Congratulations to the Detroit Tigers for an impressive four game sweep of the New York Yankees to earn their 11th American League Championship. With the Cardinals just one win away from their 19th NL Pennant, it begs the obvious question, is this a rematch of 2006 ?
For the Cardinals, no. While we had a lot of fun comparing the 2011 Cardinals to the plucky bunch from 1964, the current roster of Redbirds reminds me of the 1968 team. There are a few important differences, but the similarities are amazingly scary.
It is OK to take a couple of minutes and admire Bob Gibson’s 1968 performance. I know that I have, many times.
Let’s look at the 2012 starters.
No, the 2012 team did not have a Bob Gibson in the rotation, at least not during the regular season, but there are two scary parallels.
Kyle Lohse and Ray Washburn were both healthy and turned in career years. It should also be noted that both started their careers as flame throwers, Washburn being in an elite group, but injuries and maturity helped transform them into sneaky finesse pitchers, and success followed. For Washburn, this was the first time since 1962 that he was healthy for the full season. Lohse’s injury troubles were in 2009 and 2010. Both were the unfortunate benefactor of lack of runs and each could easily have won 21 or 22 games. Their league adjusted ERA (ERA+) shows just how well they pitched.
Perhaps even more scary is the Lance Lynn/Joe Kelly and Nelson Briles comparison. If you were not old enough to remember Briles, his pitching motion was nearly identical to that of Joe Kelly. An abbreviated windup (courtesy of pitching coach, Billy Moffat) and then a violent delivery with him falling off the mound, hard to the first base side. Briles got off to a quick start, as did Lance Lynn, but was much more consistent, like Kelly. If Kelly had started the season with the Cardinals, and had gotten the run support that Lynn received through much of the season, he would be the one with the 18-7 record, or better.
It should also be noted that one of the most exciting arms, Dick Hughes, blew out his shoulder in spring training. The hard throwing right hander was co-Rookie of the Year in 1967, albeit at age 29. The Cardinals had exceptionally high expectations for Hughes, and it was a big blow when his injury ended his career. He did pitch through the injury, and was surprisingly effective.
As I’ve written about several times previously, Jaime Garcia reminds me a lot of Larry Jaster. Their respective lines from 1968 and 2012 help support that claim. Garcia missed some time to a lingering shoulder injury. For Jaster, the league was beginning to figure out his fastball.
Steve Carlton and Adam Wainwright ? Ignore that they threw from different sides, and that’s a fair comparison. Lefty was a bit younger, but it was very apparent, even at this point in his career, he was something special. He was the ace-in-waiting behind one of the greatest right handers in Cardinals history. That baton has already been passed in the current generation of pitchers. Gibson, Carlton, Washburn, Briles vs Carpenter, Wainwright, Lohse and Kelly/Lynn. That even makes Rod Serling drop his cigarette and smile.
Ah, but that’s nothing compared to the bullpens.
As good as the 1968 Cardinals rotation was, a big part of their success was a lights-out bullpen. If a starter left the game early, the bullpen just did not cough up a lead. There was little turnover in the pen and the 1-2 punch were the veteran lefty, Joe Hoerner, and a young hard throwing righty side armer, Ron Willis. A mid season callup of Wayne Granger added a much needed spark. Mel Nelson was the non-closer lefty and the injured Dick Hughes pitched when he could.
On paper, the 2012 bullpen was anything but dependable. Until the Edward Mujica trade at the non-waiver deadline, the relief core was something of a revolving door. JC Romero, Scott Linebrink, Brian Fuentes, Maikel Cleto, Brandon Dickson, Chuckie Fick, Eduardo Sanchez, Sam Freeman and Barret Browning all made a stop in the pen before things settled down. Once Mujica showed up in St. Louis, the bullpen went from weak link to the heart-and-soul of the team. As with Wayne Granger in 1968, the hard throwing Trevor Rosenthal provided a much needed spark in the pen, lighting up radar guns and thrilling Cardinals fans in every appearance.
Hoerner + Boggs were the Mujica, Boggs and Motte of the ’68 team. Wayne Granger and Trevor Rosenthal were the young guns. Mel Nelson and Marc Rzepczynski were the lefties and Dick Hughes and Fernando Salas were the inconsistent righties.
If that were not enough, Shelby Miller and Mike Torrez were both top pitching prospects that made a few key appearances. Both were impressive and looked like future stars.
Both reigning champions were returning with the bulk of their lineup in tact. The notable exception is the loss of Albert Pujols in the off season. The combination of Lance Berkman and Allen Craig made up for most of that loss, and the addition of veteran Carlos Beltran mode than covered what remained. And then some.
Let’s take a look at the other positions, and some these are even more spooky than with the pitchers.
It was a bit of a down year for Tim McCarver, but he provided a ton of offensive production while calling a brilliant game. Much of the credit for the Cardinals pitching success needs to be given to McCarver’s game plan. If there was such a thing as BAMF in the 60s, McCarver had plenty.
The big differences between McCarver and Molina are on the defensive side of the game. McCarver was a plus defender with a good arm, Molina is an elite defender and among the best to ever play the position.
Lessee, how about a slide defender with a good arm that doesn’t hit for high average, but has a knack of getting key hits. If a pitcher makes a mistake, he has enough pop in his bat to hurt him. Which one is that ? Both of them. The difference here is that Descalso got off to a poor start to the 2012 season. His second half numbers are very close to Javier’s. Descalso also has a strong enough arm and just enough range to be able to play shortstop. Javier was the second best at his position, playing in the shadow of Bill Mazeroski for most of his career. If not for the Pirates Hall of Famer, Javier’s shelf would be full of Golden Gloves.
I will make this as simple as I can. Pete Kozma is this generation’s Dal Maxvill. Period. Both were slick defenders with exceptional arms. Neither hit for high average (Kozma’s is helped by a small sample size) but had some unbelievable key hits. Both were patient at the plate, taking walks ahead of the pitcher or a pinch hitter. If a pitcher made a mistake, both could make the ball leave the park. Just.
If you consider that Maxvill is currently fourth in career dWAR (defensive Wins Above Replacement), the thought of Kozma backing up Rafael Furcal next year should give you some comfort. Don’t forget about Ryan Jackson – an extra year in Memphis should help the youngster develop his offense.
A hometown player who was key to a Cardinals World Series win. Gap to gap power but can send the baseball out of the deepest part of the ballpark if a pitcher is not careful. He plays the game hard, so much so that you worry about a season ending injury at any moment.
Hard to tell which one that describes, right ? Because they are the same player.
Two exceptionally classy players that are nearing the end of an impressive career. The wear and tear of his early years have finally caught up to Maris, and this would be last time we had the pleasure of watching him play the game. It was both a sad and happy time.
I don’t think we can say enough about Beltran’s contributions to the 2012 ball club. Like Maris in 1967, or Lance Berkman in 2011, Beltran was the final piece to the championship puzzle. Fortunately for Cardinals fans, Beltran is signed through next season, and there is an exciting corner outfielder in the minor leagues that should be ready after that.
Let me do this one in a photo.
Look familiar ? Joe Kelly thinks so. What do you think ?
While it is unfair to compare Jay to one of the greatest defensive center fielders in baseball history, Jon Jay has significantly improved his fielding. As our friend Mark Tomasik points out on his blog, Jay is sneaking up on Curt Flood’s error-less streak.
Both were dependable hitters at the top of the batting order. Mostly singles hitters, Flood had the benefit of hitting behind Lou Brock, who would frequently steal bases while Flood patiently took pitches.
At first you might squint in disbelief. While totally mismatched in body mass and foot speed, the two players are eerily similar otherwise. Both were iffy defenders – Brock made up with his speed, Holliday his bat. Brock hit leadoff for most of his career, but had he batted lower, his RBI totals would look more like Matt Holliday. Holliday hit the ball harder, but Brock could turn on an inside fastball just as quickly. And finally, both could go on brutal prolonged slumps, but when they got hot, could carry the team for weeks at a time.
Bobby Tolan was a speedy young player that could play some awesome defense. On the bases, he was a complete terror to the other team. Adron Chambers, anybody ?
The one thing the ’68 Cardinals did not have was a Matt Carpenter coming off the bench. They had some good utility players in Ed Speizio and Phil Gagliano, but neither had the consistent offensive production of Carpenter.
While the similarities are impressive, there were a few key differences in the two teams.
Mike Matheny is a new manager and basically learning how to manage the season as it unfolded. He did surround himself with some great coaching talent, which helped, but it does not replace actual experience. In 1968, Red Schoendienst was in his fourth season as manager, had been a coach under Johnny Keane’s World Series Championship in 1964, had already won a title on his own, and has more Cardinals DNA in his genes than anybody else on the planet.
While the ’68 Cardinals did struggle offensively, they were very good at grinding out close games. They were 15-8 in extra inning games, thanks to that exceptional bullpen. Because of that bullpen, they were able to steal a base, move a runner over and manufacture a run at an important point in the game. That was a big part of the 97 team wins. The 2012 team may be the best offense a Cardinal manager ever penciled in a lineup card, but their inconsistency, especially in the middle of the season, is why they had to earn their way into the playoffs through the second wildcard. The 1968 team steamrolled to an NL Pennant. The 2012 Cardinals are one win away by scratching, clawing and just refusing to lose.
Their biggest weakness of the 1968 Cardinals was against left handed pitching. Their lineup was balanced (Javier had a reverse split, so should be considered a lefty) and could be neutralized by a southpaw. That would play out in the World Series as Micky Lolich would go 3-0 and win the World Series MVP. The 2012 Cardinals are mostly a right handed lineup, particularly in the heart of the order, and tore up left handers. Sadly, the 2012 Tigers are going to throw some wickedly talented righties at whomever advances to the Fall Classic.
The other big difference between the two is the middle defense. Curt Flood and Dal Maxvill would win Gold Gloves and Julian Javier would have if he had hit a bit better. Molina should win a Gold Glove in 2012 and Jon Jay should be at least in the conversation. While much improved over the 2011 team, the 2012 team has a long way to go before being compared to that world class defense the 68 team fielded every day.
The Final Chapter
We know how the ’68 season ended. A rare defensive miscue by Curt Flood on a Jim Northrup triple to left center field in Game Seven gave the series to the Tigers. That doesn’t mean that the 2012 season will end the same way. There is still one more win to record before that is even a consideration.