Last week, I began looking at strange decisions made in past World Series. Partially, it’s very interesting to me, and partially, there’s no baseball happening at the moment, but we have to write about something. This week — yep, still no baseball. And so here is the next installment in Wild World Series Tactics.
The one thing you definitely know about the 1998 World Series is that the Yankees swept the Padres. It wasn’t pretty — the Padres were outscored by 13 runs in four games. But the Padres had a sweet lineup, for the most part. Tony Gwynn anchored the lineup from the two hole, and even though he was nearing the end of the line, he still put up a 130 wRC+ this year. Quilvio Veras was a credible leadoff hitter, their worst hitters were at the bottom of the lineup — this batting order wouldn’t raise eyebrows today.
The Yankees were no slouches in the roster construction department either. Part of this might be due to who the number two hitters are; Gwynn and Derek Jeter were both great hitters who happened to fit the old stereotype of a bat control guy. The leadoff hitters still fit the speed mold. Whatever the case may be, however, both of these lineups looked great for the time.
For the first six innings of Game 1, if you ignore the graphics, this could almost be a recent game. There were no bunts, no intentional walks, and three home runs. Both pitchers went deep, but Kevin Brown was a 10-WAR pitcher in 1998, and David Wells was the Yankees’ ace; that’s hardly weird.
In the seventh, Brown got into trouble, and Bruce Bochy made some weird bullpen decisions. First, he brought in Donne Wall, who had a shiny ERA (2.43) but a 4.06 FIP — not that DIPS theory even existed then. He gave up a game-tying home run immediately — whoops. After a single, Bochy brought in a new pitcher, and Mark Langston wasn’t even an ERA weirdo — his 5.86 ERA (and FIP over 5) should tell you everything you need to know about him.
With help from an iffy intentional walk (man on second, one out, tie game, Bernie Williams at the plate), the Yankees loaded the bases, and Tino Martinez hit a grand slam to essentially end the game. The Padres’ best two relievers watched from the dugout bench.
After a Game 2 with no interesting decisions at all (when your starter gives up six runs in 2.2 innings, you’re not going to make many meaningful choices), Bochy had another pivotal bullpen move to make in Game 3. Sterling Hitchcock, who had just batted in a tie game (he singled and scored!), took the mound protecting a three run lead. He gave up extra-base hits to the first two batters he faced, and Bochy went to fifth starter Joey Hamilton to protect the lead.
After Hamilton mostly wriggled out of trouble, Bochy made another change: lefty specialist Randy Myers, who walked Paul O’Neill. He then went to Trevor Hoffman, who was absolutely dominant all season, and Hoffman surrendered a three-run homer that decided the game. Better bullpen decisions, same outcome; what was a Bochy to do?
As it turns out, it didn’t matter what Bochy did. He sent Brown back out, and Brown threw 118 pitches on three days’ rest, unthinkable today. But while he faltered in the eighth, allowing two of his three earned runs, the Yankees shut out the Padre offense, so it hardly mattered in the end. This was the closest to modern baseball of any 90s series — largely because the games were so rarely close, giving the managers less time to get fancy.
That’s not to say that sweeps can’t feature weird decisions. The Braves had Bret Boone, owner of -0.2 WAR and an 83 wRC+, batting second. Brian Jordan and his 104 wRC+ batted fourth, stranding Andruw Jones in sixth. Sure thing, Bobby Cox, sure thing.
Cox was never shy about making weird decisions. He took out Ryan Klesko for a defensive replacement — at first base — in the eighth inning of Game 1. Klesko was due up ninth, but: first base defensive help? In a close game? Naturally, Klesko’s spot came up in the ninth — and Cox had to pinch hit for defensive replacement Brian Hunter. I — just — don’t do this.
Game 2 featured Andruw Jones, coming off a 112 wRC+ season, batting eighth, behind two batters with 71 wRC+’s, Greg Myers and Keith Lockhart. Ozzie Guillen, with an unbelievable 51 wRC+, batted second, with Boone getting the day off. Why? Cox magic, I suppose. The batting order hardly mattered in a blowout, but Bobby Cox gave me a migraine as this series went on.
In Game 3, Cox went to great lengths to gain a platoon advantage; he benched Ryan Klesko, who hit righties better than lefties but is a good overall hitter, instead using light-hitting Jose Hernandez as a DH. He also batted Brian Hunter, Klesko’s defensive replacement, eighth. Hunter was basically only on the team to mash lefties in a platoon with Klesko — why was he hitting eighth? Cox’s overall lineup construction is a mystery to me.
In any case, the Braves were cooking in this game, with a 5-1 lead in the early innings. The Yankees chipped away at the lead with two solo home runs, but the Braves had a stacked bullpen — six pitchers averaged 20% or more strikeouts a game, nearly unheard of at the time, and their top five relievers had sub-4 ERA’s and FIP’s.
Naturally, Tom Glavine stayed in the game — he was Tom Glavine. He’d been shaky in the seventh, giving up a homer to Tino Martinez, and the Yankees finally got to him in the eighth — after a leadoff single by Joe Girardi, leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch faced Glavine for a fourth time and deposited one in the seats, tying the game.
To Cox’s credit, he replaced Glavine with closer John Rocker, their best reliever. Rocker threw two scoreless innings before another good reliever, Mike Remlinger, gave up a walk-off home run. But why not go to Rocker to start the inning, or at least a righty reliever? For a manager who loved platoon advantages so much on offense, it was a weird choice.
That Hunter/Klesko swap worked about how you’d expect, by the way. Andy Pettitte got knocked out after 2.2 innings, Cox inexplicably didn’t sub in Klesko, and so Hunter (and Jose Hernandez) faced righties as often as lefties throughout the game.
Game 4 had another Cox classic — an intentional walk with second and third and one out in a third-inning tie game — and naturally the runner scored. But for the most part the Braves didn’t put up much of a fight. Cox did his part with goofy decisions, but this series wasn’t close enough that any of them really mattered.
We’re slowly edging forward in time here. Moneyball was published in 2003, and more and more teams employed analysts. The Mets were downright modern in some ways — Edgardo Alfonzo batted second and hit .324/.425/.542, the second-best line on the team. The backup catcher hit eighth, the glove-first shortstop hit ninth — Bobby Cox would hardly recognize the team. The Yankees also did their part to look modern.
But before you go thinking the Mets were some cutting-edge operation, consider this: they had Al Leiter throw 126 pitches in Game 1, even as he appeared to be tiring. The Yankees did their part to feed Leiter outs — Chuck Knoblauch bunted into a fielder’s choice in a tie game after the leadoff runner reached, only for the next three batters to reach base. Between that and a few well-timed outs, Leiter danced through seven innings with only those two allowed runs, though the Mets lost in extra innings.
Game 2, the Piazza/Clemens bat game, passed without tactical incident, more or less — the Mets stretched Mike Hampton a fourth time through the order, but he wriggled out of a jam to keep the game 4-0. In Game 3, the Yankees finally cracked on the lineup front — Jose Vizcaino, a career 76 wRC+ hitter with a .251/.308/.303 line in 2000, led off after batting ninth the first two games. They also one-upped the Mets on over-pushing their starters; Orlando Hernandez, who had been average on the year (4.51 ERA, 4.81 FIP) threw 134 pitches and faced 34 batters. As he tired, three of the last four batters reached, and the Mets turned those into two runs and the win. Mariano Rivera and Jeff Nelson, fresh off of an off day, watched from the dugout.
For Game 4, the Yankees pivoted to a different light hitter at the top of the lineup, moving Jeter to leadoff and Luis Sojo to the two spot. Unlike in Game 3, however, they used an appropriately short leash with starter Denny Neagle, and demonstrated some modern sensibilities in the process; David Cone came in for a single out in the fifth, and the top relieving trio of Mike Stanton, Nelson, and Rivera handled the last four innings, with Rivera going 28 pitches for a two-inning save.
In Game 5, Vizcaino was back in the leadoff spot — Jorge Posada, who hit .287/.417/.527 in 2000, good for a 140 wRC+, batted seventh. Starter Andy Pettitte went seven innings and 129 pitches, as the Yankees tried to shorten the bullpen’s responsibilities a night after a taxing effort; Stanton and Rivera pitched an inning apiece, and overall Joe Torre managed the bullpen well in these two games. Aside from a brief baserunning blunder (Kurt Abbott got picked off of first base with a runner on second base), the game went smoothly through seven.
But the Mets weren’t content with getting seven innings of two-run ball from starter Al Leiter. They sent him back out for the eighth, facing the top of the order; pinch hitter Chuck Knoblauch (yes, the Yankees pinch hit for their leadoff hitter against the opponent’s starter — the less said about this the better), Jeter, and the gang. He gave up a single to David Justice but escaped trouble — eight innings, 121 pitches, and surely he couldn’t come back out for the ninth, right?
Wrong! Leiter came back out for the ninth, with closer Armando Benitez and setup man John Franco both warm. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling Yankees. With two outs, they strung together a walk and two singles, plating the tie-breaking run on a Luis Sojo single. Franco came on to get the last out, the Mets didn’t score in the ninth, and that decision to leave Leiter out in the eighth ended up stinging.
After 10 years of World Series tactics, it’s tempting to see the arc of progress bending towards the present. Relative to the early 90s, there were far fewer bunts, far fewer odd intentional walks, and fewer completely inexplicable lineup decisions. Upon a second look, however, could it just be that there was less Bobby Cox in later years.
Cox provided a shocking amount of weird bunts, weird lineup decisions, and over-meddling intentional walks. He was sometimes allergic to his bullpen, sometimes addicted to pinch hitting to gain the platoon advantage. He acted — acted frequently, and not always in predictable ways — giving me plenty of fodder for criticism.
In comparison, the other managers of the decade, particularly the second half of the decade, were less willing to call for bunts and walks. They mostly got out of the way and let their players play. Sure, there was the odd batter who flip-flopped between first and ninth, or the decent pitcher stretched far past his breaking point, but the entire 2000 World Series featured two non-pitcher bunts. In 1995, the Braves’ lone Series win, they had five non-pitcher bunts all by themselves.
But lest you think baseball had largely evolved to what tactical decisions look like today by 2000 — there were 10 starts in the 2000 series, and seven of those went 100 pitches or more. Five went 120 pitches or more. In the 14 starts of the 2019 World Series — a clash of two pitching titans — seven went 100 pitches or more, and none more than 120. The revelation that a tiring, middling starter was a worse choice than a short-stint bullpen arm was still a ways off.
And where we’re headed next, the 2001 World Series, things are going to get even weirder. So buckle in — the wildest of the World Series tactics aren’t yet behind us.