Outcome of Red Sox-Cardinals World Series hinges on very small gap
The Red Sox made it to the World Series by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins, which is to say, given their famed hirsuteness, that it wasn't even close. Likewise, the Cardinals lived up to their 162-game standing as the chalk of the National League. Defying the game of Jenga that is the four-round modern playoff format, Cinderella stayed home this October, giving us an old-timey World Series in two baseball-mad cities. After 32 postseason games we somehow wound up with a World Series featuring two division winners who led their league in wins and in run differential -- something that hasn't happened in 34 years, since the Pirates and the Orioles staged a seven-game battle of supremacy in 1979.
Boston and St. Louis got here, in a matchup of undisputed number one seeds, by following two very different routes. The Red Sox -- after a dumpster fire of a season in 2012 in which they lost 93 games for the first time in 47 years -- rebuilt over the offseason with a new manager and new players. The Cardinals, on the other hand, were the slow cooker to Boston's microwave. Backed by the best player development system in baseball, St. Louis won the National League Championship Series with 18 homegrown players.
The Red Sox win with grizzled veterans, whose beards have such preposterous heft that first baseman Mike Napoli uses shampoo and conditioner on his. The Cardinals win with young pitchers, whose facial hair, if they can grow any, brings to mind a Missourian's front lawn in midsummer: dormant and sparse.
Boston steals bases (fourth in the majors); St. Louis does not (29th). Boston hits home runs (sixth); St. Louis does not (27th). Boston strikes out (8th); St. Louis does not (26th).
The Cardinals have young pitchers (2nd youngest) and the Red Sox have old pitchers (third oldest). The Cardinals' pitchers throw ground balls (2nd in ground ball-to-flyball rate) and the Red Sox' pitchers do not (23rd). The Cardinals play in a pitchers' park (Busch Stadium saw the third fewest total bases) and the Red Sox play in a hitters' park (Fenway Park saw the fifth most total bases).
The two teams also became the best in their league by sticking to their own dominant ethos. For Boston, it was the lineup's collective offensive tenacity. The team-bonding exercise of beard-growing completes the Red Sox' all-for-one, kempt-be-damned visual of -- take your pick -- rascally pirates at sea or the opening scene of Les Miserables. In dispatching the Tigers in six games in the American League Championship Series, Boston outscored Detroit 12-1 after the sixth inning. The Red Sox also forced Tigers pitchers to throw 146 pitches per game -- actually a hair down from the MLB-best 158 pitches per game that Boston forced in the regular season. Red Sox players began wearing T-shirts in spring training that read, "Relentless," and for eight months they have been as good as self-advertised.
The St. Louis ethos revolves around the power and aggressiveness of its young pitchers. The Cardinals beat the Dodgers 9-0 in the clinching game of the NLCS with a two-hit shutout from three rookies -- Michael Wacha, 22, Carlos Martinez, 22, and Trevor Rosenthal, 23 -- each of whom throws 95 to 100 mph. Along with relievers Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness, St. Louis used five rookie pitchers in the NLCS who combined to allow one earned run in 25 2/3 innings, while striking out 26.
On a nine-inning average this postseason, Boston batters have forced 157.1 pitches and Cardinals pitchers have thrown only 130.6 pitches. For all the differences between the two clubs -- and all the narratives, analytics and beard iconography -- the World Series will be decided within that nearly 27-pitch gap. It will come down to whether the games are played closer to the Red Sox' ethos or St. Louis' ethos, whether Boston can grind down Cardinals pitchers, or whether St. Louis defuses the Red Sox' tenacity by pounding the strike zone with premium stuff.
The remaking of Boston into a team as ferocious as it is scruffy began last October, with a meeting at the home of owner John Henry attended by fellow owners Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, and general manager Ben Cherington. Thanks to a trade two months earlier that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles, the Red Sox had freed up $263 million in future payroll. Henry, Werner, Lucchino and Cherington decided they would not be more prudent with that money.
"One of the themes we decided," Lucchino said, "was that we were better off with shorter commitments -- even if we had to pay a touch more in average annual value -- than signing up long-term deals, just given the history we had experienced."
The Boston brass also decided on two other major tenets to what Lucchino called "a re-boot." ("We wanted any other r-word instead of rebuilding," he said.) One was to fortify the team's bench, or what Lucchino remembered the late Earl Weaver calling "deep depth." The other was to bring in players with strong personalities and a deep love for the game, qualities generally thrown under the umbrella of "character." Cherington, when describing what the Red Sox were looking for, kept saying, "We want baseball players."
"That's the highest compliment coming from Ben," Lucchino said.
Boston was an early-adopter franchise when it came to statistical analysis, and for years it has employed famed number-cruncher Bill James. But the Red Sox went off the statistical grid to develop their wish list of players.
"The sabermetricians say you can't quantify makeup," Lucchino said, "but we weren't trying to quantify it. Our people have been talking about demeanor and makeup for a long time, but it had extra significance to us this time because of the experiences we endured in recent years. Boston is an intense place to play. It is a media crucible."
The Red Sox rejected some players on makeup alone. "That's almost as important as the ones you go after," Lucchino said. They acquired Napoli, outfielders Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, shortstop Stephen Drew, catcher David Ross, pitcher Ryan Dempster and closer Koji Uehara. They added pitcher Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. None came with a commitment longer than three years. The new manager, John Farrell, the Red Sox pitching coach from 2007 to '10, was familiar with the demands of playing in the Hub. He was also a steady hand; the recently dismissed Bobby Valentine was not.
The trade with the Dodgers, Farrell said, provided the financial flexibility to "target those players that we felt were a good fit for Boston, both from a talent standpoint and a personality standpoint, [and] that would embrace the challenge here. It's probably the way we've gone about doing it and the type of players we've brought in that's as rewarding as the success on the field . . . We feel like this has got a chance to continue on. And again it goes back to targeting the right people that can play here in Boston."
St. Louis appears even better more capable of sustaining its success. Starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Wacha, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, and the four rookie relievers, are all under team control through at least 2017. Wacha, passed over by 18 teams in the 2012 draft (seven of those teams drafted pitchers), has become the breakout star of the postseason after having made only nine previous major league starts. In his last four starts, including a near no-hitter in his final regular season outing, Wacha is 4-0 and has allowed only one earned run and nine hits in 29 2/3 innings (0.31 ERA). There is nothing deceptive about the way he has dominated hitters. The right-hander throws a fierce downhill four-seam fastball, a changeup that is so good he has allowed only one extra-base hit on it this year and a curveball that -- after he worked on it during a mid-season tuneup in the minors -- has suddenly become a third weapon. Wacha, in spite of his rookie status, has become an October given in the mold of Livan Hernandez in 1997, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and even Babe Adams in 1909.
"In all honesty," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, "if a guy has the ability to perform at that level, he's been able to perform at that level in this kind of environment, he shouldn't have another level of expectation for himself. He should expect that. That's where he is right now. We have a group of veteran guys who have done some pretty incredible things, especially on the pitching side, to be able to sit there and say, 'You continue to do this. This isn't a fluke. We need to you do this in order for us to have a chance.'"
This World Series abounds with possibilities. St. Louis may get back its best clutch hitter, Allen Craig, from a foot injury. Boston will lose either Napoli or David Ortiz from its lineup without the DH in the games at Busch Stadium. The loss of the DH helps explain why AL teams are 11-22 in NL parks in the World Series since 2001. The Red Sox have homefield advantage; over the past 30 years, AL teams have won 14 of 17 World Series when they held the homefield advantage. Boston rookie Xander Bogaerts, 21, who displaced Babe Ruth as the youngest Red Sox player to start a postseason game, is both preternaturally calm and talented, a combination that makes him reminiscent of Andruw Jones in 1996 or Miguel Cabrera in 2003.
It is that 27-pitch gap between Boston hitters and St. Louis pitchers, however, that will tell the tale. The difference in that militarized zone should be slight, which presages a long series. Such a scenario would favor the Red Sox, since a lengthy series will mean more innings for the Cardinals' young arms. And with Boston hosting Games 6 and 7, the lack of foul territory in tiny Fenway Park will encourage foul balls that prolong at-bats. The Sox hit an MLB-best .340 on balls in play at home this year.
In five attempts -- two against St. Louis -- Boston has never won a decisive World Series Game 7. It is the missing bauble in the trophy collection of a proud franchise. Fenway is the game's oldest ballpark, having seen 102 seasons of baseball. The best possible matchup deserves the most drama: Red Sox in seven.