I’m over the moon here. I’m pumped. The 2013 World Series is upon us, and for baseball fans who really enjoy the game played at its highest level, this is Heaven. The Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals were the only teams in baseball to win 97 games this season. They had the best offenses in their respective leagues, and outscored their opponents by more runs than any other team in their leagues.
Both teams are very deep. Both have a blended roster, young players and veterans, complete players and specialists. Both are chock-full of people who really love the game, who think about it and talk about it on a level few players in the modern game attain. One day, some ambitious writer who fell in love with the game reading David Halberstam and Roger Angell could write a really good book in the vein of October 1964, based on these two teams, their season and this Series.
I’ve endeavored to parse all the small differences that could decide this Fall Classic. There are almost too many to count. While the teams are eerily evenly matched, they play very different brands of baseball. Their rosters have very different shapes. Their home parks even pull the Series in divergent directions.
There isn’t a really clear format for what’s coming. I’m just breaking things out, one by one. That should make it easier to digest each concept, and it avoids superstructures that might stop me from getting across all the relevant information I have on a particular subject. So dig in, and if something doesn’t interest you, scroll down just a bit farther. There should be something for everyone here.
Jon Lester is a nightmare matchup for St. Louis. The Red Sox’ left-handed ace gets the Game One start Wednesday night, and poses a major problem for the Cardinals. Their team OPS against left-handed hurlers (.668 batting right-handed, .682 batting lefty) suggests a huge upper hand for Lester.
Allen Craig rejoins the Cardinals lineup in the Series. He’s been shelved since late August. As one of the team’s most dangerous bats, and a righty hitter, he should inspire confidence. Not so. Craig had a 28:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio when facing left-handed hurlers this season, and a .779 OPS. He was actually much better when he didn’t have the platoon advantage.
Now, the Cards hit a lot of doubles, and facing a lefty at Fenway Park, that’s a skill they should be able to capitalize on a time or two. Carlos Beltran had a .252 batting average and measly .281 OBP as a right-handed hitter this season, but The Wall plays into the one skill he has left from that side of the plate: power. In general, though, this is a tough assignment for them.
*I had been prepared to make a case here for withholding Lester for a Game Three start in St. Louis. I don’t like sending lefties to the mound in Boston, and the Cardinals’ bevy of right-handed thump had me scared. In looking at the particulars of the roster, though, and considering St. Louis’s steady approach, I changed my mind. The case for pushing Lester back isn’t untenable; I just can’t make it at this point.
Matt Carpenter will be a factor in Boston. Matt Adams, not so much. The Cardinals’ second baseman and leadoff man is a freak. This season, Carpenter swung at 37 percent of the pitches he saw. (The league average is 46.8 percent.) When he swung, he made contact 89 percent of the time. (The league average is 79.3 percent.) When he made contact, 30.4 percent of his batted balls were line drives. (The league average is 23.4 percent.)
All that is true, and then there’s this: Carpenter only pulled 35 percent of his fly balls this season, compared to a league average right around 45 percent. That reflects his willingness and ability to hit the ball hard the other way. That’s how he racked up 55 regular-season doubles. It’s an approach one has to think will serve him well with The Wall out there in left field, for the first two games of the Series.
Adams, the first baseman, isn’t in nearly as good a place. He relies on hitting the ball over the fence for value. He hit 17 home runs in 319 plate appearances this season, but just 14 doubles and no triples. He’s pulled over half his fly balls in the Major Leagues. It’s going to be cold, and right and center field are very spacious. Adams is more than a pure troglodyte, and could well yank one out of the park, but the better odds are on some frustrating fly balls and a fair amount of swinging and missing.
Daniel Nava is being unfairly crowded out of the Red Sox lineup. For most of the season, the Red Sox had a left-field platoon the rest of the league could only drool over. Nava is a switch-hitter, but hammers righties, batting left. Jonny Gomes is a right-handed batter with a platoon split usually reserved for lefties, not in direction (it’s still lefties he hits better) but in magnitude (he absolutely mashes left-handed pitching, but mostly strikes out a ton against righties).
At some point during the ALCS, though, manager John Farrell made Gomes his primary left fielder. One hopes Nava will get at least half the starts during this Series, since the Cardinals aren’t going to start a single lefty, but it looks like Gomes is now the starter, with Nava the backup. Nava had the second-highest park-adjusted wOBA (a comprehensive offensive metric that accurately accounts for the value of all outcomes at bat) on the Red Sox, believe it or not, trailing only David Ortiz, among guys with at least 350 plate appearances. That guy is now looking like a bench bat.
It should be noted that, in Game One, this isn’t a huge deal, because Adam Wainwright has almost no platoon split himself. However, we should also note that Gomes is the better fielder (yes, really), so Nava should get as much of his playing time as possible at Fenway, where left-field defense is a non-priority.
The Cardinals’ starting pitchers have to stay aggressive. The Red Sox swung at the first pitch only 20.4 percent of the time this season. When they took that pitch, their team OPS was .807, 25 percent better than the league average in those cases, a monster number.
However, they thrived most when they got ahead in the count. With that in their favor, their team OPS was 1.100, 30 percent better even than the lofty league average in those situations. Fall behind against these guys, and you’ll pay dearly for it.
The Cardinals’ pitchers need to be especially cognizant of this. They’re opportunists, too, just like the Sox batters. Cardinals hurlers held opponents to an OPS in the .460 range in counts favoring the pitcher, 14 percent lower than the already anemic league average.
So in many, even most plate appearances, Boston batters and St. Louis spinners will be battling to get ahead. Who wins more of those battles matters even more than usual.
In a strange way, the Red Sox pitching staff defuses one of the Cardinals’ greatest strengths. The Cardinals edged the Dodgers in the NLCS by prevailing in a key regard when they were at bat. Los Angeles pitchers struck out a higher percentage of their opposing batters than any other team in the National League; the Cardinals make contact at the fifth-highest rate of any team in baseball. St. Louis put the ball in play in key situations, and the Dodgers’ defense couldn’t rise to the considerable challenge.
Boston, though, doesn’t rely on striking people out. Koji Uehara misses a ton of bats at the back end of their bullpen, and Junichi Tazawa had roughly the average strikeout rate for a good short reliever these days: 25 percent. Beyond that, Boston’s most important pitchers prefer ground balls and pop-ups to laboring, trying to strike people out. The two most whiff-centric starters the Sox had, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, have been relegated to mid-leverage relief (for now).
The Red Sox had an infield defense worth about nine runs above average this season. That’s leavened by some innings from now-departed shortstop Jose Iglesias, but leadened by Will Middlebrooks getting a lot of time at third base. With Xander Bogaerts now likely to get the bulk of the playing time there, it’s safe to say this is a sturdy ground-ball defense.
Boston outfielders were even better, 47.8 runs better than average, mostly driven by the sterling play of Jacoby Ellsbury in center and the deft handling of right field by erstwhile center fielder Shane Victorino. Gomes and Nava are a shaky pair in left, but rarely make mistakes. Gomes’s arm is a decent tool.
That all spells trouble for the Cardinals. The Pirates, who played St. Louis almost to a five-game draw in the NLDS, were this kind of team. They let the ball enter the field of play, and their talented defense minimized the damage the Cards could do. There are certainly times when this offense can’t be contained, but having a solid fielding team is a good way to survive against this group.
The Mike Napoli-David Ortiz dilemma should be interesting while the Series is in St. Louis. Because the DH rule will be in effect only during the games in Boston, there will be a chunk of this series during which the Red Sox have to bench one of their three or four best batters. I have begrudgingly come to believe that the DH should be universal, but since it isn’t right now, the Sox have a tough choice to make—and they’ll probably have to make it three times.
Ortiz, whose OPS against right-handed pitching this season approached 1.100, is a threat the team would be loath to lose for any stretch. On the other hand, Napoli homered twice off tough right-handed hurlers during the ALCS; has been pretty good overall in 2013 against righties; and most importantly, is a far, far superior defender at first base.
Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright will be the three starters for St. Louis at Busch Stadium, unless they shorten the rotation and use Wainwright and Michael Wacha on three days’ rest (unlikely). I’d start Napoli against Kelly and Wainwright, and Ortiz against Lynn.
First of all, you don’t worry at all about matchups when facing Joe Kelly as a starting pitcher. You just go out, get your runs and defend the lead he gives you. Kelly does a good job of dampening power, but in 762 plate appearances against him when he was the starter, batters have only fanned 105 times, and have been unintentionally walked or hit by pitches 68 times. Kelly has fine raw stuff, especially velocity, but no idea how to get batters out in anything but short bursts. Napoli can attack him as well as Ortiz can.
Wainwright has an eye-popping strikeout-to-walk ratio against right-handed batters, but a small overall platoon split. Given that he relies so much on a fairly vertical curveball, that’s not a huge surprise. Napoli’s defensive edge over Ortiz is, for me, a more compelling advantage than Ortiz’s likely edge at the plate. That’s especially true given the Cardinals’ reliance on balls in play, It;s also true, though maybe outweighed by other considerations, that targeting a single high-leverage plate appearance is easier than finding the right time to make a defensive substitution.
Lynn is a two-pitch pitcher with a big platoon split, in terms of strike-zone control, in terms of power, everything. Ortiz is a no-brainer there.
If you wanted to get creative, you could start Mike Carp, but have him bat only in the top of the first, then replace him with Napoli. Say you did feel the platoon advantage mattered a lot in those other two games. Say, too, that you wanted to keep your defense unblemished, but improve your chances to score early. This gambit could be the way to do it.
If Napoli is going to play, and especially if Gomes is starting over Nava, then Carp is a tactical pinch-hitter you’re unlikely to need late in the game. The big assignments against tough right-handed pitchers would go to Ortiz, then Nava. So get Carp an at-bat in the first inning, because he’s a better bet than Napoli with a right-hander on the mound.
The Red Sox need to score early. Boston’s lineup had a highly unusual collective trait this season. The first time through the order, they posted an .809 OPS, 31 percent better than the league average for the first turn. The second time, that number climbed to .855, 34 percent better than average.
The third time through the batting order, though, the Sox had a .782 OPS, which after park adjustment, was just six percent better than an average team seeing an opposing starter for the third time. The numbers in a fourth trip come in too small a sample to report, but they’re ugly.
Are the Red Sox bad at making in-game adjustments? Do they have holes that pitchers find ways to exploit as the game moves along? Maybe. I’d have to study it more closely. My guess is that most of this is selection bias. Because the Red Sox see more pitches per plate appearance than any other team in baseball—and because that .855 figure for batters faced 10-18 is pretty concussive—I’m betting the Sox knocked out most any starter who wasn’t pitching well against them already.
Still, the Sox are a team that likes to jump on you. That’s their shtick. They get into your bullpen, where their OPS sags to .763, but that’s 22 percent better than the league average when facing a reliever for the first time. They wreak havoc.
Only the Cardinals don’t let that happen. Teams who fail to get out to an early lead against St. Louis pay for it. When tied after the first inning, the Cardinals were 56-31—a .644 winning percentage. A scoreless first frame, as innocuous as it seems, actually pushed the Cardinals toward a win this season. When tied after three, they were 29-10. Tied or ahead after three, they went on to an 84-24 record.
A Cardinals lead after four innings or more is a death knell for the opponent. They won over 91 percent of those games. This is what Boston, whose scoring and opponents’ scoring was much more evenly distributed throughout games, has to avoid.
All of these stats draw on a full season of data. There’s one more thing to consider. The Cardinals’ bullpen is stronger than ever. Carlos Martinez is emerging as a real weapon in a set-up role, which should make scoring runs late in games much tougher for the Red Sox than it was in, say the 10 games of AL playoffs that got them here. In those, they scored 21 runs from the seventh innings onward, thanks to the relatively hittable Rays and Tigers relief groups.
The Cardinals will be trying to keep these games low-scoring. Because the Red Sox don’t have an ace to match Wainwright, nor a strikeout-happy staff, it’s unlikely they’re going to shut down the Cardinals offense. I imagine St. Louis will at least get a run or two on the board in each game, and sometimes more.
They don’t need tons of offense, though. They just need to limit Boston. The Cardinals went 24-55 when allowing four runs or more this season. The Red Sox, on the other hand, won 33 of the 80 contests in which they allowed four or more. They were a .500 team (21-21) when surrendering four or five tallies. Boston’s offense gave them more margin for error this way. They could win without shutting opponents down. That means more paths to victory for the Red Sox, but because the Series will be played exclusively in cold weather and comprises two solid run-prevention teams, the tendencies here probably favor the Cardinals.
St. Louis’s hurlers have to miss bats in order to contain Boston. The Cardinals weren’t baseball’s worst defense this season, but they ranked in the bottom 10. Neither their infield nor their outfield converts balls in play into outs well.
That spells trouble, because the Sox have the best balls-in-play offense in a long, long time. They had a collective .329 team batting average on balls in play (BABIP), leading the league. Eight of 10 guys who saw regular playing time had BABIPs of .320 or better:
Boston Red Sox, Batting BABIP, 2013
Now, batted-ball averages are volatile, so this skill could disappear on a few of these guys at an inopportune moment and leave the Sox grasping at straws. It sure doesn’t seem like a favorable matchup for the Cards, though, a bad defense against this offense. That only feels more true now that Bogaerts has shoved the one guy who had a markedly below-average BABIP season out of the lineup.
Happily for St. Louis, they do have a staff that can generate some strikeouts, and the Sox aren’t really built to work around that. There’s a clear division among Red Sox batters:
Boston Red Sox, Whiffers and Others, 2013 – League Average K%: 19.9
Strikeout Rates of 17.4% or Less
Strikeout Rates of 24.3% or More
The guys in that second column, to whom you can add Mike Carp, are vulnerable to pitches with the fantastic raw stuff the Cardinals’ relievers (especially) have. Bogaerts has been fully in control of the strike zone, though, and pushes Middlebrooks to the side.
Home runs are going to be tough to come by during this Series. I’m sure one or two will be hit, and perhaps more, but the weather and the philosophies of the two pitching staffs will cap it. The Sox will score if they put the ball in play enough. The Cardinals will limit them if they don’t allow that.
Allen Craig shouldn’t start a single game in St. Louis. Being the designated hitter will let Craig be relatively ginger during the Boston phases of the Series. When the DH isn’t an option, though, he should be a bench bat only.
It’s not as if Craig has any defensive value, even at first base. The difference between him and Matt Adams is significantly smaller than the gap between Napoli and Ortiz. It’s not worth him going out there and hurting himself, or having him focus on anything but his next at-bat.
It’s also true that left-handed batters enjoy a slight edge over righties at Busch Stadium, across the board. Adams hits really well there. Craig can’t do anything Adams can’t do, even against Lester in Game Five. He should be held in reserve, to pinch-hit.
Boston’s positional depth is a real advantage. Sure, the Red Sox have to bench a good hitter when they get to St. Louis. On the other hand, that good hitter will join two or three others on the pine. With Nava or Gomes; Ortiz or Napoli; Saltalamacchia or David Ross; and Middlebrooks and Carp always available, there are no shortage of candidates to pinch-hit, be it for the pitcher’s spot or to gain a platoon edge. The other guy on the bench, Quintin Berry, has big tactical value, too, only as a runner. The Red Sox should be able to field an American League offense even in a National League park.
Yadier Molina has a tough test to face here. The Red Sox are the best base-stealing team in the league. Ellsbury leads the way, but a lot of them can go get a base if the pitcher loses track of them, and Berry has still never been caught stealing in the big leagues.
Two years ago, Molina faced the Texas Rangers, who also had team speed and a lot of aggressive runners. Molina shut them down, though, to the tune of one steal and three caught. The Rangers still scored runs. Like the Red Sox, they did other things very well, too. Not being able to get into scoring position ahead of singles hitters, though, did hold them back. With Ellsbury often on base and looking to set up a Pedroia RBI single, it will be important that Molina continue to control the game.
This has all been a bit scattershot, I know. Lining up all these small considerations, weighing them and measuring them, is tough work. Here’s my best effort to put the pieces together:
The Red Sox’ offense is of a caliber the depleted Dodgers and passable Pirates don’t approach. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, especially, looked in command against those teams, but might run into big trouble against this one. There are no holes in the Boston lineup, unless you think Drew and Saltalamacchia’s struggles during the ALCS are real and predictive.
I do think they were real; I doubt they’re predictive. They were overwhelmed by the stuff of the Tigers’ starters, who could command secondary pitches after setting them up with 96-mile-per-hour heat that got over their bats. Maybe Wainwright, Rosenthal and Wacha can do that to them, but I don’t think Kelly, Lynn, Martinez, Shelby Miller, John Axford or Edward Mujica can.
So Boston will score their runs. I envision a big Series from Xander Bogaerts, making a difference thanks to the OBP skills that trickle all the way down the Red Sox lineup and give him a chance to drive in runs. We’ll all marvel at the difference swapping the 21-year-old in for Middlebrooks will make.
St. Louis will hang with them, though. The starting rotation for the Red Sox is solid, but I don’t see any eight-inning shutout efforts. The Cardinals haven’t been very good at scoring runs late in games this season, so it will be important that they score in the middle innings, as Lester and Buchholz run out of gas, and try to get to the lower half of the Red Sox’ bullpen hierarchy. That’s how the Tigers almost undid them.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, John Farrell has proved very willing to ask for four or five outs from all of his three reliable relievers. I’m guessing all high-leverage bullpen innings will be meted out among Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara. So the Cardinals will have to beat one of them, at least once, to win the Series.
St. Louis relies more on sequences, on big innings. The Red Sox can ensure victory if they always keep the lid on a given frame, playing solid defense, getting a starter out the second he shows signs of being in trouble, whatever. Farrell needs to make use of a quick hook, if one of his starters lets four straight Cardinals reach base or something. Managers who fail to act in those spots when facing this team always regret it. Boston is carrying Dempster, Doubront, Brandon Workman and Franklin Morales, all of whom made starts for them this season. Farrell has to be willing to mix and match his way to the seventh inning sometimes.
The Cardinals have a depth issue. They can’t pinch-hit with anyone good, although I consider Shane Robinson woefully underrated. They have a black hole at the bottom of their order, in Pete Kozma. They’re starting two pitchers you don’t really want to start against a team this good, in games this important. I actually see things that favor St. Louis, but in seven games and with home-field advantage likely playing a role, give me Red Sox in seven.Next post: Weaver’s Ghost: An Introduction
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