How great was that!?

I apologize to everyone for not putting up any content over the last month.  As you may or may not know, October and the first part of November are pretty busy for me because I write the major and minor league player profiles for the STATS Scouting Notebook.  This entails re-watching about 20 games plus distilling a season's worth of notes into a page each on about 50 players and a paragraph each on about 20 others.  So it doesn't leave me much time to watch the playoffs or write about them. 

But I did know enough about the playoffs that once it got down to the Red Sox and Cardinals, that the match-up favored the Red Sox.  Between the Yanks and Red Sox, Boston had the edge due to a deeper pitching staff, but when they were down 0-3, I pretty much wrote them off because they were playing so poorly.  It wasn't until the ARod interference in Game 6 that I knew that they would win that Series - the Yanks, for the first time in a long time, looked desperate.  Plus, this was a Yankees team that had lost a game this year 22-0, tied for the worst defeat in history.  If they could do that, they could choke up 3-0, too.  Then it was all a matter of the World Series match-up: Houston had a really good shot to beat them with Clemens, Oswalt and Lidge with Beltran en fuego; St. Louis just didn't have a good pitching match-up against them... no strikeout guys.  I was surprised by the sweep, but not surprised by the victory because the Red Sox were simply the more talented team.  The Cardinals had the better record, but I'm one of those few who believes that regular season record isn't a particularly strong indicator of the better playoff team, especially when the difference in total victories is only 6 or 7 games.  That difference can be easily explained by strength of schedule, strength of the organization or injuries. 

In the case of the Cardinals, two of those factors were significant in their record: schedule and injuries.  For all their talent on offense and defense, they hardly had any injuries this season.  That is a rare occurrence.  Most teams use between 35 and 45 players in a season, but some have used almost 60.  Since both Opening Day rosters and postseason rosters only have 25 players, this means that at least 10 other players will have an impact on the team's regular season record yet will not figure in their playoff fortunes.  That's 40% of the team.  While it's not the most significant factor, the strength of the organization and the General Manager's ability to adapt as the season progresses is often the deciding factor whether a team makes the playoffs or just misses out.  Injuries, trades, promotions and demotions all figure in the regular season record, yet only one - injuries - has any bearing on what actually happens once the postseason begins.  So the notion that the team with the best regular season record should be considered the favorite, while intuitive, I believe is quite flawed.  Using the Pythagorean Theorem only reinforces the flawed notion because the total runs scored and allowed are accumulated by more than just the players who end up on the post season roster.  A better indicator of the strength of talent on a team would be what their record was when the guys on the postseason roster played together.  It would yield a much smaller sample, but it should yield more accurate results.  If you were tied to Pythagoras, using runs created and expected runs allowed limited to only the players on the post season roster might yield telling results as well.

But back to St. Louis... they were able to use their best players more often than most teams and played an unbalanced schedule in a division with three pretty crummy teams and their two primary competitors severely hamstrung by serious injuries.  Had it been the Cubs (with Prior and Wood for the full-season) or Astros (with Pettitte and Miller) who went injury free, might it been they who won 105 or more games?  In addition, the Cardinals went a combined 26-10 against the Reds and Pirates, and 11-1 in interleague play in which they played 6 games against the two worst teams in the AL, Kansas City and Seattle.  Even if they had only won half the rest of their games, they still would have finished with a record of  94-68, still good enough to win the division.   The Red Sox on the other hand, didn't have so many patsies in their schedule and their interleague schedule included four teams that were vying for playoff spots until the final week of the season - LA, San Diego, Philadelphia and San Francisco.  Shouldn't we expect the team with the much weaker schedule and the fewest significant injuries to have the much better regular season record?  If so, should it be a surprise then if the team with the worse record but the much tougher road to get there ends up winning the series?  

If not, shouldn't we wonder if Bobby Cox is really a great manager, or if he is simply the product of a great organization built largely by Paul Snyder and Bill Clark, men who kept the Atlanta pipeline full with exceptional prospects and that when it finally came down to managing a team (as one must do in the playoffs) that it was there that Bobby Cox displayed his true value?  True, Cox did a remarkable job this season managing his team to the postseason once again, but was it really that great a feat considering he managed most of his games against two teams that fired their managers for incompetence and another team that was so penurious that it wouldn't spend the money to have a make-up home game played at home?  Cox apologists will have to admit that his division has been one of the least competitive in baseball when it comes to managerial and front office competence.  Would Bobby Cox even be discussed had he stayed in Toronto and had to contend against smartly run and cash-effusive teams like the Yankees and Red Sox?  One can only hope that the new Washington franchise will be run with at least a modicum of intelligence so that all this hoopla that surrounds the Atlanta success story can be winnowed and their record properly assessed.  But I digress...

So where does this Red Sox team rank among the all-time greats?  Well, if you ask just about anyone in Red Sox Nation, they are the greatest team of all time.  After all, they not only broke the Curse, but they are the only team to come back from being down 0-3 and they are the only team to win 8 straight playoff games.  Of course, before 1969 it wasn't possible to win more than 4 straight.  Still, the argument has some merit.  I just don't believe this is a top ten team. 

On the plus side: they won in dramatic fashion, they tied a major league record for doubles in the regular season, and posted the best record in baseball once they were finally formed after the trade deadline.

On the minus side: they fielded only 3 potential Hall of Famers (Schilling, Martinez and Ramirez) and they beat three fairly flawed teams on the way to the championship.  The Cardinals team they beat might be one of the worst teams to ever win 100 games, if such a thing is possible.  Especially that pitching staff.  For all the stars the Yankees had, with the exception of Mussina, their rotation was either hurt or over-rated and the only effective arms in their bullpen had set career highs for usage during the regular season.  Had Torre been a little more judicious in September, Rivera and Gordon probably wouldn't have been as gassed as they were after Game 3.  Of course, had Ron Gardenhire not misused his resources so badly, the Red Sox wouldn't have been playing the Yankees which further proves the point.  The Angels were hurt by injuries going into the playoffs, then shot themselves in the other foot by dumping Jose Guillen.  So it's not like the Sox had to get through the 1979 Angels or 1986 Astros to get to the Series, then had to beat the 1968 Cardinals once they got there.  Each of those teams were fantastic teams but just didn't get the breaks in the postseason to prove it.  Although it may not seem like it, the Red Sox had a fairly easy ride to win it all.

As for breaking the Curse, I'm still not convinced that the psychological barrier was anything more than poor management and inferior talent in previous years.  If anything, conquering the barrier is more attributable to the greatness of a few players - Schilling, Ortiz and perhaps Foulke - than it is to the greatness of the team.  In the final analysis, I believe this Red Sox team was one of the best in recent memory, just not one of the best of all-time.