Wild(-ish) World Series Tactics: 2007-2009

I’ll level with you. The World Series tactics series has been getting less and less wild as time goes on. That’s not to say it’s getting less and less fun — I’m actually having more fun writing it, because we’ve passed into an era where I remember the games.

It’s a lot more interesting to look for hidden gems when it’s games you’ve already seen, because they’re truly shocking. I’m not surprised that managers were calling for weird bunts in 1990 — the internet barely existed in 1990! A weird bunt or baffling pitching decision is more fun to me in 2005 than 1995, even if there are fewer true howlers. So while these three series might seem dry, remember: these weren’t that long ago! Managers really should have known better.

2007

The Red Sox assembled a lineup that would look right at home in 2020. Two on-base machines, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, occupied the top two spots, feeding David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Mike Lowell. The Rockies weren’t quite with the times — they batted Kaz Matsui, one of their worst hitters, second. But the rest of the lineup was stacked, with Matt Holliday and Todd Helton hitting 3-4.

The last act of Rocktober was nasty and short. Did Colorado leave starter Jeff Francis in too long in the first game? Maybe! But he gave up three runs in the first, trusted reliever Franklin Morales gave up seven in the fifth, and the offense only put up a single run. Maybe you can argue with intentionally walking Manny Ramirez (man on second, two outs, down three in the second), but it hardly matters when you lose by 12 runs.

Okay, fine, maybe the intentional walks were bad. In the fourth, still down three runs, the Rockies intentionally walked Mike Lowell — the man they’d walked Ramirez to face earlier in the contest. Jason Varitek doubled in two runs in the next at-bat. The walks didn’t make the difference in the game, and they weren’t even hugely consequential, but don’t intentionally walk people to face other batters you’re willing to intentionally walk!

In Game 2, the decisions got more questionable. Ubaldo Jiménez took the mound for the Rockies, and manager Clint Hurdle tried to sneak him through the stacked Boston lineup three times. Times through the order penalty was already a known thing, and this wasn’t peak Ubaldo by any means — he put up 0.9 WAR in 15 starts. Hurdle simply didn’t care — he used Jimenez three times through the order in each of his three postseason starts and in the vast majority of his regular season games.

In any case, it almost worked! He came out in the fifth and got Pedroia and Youkilis for the first two outs, albeit not convincingly. But then the clock struck midnight; Ortiz walked, Ramirez singled, and Lowell doubled. Hurdle replaced Jiménez, but the damage had been done.

On the other side of the ball, the Red Sox responded to danger with alacrity. Curt Schilling got into a pickle that called Jiménez’s to mind; his third time through the order, he allowed two baserunners to reach with only one out. The Sox didn’t lolly-gag, even though Schilling had the reputation of a postseason hero by then; they brought in Hideki Okajima, their stud setup man, even though Schilling had thrown only 82 pitches. Okajima wriggled free of the jam and pitched 2.1 innings, setting up a bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon. Lowell’s RBI held up in a one-run game.

After the first two games, the writing was on the wall. Josh Fogg got tattooed in Game 3; he was done after only 19 batters faced, not because of any dedication to limiting his exposure but because he faced 19 batters and recorded only eight outs. One of the six runs he allowed was a player who had been intentionally walked — because of course — but it hardly mattered. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka squared up Fogg; he hit a 2-RBI double in the fateful third inning.

In the decisive Game 4, Hurdle again left in a middling starter to face the powerful Sox lineup a third time — Aaron Cook this time, though it hardly matters — and he gave up a home run to Lowell that ended up mattering quite a bit in a one-run game. The Red Sox were incredibly likely to win either way — they had the better team, and the Colorado bats got cold in a serious way. But they also benefited from facing tiring pitchers a third time — not that they really needed the help.

2008

We’re well and truly into the modern view of a batting order here. Jayson Werth, who batted second for the Phillies, was one of their best hitters — and the rest of the hitters were no slouches either. Melvin Upton Jr. (then B.J.) held down the two spot for the Rays, while Carl Crawford, whose speed would have made him an automatic leadoff hitter a generation earlier, batted fifth.

In Game 1, the closest thing to a tactical gaffe was that both pitchers faced a lot of batters — 28 for Scott Kazmir and 26 for Cole Hamels. I might have pulled them a little earlier — particularly Kazmir, as he faced a two-on, two-out jam in the fifth. But both were stars at the time — Hamels was a bona fide ace — so while I’m not a huge fan of the decisions, I don’t find them atrocious either.

The top of the ninth featured a bit of hijinks. A Werth double led to the Rays intentionally walking Utley — a defensible intentional walk. But with two outs, that brought Eric Bruntlett to the plate. Bruntlett was a weak hitter — he’d pinch run for Pat Burrell in the seventh and stayed in as a defensive replacement. I think that decision was okay, because Burrell was quite bad in the field by this point. But during Bruntlett’s plate appearance, Werth and Utley executed a straight double steal. Why? No explanation was given in the broadcast — the insurance run was going to score on a single anyway, and an out at third would have ended the inning. Chalk it up to Werth’s youthful, goatee-fueled exuberance, I suppose.

Why harp on that ultimately meaningless sequence in Game 1? Because Game 2 had almost nothing to talk about. Maybe you could fault Joe Maddon for calling a squeeze play — but with Jason Bartlett at the plate and a three run lead (in the fourth inning), I don’t hate it. Brett Myers pitched too deep into the game — 29 batters faced — but he did so because he used only 85 pitches to get there. That’s reflective of the time; managers were now paying attention to pitch counts, but they hadn’t started correctly valuing the times-through-the-order penalty. Aside from that, the game was empty of interesting decisions.

In fact, pretty much the only decisions all series that look like errors to my modern eye were the various times the starter stayed in too long. In Game 3, that was Matt Garza giving up back-to-back dingers as he tried to navigate the Phillies’ stacked lineup for a third time, and Jamie Moyer giving those two runs back in the top of the seventh as he tried to do the same with the Rays’.

Past that, the next odd-looking decision I found was Jimmy Rollins’ sacrifice bunt in Game 5. This was the old world of baseball creeping in — with a runner on second and no one out, Rollins gave himself up to get a runner to third base. It was a tie game in the bottom of the sixth — too early, in my opinion, to trade outs for runs. It cost the team 1% or so of win probability — as it turns out, the Phillies needed two runs to win the game, which isn’t all that surprising with a third of the game still to play.

Still, think about the progress managers had made since 1990. I would have glossed right over this bunt then — one of the least poor decisions out of a multitude of bad ones. It wasn’t a good bunt — few pure sacrifices are — but it came pretty close. Even when teams were doing inefficient things, they were doing them in less inefficient ways.

2009

The 2009 Phillies lineup wasn’t as visually pleasing as the 2008 iteration. Jimmy Rollins was in the midst of one of his worst seasons with the bat — .250/.296/.423 — but the team trusted his previous results and left him in leadoff, which stunted the offense somewhat. Jayson Werth now batted fifth instead of second. But the core plan of the lineup — bat high-OBP guys at the top and find a way to drive them in with your boppers — was still in evidence.

The Yankees, meanwhile, put Robinson Canó and his .320/.352/.520 batting line in the seventh spot — but remarkably, he was probably their seventh-best hitter. This lineup was fearsome, though it didn’t show in Game 1, when Cliff Lee threw a complete game and held them to one run. Ten strikeouts, no walks — it’s the kind of performance (along with a six-run cushion entering the ninth) that would earn a pitcher a complete game even in today’s bullpen-happy environment.

Of course, the Phillies couldn’t run Lee out there every day. In Game 2, they turned to Pedro Martinez, well past the peak of his powers. A fading Pedro on the mound, a fresh bullpen with a travel day imminent — if ever there was a time to empty out the bullpen and keep your starter on a short leash, it was this game.

Before the Phillies even got a chance to think about pulling Pedro, though, the Yankees threw in a curious intentional walk. In the top of the third, Chase Utley came to the plate with a man on second and two out in a tie ballgame. A.J. Burnett intentionally walked him after falling behind in the count 3-0, choosing instead to face Ryan Howard — the same Ryan Howard who hit 45 home runs on his way to a 139 wRC+ that year. Sure, you might walk Utley either way — but conceding that runner without trying for an out is a huge cost to pay with a prolific power hitter on deck. It worked out, but it certainly could have backfired spectacularly.

Meanwhile, Pedro started off strong, with four strikeouts and only a single hit allowed in the first three innings. As he started to tire, the Yankees made louder contact — a homer from Mark Teixeira in the fourth, a two-out Derek Jeter double in the fifth. Martinez escaped the inning after that double, and it would have been a reasonable end to his night — five innings, 85 pitches, the molten core of the Yankees lineup due up next.

He went out for another inning — two strikeouts, but also a home run surrendered to Hideki Matsui. Again, a reasonable stopping point — he’d gone six strong, thrown 99 pitches, and kept the Phillies in the game. But the Phillies got a little greedy and ran him out for the seventh, and he gave up two singles to start the inning before being pulled. The run that later scored didn’t prove decisive — the Phillies lost 3-1 — but they were far too willing to roll the dice by leaving Pedro in the game, in my opinion.

Aside from a goofy, low-leverage Mariano Rivera appearance — three-run lead, one out in the ninth — Game 3 was a straightforward affair. Both pitchers hit singles that helped key rallies, both teams used four relievers; the Phillies relief corps simply got knocked around more.

Game 4 reprised the main themes of this series — the Yankees intentionally walked Jayson Werth to get a platoon advantage against Raul Ibanez, who had the power to make that runner really sting, while the Phillies tried to stretch Joe Blanton a little further than his talent merited. As was a theme throughout the series, New York’s decision panned out and Philadelphia’s didn’t; but that doesn’t cast judgment on which was a worse choice ex-ante.

Still, the Blanton situation looked pretty bad. Heading into the top of the fifth, the game was tied. The first two Yankees reached base, on a walk and an infield single respectively. The Phillies got a reprieve when CC Sabathia struck out on a foul bunt, but that meant the top of New York’s order was due up. This would, today, be a time to bring in a high-leverage reliever rather than stick with your league-average starter. But the Phillies stuck with Blanton, and he gave up two consecutive singles to give the Yankees a 4-2 edge.

The Phillies rallied back with two solo home runs to tie it. But that brought in the Phillies’ closer — and that was a problem for Philly. Brad Lidge was awful in 2009 — he had a 5.45 FIP in 58.2 innings, good for -0.8 WAR. Lest you think this is a case of FIP lying and Lidge preventing runs at an elite rate — yeah, he had a 7.21 ERA. He also racked up 31 saves and had the highest average entry leverage index on the team — they weren’t willing to believe he was bad. But it wasn’t hard to see — his strikeout rate cratered, his walk rate stayed at a gross 12%, and he was giving out home runs like party favors. The Phillies simply chose to believe he was still peak Brad Lidge when he clearly wasn’t.

Anyway, yeah, Lidge gave up three runs in an inning of work, and the Yankees won. On to Game 5!

Game 5 was an exercise in an acceptable time to give a starter a long leash. The Phillies staked Cliff Lee to an 8-2 lead, and surely weren’t interested in bringing Lidge back into play, so they let him face the Yankees lineup a fourth time. When the plan didn’t pan out — he gave up three consecutive hits to start the eighth — they yanked him from the game and went to the bullpen. The cushion was enough that they still escaped with an 8-6 victory. Avoiding the times-through-the-order penalty needn’t be dogmatic; the Phillies acted quite rationally here.

Sadly, that just set the stage for more Pedro heartbreak. The Yankees got to him early, and also got to reliever Chad Durbin, building a 7-1 lead after five innings. That was too much of a mountain for Philly to climb, particularly with Mariano Rivera going 1.2 innings to ice things.

I have a hard time calling this set of World Series choices “wild.” In a way that simply wasn’t the case a decade earlier, these were true risk-reward propositions. No one was wildly spewing win probability into the air. Luckily, it wasn’t perfectly smooth sailing — otherwise, this series would be getting pretty dull. And that pattern of mostly good decisions with a few fun ones sprinkled in wasn’t about to stop — in fact, 2011 featured one of the weirdest defensive non-substitutions of all time. But that’s a story for another time — next week, to be specific.

This story has been updated to better describe the intentional walk A.J. Burnett issued to Chase Utley.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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rhswanzey
Member

“Times through the order penalty was already a known thing”

In 2007?

Cave Dameron was pounding the table pretty hard about the penalty for the 2013 playoffs. I specifically recall him urging the Pirates to just let the starter (Liriano?) face only ten hitters in a WC game, and there were readers even here who thought that was too aggressive.

Known to some folks, sure.. but probably not known in terms of common usage by teams

rhswanzey
Member

Or maybe it was Cards and Wacha. I dunno, this is a great series, not trying to hate

Cave Dameron
Member
Cave Dameron

I do remember pounding the table pretty hard about that.