Teams, not stars, shine in this World Series
Balanced lineups are key to the Tigers' and Cardinals' success. Is it a sign of baseball's future?
DETROIT — As the old baseball saying goes, you can't tell the players without a scorecard. That may be truer than ever today.
The two teams battling this week in the World Series don't necessarily have world-famous names on board. To be sure, the St. Louis Cardinals have Albert Pujols, one of the most feared hitters in baseball. And the Detroit Tigers have catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, considered by many a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame someday.
But these teams have gotten where they are – poised to play Game 3 of the Series Tuesday night in St. Louis – because of performances by a much larger, and less-known, cast of characters.
And in many cases, those roles are being filled by players who weren't even on the team three years ago. Only 10 current Tigers were also on the team roster in 2003, when the franchise set an American League record by losing 119 games.
You'd expect high turnover on a team that's staging such a big turnaround, of course. But the Cardinals were in the World Series in 2004, and their team is also mostly new. Only one of their current starting pitchers, Jeff Suppan, was a pitcher of record when the Cards lost to the Boston Red Sox in four straight games two years ago this month.
The lesson in all this goes beyond these two teams, and beyond this year's matchup. The game of baseball, and the way teams are built and managed, is evolving.
Granted, the recipe for success is in some ways as simple as it's always been. For one, it has always taken more than a few stars to build a championship club. And teams need good pitching and an offense that produces runs, whether by power or speed.
Just look at this Series so far: The Cardinals won Game 1 because pitcher Anthony Reyes shut down Detroit. The Tigers won Game 2 because no one, apparently, can hit Kenny Rogers this October.
But this year's championship teams also reflect changing times. They've been put together by inspired general managers – without loads of money for salaries. They've succeeded by making the most of all their players. And they're in the Series despite being viewed as underdogs in the playoffs.
All those are trends that have been building over the past decade. A greater variety of teams are finding ways to win. Regardless of which team wins the current Series, this will mark a seven-year stretch in which seven clubs have won the world championship.
One reason is evolving strategies, such as growing reliance on middle-inning relief pitchers as well as closers. A bigger structural change is also involved: The realignment of the major leagues into three divisions for both the National and American Leagues.
The result is a buildup to the postseason that's more like today's National Football League than the original World Series format. For years, the Series was played simply between the two teams with the best records in each league. Then came playoffs with two teams from each league – four total a year – vying for the Series. And since the mid-1990s, eight teams have had a shot.
With more layers of postseason contests have come more opportunities for carefully managed middle-tier teams to claw their way to the top in October.
"What we're seeing with both the Cardinals and the Tigers is a formula for how teams can succeed without the enormous payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees," says Rany Jazayerli, senior author of the Baseball Prospectus.
It's not really a one-size-fits-all formula. But both teams have general managers who have used scarce resources to great effect. Building on a base of home-grown talent from their minor-league farm system, the teams made shrewd use of trades, chose wisely where to invest in free agents, and reclaimed older or injured pitchers to create solid staffs.
For example, while Kenny Rogers has fueled his team's postseason ride, the performance gap among the Tigers' rotation of starting pitchers during much of the season was not that great.
On the hitting side, Detroit and St. Louis each have only one player who batted in more than 100 runs this season, although several came close.
"It's just a good balanced team," former manager Sparky Anderson said this week of the Tigers. He went on:
"If you look at [Brandon] Inge as the third baseman, he can play baseball whether you know it or not. And this guy [Carlos] Guillen can hit; oh my goodness he can hit. And that second baseman, here's a guy that you get in a trade from a club, and he does all the things that you want him to do."
For those who need a scorecard, that second baseman's name is Placido Polanco.
• Material from Associated Press was used.