Wild World Series Tactics: 1990-1993

Last week, I learned an astonishing fact while listening to Effectively Wild. In the 2001 World Series, Byung-Hyun Kim blew a save while throwing 61 pitches. The next day, Bob Brenly sent Kim right back out there, and he blew another save. I knew the back-to-back blown saves part, but 61 pitches! Imagine the uproar if that had happened last year.

This got me wondering: just how weird were baseball tactics 20 or 30 years ago? What else were teams doing that would shock a modern audience? While we wait for real baseball, I decided to find out. Starting with the 1990 World Series, I’m going to hunt for tactical decisions that would look out of place today, and see just how different baseball is.

1990

Tony LaRussa is the father of modern bullpen management, but he also had a new-looking batting order; his best four hitters in Game 1 by wRC+ batted 1-4. Lou Piniella, meanwhile, batted 92 wRC+ Billy Hatcher in the two spot. Chris Sabo, a career 110 wRC+ hitter who posted a 121 wRC+ in 1990, languished in sixth. That’s nothing too wild for the time — the second spot in the lineup was long given to “bat control” guys — but it looks antiquated next to the A’s lineup.

The first game wouldn’t look out of place in 2020. LaRussa pinch hit for ace Dave Stewart after only four innings, looking to spark a rally in a game the A’s trailed 4-0. Piniella and the Reds used only three pitchers, because ace Jose Rijo went seven strong innings, and even up 7-0, they used their top two relievers to get the last six outs. Boring!

In Game 2, the 1990s of it all started to show. LaRussa batted Carney Lansford second and had him bunt after Rickey Henderson singled and stole second. Piniella deployed a quick hook, pulling starter Danny Jackson in the third inning, but LaRussa went the other way: he let Bob Welch, a thoroughly average starter (who, in fairness, won the AL Cy Young, but did so on the back of his 27-6 record, not his 13% strikeout rate, 79 ERA-, or 110 FIP-), face the Reds lineup for the fourth time with the team clinging to a one-run lead. Welch promptly gave up a leadoff triple to Hatcher and got pulled — whoops!

In the first two games, LaRussa alternated between Dave Henderson and late-season acquisition Willie McGee. In Game 3, with the use of the DH, he left McGee on the bench in favor of Harold Baines. It wasn’t a terrible move — Baines, McGee, and Henderson were roughly equivalent hitters — but imagine a team in 2020 with a 5 WAR bench outfielder. The A’s were thoroughly odd, and by Game 4, they were desperate — LaRussa batted Mark McGwire seventh behind backup catcher Jamie Quirk.

The last game of the sweep featured only three pitchers, with Stewart going the distance in a 2-1 loss. A strange intentional walk (man on second, two outs in the first inning) by the Reds set the tone, but the true weirdness didn’t start until the eighth inning. After a leadoff single by Barry Larkin, Piniella called for a sacrifice bunt. Herm Winningham beat out the bunt for a hit — so Piniella had Paul O’Neill bunt as well. Stewart threw the ball away, leading to a bases-loaded jam that produced the Reds’ only two runs of the game, and that was the series.

1991

Dan Gladden, the Twins’ leadoff hitter, was not good. He had a .306 OBP in 1991. A raft of 20-steal seasons in the ‘80s made him a prototypical leadoff hitter, but Shane Mack (.363 OBP) batted sixth and Kent Hrbek (.373 OBP) batted seventh. Greg Gagne, batting ninth, had a higher OBP than Gladden that year. It’s hard to overstate how weird this would look today.

Jack Morris, the patron saint of gritty pitchers who are Big Gamers and Just Win, came out to face the Braves’ lineup for the third time in the sixth inning of Game 1. He gave up three hits, but managed to escape with only one run allowed with a timely strikeout. He came out to face the Braves for a fourth time to start the eighth — and promptly gave up two straight walks before being pulled. The Minnesota bullpen wasn’t elite — but it was good enough to bring the game home after Morris’ departure.

Game 2 featured another pitcher going four times through the order — Tom Glavine threw an eight-inning complete game while facing only 30 batters. That aside (and Glavine was a 5 WAR pitcher this year, so he might still have been better than the Braves’ bullpen options), this game was pretty close to by the book. The only weird bunt was a sacrifice by leadoff hitter Lonnie Smith (man on first, no one out, tied 2-2) in the eighth inning that didn’t lead to any runs. In somewhat of a theme, that would have been Smith’s fourth time facing starter Kevin Tapani. Tapani escaped from the jam, Glavine gave up a home run to Scott Leius, and that was that.

Game 3 featured one of my favorite Old Baseball moves — a pinch hitter, in this case Jeff Treadway, coming into the game to bunt. The inning also featured an intentional walk (bottom of the ninth, two outs and a man on second in a tie game, to get the platoon advantage) that would look right at home today.

Game 4 had a lot of outs at home — the Twins botched a suicide squeeze, Lonnie Smith got lost on the bases and ran into an out at the plate, and Terry Pendleton (in the same inning!) sprinted to his demise on what looked like a passed ball. Game 5 was a nine-run laugher, but featured Kirby Puckett sacrificing himself after a leadoff single in a tie game, and look, I don’t know, I can’t imagine that was considered reasonable even at the time.

Game 7 essentially got Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, and he pitched quite well — eight strikeouts to only two walks over 10 innings. The Braves got into weird intentional walk territory in this one — they issued one to Puckett with runners on the corners and two out in the eighth, and while they did it to gain a platoon advantage, they brought in a reliever to do it — why not simply bring in a righty reliever? For the most part, though, Game 7 was cleanly played, and Morris was simply better than the Braves.

1992

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the Blue Jays had Devon White, a dazzling fielder with a .303 OBP, leading off. They also gave Jack Morris the ball in Game 1, and this one didn’t burnish his big game reputation; he allowed three runs in six uneven innings and took the loss after giving up a three-run shot to Damon Berryhill on his third trip through the order. Tom Glavine faced 30 batters, but he was clinical; six strikeouts, no walks, and no hope for the Jays.

In Game 2, John Smoltz tried to go a fourth time through the order — and after getting the miscast Devon White to fly out, he gave up three consecutive hits and left the game with a one-run lead and a runner on third base. That might have been a reasonable gamble, though, because this Braves bullpen was truly abysmal — it was worth -1.1 WAR overall in the regular season, the third-worst ‘pen in baseball.

More fourth-time-through blues: the Jays let Juan Guzman, who was having a truly excellent season (2.64 ERA, 2.6 FIP in 180 innings) face the Braves for a fourth time. He didn’t look great the third time through — he’d given up three straight hits to allow a run in the sixth, and hadn’t struck out a batter the entire third time through the order. He still came out in the eighth in a tie game, and gave up the lead in unlucky fashion — Otis Nixon reached on a fielding error before scoring on a two-out single. The Jays had the fourth-best bullpen in baseball — as good as Guzman was, he was certainly tiring, and after striking out seven of the first 16 batters he faced, struck out none of the last 16.

The Jays won that game, incidentally. Steve Avery pitched into the ninth (you guessed it, a fourth time through the order) and gave up a single to Roberto Alomar. The Braves then used three pitchers in a hilarious sequence — Mark Wohlers came in and surrendered a stolen base, which led to him intentionally walking Joe Carter. From there, Dave Winfield sacrifice bunted, so the Braves brought in southpaw Mike Stanton to get the platoon advantage. The Jays pinch hit, and Stanton intentionally walked pinch hitter Ed Sprague. Jeff Reardon then entered the game and gave up a game-ending single. Lots of motion with little to show for it — though in this circumstance, the walks and bunt actually made sense.

Want a weird bunt? With runners on first and third and no one out in the top of the eighth inning, Damon Berryhill stepped to the plate to face Jimmy Key. Berryhill was a pretty bad hitter (career 74 wRC+), and a double play threat. Rather than pinch hit for him, or let him try to bat, they called for a squeeze bunt. Berryhill had only 10 successful sacrifice bunts for his entire career, and none in 1992 — he popped out in foul territory, and the Braves only managed one run in the inning after a promising start. They lost the game 2-1.

Morris, Ultimate Man of Never Losing Important Games, got blown out in Game 5, though he looked for a time like he might dance through trouble. With two outs in the fifth, he gave up three straight hits, then intentionally walked David Justice to face righty Lonnie Smith. Smith cranked a grand slam, and that was that. The walk was actually a good tactical decision — Justice represented a four-run lead if he scored, hardly worth worrying about. But just as teams often made poor decisions and were rewarded, this reasonable walk led to doom.

In the decisive Game 6, Berryhill finally got his sacrifice bunt down, trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth. Pitcher Tom Henke promptly walked the next batter, and Otis Nixon later tied the game with a single — had Berryhill reached base, the Braves would have won the game right there. Instead, the game continued, and after the Jays took a two run lead in the 11th inning, Bobby Cox called for another sacrifice bunt, this time trailing by two runs! There were runners on first and third with no one out, but ughhhhhh. With two outs, Nixon attempted to bunt for a hit and was thrown out — and thus, the Braves lost the World Series while on a bunting spree.

1993

After 1992’s bunt-a-palooza, ‘93 was tame in comparison. Mariano Duncan brought a 90 wRC+ to Philadelphia’s number two lineup spot, and Devon White was now batting second for the Jays, but for the most part the lineups looked fine. Cito Gaston looked downright modern using Al Leiter to cover 2.2 innings after Juan Guzman struggled in Game 1, and the first three games wouldn’t look out of place in 2019 — Curt Schilling struggled in Game 1, Dave Stewart got ambushed for five runs in the second inning of Game 2, and the Phillies got steamrolled in a quiet Game 3.

One sequence I particularly liked in Game 3: Leading 4-0, Alomar reached on a single, then promptly stole second and third in the same plate appearance before scoring on a sacrifice fly. There are probably unwritten rules against that, and the steal of third feels particularly weird, but it ended up paying off; after the sac fly, the last two outs of the inning were strikeouts.

Heck, you could make an argument that Game 4, an absolute debacle at the time, also fits a modern view of tactics. Tommy Greene, the Philadelphia starter, got shelled — seven earned in 2.1 innings. Todd Stottlemyre wasn’t much better for the Jays — he allowed six in two innings, and Leiter’s second relief stint was a disaster, as he allowed another six runs. With the Phillies up 13-9, they tried to slam the door by using their best reliever and their closer to get the last nine outs. One wrinkle — Larry Andersen had thrown 29 pitches the night before, and he struggled in his second inning of work before Mitch Williams allowed four baserunners and turned a 14-9 lead into a 15-14 deficit.

Games 5 and 6, like the first three, were mostly straightforward. Gaston issued another savvy intentional walk (second and third, two outs, down two), Curt Schilling threw a gutsy complete game, and Williams gave up a series-ending homer to Joe Carter. This series, alone among these four, looked a lot like 2019 baseball. Don’t worry, though — the pitching decisions got weirder again, which we’ll cover in the next part of this series.

This article has been updated to include Bob Welch’s 1990 Cy Young win, an award which still baffles me as I write this update.

We hoped you liked reading Wild World Series Tactics: 1990-1993 by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Raoul Raoul
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Raoul Raoul

In the 1992 series, you might want to mention Guzman / Avery was Game 3 — it’s apparent when you mention how long Avery went in his game, since Smoltz also went deep in Game 2, but it takes a while to become obvious. Also, following Game 2 to its end result anecdotally illustrates how bad Atlanta’s bullpen was: Jeff Reardon walked Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell before giving up a home run to Ed Sprague.