Lack of familiarity between the Red Sox and the Cardinals gives this World Series an old-school feel
BOSTON -- Not only are we lucky enough to have the first World Series since 1979 that matches division winners who both led their respective leagues in wins and run differential, but we also have the rare World Series that hasn't been spoiled by interleague play. Both the Red Sox and the Cardinals have spent the past three days cramming like college kids during finals week. There is a good sense of anxiety on both sides because of the two clubs' lack of familiarity with each other.
Hitters are combing through videos of pitchers they never have seen before. Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, for instance, said he has been watching video of the St. Louis pitchers facing right-handed hitters in the National League whose approach at the plate is similar to his. Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli said he might call friends from NL teams to ask questions about Cardinals pitchers.
"This series is going to be a race to make adjustments," said Boston left fielder Jonny Gomes. "If you've never faced [St. Louis starter Adam] Wainwright before, you better figure it out by the third at-bat."
Interleague play has cut both ways. It has made the owners a bit more money, but it has also sucked some of the mystique out of the sport's premier events, the All-Star Game and the World Series. This year we are just plain lucky that the Red Sox and the Cardinals have not played each other since 2008. That means these teams aren't that familiar with each other, which is notable given the way rosters in this era turn over.
Boston's entire World Series roster, for instance, has only four hits in 21 at-bats against St. Louis pitchers not named Wainwright. And against Wainwright, the Cardinals' Game 1 starter, the Red Sox have been even worse: 11-for-68 (.162). "Wainwright's not the same pitcher I saw in 2010," said Gomes, who was then with the Reds and is 2-for-10 against the St. Louis ace. "He was just starting to throw a cutter then, like a few guys. Now I think you can't pitch in the big leagues unless you have a cutter. You can almost delete that [history]."
The Boston roster has one at-bat combined against the four top pitchers in the Cardinals bullpen: Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. Imagine trying to figure out the nasty pitches from Game 2 starter Michael Wacha, the filthy slider from Martinez or the 100-mph heat from Rosenthal for the first time, and having to do it in the World Series.
St. Louis is up against the same sort of pressure to figure out pitchers in a hurry while in the spotlight. The Cardinals' roster does have 82 at-bats against former NL right-hander Jake Peavy, but otherwise St. Louis is just a combined 3-for-26 (.115) against the three other Red Sox starters, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz.
Managers will have to decide on pitching moves without relying on the crutch of large sample sizes -- if they have any samples at all -- to get the matchups they want. Imagine that: They will have to rely on their gut feelings and observational skills.
Wainwright has pitched 274 major league games in 25 different ballparks, but on Wednesday night he will pitch for the first time in Fenway Park. The Cardinals are so unfamiliar with Fenway that during batting practice on Tuesday second baseman Matt Carpenter walked into the visitors' dugout and, while pointing to a door at the far end, asked a reporter, "Is that a bathroom down there?" Told that it was, Carpenter paid it a first-time visit.
Boston's path to the World Series was paved with familiarity. The Red Sox faced established starting pitchers whom they already knew well: Matt Moore, David Price, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Justin Verlander. They had seen those pitchers a combined 19 times this year alone -- 42 times and 953 at-bats over the past two years. The only puzzle was the Tigers' Sanchez, who last pitched against Boston in 2006. All he did was no-hit the Sox for six innings the first time they saw him in Game 1 of the ALCS.
Where there is mystery, the edge belongs to the pitcher, which is why, in conjunction with what is expected to be raw weather in Boston, this Postseason of the Pitcher should continue. The series may also turn on a single nugget of information that somebody has learned from a scout or from watching a video. It was 25 years ago that Dodgers scout Mel Didier, in the report he handed in after following the Athletics in advance of the World Series, noted that closer Dennis Eckersley liked to throw back-door sliders on full counts to left-handed hitters. Kirk Gibson remembered that report as he stepped out of the batter's box with a full count against Eckersley in Game 1. He stepped back in and promptly hit one of the most famous home runs in history on a full-count back door slider.
Didier wrote his report on an electric typewriter and filed it in a blue bound book. Today, in addition to the briefing they will get from scouts, the Red Sox and the Cardinals can study high-def videos on their iPads and comb the Pitch f/x data. Technology has made more information accessible in more ways than ever before, but there's nothing new about how it is being used. The task facing both teams in this edition of the Fall Classic is as old as the World Series itself: Figure out the other pitcher as fast as you can.
How is it possible that Wacha is throwing this hard and this well so late in the season, only 16 months after he was drafted, and having blown past his innings workload of last year? It's the result of careful planning by St. Louis, and it may become the industry standard for how to groom young pitchers.
For too long teams have mindlessly adhered to the baseball calendar, and specifically to the five-man rotation. Pitchers of all shapes, sizes and ages start throwing at the same time, when spring training begins, and just keep taking the ball until either the club decides that they have thrown enough innings or injuries hit. Think about what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg last year, when he pitched his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Washington kept running him out to the mound until he hit the club's predetermined limit of about 160 innings. And when he did, the Nationals shut him down, voluntarily keeping a healthy Strasburg off their postseason roster. It was the egg-timer approach to pitching.
Now consider what the Cardinals did with Wacha, 22. After drafting him out of Texas A&M last year with the 19th pick, St. Louis knew it would have to keep an eye on his innings-pitched in his first professional season. Between college and the minors, Wacha threw 134 ⅓ innings in 2012. By industry rule of thumb, his innings-pitched should be around 170 this year.
Wacha will enter his Game 2 start on Thursday night having thrown 170 ⅔ innings. What the Cardinals did was to carefully "steal" innings from his workload by giving him extra days of rest throughout the season -- sometimes many days of rest. "Beg, borrow and steal," joked St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. Wacha has started 27 games this year overall. Only 10 of them came with the standard four days of rest -- the 17 others happened with extra days off.
Most importantly, St. Louis backed way off Wacha's workload in the middle of the summer when he was at Triple-A Memphis. From June 12 to July 23, he threw only 16 innings. During his down time, he threw light bullpen sessions and worked on the touch of his pitches, especially the curveball. The curve had been a below-average pitch for him early in the season; now it is a legitimate third pitch, and Wacha has been throwing the curve this month more than ever before.
Had the Cardinals kept him on a normal throwing schedule through mid-summer, there is no way Wacha would be pitching like this -- if at all -- in the postseason. He has averaged more than 95 mph with his four-seam fastball this month. In his first full pro season he is throwing harder at the end of the year than he did in May (94 mph) or June (93 mph). "My arm feels great," he said.
St. Louis came up with a plan and stuck to it without making it a media issue. Out of spring training, manager Mike Matheny considered using Wacha out of the bullpen after he had performed so well in Florida in tight spots. Mozeliak resisted. The plan was to develop Wacha as an impact starter who would have gas left in his tank to help down the stretch.
"Not to the point that we were being arrogant thinking that we would be right here right now, but we wanted to be prepared," Matheny said about the tailored plan for Wacha. "If we did bring Michael up at the end and he threw the ball well, and he deserved to get a start, we wouldn't be concerned with innings, and right now we're happy where we are."
Wacha will once again be starting on Thursday off extra rest -- five days. And if there is a Game 6, he will start that one with extra rest, too. Wacha has the kind of dominating stuff to be an impact pitcher for years. That he is throwing his best baseball in the seventh month of the longest season of his young life is a tribute to the Cardinals' careful and astute planning.
• Here's one tribute to the strike-throwing brilliance of Boston closer Koji Uehara: This postseason he has thrown 24 balls to 31 batters. That's why he is the rare modern weapon who can get more than three outs to close a game.
• More proof that spending long-term money on a closer is foolish: since spring training St. Louis has gone through four closers (Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica, Rosenthal) and the Red Sox have gone through three (Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Uehara).
• Major league teams threw an average of 146 pitches per game this year. When they faced the Red Sox at Fenway, however, they had to throw an average of 153 pitches. Boston was 33-13 at Fenway when it forced its opponent to throw more than the MLB average of 146 -- with the Sox getting eight turns at bat, not nine, in a majority of those games.
• Maness has become the go-to piece for Matheny when the manager needs someone to get the Cardinals out of a jam. The average major-league pitcher gets a double play 11 percent of the time when the opportunity is in place. Maness, with his power sinker, is almost three times more likely to get a DP (30%).
• No one under the age of 95 has seen the Red Sox win a World Series at home. The team has won the clinching game of the World Series at Fenway Park only twice -- in 1912 and '18. Boston's other titles were clinched in Colorado (2007), St. Louis ('04), Philadelphia (1915) and two other ballparks in Boston, Braves Field ('16) and the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds ('03).
• John Hirschbeck is the crew chief for the solid umpiring crew assigned to the World Series. This is Hirschbeck's fourth World Series, his second in the past four years as the crew chief. He will be behind the plate for Game 1. Starters Wainwright and Lester are 2-0 with 1.64 ERA in three games combined with Hirschbeck calling balls and strikes. Batters have hit .197 in those games with 25 strikeouts and five walks in 22 innings.