The 2006 baseball season is now in the history books, and the St. Louis Cardinals are world champions. Despite winning only 83 regular season games -- the lowest total ever for a World Series winner -- the Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers, four games to one, for their first title since 1982. We asked Devin Clancy and Paul White of USA Today Sports Weekly to share their opinions on this year’s fall classic.
RSN: A team that won only 83 games during the regular season just won the World Series. Should baseball fans look at that and think “parity,” or should they think “parody”?
Devin Clancy: Well, it had to happen eventually with the three-division format. I think this year is the exception rather than the rule. I’ll vote for “parity” in this case, since it’s a good bet that next year’s Series winner will have a much better record. I like to think of it as if the regular season and playoffs are two different kinds of tests. First, you have to have the depth and talent to win over the long term and then you have to be able change gears and win in the short term in October. In a sense it’s asking you to have flexibility under pressure. I think that might be the reason those Braves teams struggled to advance over the years. They had depth to win long-term, but couldn’t adapt (usually manifesting as a team with a weak bullpen).
Paul White: Think mediocrity, which describes the National League this year. The Mets were the only team better than that, but only when their pitching was intact. The Cardinals are better than 83 wins when healthy, as they were in the playoffs. But even in a best case, they're probably a 90-win team.
RSN: Bud Selig is reportedly considering making it more difficult for wild card teams to advance in the post season. As the wild card Tigers had 12 more wins than the World Champion Cardinals, is Selig maybe barking up the wrong tree?
Devin Clancy: I think the wild card idea was always intended to reward teams with good records like the Tigers, the ’04 Red Sox or the ’93 Giants who would not otherwise get into the playoffs. Yet there remains a stigma attached to not winning the division. Given the unbalanced schedule, there’s some merit to the point that you had 18-20 chances to beat up on your division’s champ. If it were me, I’d make Game 3 the only home game for the wild card team. But I’d also seed the playoffs strictly 1-4, so that the team with the best record always plays the team with the worst, even if they are in the same division. It’s not so much that the wild card should be punished, but that the best record could be rewarded more.
Here’s a crazy idea that just occurred to me: Let the team with the top record choose their opponent in the first round. That could lead to some interesting results…
Paul White: Yeah, he ought to leave it alone. There are enough years that the wild card is better than at least one of the other division winners. If he doesn't want the wild card to advance, then ditch the idea completely.
RSN: Was Jim Leyland out-managed by Tony LaRussa, or did their decisions only play a minor role in the outcome of the Series?
Devin Clancy: There wasn’t much Leyland could do. His guys weren’t getting on and his pitchers were fielding their position like little leaguers. There just wasn’t much going on decision-wise this year.
Paul White: Managing decisions had little to do with the outcome. Coaching and scouting did much more, starting with the Cardinals identifying the holes in the swings of the Tigers and pitching to them. Credit Yadier Molina for keeping his pitchers with the program. The Tigers are unrepentant hackers who will hammer every mistake you make. But you don't have to overpower them, just change speeds and locations and focus on where each guy tends to chase balls.
RSN: In 1968, the Tigers moved their centerfielder, Mickey Stanley, to shortstop for the World Series. If you were Leyland or LaRussa, are there any similar moves you might have dared to consider this year?
Devin Clancy: Leyland should have used Kenny Rogers in relief – just to get his glove on the field! No, but seriously, the biggest move should have been starting Rogers in Game 5. La Russa might also have considered whether Pujols is a better outfielder than Duncan. Pujols was OK out there until he hurt his arm, but Duncan’s not particularly good. But the Cardinals never got that desperate.
Paul White: Not unless you could convince MLB that instead of a DH, the Tigers could used a designated fielder for the pitcher in the NL city. La Russa already did some position switching with his revolving door in the outfield. He even moved a guy with no defensive position (Chris Duncan) out there.
RSN: Albert Pujols, for whatever reason, has become almost as surly as Barry Bonds. What’s up with Albert?
Devin Clancy: Don’t know what’s up with him personally. But the Bonds comparison might be apt in the sense that Pujols’ best attribute is his strike zone judgment. You know when he swings at a pitch in the regular season that it’s definitely his pitch and that he’s putting the ball where he wants it most of the time. In the playoffs, some hitters – particularly younger hitters batting in a weak lineup – expand the zone too much. For a perfectionist like Pujols, that means he’s putting the ball in the wrong place, or striking out. Perhaps that leads to surliness? A guy like Pujols is going to hate feeling like he’s getting himself out. When Rolen, Edmonds, etc. are all healthy and hitting, he’s got no reason to expand his zone, so maybe he’ll cheer up.
Paul White: He's only surly when they lose. He was Mr. Charming after victories. He's nowhere near Bonds' level.
RSN: What are your thoughts on LaRussa not making an issue of Kenny Rogers possibly doctoring the ball? Could his having turned the other cheek when Mark McGwire was (allegedly) using performance-enhancing drugs possibly a factor in his decision?
Devin Clancy: My impression of La Russa’s comments was that he pretty much got the point across without having to say anything. He did take a lot of flack about McGwire last year, but most of baseball seems to feel (rightly or wrongly) that funny business with pinetar is cute while drugs are evil and cheating. There’s barely even a comparison, it seems, in most circles. La Russa’s hitting coach, Hal McRae, did tell my colleague Bob Nightengale about them collecting scuffed Rogers balls and looking closely at his pitches. Without knowing for sure, I would suspect there’s a good chance La Russa was behind that particular bit of information.
Paul White: I think it's as simple as not wanting to open a can of worms that might not benefit the Cardinals. Who can really be sure Rogers was the only guy in this series up to such tricks? Well, maybe La Russa already was sure there were others.
RSN: If you’re the Tigers, is Joel Zumaya your closer next year, is he still setting up Todd Jones, or is he in your starting rotation? And what about Adam Wainwright in St. Louis and Jonathan Papelbon in Boston?
Devin Clancy: Well, the last time the Tigers ditched Todd Jones for a flame-thrower, it was for Matt Anderson. That didn’t work out particularly well (last seen in Colorado with a 12.60 ERA in 2005). It should still be worth keeping him around next year, in part because you gain flexibility. If your true shut-down pitcher isn’t connected to the ninth inning, you bring him in during more important situations, like two runners on in the seventh with a one-run lead. That’s the way I’d approach it.
Wainwright and Papelbon have both been groomed as starters. Their arms would probably be better protected by moving to the rotation. Moving Wainwright makes sense since Jason Isringhausen expects to return. The same could be said if Keith Foulke returns in Boston – though I gather the decision’s been made independent of Foulke’s status. Both teams need starters anyway, so it makes sense.
Paul White: The Tigers should stick with the status quo for the time being. It's not broken. No sense heaping the extra pressure on the kid until absolutely necessary. That time will come soon enough.
The Cardinals situation depends on Jason Isringhausen's health. If he's OK, Wainwright should be in the rotation, which was the plan for 2007 until Isringhausen's injury. Wainwright's stuff is too good not to be in the rotation and it also allows the Cardinals the opportunity to fill their rotation relatively cheaply, especially if they can re-sign Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. Papelbon belongs in the rotation as much as Wainwright does but the Red Sox are going to have to come up with better options than they currently have before they can afford to move him.
RSN: Of the Tigers and Cardinals, which of the two is more likely to return to the World Series next year, and what needs to happen in the off-season to improve their chances?
Devin Clancy: I give the Tigers a slight edge since they have the better pitching staff (most of the time). Neither team is losing anyone irreplaceable to free-agency. The Cardinals need some more pitchers and a second baseman. The Tigers plan to make a move or two, but probably nothing more drastic than a left-handed bat or another veteran pitcher.
Paul White: The Tigers figure to be the better team but the Cardinals have the better chance. The top of the AL is too good for a team to count on repeating. On the other hand, the NL figures to be just as mediocre as it was this year so half the teams in the league have a chance.
RSN: To close, describe this year’s World Series in 10 words or less.
Devin Clancy: Not crisply played; both participants and results were pleasantly unpredictable.
Paul White: Lions, Tigers and (Bad News) Bears, Oh My!
Devin Clancy and Paul White of USA Today Sports Weekly on the 2006 World Series
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