Sunday, October 30, 2011

Different ways to win

Ten years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. The elite talent on the team essentially boiled down to two great starting pitchers -- Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as well as a slugging left fielder, Luis Gonzales, having a career year.  Schilling and Johnson won the World Series almost single-handedly, pitching almost all the innings in the last two games.

In the years since, the conventional wisdom was that having elite starting pitching as close as there was to a sure path to postseason success in baseball.  In a short series with off days, when you can have your top two or three pitchers throw a large share of the innings, having those inning thrown by two or three of the top ten pitchers in baseball is a great way to win.

Of course, you did need more.  You needed some offense.  You needed a closer.  Some situational relievers would be nice. But you start with the pitching.

Surely, this is what motivated the Phillies' roster construction.  With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Phils had three of NL's top 10 pitchers.  Throw in Roy Oswalt, who had been among those just recently, and Vance Worley, who appeared to be joining them, and it looked like they'd mow through the competition.

But it didn't work out that way.  The St. Louis Cardinals, with one starter who consistently delivered quality starts, won the World Series.

The Cardinals has their share of starts.  Carpenter was consistently solid and occasionally brilliant.  David Freese deservedly picked up a load of postseason awards.  Allen Craig broke through as a consistent run producer.  Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman continued to hit and strike fear into opposing pitchers.

But in my judgement, the star of the Cardinals postseason run was their deep bullpen.  They had seven or eight pitchers in the bullpen in each round who were capable of pitching in any situation.  And Tony LaRussa did.  Often, by the time teams reach the World Series, managers only have a few relief pitchers they have confidence in, and managers overuse them or push their starters to go further than they should.

Ironically, this was a strength for the Cardinals in part because it was such a weakness for them in the early parts of the regular season.  Because they were so ineffective, each reliever got a shot in the set-up and closer roles.  And even though none of them pitched well enough to seize those roles, they pitched well enough that La Russa would not hesitate to use them.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the cardinals had eight battle-tested relievers who were relatively fresh.  And then Lance Lynn came back from injury and was able to fill in for Kyle McClellan, who was worn out.

I'm not sure this success can be replicated.  It took the right circumstances and the right manager to make work.  But it's hard to deny it worked this year.

Still, I wouldn't bet against the Phillies riding their starters to next year's title.  There's more than one way to win.  That's what makes baseball, and sports, interesting.  The Miami Heat have two of the five best players.  That didn't win them the title last year; it may this year.
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