14 Dec World Series Champs: How’d They Do It?
It may have taken 108 years, but at long last, the Chicago Cubs are finally World Series Champions. All the credit in the world goes to President of Baseball Ops, Theo Epstein, who joined the Cubs’ front office back in 2011 and started the arduous rebuilding process on the north side of Chicago. It was a solid four years of “tanking” for the Cubbies, but during that time, Epstein completely transformed the roster from a batch of loveable losers into an absolute juggernaut loaded with All-Star talent.
The 2016 World Series was one for the ages, a thrilling seven-game epic between two seemingly cursed organizations under immense pressure to deliver a championship to their respective tortured fanbases (the Cleveland Indian’s title drought is now at 68 years and counting). Game 7 was arguably the greatest baseball game of my lifetime, and even though Cleveland took Chicago to the absolute brink, it was hardly a surprise the Cubs won it all.
Chicago lead all of baseball with 103 regular-season wins, and with a run differential of +252. They were the very best team in baseball and went wire-to-wire with that reputation completely intact. We could dissect every move the managers made and analyze every single call from this past Fall Classic, but when it comes down to it, the best team won the title this year. Simple as that.
Sure, this is a common phenomenon in the NFL and even more so in the NBA, but that’s not usually the case in Major League Baseball. Since the year 2000, only the ‘09 Yankees won the World Series after finishing the regular season alone at the top with the MLB’s best record (and not to be the salty Met fan, but the Yanks bought every last free agent off the shelves the offseason prior). Aside from them, it’s generally been the team who catches fire in October that wins the World Series, or the team that has a roster constructed precisely for postseason play (the Indians were both and may have revolutionized playoff baseball altogether, but more on that some other time).
The Cubs had young, dynamic talent up and down the lineup. They had a state-of-the-art defense, a forward-thinking manager, and a front office with a propensity for dissolving sports related curses. Those qualities in a ballclub play as well in the spring and summer as they do in the fall, so why doesn’t the best team win more often in baseball? Sabermetrics and other advanced analytics have helped front offices all across the game construct their rosters for success over the course of the 162 game season, but certain team identities don’t always thrive in a short October series. It’s all about matchups, really, and how certain strategies and styles of play can change when there is no guarantee of another game tomorrow.
Chicago’s dominance in 2016 inspired me to go through all the World Series winners since the year 2000 and see if I could figure out just how they did it. They may not have been the “best” teams in their respective title years, but they can all call themselves World Series Champs. Here are five of my favorite Championship rosters of the past 15 years and a (somewhat futile) attempt to explain their postseason success.
2001 Diamondbacks: The 2-Headed Monster
The Yankee dynasty of the late-’90s, early-2000s were just three outs away from a fourth consecutive World Series title when their championship hopes were foiled by the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2-headed monster at the top of their starting rotation. Arizona’s lineup was primarily comprised of role players and veterans like Matt Williams (age 35), Steve Finley (36), and Mark Grace (37), but the club still managed to to beat a stacked Yankee team that had won four of the last five World Series.
Thanks to their pair of aces, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the D-Backs had #1 WAR for starting pitching in all of baseball ahead teams like the A’s with their peak staff of Barry Zito (23), Mark Mulder (23), and Tim Hudson (25); the Braves who got 200+ innings out of future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine; and the AL Champion Yanks who had Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens all in their prime.
Johnson and Schilling finished first and second, respectively in the National League Cy Young voting that season (as well as in the following season) and carried an otherwise mediocre pitching staff to some impressive season totals. Arizona’s staff was #4 in Wins, ERA, and BB/9; #3 in innings pitched, FIP, and LOB%; and #1 in K/9 at 8.37. Impressive as it was, the D-Backs were able to accomplish all of this despite having a collective ERA over 4.52 from any pitcher besides Johnson or Schilling to make at least 10 starts.
Schilling pitched games one, four, and seven in that World Series against New York; and Johnson pitched two, six, and seven in relief. The Two-Headed Monster shared co-MVP honors, and were the winning pitchers of record in all four Arizona’s 2001 World Series wins.
2003 Marlins: The Definition of National League Baseball
The Yankees went back to the World Series just two years later, but lost in six games to the second team on our list, the 2003 Florida Marlins. That Marlins squad was the definition of National League baseball with their particular style of play, devoid of serious power but built on speed, pitching, and defense.
Florida was a top-10 defensive club in that season. They finished #1 in baseball with 150 steals (including five starters in double-digits, 65 out of Juan Pierre, and 21 out of first baseman, Derrek Lee), and had a starting staff full of young flamethrowers. Brad Penny (age 25), Josh Beckett (23), A.J. Burnett (26) all sat 94+ with their fastballs and topped out around 99 MPH, which lead the team to the 5th-best K/9 and 2nd-best average fastball velocity in the game during the regular season. Not to mention, they also had NL Rookie of the Year, Dontrelle Willis, a 27 year-old Carl Pavano, and a year of Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez anchoring the staff.
While the Marlins pitching was able to keep the Yankee bats at bay for a majority of the ‘03 Fall Classic, their offense was able to scratch together enough runs for them to win the series with the age-old philosophy of “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in.” The speed and bat control at the top in Pierre (league leader in steals and bunt base hits) and second baseman, Luis Castillo helped them score early; and of course, having a 20 year-old Miguel Cabrera in the lineup certainly didn’t hurt the offense.
The Marlins were outscored 21-17 in the series, but rode the momentum of a series tying walkoff win in Game 4 to three-straight wins to clinch the title. They stifled the Yankee bats the rest of that series, and when Beckett got a one-run lead in the deciding Game 6 it was all but over.
2005 White Sox: Enough Offense to Win
The team on Chicago’s south side also ended a long World Series drought of their own this century in 2005 with a middle-of-the-road offense and great pitching. The White Sox really excelled in some areas at the plate that season, finishing 5th in homers with 200 and 4th in steals with 137; but it was the club’s wealth of pitching depth that lead to their title.
Chicago was #1 in baseball in overall pitching WAR, saves, and innings pitched back in ‘05; #2 in BABIP and LOB%, #4 in overall ERA, and #3 in bullpen ERA. They also avoided injuries for the most part as all four of their playoff starters amassed 200 innings throughout the regular season.
It’s one thing to have a couple aces and some question marks, but there were no slouches in that White Sox pitching rotation. When the playoffs rolled around, Chicago was able to throw any one of their four starters with confidence, and as a result, the team found themselves in a great position to win each and every night thanks to the pitching matchups. The club had just one loss in their postseason run, and followed that ALCS Game 1 defeat by Angels with four consecutive complete game wins from their starters Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, and Jose Contreras. With the state of starting pitching and bullpen usage in today’s game, that’s something we may never see again.
2013 Red Sox: Moneyball 2.0
If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball, then you are probably aware of the connecting threads between Bill James, Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s, and the Boston Red Sox. The 2013 World Champion Red Sox took Brad Pitt’s “just get on base” montra from the film and added a “or do some damage” to the end of it. Boston’s roster wasn’t particularly athletic or reliant on one or two true superstars, but they did stack their lineup with professional hitters and guys who reach base at a high clip.
The Sox set out to have as many above league-average hitters possible. More than half of their starting position players had an All-Star level OPS (on-base + Slugging) over .800, and only third baseman, Will Middlebrooks had an OPS+ (park-adjusted OPS) under 100. They were also #1 in the MLB with 819 team RBI, 853 runs, a .446 slugging percentage, .349 on-base, and a 114 wRC+ (tied with the Tigers).
2013 was Moneyball paying off in October for the Red Sox like it never did for the A’s of the early-2000s. The club went from worst to first, and did so with a relentless and powerful offense.
It’s crazy to think that former Rookie of the Year and MVP Dustin Pedroia had the least amount of power on this team, and he’s is known as a guy with surprising pop for being only 5’8”.
2015 Royals: Stay In Every Game
The final team on our list, and I guess the closest thing I have as an answer to my thesis, is the 2015 Kansas City Royals. That KC team had some obvious flaws, but used the experience they had from their pennant the year prior to play to their strengths better than any other team on our list.
Firstly, the Royals had a shutdown bullpen and were able to shorten every game by about three innings. The seventh inning belonged to Kelvin Herrera, who threw 100 MPH and posted a 2.71 in 69.2 IP. Then came a rejuvenated Ryan Madson for the eighth with his 2.13 ERA in 63.1 IP, followed by lights out closer, Wade Davis for the ninth with his ridiculous 10.43 K/9 and 0.94 ERA in 67.1 IP. They knew what they had in those three arms and leaned heavily on the pen, finishing 24th in the MLB in IP from their starters.
KC was also rated the best defense in baseball by a large margin, and used their athleticism to wreak havoc on the basepaths. The Royals were constantly taking the extra base and daring the other team to make a mistake. Their 6.3 BB% was the lowest in the league, but their 15.9 K% was best by a margin of 2.2. Their high contact rate lead to productive outs, and with that bullpen, there was no way this team was losing a one run game.
As much as it pains me to say this as a die-hard Mets fan, this Royals club did it the right way. Although they came back down to earth this year, the 2015 Royals showed just how devastating fundamental baseball can be when everyone else is trying to hop on the next new trend. In a 7-game series where every run matters and there may be no tomorrow, old-school methods win out in baseball. If I’m being quite honest, it’s the shit you hear all the time growing up around the game: Put the ball in play and good things will happen, force the defense to make a mistake, good pitching beats good hitting, and catch the ball. This Royals team was 90 feet from back-to-back titles despite the absence of superstar talent and an underwhelming roster.
How’d they do it? Well, they played the game the right way.