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40 percent solution

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Viva El Birdos, indeed. in 1968, the real El Birdos -- the cardinal team after which this blog is named -- played the detroit tigers in the world series; and here the cards are again, renewing their competition with the detroiters. in 1968 busch stadium II (the one they razed last year) was in its 3d season; none of the current cardinals had been born yet, and your humble blogger was in kindergarten. the cardinals' radio broadcast team comprised harry caray and jack buck; it was so long ago that the current radio guy, mike shannon, was still playing -- for El Birdos, no less. tony la russa hit .240 in 1968, his first season at triple A vancouver; dave duncan, his teammate there for about 1/4 of the season, got called up by the oakland athletics and appeared in 82 games for them, batting .191 with 7 homers.

there were no blogs (hell, no internet; no home computers) in 1968, nor any espn. and there sure as hell was no such thing as sabermetrics. bill james, the great professor of that discipline, was in high school or college or the army or something. for that reason, i'm tempted to dispense entirely with the usual pre-series number-crunching --- invoke the spirit of '68. but then i remember that the cardinals lost the series in '68; why invoke that spirit? the better reason to dispense with the numbers is this: they haven't been very helpful this postseason. there are years in which the numbers provide some interesting cues and foreshadowings, a few angles that sharpen our perspective as we watch a series; this october, not so much. when an injury-riddled 83-win team can get to the series, you might as well throw all the stats out the window.

but i'm not gonna. even if this series goes against the statistical grain, as the previous ones did, i'd still like to know what grain the games are going against. so let's start tracing out a few shapes.

PRELIMINARIES
before each of the last two series, i rough-gauged the cardinals' odds per voros mccracken's postseason crapshoot matrix and james click's chance estimator. those instruments placed the probability of a st louis upset over the mets at about 1 in 3; i'll spare you the math, but the quotients in this series are about 40 percent. that is, the cardinals have about a 2 in 5 chance to win. sounds reasonable to me; the tigers won 12 games more than the cards, finished with the 3d-best record in baseball, led the majors in era, and have gone 7-1 against playoff opponents -- they should be the favorites. but insofar as the cardinals are the 2d weakest world series team in history, a 40 percent shot against a foe as strong as the tigers ain't bad at all. at those odds, you wouldn't call it a shocking upset if the cardinals were to prevail. history's two most similar world series teams -- the '87 twins (85 wins) and '73 mets (82 wins) -- both took superior foes to 7 games; the twins actually won it in 7. the 1997 cleveland indians (86 wins) came within 2 outs of winning the series; the 2000 yankees (87 wins) won it all.

historically, weakling series teams have made a pretty damn good showing. if nothing else, we should expect a competitive series.

PITCHING
to reach the series, the cards had to beat the #1- and #2-ranked teams in nl era; they now confront a staff ranked #1 in all of baseball. that ranking is not just a figment of pitcher-friendly comerica park; the tigers led the majors in road era, which tells you they flat-out know how to pitch. if you adjust their 3.84 team era for the dh (which inflates scoring by 1/3 to 1/2 run per game), the tigers staff number translates to no worse than a 3.50 era -- more than half a run better than the padre and met staffs. formidable.

some aggregate numbers, with league ranks in parentheses:

ERA AVG OBP SLG HR BB k/9
cards 4.54 (9th) .268 (9th) .337 (9th) .443 (13th) 193 (12th) 504 (5th) 6.11 (12th)
tigers 3.84 (1st) .257 (2d) .321 (3d) .405 (3d) 160 (2d) 489 (5th) 6.23 (9th)

these stats tell us nothing about the st louis staff, which has been improved by the subtractions of marquis and sosa and post-injury isringhausen and mulder. it's a much better staff, in its present iteration, than the macro numbers suggest. but the stats do accurately depict the quality of the tiger staff, which profiles vaguely like that of the 2005 white sox, built around four workhorse starters and a fireballing bullpen. it's not a power rotation; all four starters yielded roughly a hit an inning and allowed opponents to bat about .260 (kenny rogers had the lowest opp avg, a pedestrian .253) and slug about .410. but three of the four starters fanned at least 5.9 men per 9 innings, which is pretty good (the cards only have two such starters, one of whom is anthony reyes); all walked fewer than 3 men a game. the pitchers are better than the mets' but not a lot better than the padres'; i don't think they will shut the cardinal offense down altogether. the batter least suited to exploit them would seem to be preston wilson; his game is to hit mistakes for home runs, and the tigers don't make those kinds of mistakes. their 160 home runs allowed were the 2d fewest in the american league.

the guy with the best numbers is bonderman, but he had a 4.87 era after the all-star break, which probably explains why he's slated for only 1 start in the series (game 4). both he and tonight's starter, verlander, have pretty significant lefty-righty splits. those two will pitch back-to-back in games 4 and 5 in st louis; i wonder if we might not see an all-lefthanded outfield of edmonds duncan and j-rod in one of those games, with spiezio dh'ing. wouldn't play it that way in comerica, whose capacious outfield requires good outfield defense at all three positions; but in st louis, i can see it. maybe.

for the 3d consecutive series, the cardinals have the single best pitcher on either team (carpenter). carp started rounding back into form in the game 6 start vs the mets, pitched well enough to win and finally got his curveball working again the last 2 innings of that start. he'll be matched up at home against the tigers' weakest starting pitcher. however, none of the cardinals' other three starters would have cracked the detroit rotation. that's not a knock against the cards' pitchers; it speaks to the depth of the tiger staff. it's also possible that la russa will start pitchers on short rest for two or possibly even three ballgames; if he's forced to do that, i don't give the cardinals much chance to prevail.

OFFENSES
let's just get the numbers right out there:

R HR BB SB OBP SLG
cards 781 (6th) 184 (5th) 531 (9th) 59 (14th) .337 (5th) .431 (8th)
tigers 822 (5th) 203 (3d) 430 (13th) 60 (11th) .329 (12th) .449 (5th)

the cardinal offense compares pretty favorably to detroit's; on balance, i think it's better. detroit's apparent advantages in runs and homers/slugging are largely a product of the dh; if you subtract the pitchers' hitting stats, the cardinals slugged .443 as a team, nearly a match for the tigers. more to the point, the cardinals have a vastly superior ability to get on base; they drew 100 more walks than the tigers, and their team obp of .337 was 8 points higher than detroit's even without adjusting for the dh. the tigers' low obp (24th among the 30 mlb teams) and apparent lack of discipline plays into the hands of the cardinal hurlers. in the 2004 world series they faced a much different type of offense, a group of hitters who took long at-bats, didn't stray outside the strike zone, and forced the st louis pitchers to get more of the plate than they wanted to. against the tiger hitters, the cardinals might be able to live where they are most comfortable, ie on the corners and just off them.

only 2 of detroit's top 12 hitters slugged over .500 this season, but 10 of the 12 were over .400; the cards have 3 sluggers over .500 (one over .670), but they also have 5 who slugged under .400. if we break down the offenses by batting-order slot, the tigers' superior balance becomes readily apparent. these figures are OPS; higher number highlighted in red:

tigers cards
.765 1st .701
.731 2d .764
.715 3d 1.091
.805 4th .910
.937 5th .846
.792 6th .652
.750 7th .704
.809 8th .682

the tigers' offense is a lot like the padres' -- balance throughout the lineup, no easy outs, but also no knee-buckling danger. they only have one batting-order slot above .840, while the cardinals have three; but the pads have no slots below .710 (ie, automatic outs), whereas the cardinals have 4. i find it odd that the 2 and 3 holes are the weakest in the tiger order. their #1 thru 3 hitters (typically granderson monroe and polanco) all had unimposing on-base percentages; monroe's was barely above .300. leyland also has been batting neifi perez (.260 obp this season; .298 career) in the #2 slot this postseason. on paper, the cardinals table-setters seem to have a greater capacity for harassing the opposing pitching staff and getting rallies started . . . but we've seen what paper advantages are worth this postseason. and don't forget, the cardinal offense will be batting against the superior pitching staff, which might neutralize (or worse) whatever advantages they might appear to possess. the tigers have increased their walk rate considerably during the postseason, reflecting a more selective approach at the plate; if they can maintain that discipline and force the cardinals to come to them, they may inflict some damage.

BULLPENS
for the 3d straight series, the cards will go up against a fearsome relief corps; the tiger bullpen finished second in the american league in era and 1st in opponent avg. they throw hard but are prone to wildness -- both rodney and zumaya walked a man every other inning. and the tiger closer, todd jones, is basically a right-handed version of mark mulder c2005 -- a groundball-oriented pitch-to-contacter. he only allowed 4 hr in 64 innings, but opposing hitters batted .276 against jones and hung 6 losses on him. he's particularly vulnerable in comerica, whose vast acreage makes balls in play so hard to defend; his home era was 4.67. zumaya and rodney are scary, but the remainder of the bullpen does not appear invincible; st louis needs to make those two guys throw pitches, wear them out and render them ineffective or unavailable for subsequent games. as for the cardinals' bullpen brats -- really, why bother? the numbers mean nothing where these guys are concerned. it's all about the matchups. the two primary LOOGY assignments in the tiger order will be curtis granderson and carlos guillen, both stymied by lefties; sean casey also merits special southpaw attention. josh kinney's job will be to set down craig monroe, ivan rodriguez, and magglio ordonez. the tigers have a weak bench and have only pinch-hit twice in the entire postseason, so la russa ought to be able to play his matchups with impunity; not a lot of countermoves available to leyland.

SUMMARY
i think this series will be won or lost in st louis. comerica neutralizes the tigers' main offensive strength (hr power), which in turn tends to level out the pitching staffs. detroit only outscored opponents by 43 runs at home this year and were neutral in home-run differential (81-81); the cardinals can win a game or two there. but on the road, the tigers were holy terrors; they outscored foes by 104 runs (that's 1.28 runs per game) and outhomered them by 43, and they led all major-league teams in road-game slugging (at .472) by a 16-point margin. the first two games at st louis will pit those powerhouse bats against the cards' two best pitchers, carpenter and suppan, who will both be pitching in their preferred environment (at home). games 3 and 4 will match strength against strength; that's where the series may turn. if the cards win both of those games, i think they'll be the world champions; if they split 'em, their task will be to stay alive until game 7, when they can throw a rested carpenter against detroit's nate robertson. 83 wins or no, the cards appear to have a solid chance to win this thing. a 40 percent shot? hell yeah.

other number geekery and pre-series stuff: