clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The St. Louis Cardinals and the lessons of Barry Zito

Barry Zito brings up a lot of sore spots.

This is an animated GIF, playing back in real time.
This is an animated GIF, playing back in real time.

Probably I should have saved that "The internet is suck today" anecdote for this morning. But Barry Zito's performance yesterday offers a chance to reevaluate all kinds of St. Louis Cardinals-related memes from the NLCS, from the last few weeks, from all year. He almost hit too many subjects; he careened from Giants-specific troubles to season-long ennui without pausing to let sportswriters catch their breath.

Hubris: This is one of the weirdest unexamined identifications we make with our favorite teams: We're made stronger and more impressive by their successes and they're somehow burdened by our premature chicken-counting. The gods of baseball operate at that weird remove, apparently—they aren't just ready to nail Achilles for dragging Hector, they're ready to nail the Greeks for somebody fist-pumping during that part of The Illiad.

The idea of the jinx is kind of inherently dumb; that we're not even participants makes it dumber still. I understand the desire to remain low-key until the last possible moment, once it's disconnected from the team's fortunes—it's not that we can ruin the Cardinals, it's that the Cardinals and the difficulty of predicting baseball games can ruin our small-talk with the people around us. It's a sport where Barry Zito and his 79-mph cutter can shut a top offense out a game away from the finals.

If the Cardinals lose here, and you've been doing anything except acting, very quietly, like they weren't even in the postseason, the Cubs fans you work with are going to let you have it, probably really awkwardly. Nobody wants that.

Soft-tossing lefties: I think the other VEB writers have made it their lives' work, of late, to debunk the idea that the Cardinals can't hit soft-tossing left-handed pitchers, and this is why they're pushing against an immovable narrative. It doesn't matter how many soft-tossing lefties the Cardinals beat in May, the sheer concreteness of our memory of Barry Zito throwing sub-85 fastballs past Matt Holliday is going to crowd out Baseball Reference's splits page.

There's a lot in baseball that's like that, and one of the benefits that flow from its obsessive statistical record is that we're allowed ammunition against our own impulses to teach the whole rotation a sub-80 cutter and demote Matt Holliday to starting linebacker.

Luck vs. Unrepeatable Victories: Friday's commenting battle: Why do sabermetrically inclined baseball fans attribute everything to luck? It wasn't put quite so neutrally, in the comments, but I think it's more fruitful to come at it from that angle. Is it luck that Barry Zito beat the Cardinals on Friday—didn't just beat them but walloped them?

Why are we calling it that?

It's not luck, inasmuch as they were in a competition and Zito won by pitching mistake-free, weirdly dominant baseball for seven innings. It's not luck when a swimmer or a runner exceeds his personal best time in the Olympics and wins a gold, and much as I will protest otherwise it's not luck when the drunks at that loud annoying table beat Team MFA in bar trivia, even though I was in my prime an excellent scholastic bowl player.

It's lucky, of course, that their personal best came in the Olympics; it's lucky that there were all those questions about jam bands. It's lucky that Zito pitched his best baseball in the NLCS, against a team that could have hung six or seven runs on him. It's lucky that the Giants played excellent defense, even though the Giants' excellent defense wasn't luck, if that's any sense.

And it's not likely to happen again. We use luck, a lot, when we mean lucky circumstances—skilled performances that can be dissected and explained but are also completely unrepeatable. There's some sloppy connotation and conflation going on, probably.

But that isn't a license to draw conclusions from Zito's performance—in fact, it's a clarification of the reasons why you shouldn't. Let's not call it luck; let's call it a brilliant performance. Barry Zito was great, somehow, and the Cardinals were unable to get hold of him. We have 162 games from the Cardinals and 32 from Barry Zito that suggest few soft-tossing pitchers, Zito included, are up to the task of pitching as well as he did Friday night.

Redundancy: The Cardinals' 2012 run is built to a really startling degree on overbuilding and the judicious application of second chances. Matt Carpenter as Carlos Beltran, sure, but also the very foundation of their postseason experience—the second Wild Card, offered up just in time to make what could have been a very disappointing summer into a weird, shuffling march toward a coin-toss postseason game.

Going up 3-1 in a postseason series offers that same redundancy. The Cardinals gave themselves three chances to eliminate the Giants and win their second consecutive pennant. They missed the first one, which was probably the fattest pitch—a Barry Zito cutter moving, against a Category 1 headwind, into Matt Holliday's bat. They missed it, however few times out of a thousand that's likely to happen. But they have two more.