Wild World Series Tactics: 1995-1997

Starting yesterday, I began a hunt through old World Series games for strange tactical decisions. Things were weird in the early ‘90s — MVP candidates bunting, intentional walks so thick they blocked out the sun, and raft-loads of pitchers overstaying their welcome. How did things go in the next half-decade? Better. But not that much better — the event that inspired this project, Byung-Hyun Kim throwing 61 pitches and then pitching the next day, wasn’t until 2001. We’ve still got plenty of weirdness going on. With 1994 lost to the strike, we’ll jump back in in 1995.

1995

The Braves were back with a retooled roster — Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, and Javy Lopez headlined the new crop of hitters. Marquis Grissom manned center, put up a .317 OBP, and — you guessed it — led off. Mark Lemke (79 wRC+) batted second, and just… come on, Bobby Cox, stop messing with my mind.

Ryan Klesko hit .310/.396/.608 and batted sixth — sure wouldn’t hate getting him a few more at-bats. Even Charlie O’Brien, Greg Maddux’s personal catcher, was better with the stick this year than Grissom and Lemke — he hit seventh. Cleveland was just as bad — they had Omar Vizquel hit second while Manny Ramirez, in a season where he hit .308/.402/.558, languished in seventh. In fact, Vizquel was the worst regular hitter on the Indians, period.

Game 1 was a buttoned-up affair — there aren’t a lot of tactics to talk about when Greg Maddux throws a complete game in 95 pitches. The only real points of interest were two Cox pinch hitting decisions — he pulled Klesko for journeyman Mike Devereaux, then pulled O’Brien for light-hitting Luis Polonia. Both over-valued platoon edges relative to talent levels. The pinch hitting penalty wasn’t commonly known then, which doesn’t help.

Game 2 makes me wonder what Cox’s pinch hitting strategy card looks like. This time he brought in Dwight Smith to pinch hit for Tom Glavine. Smith was likely a better choice than Polonia as a lefty, but then why pinch hit with Polonia in the first game? Not to be outdone, Cleveland pinch hit with Wayne Kirby, a career 76 wRC+ hitter who had an awful 1995 (.207/.260/.298). Why not use Paul Sorrento, a lefty who would start at first base when the series returned to Cleveland and who pinch hit later in the game? No clue!

In Game 3, the Indians finally used their best reliever. Their bullpen was the best in baseball, and Jose Mesa was the headliner. The Indians had the perfect situation for a rested Mesa — they clung to a two run lead with starter Charles Nagy, you guessed it, about to face the top of the Braves’ lineup for a fourth time. The Indians brought in — well, nope, they left in Nagy, who promptly gave up a double and a run-scoring single.

But with the game on the line, with the tying run on first base, it was time to break glass in case of emergency. Or, it would be these days. In 1995, Mike Hargrove dialed up lefty specialist Paul Assenmacher. It wasn’t a bad spot for him — after the switch-hitting Jones, the Braves had three lefties in a row due up. But the switch didn’t work; Jones walked, and after Assenmacher got a fly out, a Carlos Baerga error tied the game. When Mike Devereaux came in to hit for Klesko — a pattern at this point — it was Mesa Time.

Or, well, it could have been. Instead, Julian Tavarez, another competent reliever but not Mesa, came in and gave up a single to put the Braves ahead. When Mesa checked in, it was a 6-6 game after the Indians scratched back a run in the bottom of the eighth, and he pitched for the duration — three innings of shutout ball in a 7-6, 11-inning win.

Game 4 was largely about the Indians not leaning on their bullpen. They gave Ken Hill the start, and he got through five innings of work unscathed. He came out to start the sixth facing the lefty heart of the order, and gave up a tiebreaking home run to Klesko. After Albert Belle tied the game, the Indians sent Hill back out — and he promptly gave up a walk and a double to give the lead back. The Indians finally went to Assenmacher, who was beaten again, this time by Justice, and that was essentially the game.

Game 5 featured a weird sacrifice bunt/intentional walk sequence (Charlie O’Brien sacrificed, and the Indians walked pinch hitter Dwight Smith to fill the resulting open base), and a gratuitous intentional walk by Greg Maddux (man on second, one out, tie game in the bottom of the sixth, with Belle at the plate). Belle scored, and the Indians won the game by a run. Awkward.

Game 6 was a 1-0 affair without much weirdness, though it did feature two more intentional walks in a 1-0 Braves victory. Mesa never pitched — he threw three scoreless innings in the entire series, all in Game 3. And the weird pinch hitting went away — in this game, the Indians used Sorrento over Kirby and the Braves used Polonia over Smith. It was a very eventful series for strange and likely inconsequential pinch hitting decisions.

1996

Tired of seeing the Braves? They were back with Grissom and Lemke atop the lineup, though Grissom was much improved in ‘96. You know how this goes — every batter in the lineup was a better hitter than Lemke, but he handled the bat well. The Yankees brought a well-constructed lineup with Derek Jeter leading off and their worst hitters batting eighth and ninth.

In Game 1, the Braves showed off a sequence that simply doesn’t happen anymore. Here’s how the third inning started: single, single, sacrifice bunt (by Lemke), single, single, walk, fly out, home run. The game was over either way, but that bunt stuck out like a sore thumb. Lemke struck again in Game 2; after a leadoff double in a 1-0 game, he sacrificed himself again — and just like before, the next two batters reached base. Yet again, that missing run ended up not mattering in a 4-0 Atlanta win.

In Game 3, Jeter (now batting second) followed a Tim Raines leadoff walk with a sacrifice bunt. It “worked” — Bernie Williams followed with a run-scoring single — but the Yankees scored only a single run. The Braves stuck with Tom Glavine for quite a while, and even let him bat for himself in the bottom of the sixth inning, but he rewarded them by drawing a walk and scoring, though the run wasn’t enough in a loss.

Game 4 of this World Series of infinite bunts featured the first bunt that I kind of understand; with the game tied 6-6 in the eighth inning, Andruw Jones led off with a single against Mariano Rivera. Jermaine Dye, the next batter up, sacrificed Jones over to second. It’s a spot where you can almost understand the value — except that the next two hitters were Rafael Belliard and Eddie Pérez. They pinch hit for Belliard with Luis Polonia, but that’s no great shakes either — and those two spots predictably made outs, ending the rally, before the Yankees won it in the 10th.

In Game 5, the Yankees let platoon third baseman Charlie Hayes start against a right-handed pitcher — they’d previously been platooning him with Wade Boggs. Naturally, the light-hitting Hayes batted second in the order now. Naturally, Hayes scored the only run of the game after reaching on an error, though he didn’t record a hit or walk all game.

A cleanly played Game 6 clincher only highlighted how weird it was to see Hayes batting second in Game 5 — Boggs played again in Game 6 against Maddux, batting second — almost as though Joe Torre simply decided to bat a third baseman second no matter what.

1997

Your memory of the 1990’s Cleveland Indians likely mirrors this article — piles upon piles of absolutely dominant hitters. Naturally, Bip Roberts led off for them in a season where he compiled a 90 wRC+, and Omar Vizquel (89 wRC+) hit second to make sure Cleveland wasn’t playing unfair by starting with too many runners on base.

The Marlins countered with a Blue Jays classic — Devon White leading off. Edgar Renteria batted second, and if that sounds good to you, you’re thinking of mid-career Renteria; the early model was a glove-first shortstop with a .327 OBP and 81 wRC+.

The second play of this series was a bunt — after Roberts led off the game with a double, Vizquel sacrificed right away. Naturally, the next two batters reached base, but the Indians scored only one run. The Marlins played a clean game, letting their bats do the talking and pulling Livan Hernandez before his fourth time through the order. Their bullpen was middle of the road, but they went to their top three relievers to cover 3.1 innings and lock down the win.

Games 2 through 4 mostly featured sound tactical decisions — like the 1993 Phillies-Blue Jays series, these contests felt almost modern, with both managers leaning on their best relievers and neither over-bunting.A reasonable intentional walk — down a run in the ninth, runner on third, one out — came back to bite the Indians in Game 3. The Marlins scored seven runs in the inning, turning a close game into a laugher. The Indians stormed back with four runs in the bottom of the inning, but it was too late.

Game 5, however, was back to the past. Vizquel sacrificed himself after a leadoff walk in the first inning. Orel Hershiser cracked his third time through the order, giving up four runs in the sixth, which staked the Marlins to a 6-4 lead. Up to this point, they’d been aggressive with their bullpen usage, and this was the perfect time to put the hammer down — up two runs, in a tied series, with a travel day the next day.

Livan Hernandez kept pitching. He got through the sixth in a clean inning. He got through the seventh in a clean inning, He got through the eighth after escaping from a two-on jam. In the meantime, the Marlins scored two insurance runs. Surely, at 8-4 and with Hernandez about to face the lineup for the fifth time, he’d be pulled.

He wasn’t pulled, however, until the first two batters of the ninth inning reached base. Closer Robb Nen held the line, only barely, in an 8-7 win. But Hernandez’s start is wild to think about today. He threw 142 pitches. He faced 38 batters. And he wasn’t even good! He allowed six runs (five earned), walked eight, and struck out only two. He was out there surviving on luck alone, and the Marlins, who earlier in the series were backing up six-inning starts with a parade of relievers, just ran with it.

Games 6 and 7 were mostly quiet, and even featured an aggressive but likely correct pinch hitting decision — down 4-0 in Game 6, Jim Leyland pulled Kevin Brown with two on and one out in the fifth. It didn’t pan out — pinch hitter Darren Daulton hit a sacrifice fly — but that four-run lead stood up anyway, and it was a valiant attempt to get back into the game in a high-leverage spot.

But the 1997 World Series, for all its modern leanings, still feels ostentatiously of the past. That Livan Hernandez start — 142 pitches, two strikeouts!! — is something you couldn’t dream of today. We haggle about whether pitchers should face someone the third time through the order — good pitchers, even. A pitcher facing 38 batters would sound crazy if they were pitching efficiently and effectively. Add in the six runs allowed, and it’s completely unheard of.

We hoped you liked reading Wild World Series Tactics: 1995-1997 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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great stuff!