Wild World Series Tactics: 2004-2006

When we last left this series, the Marlins were running the Yankees out of the stadium and Craig Counsell was bunting up a storm. Baseball tactics continued to creep inexorably forward: lineups looked more modern, pitchers threw fewer innings, and platoon advantages were seized left and right. It wasn’t all seamless — the entire 2001 series was a study in strange decision-making — but things were looking up. Did that continue?

2004

As a Cardinals fan, this is a painful series for me. But it certainly wasn’t painful due to the Cardinals’ roster construction, which was excellent. Edgar Renteria was perhaps a weak leadoff hitter (88 wRC+ in 2004), but he ran a career .343 OBP and had been downright excellent in 2003 — the Cardinals were betting that 2004 was just a blip. Past that, it was a slew of fearsome hitters: Larry Walker batted second, Albert Pujols third, Scott Rolen fourth, and Jim Edmonds fifth.

On the Red Sox side, things weren’t quite as smooth. Orlando Cabrera was an under-qualified number two hitter. But the rest of the lineup followed sabermetric orthodoxy, and quite frankly, both of these teams were so stacked with good hitters that it’s hard to find much fault with the lineups.

In the second inning of Game 1, Edmonds even busted out a very modern contrivance; the bunt for a hit into a shifted infield. Reggie Sanders followed with a walk, always a potential outcome with a knuckleball pitcher on the mound. Then Tony Womack, of 2001 World Series fame, came to the plate — and bunted. This wasn’t some attempt to sneak a bunt by a still-sleeping Red Sox defense. Womack showed bunt on each of the four pitches of the at-bat, and the corner infielders were at a full charge as the pitch was thrown.

This was the very definition of a bad bunt. The Cardinals were already down four runs — successfully executing the bunt lowered their win expectancy by more than 1%. They needed chunk innings, not sacrificed outs. The next two hitters were Mike Matheny and So Taguchi, the two weakest bats on the team, and they predictably made outs; 4-1 Red Sox.

Both teams put up bunches of runs — starters Woody Williams and Tim Wakefield lasted a combined six innings — but Tony LaRussa couldn’t help himself and used a LaRussian bullpen style in this one. Kiko Calero, Ray King, and Cal Eldred combined to pitch an inning and face seven batters. They were all effective relievers for the Cardinals, all used but briefly, but the bullpen was deep enough that closer Jason Isringhausen was left on the shelf.

Wait, left on the shelf? Ugh, yes, that monster of mid-aughts bullpen management, saving the closer in a tie game, still happened here, though Julian Tavarez, the setup man, was nearly as good as Isringhausen. In any case, he lost the game, and the Sox A-B-C’ed their bullpen to victory with an assist from fifth starter Bronson Arroyo.

After an uneventful Game 2, things got weird. Pedro Martinez found himself in an early jam — bases loaded with one out and Edmonds at the plate. He got a fly ball to shallow left, and the Cardinals inexplicably sent Larry Walker, who was out by a mile. Sending runners doesn’t normally count as tactics, but this one is egregious enough to mention.

In the third, Pedro again found himself in trouble. Second and third with nobody out, Walker at the plate; things could have gotten ugly. Instead, Walker hit into a double play. Yes, that’s right: he grounded out to first, and pitcher Jeff Suppan got lost off of third base. David Ortiz, playing a competent first, threw over for the out, and the rally was over. Again, not tactics necessarily — but setting your pitcher in motion, at all, in that situation qualifies as managerial malpractice.

The Cardinals never threatened again in Game 3, and they hardly did in Game 4. The only weird part of Game 4 was the Cardinals starter — or rather, what he had done in Game 2. Jason Marquis pitched six innings of three-run baseball in Game 4, wriggling out of trouble a few times. The only problem? He’d been used as a reliever in Game 2 (for 25 pitches) with the game already out of hand. Then he threw 121 pitches in an elimination game on two days’ rest.

The Cardinals were down to four starters due to injury, so why use one of them in a low-leverage relief appearance? The answer is lost to time, as far as I can tell, but it’s hard to imagine a good justification for it — beyond the fact that the Cardinals carried only 11 pitchers in the series and yet were using them in one-batter bursts. The Cardinals had no answer for Boston in this series, but they also did themselves no favors.

2005

Willy Taveras might seem like an archaic number two hitter — he was one of the worst overall hitters on the Astros — but I can give them a pass, because he was an on-base machine with no power. The White Sox went even further that way, stacking Scott Podsednik and Tadahito Iguchi 1-2. Both teams used their high-OBP early hitters to bridge the gap to their best overall hitters hitting 3-5, a plan I’m totally okay with.

Unfortunately for the Astros, making good decisions wasn’t nearly enough. Roger Clemens aggravated a sore hamstring in Game 1 and left after only two innings. Willy Taveras threw in a bunt in the third inning with runners on first and second and one out, but it was a bunt for a hit that went awry; hardly a gaffe, just a gambit that failed. It even led to an extra run when Lance Berkman doubled immediately after Taveras.

After that game-tying double, Contreras settled down. He appeared to, at least — he was very efficient, throwing only 80 pitches through seven innings, but he was hardly overpowering the Houston hitters; he recorded only two strikeouts all game, and Taveras led off the eighth — fourth time through the order, in a one-run game — with a double that chased Contreras. Luckily for manager Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox bullpen was lights out; Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks struck out five of the last seven Astros to close the game out.

Game 2 was another tactical victory but scoreboard defeat for the Astros; they went to Dan Wheeler, their second-best reliever, in the seventh with a two run lead, only for Wheeler to load the bases. Replacement Chad Qualls gave up a grand slam, which could have been game over — only the Astros rallied against Jenks and tied the game in the top of the ninth.

Astros manager Phil Garner went new school, bringing in closer Brad Lidge in a tie game on the road — and Lidge gave up a game-ending home run to Scott Podsednik, who didn’t have a single home run all season (in fairness, he had 12 the year before, so he wasn’t a complete zero). Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry.

In Game 3, Taveras again tried a sneak attack bunt on the first pitch he saw. This time he popped out. Sometimes it’s just not your series. The Astros later called for an intentional sacrifice bunt — down one run in the seventh inning with a man on first — but as Adam Everett was doing the bunting and Jeff Bagwell batted next, I’m okay with it.

Game 3 wasn’t mostly about bunts; it was mostly about an interminable string of pitchers. The White Sox pulled ahead. The Astros clawed back. Both teams used their best pitchers, and then their second-best pitchers, and then whatever they had left in the tank. In the end, Ezequiel Astacio and Damaso Marte, the last two men in each bullpen, faced off.

Astacio cracked first, giving up two runs and loading the bases, which brought in Wandy Rodriguez, whom the Astros had hoped to save for Game 4 with no Clemens available. After Rodriguez closed out the top of the 14th, Marte also faltered, putting two runners on base with two outs. In came Mark Buehrle, the Game 2 starter, and he got the last out to complete a madcap game where both teams pulled out all the stops.

In Game 4, Taveras finally went for a straight sacrifice bunt. It was still a close play — he was blindingly fast — but in my opinion, it was more sacrifice than hit attempt, and it led to no runs in the inning.

In fact, the Astros didn’t score in the game. Freddy Garcia made it through seven innings in 107 pitches, holding the Astros to two only three hits after Biggio had led off the game with a single. Emergency starter Brandon Backe was transcendent, striking out seven in seven shutout innings, but it was all for naught; Lidge, pitching for the third time in four days, surrendered an RBI single to Jermaine Dye. Cotts and Jenks, who both pitched in every game of the series, held on. Both teams used their bullpens as offensive weapons, but the White Sox prevailed.

2006

The 2006 Cardinals featured a streamlined batting order and a sketchy pitching staff. Naturally, they opened the series by having middling starter Anthony Reyes go eight innings and face 29 batters — his pitch count wasn’t that high, you see.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were light on offensive firepower — Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, batting 4-5, were their two best hitters by far. They hoped to lean on their excellent pitching staff. Just one problem — Justin Verlander gave up seven runs in five innings, while Reyes only let in two. In fact, the Reyes start makes more sense in that lens: the Cardinals bullpen was as thin as their rotation, and with a 7-1 lead, LaRussa gave Reyes a long leash. In that sense, it’s not a crazy decision at all.

In Game 2, Ramon Santiago put on a demonstration of the futility of analysis. He attempted a sacrifice bunt with men on first and second and no one out — a no-no in my book. However, Albert Pujols misplayed it, which left the bases loaded and no one out. How did that end? With a strikeout, pop up, and groundout. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

Meanwhile, Jim Leyland gambled by leaving Kenny Rogers out on the mound for 28 batters. Rogers was efficient, using only 99 pitches to get through eight innings, and he was also missing bats, managing 11 swinging strikes. It’s hardly managerial malpractice to leave your starter out there to face Yadier Molina, Aaron Miles, and David Eckstein — closer Todd Jones came in to deal with the heavy hitters in the ninth, and that was the game.

Game 3 was a washout; Chris Carpenter blanked the Tigers for eight innings and the Cardinals bats woke up. Game 4 showed some modern bullpen management; Leyland pulled Jeremy Bonderman, probably the team’s best pitcher, after 5.1 innings and 92 pitches. It could have been worse; Bonderman opened up the sixth by surrendering a double, but Preston Wilson, batting second in the inning, charitably donated an out with a sacrifice bunt.

After a walk, then-young wonder Fernando Rodney came in to get two strikeouts and preserve a slim 3-2 lead. Unfortunately, the Cardinals had devil magic on their side; after Eckstein led off the seventh with a “double” (Curtis Granderson slipped on the wet grass), LaRussa sent in So Taguchi as a pinch hitter — for Chris Duncan, who was batting second and had the platoon advantage. Taguchi, naturally, was in the game to bunt. And bunt he did; but Rodney threw the ball away, Eckstein scored, and Taguchi subsequently scored to give St. Louis the lead.

In the decisive Game 5, bunt shenanigans again powered the Cardinals. With men on first and second and one out, Cardinals starter Jeff Weaver hit for himself — it was the fourth inning, and the Cardinals only had two relievers they trusted, so this looks pretty reasonable. He attempted a bunt — again, reasonable — and Verlander threw the ball away, scoring a run and leaving the Cardinals with men on second and third.

That lead more or less held up. The Redbirds added an insurance run against Rodney, Jeff Weaver went eight innings and struck out nine, and Adam Wainwright, one of the two aforementioned trustworthy relievers, closed things out.

This string of World Series was uncompetitive and short. Some of the managers didn’t give me much to write about; the Astros-White Sox series, in particular, was a preview of what modern bullpen management would look like. That’s one of the three key pillars I’ve found in reviewing these old Series — lineup construction, bullpen management, and bad bunts.

Lineup construction was the first to fall; by 2000, teams had mostly caught on to the concept of having their best hitters bat most often. Bad bunts followed a similar downward trajectory, though LaRussa and Bob Melvin were still doing their part to keep it alive. That 2005 clash foreshadowed the last domino to fall — a parade of a team’s best relievers anytime the outcome of the game was in doubt.

When did that change? To some extent, it still hasn’t. The league tends towards more efficiency over time, no doubt. But as we’ll see next time, it wasn’t all smooth sailing to a future of Lance McCullers Jr. throwing all curveballs and Andrew Miller playing enforcer.

This article has been updated to correct Scott Podsednik’s 2005 batting line and to correctly name Ozzie Guillen, rather than Jose Guillen, as the White Sox manager.





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

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Skin Blues
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Skin Blues

“Lidge gave up a game-ending home run to Scott Podsednik, who had hit only 12 all season in more than 700 plate appearances.”

Scotty Pods hit 12 HR in 2004, but in 2005 he hit a total of 0 HR all year, in 568 PA. Even worse for Lidge! Poor guy was still shook from what Pujols did to him.

shumway
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shumway

haha, looks like we were seeing this at the exact same time. As a Sox fan I’ve watched the 2005 world series again recently due to no baseball and was reminded how amazing that was.