I’m a baseball nerd. I treasure the nuance of the tactical value carried by the fifth guy on the bench. I love parsing platoon splits to find out whether two players might fill a given position better than one. That’s me.
For most people, though, baseball is like the other sports, in that it’s most fun to watch when a star player (or two, or four) dominates the action. Guys who can take over, make electrifying defensive plays, steal important bases and hit long home runs, or hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun to set up a nasty slider. These are the players and moments that make the game captivating, even for casual fans.
There are no shortage of them in this World Series. The Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals don’t run on star power, the way the Dodgers and Tigers (whom they beat in the League Championship Series) do, but they still have players who can command attention with serious displays of skill and raw athleticism. Here are my favorites:
Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Field, Red Sox – A free agent as soon as someone wins four games, Ellsbury is playing like a man trying to get rich this October. He’s a stolen-base machine, swiping 52 bases in 56 tries (that’s every bit as amazing as it sounds) this season, then six in seven attempts during the AL playoffs. He’s also a solid center fielder, using not only speed but good instincts and body control to cover a ton of ground, smoothly.
At the plate, he’s more a doubles-and-triples guy than an over-the-fence threat, but then again, he once topped 30 home runs in a single season, his tremendous 2011. He reached base 21 times in the 10 games it took Boston to beat the Rays and Tigers.
Yadier Molina, Catcher, Cardinals – When Ellsbury takes off for second base during this series, it will be Molina springing out of his stance to try and stop him. Although he’s not quite the absolute buzzkill to the running game that he was three or four years ago, Molina might remain the best throwing catcher in baseball. He’s also exceptionally athletic behind the dish, blocking pitches, chasing pop flies, whatever comes up.
He’s also become an exceptional hitter. He’ll never hit many home runs, and unlike Ellsbury, doesn’t have the speed to turn doubles into triples, or to get himself into scoring position after a single. Still, he hardly ever strikes out, and still hits the ball hard nearly every time. He’s part of a very dynamic Cardinals lineup, wherein just about everyone hits for average.
Trevor Rosenthal, Closer, Cardinals – Rosenthal would be a starting pitcher to this day, if the Cardinals hadn’t had a surplus of those when the season began. Instead, he’s now one of the hardest-throwing, most effective closers in baseball, mixing a starter’s deep repertoire of secondary offerings with that hot, hot heat.
Xander Bogaerts, Third Base, Red Sox – Just barely 21 years old, Bogaerts has burst onto the scene since the start of October, taking the third-base job from Will Middlebrooks by force. In 11 plate appearances, the tall and sturdy Aruban has three doubles, five walks and just one strikeout. He’s reached base eight times, been pinch-run for once, and scored the other seven times.
Matt Adams, First Base, Cardinals – The Cardinals, believe it or not, don’t hit many home runs. They clubbed just 125 on the season, in fact, and scored a lower percentage of their runs on homers than any other team in baseball. Phat Matt is the exception to the rule. He’s the over-the-fence threat, the guy the Cards will hope is due as the go-ahead run late in a game or two during the Series. He also strikes out a lot, but that’s the way it goes, for power hitters.
Michael Wacha, Starting Pitcher, Cardinals – Precious few are the draft picks who can win NLCS MVP awards barely a year after being selected. For a guy who went 19th overall, to be sure, it’s unprecedented.
Still, Wacha is doing it. He shut down the Dodgers to earn that award, and that was after making prolonged bids for no-hitters against the Nationals and Pirates, in his last start of the regular season and his postseason debut, respectively. He throws hard, harder than anyone thought he would throw when his name was called on draft day, but he’s less one-dimensional than fellow young Cardinal hurlers Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly.
Mike Napoli, First Base, Red Sox – I call him “The Bearded One,” in acknowledgment of the fact that none of his teammates’ famous beards can quite hold a candle to his. Napoli looks and acts like a lumberjack. His swing is vicious, violent, with a ton of torque that builds right into contact. He hit a home run 460 feet in Detroit to win one game of the ALCS, and pulled a Justin Verlander fastball about 400 feet to win another.
He’s also a really, really good defensive first baseman. This is his first season as a full-time guy there, but you wouldn’t know it. He’s agile, sure-handed and strong-armed. He rounds out an excellent Red Sox infield.
Carlos Beltran, Right Field, Cardinals – Can you be the best playoff hitter ever, without even playing in the World Series? Luckily, we might no longer need to wonder. Beltran has a very strong case as the best obliterator of October opponents ever, and now will surrender a record for which he stood tied—most playoff games without a Series appearance, 45—in pursuit of greater glory.
Are ypu ready for some ridiculous numbers? Beltran, in thos 45 career playoff games, has batted .337/.449/.724. He has 16 October home runs, 33 walks against 22 strikeouts and 11 stolen bases without being caught. The five tools he once used to dominate the game are dwindling toward one, but he still has six extra-base hits and eight walks in 11 games this year, and threw out the go-ahead run in extra innings in Game One of the NLCS.
He’s a dangerous, dangerous hitter, the more so as he has learned to cut down his swing and avoid strikeouts in his old age. He puts the ball in play, and can still pull the ball with authority from either side of the plate.
Adam Wainwright, Starting Pitcher, Cardinals – Wainwright has perhaps the league’s best curveball, and has leaned on it harder of late than he once did. His fastball doesn’t touch 97, but he mixes sinkers and cutters, changeups and that curve to dizzying effect. He keeps the ball on the ground. He never walks anyone. He’s the only guy on either side of this contest who has a chance to start and finish a game during this series, though I doubt he actually will. When Wainwright is on, he’s too good even for the Red Sox. Again, no one else on either side can say that.
Koji Uehara, Closer, Red Sox – The splitter Uehara throws virtually precludes home runs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is insane no matter over which period you measure it, allowed him to allow fewer base runners per inning pitched this season than any other pitcher in baseball history. Without elite heat or even a true breaking ball, Uehara dominates batters from both sides of the plate, shutting things down.
He’s also the rare closer who could be a multi-inning weapon, not just in a pinch, but whenever the Red Sox need him. Uehara has gotten at least four outs in three games this month, and did that nine times during the regular season. He could well throw six or seven innings in this Series, and if he does, the Red Sox will win it.Next post: 2013 World Series Preview: Red Sox Will Edge Cardinals in Seven Games
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