In a lot of ways, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals have been on a collision course to meet in the World Series all year. We just didn't know it until the postseason started.
The Red Sox and Cardinals mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, identical 97-65 marks. They led or tied for their leagues' lead in run differential, runs scored, doubles and on-base percentage.
Yet if we turn the clocks back to April, not many people expected to see this matchup. Most of that skepticism would have come from the Boston side of the equation, because the Cardinals are just two years removed from winning a World Series, and they took San Francisco to seven games in the NLCS last year.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, had to endure the nightmarish hell that was the 2012 season. They finished that year 69-93, the worst single-season record for the franchise since 1965. Bobby Valentine proved to be a disaster as manager, only compounded by the fact that Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz missed time with injuries.
Here is a closer look at the two teams playing in the Fall Classic starting on Wednesday night, including what went right to get them here and why we are in for one of the best series in recent memory.
St. Louis Cardinals
Starting with the National League champions, the Cardinals have become the model franchise of all of baseball. I'm not going to get into the whole classy fanbase thing, because that argument/debate is a waste of time.
What we can say about both the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals is that the organization has been able to keep potential free agents and spend $116 million on salary despite playing in one of the smallest markets in all of baseball because of a fanbase that supports this team in huge numbers every year.
Youth Is Served
Before the season started, the Cardinals were lauded for having the best farm system in the game. That group of youngsters has played an integral role in getting this team back to the World Series.
|Key Rookies for St. Louis Cardinals in 2013|
|Michael Wacha||22||Starting Pitcher|
|Shelby Miller||23||Starting Pitcher|
|Trevor Rosenthal||23||Relief Pitcher|
|Carlos Martinez||22||Relief Pitcher|
|Matt Adams||25||First Base|
It is a testament to the job of the development staff that you can have that many rookies thrown into critical situations like the postseason and have them not be overwhelmed by the moment.
Rosenthal had the advantage of pitching in the postseason last year, but Martinez and Wacha got their first exposure to the big stage this fall. Miller hasn't been used much in the postseason, though he did impress with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173.1 innings during the regular season.
Wacha in particular has been able to tune out the pressure and remain focused in October. Manager Mike Matheny praised Wacha after he pitched the Cardinals to victory in Game 4 of the NLDS in Pittsburgh, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
We did a lot of gushing about him before we even got him out there today and I think everybody sees why. I don't know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot. ... This place was loud. The kid stayed the course, he trusted himself. It was impressive to watch how he executed today.
Miller and Wacha were supposed to be good since they were first-round picks, but Rosenthal is a great find as a 21st-round selection in 2009 (the same year Miller was drafted).
What makes the performance of Miller and Wacha so critical to St. Louis' run this year is the questions this rotation faced coming into the year with Chris Carpenter being injured and some questions about how good Adam Wainwright was going to be two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
The latter proved not to be a problem, as Wainwright was one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. Unfortunately, Carpenter wasn't able to pitch in the big leagues in 2013 and will retire after the season, according to his agent.
As good as St. Louis' 2013 rookie class looks, I didn't even mention second baseman Kolten Wong or the prize of the farm system, outfielder Oscar Taveras, who is likely to take over Carlos Beltran's spot in right field next year if he leaves via free agency.
An Unlikely MVP Candidate
The Cardinals knew they had something with Matt Carpenter after he hit .294/.365/.463 in 296 at-bats last year, but no one was entirely sure what he would be as an everyday player without a safety net in 2013.
There were also concerns about Carpenter's ability to play second base. He's not the most athletic player, nor has he displayed a ton of range at third base. Asking him to play a position that requires a lot of lateral quickness and an ability to turn a double play seemed like a tall order.
Fast-forward to the postseason, and Carpenter is probably going to end up in the top five of MVP voting in the National League. He led the league with 199 hits, 126 runs and 55 doubles, in addition to hitting .318/.392/.481.
His defense was better than anyone would have expected, as Carpenter rated about average with zero defensive runs saved and a UZR of minus-1.6 in over 1,100 innings at second base.
According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, Carpenter (7.0) was the third-best position player in the NL behind Andrew McCutchen (8.2) and Carlos Gomez (7.6).
Again, we come back to the Cardinals' ability to find and develop these diamonds in the rough. Carpenter was a 13th-round pick, also in that 2009 draft.
You can essentially say St. Louis built the foundation for this year's World Series team during those three days in June four years ago, because pitcher Joe Kelly (third round) and first baseman Matt Adams (23rd round) were also taken by the Cardinals.
Carpenter isn't loaded with tools and doesn't do any one thing that will jump out at you, but he gets every last drop of talent out of his body on the field.
A Historic Season
The Cardinals dwarfed every other NL team in runs scored this season, finishing with 77 more than the second-place Colorado Rockies. Usually, the Rockies are a lock to lead the league in that category because their ballpark favors offense.
What happened to make the Cardinals so much better than everyone else?
It starts with just having a great lineup and balance throughout. They had four regulars hit .300 or better (Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig), and Beltran wasn't far behind at .296.
Taking Pete Kozma out of the equation because he's such a dreadful hitter, the worst on-base percentage among regulars was Beltran at .339. Five players had an OBP of at least .350 (Carpenter, Molina, Holliday, Craig and Jon Jay).
When you have players hitting and getting on base at that rate, it is easy to see why the Cardinals were so good at scoring runs.
But what put them so far beyond everyone else was hitting with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals hit .330 in those situations, the highest mark in the last 40 years.
The Cardinals won't be able to replicate that moving forward—at least, I wouldn't put money on it. Yet sometimes the balls just bounce in your favor, allowing you to keep up that insane pace for an entire season.
Boston Red Sox
Sometimes greatness doesn't jump out at you. We could look at the Cardinals roster and recent history to know they would at least be a playoff team. But the Red Sox had a lot of questions to answer when 2013 started.
In many ways, even though the new front office took over last year, this was the first season of the Ben Cherington era. He got to put together a roster he wanted with a manager that he was able to hire, which didn't appear to be the case in 2012 when Boston hired Bobby Valentine.
Hiring John Farrell was just one step toward getting the Red Sox back to the top of the AL mountain. Here are the biggest factors that got this franchise into the World Series.
Send Us Your Contracts!
The foundation for the 2013 Red Sox, while mostly in place with Ortiz, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz already in the fold, really came into focus on August 25, 2012.
That was the day the Red Sox dealt Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers to free up more than $250 million in salary commitments over the next six years.
Think of the subsequent moves Cherington made that wouldn't have been possible had that deal not come to pass. Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Jake Peavy would likely be playing somewhere else.
Victorino was one of the 10 best position players in the AL this season, providing stellar defense in right field and finding a swing that most of us thought was gone forever after a dismal 2012 season. It also helped that he finally stopped switch-hitting to focus solely on hitting right-handed, where his swing and ability to see pitches was much better.
Napoli was exactly what you expected him to be: a power hitter who would strike out a lot. He provided some big hits in the ALCS, including a solo home run in a 1-0 victory over Justin Verlander in Game 3.
Who knows if the Red Sox would have been anywhere near as good keeping Gonzalez and Crawford? Beckett missed most of the year with arm problems, so he would have been a non-factor either way.
In addition to all the players Cherington was able to sign via free agency, that payroll flexibility made it easier to give David Ortiz a new two-year deal in the offseason and re-sign Dustin Pedroia to a $100 million contract in July.
Who knows what the Red Sox would have been this year if the Dodgers hadn't gotten a new ownership group that was willing and able to spend money hand over fist?
Rebuilding on the Fly
The Red Sox also had high hopes for their bullpen after adding Joel Hanrahan and getting Andrew Bailey back healthy to go alongside Andrew Miller.
Unfortunately, as tends to happen with relief pitching, things did not work out as planned. Hanrahan, Bailey and Miller wound up missing a majority of the season and combined to throw 66.2 innings in 2013.
That left Farrell scrambling to figure out what to do with his bullpen. Fortunately, the Red Sox had a built-in contingency plan, with Koji Uehara having one of the most incredible seasons by a relief pitcher in recent memory. He threw 74.1 innings, allowing just 33 hits and nine walks and striking out 101.
Farrell also found two setup men in left-hander Craig Breslow, who had a 1.81 ERA in 59.2 innings, and Junichi Tazawa, who provided a stable bridge to Breslow and Uehara late in games.
But the recent success of the bullpen started with Uehara. He was another free-agent signing for Cherington in the offseason, agreeing to a one-year, $4.25 million contract in December, with a vesting option for 2014.
To put that salary in perspective, here is a list of relievers who made more than Uehara in 2013:
|Notable Relievers in 2013|
|Player, Team||2013 Salary (Millions)|
|Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers||$5.5|
|Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians||$7.3|
|Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs/Los Angeles Dodgers||$9.8|
|Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels/Atlanta Braves||$5.0|
|Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies||$13.0|
|Cot's Baseball Contracts|
That isn't entirely fair, because when the Red Sox signed Uehara, no one expected he would be this good. He's always been a strong reliever, but to see this level of dominance from a 38-year-old is incredible.
The "X" Man
Finally, while his track record isn't as long as the Cardinals' rookie stars, Xander Bogaerts has been huge for the Red Sox in limited postseason action. It couldn't have come at a more opportune time, because Will Middlebrooks has been a disaster in October, with a .174/.269/.261 slash line and nine strikeouts in 23 at-bats.
Considering how dominant Detroit's starting pitching was in the ALCS, John Farrell couldn't afford to have any more dead spots in the lineup. He had a magic bullet left in the chamber, inserting the 21-year-old rookie into the starting lineup before Game 5.
Bogaerts, one of the best prospects in the game, has been lauded for his mature approach at the plate and his ability to stay in the moment regardless of how big or small the stage is. He used that maturity to go 2-for-4 with three walks, two doubles and three runs in the last two games of the ALCS.
It was Bogaerts' keen eye after Jonny Gomes doubled in the seventh inning that helped start the rally in Game 6 that culminated with Victorino's grand slam. He worked the count back in his favor after falling behind 1-2 and then laid off a changeup that was a borderline pitch to draw a one-out walk and put runners on first and second.
The expectation for Bogaerts, at least in my estimation, was that he would get a cup of coffee in the big leagues this season before taking over as the everyday shortstop or third baseman in 2014.
As it turns out, the Red Sox had to escalate Bogaerts' timetable for their own good. It has paid off masterfully so far, and that isn't an accident. This is a special talent who will be a fixture in the middle of Boston's lineup for a long time to come.
This is only the beginning for Bogaerts.
There might be a feeling of boredom or stagnation with fans who want to see new blood in the World Series instead of a team that just won a championship two years ago against another that is playing in its third Fall Classic since 2004.
Yet if anyone does feel that way, I would urge you to look at the players and coaching staffs that make up the Cardinals and Red Sox in 2013. Even though the names on the front of the jerseys are familiar, these two teams feature a lot of new blood that will make this one of the most intriguing and thrilling series in a long time.
The Cardinals may have been expected to get here, but the path they took was not one anyone could have predicted before the season started. The Red Sox may have been due for a bounce-back season after the disaster of 2012, but no one could have expected their plan to come together so quickly.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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