In recent years we’ve reveled in the unpredictability of the playoffs, the feeling that if you can make it into the postseason then the short-series format gives everyone an equal chance of success.
That still holds true and part of the enjoyment of the postseason so far has been the knowledge that had a moment here or there gone another way, we could be looking at a completely different Fall Classic.
However, after all the twists and turns, it does seem fitting that we have ended up with the two teams that won the most regular season games in their respective leagues.
You have to admire the way that the Cardinals keep on developing their own players; giving the team a chance to compete every year with a mid-ranking payroll (their Opening Day payroll of $103m was the 14th highest of the 30 teams).
There’s no real secret to their success. As often is the case, it is based on something that seems simple but is actually not so. From amateur draft picks, trades, promoting prospects at the right time, free agent signings and knowing when to part with players, the Cardinals consistently make good decisions.
They don’t get it right every time, nobody does, but they appear to have a strong, stable structure at the heart of the organization that gets everyone on the same page working together. If you have good processes in place that everyone buys in to, you’ll get more decisions right than wrong.
The offseason after the Cardinals’ World Series triumph two years ago was a perfect illustration of this.
Although plenty of neutrals saw the logic in allowing Albert Pujols, the team’s marquee player, to leave as a free agent, it was still a brave decision. No doubt everyone in the organization wanted to keep Pujols if they could, but they set a financial limit on what they were prepared to offer with future budgets in mind and the knowledge that one player, however good he may be, does not make a team successful on his own.
The Los Angeles Angels made an offer to Pujols that the Cardinals were not prepared to match and so, with everyone in the organization on board, they walked away from the negotiations and committed to turning the situation into an opportunity.
Of the many positive outcomes of letting Pujols leave, Michael Wacha is the most striking due to his outstanding performances this postseason. Wacha was acquired by the Cardinals with the compensation draft pick they received from the Angels due to Pujols’ departure. Having the 19th selection in the 2012 amateur draft was a bonus for St. Louis but, as with every opportunity, they still had to make the most of it by making a good decision. There’s no doubt that they did just that with Wacha.
That wasn’t where the good decision-making ended either. They evaluated Wacha’s process carefully and knew he could contribute at the Major League level in the second half of 2013, so they put a flexible plan in place that allowed them to limit his innings whilst ensuring he would be available at the most crucial point of the season.
Whilst fans of the vanquished Dodgers and the Pirates will cast an envious eye at the Cardinals when they line up at Fenway Park, fans of the Washington Nationals will have every right to feel just as frustrated. I know this is flogging a dead horse, but the Cardinals’ sensible handling of Wacha’s innings limit and the subsequent success experienced by the player and team just adds to the bafflement at the way the Nationals made a complete horlicks of Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit in 2012 (and, just to add to the story, it was the Cardinals that knocked out the Nationals in the NLDS last season).
Like the Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox have also made plenty of good decisions this season too. Admittedly they came after the team made several poor decisions in the preceding year or so, not least hiring Bobby Valentine to be their manager; however the 2012 campaign is looking like a necessary lull after the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era came to its natural conclusion. General Manager Ben Cherington got a stroke of luck last year with the Dodgers coming calling for several of their big contract players, but again you have to take full advantage of the opportunities that are presented.
Cherington did that by signing some experienced free agents, underwhelming moves for some onlookers at the time, and the team has gelled brilliantly under a new manager, ex-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. Boston have produced some dramatic moments to make it to the World Series, such as an unlikely Grand Slam by Shane Victorino to win Game Six against the Tigers.
Are they a team of destiny or a team relying on their lottery numbers coming up again and again? Regardless of the debate on whether ‘clutch hitting’ is a repeatable skill, neither depiction would be accurate. The Red Sox have got quality players full of confidence and belief and that combination will always give you a chance for producing a memorable moment or two. Cherington can’t rely on David Ortiz being ‘clutch’ all the time, but he can – and has – put together a roster where there are a number of players with the potential to make a big play, thereby increasing the odds that one of them will come through.
Both the Cardinals and the Red Sox, and frankly every successful team, will have benefited from a bit of luck here and there this season, but the well-used saying ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’ comes to mind.
In fact, perhaps in baseball that should be changed to ‘the smarter I work, the luckier I get’.
The Cardinals and Red Sox are two of the smarter organizations in MLB and their teams should produce a pulsating Fall Classic.