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How the 2011 Cardinals invented 2017 playoff baseball

Playoff baseball used to be all about starting pitching. And then 2011 happened.

2011 World Series Game 6 - Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The first World Series I remember watching at all was 1996, and I’ve watched at least some of every World Series since, but the first World Series I really remember, the first one in which I was completely absorbed with the statistics and nuances and really understood the game with some level of sophistication, was 2001.

The 2001 World Series was the best World Series I’ve ever watched. No individual game reached Game 6 in 2011 levels, but three of them were really close. The bottom of the ninth of the seventh game included the greatest closer ever blowing a save and a walk-off hit, for goodness sake. And the co-MVPs of this Fall Classic, in which the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees, were starting pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Despite the presence of Luis Gonzalez, an MVP candidate in a universe in which Barry Bonds did not hit 73 home runs, the Diamondbacks were a below-average hitting team by wRC+, and their third-most valuable pitcher by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement was Albie Lopez, he of thirteen appearances and a 4.00 ERA over 81 innings (granted, a 4.00 ERA in 2001 wasn’t terrible, but still), yet they were champions. And it was because of Johnson and Schilling.

The “two or three dominant starters will carry your team to a World Series” narrative was always mostly confined to 2001—obviously, having good starters helps (as does having good insert unit name here), but the idea of this being a cheat code of sorts for MLB teams in the postseason has been largely debunked. But much of the hype around playoff aces has been quieted by an increased reliance on bullpens.

The 2016 World Series matched two teams who had traded major prospects at the deadline to acquire elite relief pitching: the Chicago Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman and the Cleveland Indians acquired Andrew Miller. The Indians in particular were noted for their innovative use of Andrew Miller—because the team had a really good, if not quite Miller-level, closer in Cody Allen, manager Terry Francona deployed Miller in 19 13 mostly high leverage innings. Miller finished behind only Corey Kluber in innings for the 2016 Indians postseason run, which culminated in reaching Game 7 of the World Series, where Rajai Davis hit a home run and then I don’t really remember, I fell asleep because it started raining. I assume somebody won.

The early games of the 2017 postseason have continued the trend towards quick hooks for starters. It mirrors the trend of regular season baseball, but it’s really the case come October. During the regular season, bullpens must be conserved much more carefully than during postseason games which absolutely must be won. Most notably, Luis Severino recorded one out before being pulled from his start in the AL Wild Card game. And the shut-down Yankees bullpen was good enough to carry the team to victory.

The 2011 rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals was not the team’s strong point. Chris Carpenter led the NL in innings and was a fairly valuable pitcher, but otherwise, the Cardinals were depending on fine but far from great starters Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson. The Cardinals bullpen ranked just 24th by fWAR in 2011, but this is a bit misleading: the closer situation improved dramatically after Ryan Franklin was replaced by Fernando Salas and/or Jason Motte, and in-season acquisitions Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and Arthur Rhodes helped to solidify the group.

A month away from retirement, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa took his career-defining bullpen philosophy, one which ushered in an era of increasing numbers of relief pitchers, to its logical extreme. Relievers were, and are, simply more effective than starters on a rate basis. The 24th ranked Cardinals bullpen of 2011 had an identical ERA and FIP to the New York Yankees, who ranked 3rd in overall pitching fWAR. Particularly with the Cardinals lined up to face the three-headed Philadelphia Phillies pitching monster of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Cardinals had to take a risk. They did.

While the most iconic performance of that year’s NLDS was Chris Carpenter’s Game 5 shutout, this was an outlier for the postseason. The Cardinals’ bullpen pitched 13 23 innings, compared to 10 by the Phillies relievers. After Kyle Lohse stayed in the first game too long, allowing two home runs in the sixth inning which gave the 102-win Phillies a lead which they would not relinquish, Chris Carpenter got a much shorter hook in Game 2, pitching just three innings after allowing four runs. Cliff Lee had allowed four runs through six innings when Charlie Manuel allowed the lefty to begin the seventh, where he allowed the winning run—Allen Craig led off the inning with a triple and Albert Pujols followed with a single.

Game 3 represented a relapse back into long starts, with Jaime Garcia pitching well for six innings and allowing a back-breaking, three-run home run to Ben Francisco in the seventh. But in Game 4, Edwin Jackson was removed after the sixth inning, following five consecutive scoreless frames. Phillies starter Roy Oswalt went six, as well, but allowed five runs, including two in the 6th on a David Freese home run.

The 2011 Milwaukee Brewers seemingly subscribed to the “aces equal titles” theory, dealing several prospects, including Lorenzo Cain, for Zack Greinke before the season. But the Cardinals mostly deferred to the bullpen, throwing 28 23 innings—over 54% of the team’s total innings. In Game 2, despite a somewhat safe lead of 7-2 in the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals pulled Edwin Jackson mid-inning to allow lefty specialist Arthur Rhodes to face Prince Fielder.

In Game 3, Chris Carpenter, off his first start since his immediately-legendary NLDS Game 5, was pulled after five despite allowing just two runs and striking out two in his final frame. In Game 4, Kyle Lohse exited during the fifth inning of a 2-2 game, and although an inherited runner turned out to be the winning run in the game, the bullpen proved its mettle once again, even if the game result was not ideal.

The next two games were the most extreme examples yet of bullpen hawkishness. The Cardinals entered the top of the fifth of Game 5, with the series split, with a 4-0 lead, but Jaime Garcia was pulled after allowing a run and with runners on first and second. Octavio Dotel struck out Ryan Braun, the Cardinals got to the bottom of the inning with a 4-1 lead, and the Cardinals took the series lead that night. In the top of the third inning, with two runners on and a 6-4 lead, Allen Craig pinch hit for Edwin Jackson. The Cardinals bullpen allowed just two runs in their seven innings of use and advanced to the World Series.

In the World Series, the rotation pitched a few more innings than in the NLCS. They also pitched better, so this wasn’t necessarily a reflection of Tony LaRussa abandoning his strategy. In Game 3 against the Texas Rangers, while holding a 5-3 lead, the Cardinals pulled Kyle Lohse in the fourth inning after he allowed two singles and two home runs in his first four batters faced—LaRussa prioritized not getting his starter a win, but rather getting his team a win.

In Game 5, the strategy arguably backfired—Chris Carpenter went seven innings and allowed two runs, but in the eighth, the bullpen allowed two runs and the Cardinals lost. In Game 6, Jaime Garcia went just three innings—while two runs allowed prorates to a 6.00 ERA, it also almost always means a fourth inning will be pitched. The bullpen was hit or miss but LaRussa relentlessly tinkered, using six different pitchers in relief (including eventual game winner Jake Westbrook).

That four pitchers were used the next night in Game 7 was less revolutionary—managers have been easily convinced forever that the final game of the season is the time to pull out all the stops. After all, the 2001 Diamondbacks did use Randy Johnson, who had started Game 6, in Game 7 of the World Series in relief. And while what the Cardinals did may not seem extreme by 2017 standards, it was a precursor for an era in which there is little distinction between starters and relievers in the postseason. Given the current Cardinals’ lack of affection for quick hooks for starters (or for making the postseason), it can be a bit startling to remember how different things were half a dozen years ago.