The World Series Preview: Rangers Vs. Cardinals

The Rangers are about to play World Series games. Again.

Magic Number: 4

This feeling is surreal.

For 37 years, baseball existed in Arlington Texas without even so much a single postseason victory. Every other team in baseball had done it, just not the Rangers. By the measure that most people care about, they were the least successful franchise in the entire history of the whole sport. At least of those still playing. The Cleveland Spiders might have a case, the Rangers never got contracted.

Now we sit here about to see Texas play their second World Series in as many years. Nearly four decades to win a series, and just two seasons to play for a second championship. Just like that, the Rangers have gone from the only team without a series win to having more pennants than eight other franchises. More than Seattle and Anaheim combined. The Rays, Brewers, Mariners, Astros, Rockies, and Nationals are now officially jealous of the success of the Texas Rangers.

The thing is, last year, there was reason to be happy with just that first pennant. It was so much more than we had ever known. Now, fortunately or unfortunately, there is only one more hurdle left. It is nice the Rangers wasted no time giving us a chance at seeing it conquered. The fifth series win in franchise history will be the biggest, if we're lucky.

For their opponents, they get the St. Louis Cardinals, the opposite of the Rangers in success if you count the Yankees out. By being here, the Cardinals tie the Dodgers with the second most pennants all time at 22. They already broke their tie with the Athletics for second most titles in 2006 with their 10th. They have had legends by the names of Musial, Hornsby, Gibson, Smith, McCarver, and Pujols. The history of baseball's great moments is littered with their red uniforms.

They got here in one of the biggest comebacks in the history of baseball, before knocking off the most dominant team in the league, followed by the team that took their division. In a story similar to the Rangers, they retooled a bullpen that was their most glaring weakness, and now have their brutal lineup healthy and ready.

The Cardinals' passionate fans are no-doubt raring to go for this series, but a World Series is a drop of water in their Missouri River of history. The battle for the Rangers is to finally make their permanent mark on history by denying St. Louis one more of those drops.

Texas may be set up and ready to be the Cardinals (or better) of the next century, but who wants to wait another year?

KNOW THY ENEMY

FANGRAPHS’ TOP FIVE CARDINALS

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

   UZR

WAR

1B

Albert Pujols

651

.299

.366

.541

.385

2.4

5.1

LF

Matt Holliday

516

.296

.388

.525

.393

0.8

5.0

RF

Lance Berkman

587

.301

.412

.547

.402

-10.3

5.0

POS

PLAYER

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

WAR

SP

Chris Carpenter

237.1

7.24

2.09

7.5%

3.45

3.06

5.0

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

DRS

WAR

C

Yadier Molina

518

.305

.349

.465

.349

-0.7

4.1


The list here uses FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement to rank the five best Cardinals in 2011. For any stat you find unfamiliar, check out the glossary below.

The top five of the squad is unsurprising, as it makes up five of the better players from the pas generation of baseball. Chris Carpenter is a workhorse former-Cy Young winner, and Yadier Molina is a mult-time All-Star catcher with decent enough offense to go with some nifty defense. All of these guys could make arguments for spots on the All-Decade team of the aughts, but it is the top three who form the backbone of the Cardinals' terrifying offense.

Albert Pujols, of course, is no mere elite player. He is a legend, one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, and a man so gifted in the field he makes first base defense matter. In the worst season of his career (by far) he was still the best player on a pennant-winning team. He has a platoon advantage against almost every Rangers starter, and Rangers fans have not grown up like fans of the NL Central, occasionally seeing him make outs. There is reason to be scared.

Matt Holliday battled injuries that kept him from being at the top of this list, but now has a pretty good run as one of the very best players in baseball. As another one of the best right-handed hitters out there, putting him together with Pujols will be a nightmare for the Wilsons, Harrisons, and Hollands of the world.

Then there is Lance Berkman, a man who twice shunned the Rangers this season because he felt they were a pretty average team. We knew Berkman was wrong then, and we have proven him wrong now. Unfortunately for Rangers fans, he still seems to have made a good decision, as he got to the World Series, anyway.

OFFENSE

Woba_medium

Cardinals Likely Lineup

  1. Rafael Furcal - SS
  2. John Jay - CF
  3. Albert Pujols - 1B
  4. Lance Berkman - RF
  5. Matt Holliday - LF
  6. David Freese - 3B
  7. Yadier Molina - C
  8. Skip Schumaker - 2B
  9. Pitcher

The first chart here compares each spot in the likely batting orders in weighted On Base Percentage, and as you can see, the Cardinals are scary. That chart doesn't even take in to account their playing in a pitchers' park, while the Rangers' homefield promotes offense (though it also ignores the difference in league quality). This was the National League's best offense by a ton. Give them a solid DH in 2011, and they likely compete with the Rangers' offensively. They are a disciplined bunch, with the second lowest rate of swinging strikes in the National League, the lowest strikeout rate, and a decent walk rate to match. With all that, they hit 11% of their fly balls out of the park, despite having a homefield that tries to stop that from happening.

There is a really good chance pitchers are going to hate this series.

The real danger lies in possibly the most vicious 3-5 hitters in baseball, all of whom were discussed above. There is a silver lining here, though: the switch hitting Berkman makes gets his production from the left side of the plate. For his career, he is only slightly better than average against left-handed pitching, which means every starting pitcher the Rangers have outside of Colby Lewis. Holliday, meanwhile, has shown a reverse split over his career. Despite the presence of Pujols, the 3-5 cerberus the Cardinals throw out there prefers lefties, and that is a big reason why they hit both sides equally well, despite a righty-heavy lineup. They key word for St. Louis fans is "well," as they still hit, but for Texas fans, it is nice to know they have no extra advantage against a lefty-heavy lineup.

National League play in four of the seven potential games, of course, means the wonderful joy of pitchers hitting! If you are a fan of everyone having to hit and the double switch, you are in luck. If you are a fan of starting pitchers not getting tweaked by hitting or running the bases, and nine competent hitters in a lineup, I am very sorry.

As for the two or three American League games, the Rangers will likely only face right-handed pitching, which would be the usual time to see Mitch Moreland (.317) at first, but Ron Washington appears to have lost some confidence in him. That means likely more Endy Chavez (.325) in left -- despite having a career reverse-split -- moving Mike Napoli to DH and Yorvit Torrealba to catcher. It is also possible we see Craig Gentry (.341) starting in center in the games against the left-handed Jaime Garcia in St. Louis, benching David Murphy.

The Cardinals do not mess with their lineup a whole lot, outside of occasionally moving Lance Berkman down with lefties on the mound. Their most likely choice for a DH would seem to be Allen Craig (.399), who might also play the field for Berkman.

Schumaker missed the NLCS with a strained oblique, but the club anticipates his being able to play the World Series. If he cannot, the job goes to Nick Punto (.350), who has hit the Rangers in his career better than any other team he's ever faced at least 16 times. Small sample size and all, but you should know to hate Nick Punto.

PITCHING

Fip_medium

Probable Starters

Games 1 & 5: RHP Chris Carpenter vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
Games 2 & 6: LHP Jaime Garcia vs. RHP Colby Lewis
Games 3 & 7: RHP Kyle Lohse vs. LHP Derek Holland
Game 4: RHP Edwin Jackson vs. LHP Matt Harrison

The Rangers already announced Colby Lewis will start game two, and this is the best-case scenario. Busch Stadium is where fly balls go to die, and fly balls turning in to home runs, of course, is Lewis's biggest issue. Two game in Busch should help that mightily. There has not yet been an announcement as to who will get two starts between Holland or Harrison, so this assumes Holland has not lost the support he had from the first two series.

What we are seeing in the chart is each starter compared by Fielding Independent Pitching, or an estimate of the pitchers' ERAs using only the aspects of their performance not potentially influenced by the guys behind him. While it does not look to bright for the Rangers, homeruns are included here, and the Cardinals -- particularly Edwin Jackson -- were helped by their home park, while the Rangers -- particularly Lewis -- were hurt. Also, the Cardinals got to face National League lineups with their pitchers. If you regress the homerun rates on fly balls (xFIP), the Rangers rotation comes out just slightly behind the Cardinals, despite Designated Hitters and Arlington conditions. Both teams have a strong rotation, but the reality is the Rangers are probably better.

If you fear the changeup as the Rangers' kryptonite, however, this rotation might scare you a lot. That said, that fear would probably be irrational, since the Rangers were the second best team in baseball at hitting changeups.

Chris Carpenter, at 36, had one of the best years of his career in 2011, which is saying quite a bit. He is a master of keeping the ball down, and the contact out of the air. He has never been a strikeout machine, but his 7.13 K/9 rate in 2011 was nearly a return to his peak years; which is important without the aid of a good infield defense. The defense is actually the Rangers' best hope of getting to Carpenter most likely, as he is a pitch-to-contact guy who allows a couple walks a game. Against the Cardinals' defense, balls on the ground turn in to hits more often than they should, which inflated Carpenter's ERA and could inflate the Rangers' runs scored against a guy -- and a park in game one -- that does not allow home runs. This, of course, is the silver lining story. Carpenter is still a very good pitcher. He is primarily a three-pitch man, using a sinker on nearly half of his pitches, and throwing in a curveball with seriously dramatic break around a fifth of the time. The rest of the pitches are a vicious cutter which he unsurprisingly prefers to throw at lefties, but finds dominating success with against both sides of the plate.

Jaime Garcia has been nothing but money in his young career, though, unlike Carpenter, he may have struggled to find a spot in the Rangers' rotation all-year in 2011 (this is where you start feeling good about the pitching match-ups). Like Carpenter, he is not a real strikeout machine -- despite more than one-in-ten pitches being a whiff -- but is rather a keep-the-ball-down artist. He cut down his walks in his sophomore season, but still averages more than two a game. Also like Carpenter, he focuses on his sinker, throwing nothing that averages over 90 miles per hour, though he throws few breaking balls, filling in most of his other pitches with fastballs and changeups. The change he uses for an awesome 16.3% swinging strike rate, and his rare slider gets a whiff nearly a fourth of the time. He poses the lone lefty of the Cardinals rotation, and another opportunity for Texas to plague the Cardinals' infield defense.

Edwin Jackson was having a good season with the White Sox, before mysteriously taking a step back with the Cardinals. He is not a bad pitcher at all, but would also have struggled to make the Texas rotation. He has been a homer-prone pitcher for most of his career, and while Busch helps that out, Arlington will not. He is also prone to walks -- with nearly three a game in 2011 and almost four a game for his career -- had had  fewer than seven K/9 in 2011. He throws his slider a ton for a breaking pitch, more than 40% of the time, and does very well with it, getting a swing-and-a-miss more than 15% of the time in 2011. The problem is, none of his other pitches are particularly dangerous. His fastballs hit the mid-90s, but do not miss many bats, and his changeup is rare and ineffective. This is not a Max Scherzer situation, but Jackson in Arlington is not as good a situation for the Cardinals as his ERA might lead people to believe.

Kyle Lohse has had a nice, solid career, and is no pushover, though he likely does not even make the Rangers' rotation. Strikeouts are exceedingly rare for him, while walks are not uncommon enough to make up for that. He also gives up his share of fly balls, which could damage him once he leaves the confines of Busch Stadium for game three, and faces a lineup with as much power as the Rangers have. Lohse continues the Cardinals theme of lots of sinkers -- in this case nearly three-fifths of all his pitches -- and nothing that touches 90 on a regular basis. He splits the rest of his pitches between a change and slider, with a slight emphasis on the change, though he does have a curve and four-seamer he can throw. Just not well. The changeup -- like Garcia -- is where the whiffs come from.

Like the Rangers, the Cardinals bullpen is better now than it has looked all season. With the additions of Lance Lynn from call-up, and  Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski from trade mid-season, their bullpen went from putrid to pretty good. While it is not impenetrable (they still had a ton of melt downs in the last month), getting the St. Louis bullpen will not necessarily be a huge success, either. Closer Jason Motte hits the mid-90s with both his two and four-seam fastballs, and gets a lot of swinging misses with them; Rangers fans do not want to see the game get to him.

Another mid-season addition to the Cardinals' bullpen, meanwhile, was familiar face Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes did not get his velocity back, and only improved a little bit by getting to face the National League. Meanwhile, the Cardinals actually use him in higher leverage situations than the Rangers did. So, chew on that.

FIELDING

Fielding_medium

Finally, the defense. Two FanGraphs defensive metrics -- Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating -- are used here, and prorated to how many runs per 150 games each starting player saved in the two metrics.

Defensive metrics are always question, though, particularly when using only a season's (or less) worth of data. That said, the Rangers look once again like the better fielding team, and that is not very counter-intuitive. Albert Pujols is a good first baseman, but the meat of the Cardinals' infield is suspect defensively, while the Rangers have stars. John Jay would appear to give the Cardinals a bit of a boost in the outfield, but 2011 Nelson Cruz is not in line with his reputation, and Craig Gentry's wonderful glove (34.9 UZR/150) could be seen in home games.

By the starters' estimated level of play in 2011 here, the Rangers saved nearly four more runs every seven games than the Cardinals. The difference may not really be so wide, but it the disparity is more than enough to potentially make a difference in the World Series, just as it did against the also-poor-fielding Tigers in the ALCS. The Rangers have reaped the benefits of a renewed focus on defense, and it could just get them the first championship in franchise history.

Not pictured here is catcher's defense. While Yadier Molina has a strong -- and deserved -- reputation, he allowed more than 70% of attempted baserunners to steal in 2011. Against a fast and aggressive team like the Rangers, that could also play a difference-making role in the series. For reference, Mike Napoli caught 36% of attempted steals. The drop from catching nearly 50% last season may be due to pitching, or it may be due to Molina losing a bit on his fastball, but unless it's a fluke, it plays right in to the Rangers' hands.


EXPECTATIONS

So what we know is that the Rangers likely have the better pitching by a bit, likely have the better hitting by a hair, and likely have the better fielding by a bunch. We know these things look a little closer than they are because of the difference in quality between the American and National Leagues. We know both teams are better now than they look by glancing at their average performance in the regular season. We also know the Cardinals have homefield. Still, it is hard to look at this series and not see the Rangers as the favorites.

Last but not least is taking all this information we have and using it to estimate what a Rangers' fan's expectations should be going in. To do that, we have a model developed by Steve Sommer (unfortunately a Cardinals fan), where we can put in every component down to lineup, rotation, bullpen, and homefield advantage to estimate how often the Rangers win each matchup if played 1,000 times, and thus the series. Almost everything you could hope for is considered here, including platoon splits, and this uses the teams as they are now, not a broad estimation from looking at the whole team's season totals.

The result is this:

World_series_wins_medium

Rangers favored, being given a 68% shot of winning at least four games out of seven in this setting. This is not the only time you'll see similar odds on SB Nation; our own Beyond the Boxscore also called the Rangers 70.7% favorites to win it all.

It should be noted, by the way, that this is winning 0-4 games out of seven. That non-existent bar to the right is the Rangers' odds of losing seven in a row. Their odds of losing four in a row. Their odds of getting swept are still low, but more like 3% to around 10% of pulling off the sweep.

The odds of each individual game come out looking like this, from most to least favorable:

  1. Game 4 (72%)
  2. Game 5 (70%)
  3. Game 3 (64%)
  4. Game 1 (55%)
  5. Game 7 (52%)
  6. Games 2 & 6 (49%)

Despite the presence of Carpenter on the road, the model respects C.J. Wilson enough to favor the Rangers slightly in game one. The rest of the Busch games look like a toss-up at best for the Rangers. That's okay, however, since each Texas game looks like a dramatically favorable situation for the Rangers, which is what makes the Cardinals chances of sweeping so relatively low.

Now for the required caveats, starting with the most obvious. No model could ever hope to capture everything that goes in to baseball, and this is only an attempt at making a quality estimate; it should never be taken as perfect. Further, even if it were somehow perfect, a 70% chance of winning is very far from 100%. It is worse than the Braves chances of missing the playoffs were, and the Cardinals will happily talk to you about those odds. Texas is favored, but the games still have to be played, and St. Louis could win them without it being much of a shock.

Another thing that must be pointed out is how large a role the estimate of league quality here -- from the work of Matt Swartz -- plays. While all evidence points to the leagues not being close, how much a role that plays in the on-paper difference between the Rangers and Cardinals is something hard to be positive about. Treating the leagues as equal drops the Rangers down to more of a two-out-of-three winner, and gives St. Louis a larger advantage in the home games without C.J. Wilson. Of course, maybe the league difference is even larger, who knows?

Everything said, while cliches like "don't count your chickens before they hatch!" come to mind, the idea that the Rangers are the favored team in the World Series should still be easy to believe. Even without a simulation telling you this, you can look up the standings and see they won more makes and outscored their opponents way more, and even came in to the postseason hotter. They also have rarely clicked on all cylinders in October yet. Whether all this really means they should win the World Series seven out of ten times we cannot really be sure, nor can we really be sure they will win it. We can just be sure they are not underdogs looking for a miracle.

Whether that makes you feel better or worse is up to you.

Now for the fun/scary part: the real games.

 

Glossary: DRS FIP UZR wOBA WAR

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