteran trying to rehash the battle of Gettysburg. 20/20 hindsight and arm waving humbug! Have a great winter Mets fans. All those pasty faced stat geeks and media blowhards that predicted Tigers in 3 can get stuffed- they couldn’t predict their way out of a wet paper bag. As far as I could tell, the best team won in head to head competition, pitched well and played good baseball, and that’s all that matters to me. Thanks.

  16. Can’t speak for Crank, but since he and I agree here (and are both Mets fans) I’ll give it a stab:
    The view that the Cards winning was “bad for baseball” has nothing to do with the Cards beating the Mets, and everything to do with the 83 games they won.
    That’s an opinion that merits counterargument, differences in opinion, and even accusuations of being a “curmugeon,” a “stathead,” or God forbid, a “traditionalist.” But it’s an opinion that transcends fandom for any one team.
    The Cards even being in the post-season disturbs me as a baseball fan. Not the Cards fault, but baseball’s fault.

  17. The Cardinals won their division and so have as fine a claim to the World Series title as any team, and a better claim than any of the recent wild card champions. That someone as even-keeled as the Crank questions their claim is the result of the wild card, and its pernicious effect on the credibility of baseball’s post-season. Second place teams like the much ballyhooed ’04 Red Sox get hot for two weeks and are titled “World Champions.” Even casual fans scratch their heads at how this can be. The net effect of these wild card success stories is an eroding of respect for the quality of the championship team, regardless of whether it won its division, or how many games it won “They got hot in October” explains everything now. In ’88, it wasn’t Hershiser alone that kept people from moaning about the Dodgers’ championship quality. It as the fact that the Dodgers did what they had to do to win their division over the 162 game season, and thus earn their place at the post-season table. They won something. They ended up in first place. They weren’t merely the best second place team. They were legit. Now, when the Marlins and the Red Sox can prove not to be as good a team as the Braves or Yankees over the long haul, yet be hailed as “Champions” because they get hot at the right time or otherwise exploit short-term head to head matchups, fans- casual and expert- are skeptical. And rightfully so. Baseball’s post-season, exciting as it can be, is suffering a credibility crisis.
    Readjusting division alignments (4 divisions in each league) could help matters, though absent expansion we’d be faced with one 3 team division in each league. Is an AL west of Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle, or an NL South of Atlanta, Florida and Houston all that objectionable though? I don’t think so. At any rate its no worse than watching second place teams knock off division winners in short series every October. Keeping the current divisional alignment bu stripping the wild card team of any home games until the World Series is an idea worth considering too. Either’s better than putting a second place team on all but equal footing with a team thats actually accomplished something over the course of the season.

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