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The Strike Zone

Mulling every possible World Series matchup

Red Sox The Red Sox and Cardinals are one win away from a rematch of their 2004 World Series showdown, which Boston won to snap an 86-year drougth. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

With both League Championship Series standing at 3-games-to-2 we still don't know who will face off in the World Series, which starts next Wednesday. The trailing Dodgers and Tigers both have their work cut out to make it that far, given that just four teams have won Games 6 and 7 of the LCS on the road, as I noted earlier this week. But with all four potential matchups still on the table, it's worth considering what could be in store, and how these teams stack up against each other.

Cardinals versus Red Sox

Right now, this is the most likely scenario, since these two teams are each one win away from a trip to the World Series. Neither is a stranger to the Fall Classic. The Cardinals won pennants in 2004, 2006 and 2011, and went on to win championships in the latter two years. The Red Sox won pennants in 2004 and 2007; they swept the Cardinals in the first of those, ending an 86-year championship drought.

That wasn't the first time those two teams squared off in the World Series, either. They went the distance in 1946, with St. Louis' Enos Slaughter making a mad dash from first base all the way home in the eighth inning of Game 7 for the deciding run of a series that featured six future Hall of Famers: Slaughter, Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst for St. Louis, and Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams (in his only World Series) and manager Joe Cronin for Boston. They also met in 1967, when Bob Gibson beat Boston three times, including the decisive Game 7 at Fenway Park to end the Impossible Dream season of Carl Yastrzemski's Red Sox.

Only one Cardinal, catcher Yadier Molina, remains from their three most recent World Series teams; he was current manager Mike Matheny's understudy and started Game 4 in 2004. Adam Wainwright remains from the 2006 team that beat the Tigers, though he missed the 2011 run due to Tommy John surgery. David Freese, Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Lance Lynn are among the holdovers from St. Louis' most recent Series win, over the Rangers.

For the Red Sox, David Ortiz stands as the last link to the 2004 team, while Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester were part of the 2007 one (Clay Buchholz got a late-season cup of coffee but didn't play in the postseason), which swept the Rockies in the World Series. Current manager John Farrell was the pitching coach for that team, a key selling point when the Sox turned the page on the Bobby Valentine nightmare last fall.

For St. Louis, this might be the less preferable of the two potential matchups. For one thing, they struggle against lefthanded pitching (.238/.301/.371 in the regular season) and would have to face Jon Lester, whereas the Tigers offer four righthanded starters. The Cardinals pitching staff features four righties itself, and St. Louis fared worse against lefty hitters by about 30 points of OPS. That's a problem given an opposing lineup with a significant lefty presence in Ellsbury, Ortiz, Stephen Drew and switch-hitters Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daniel Nava, both of whom are much stronger against righties.

In fact, the Sox as a whole hit .283/.355/.462 vs. righthanders, which is 67 points of OPS higher than they hit against lefties, and 30 points higher than any other team hit against righties (the Tigers were second), making this the more favorable matchup of the two potential opponents for them.

Cardinals versus Tigers

Of the four potential matchups, this one is the richest in World Series history, as these two teams squared off in 1934 (Cardinals in seven), 1968 (Tigers in seven) and 2006 (Cardinals in five). The first of those series featured the Gashouse Gang, including Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher (who earned his spot as a manager), Frankie Frisch, Jesse Haines and Joe Medwick for St. Louis, and Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin and Hank Greenberg for Detroit. The 1968 Series had Gibson coming off his microscopic 1.12 ERA and pitching three complete games, fellow Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda and Schoendienst (the manager) on the Cards' side, and Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Eddie Mathews for the Tigers, not to mention 31-game winner Denny McLain and series MVP Mickey Lolich, who threw three complete games himself, the last on two days' rest in a Game 7  win against Gibson.

The 2006 matchup came the same year that Jim Leyland returned to managing after a six-year layoff. Detroit's only holdover from that team is Justin Verlander, who was coming off a strong rookie season in which he won 17 games and AL Rookie of the Year honors. The series was most memorable for the Kenny Rogers pine tar incident and for the five errors made by Tigers pitchers, including two by Verlander; eight of St. Louis' 22 runs were unearned.

This might be the more favorable of the two potential matchups for the Cardinals based on platoon splits, as they hit an NL-best .280/.343/.412 against righties. The one thing that stands out among their other splits is their struggles against power pitchers, those (as defined by Baseball-Reference.com) in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. They hit just .229/.295/.363 against such pitchers, which ranked 16th in the majors in terms of OPS — and brother, the Tigers have some power pitchers.

On the offensive side, even though Detroit has just two lefties in its regular lineup in Alex Avila and Prince Fielder, it was slightly stronger against righties (.290/.350/.437) than lefties (.269/.336/.428) but ranked second in the majors in OPS against pitchers of either hand. As fearsome as that sounds, Cabrera's current ailments and Fielder being as lost as a 275-pound man can get on national television — he has just one extra-base hit and no RBIs in 41 postseason plate appearances — takes the edge off the Tigers' offense.

That the former has been dominated by fastballs in the postseason makes the prospect of his facing heat-throwing relievers Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal an uncomfortable one for the Tigers, so this could be the less preferable of their two matchups.

Red Sox versus Dodgers

These two teams haven't met in the World Series since 1916, which, unless I've missed something at B-Ref, means that neither team has any players remaining from that matchup. The 1916 series was won by the Red Sox over the Robins (temporarily named that way in honor of  Hall of Fame manager Wilbert Robinson, a/k/a "Uncle Robbie") in five games. It featured future Hall of Famers Harry Hooper, Herb Pennock (on the roster but didn't play) and Babe Ruth back when he was a pitcher; his 14-inning complete game in Game 2 still stands as a postseason record for most innings pitched in a single game. In addition to Robinson, the Dodgers also boasted Rube Marquard, Casey Stengel (better known for his managing) and Zack Wheat, all on their way to Cooperstown.

The Dodgers don't have any World Series history more recent than 1988; the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson's famous pinch-homer just passed. But beyond ancient history, this potential matchup boasts a ready-made storyline via the Aug. 29, 2012 blockbuster trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to Los Angeles from Boston and took the wrecking ball to an expensive and increasingly inflexible roster that had spent the previous 12 months disappointing like no squad in franchise history — which is saying something. I revisited that trade recently, and about the only thing worth adding is that Gonzalez and Crawford have combined to hit seven of the Dodgers' 11 postseason homers thus far, including two from the former and one from the latter as they staved off elimination on Thursday.

Though they'd have nothing to complain about either way if they succeed in digging out from a 3-games-to-1 NLCS deficit, the Dodgers (to say nothing of the national media) would probably prefer this matchup. As noted before, Boston's offense posted an OPS against lefties that was 67 points lower than against righties (.265/.337/.414 was the actual line), and LCS Games 6 starter Clayton Kershaw — who held lefty batters to a .165/.224/.253 line — would be lined up to pitch the Series opener if Los Angeles should advance (he'd be on four days' rest), with fellow lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu likely to pitch Game 3.

That said, the Dodgers themselves are vulnerable to lefties, hitting just .253/.315/.391 against them, 23 points of OPS lower than against righties. Crawford and Andre Ethier are both particularly inept against southpaws to the point that it might be worth sitting one of them in favor of Scott Van Slyke in a Lester start.

Tigers versus Dodgers

This is the least likely of the four matchups given both teams' 3-games-to-2 deficits and their need to win both games on the road just to get to the World Series. It is also the only one that is unprecedented in postseason annals. The two teams have played a total of 15 interleague games, but none since 2011; for what little it's worth, the Dodgers hold a 9-6 edge, including two out of three in that most recent series, which featured a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout by Kershaw for a career-best Game Score of 93.

As noted above, L.A.'s hitters had an OPS 23 points better against righties, ranking 11th in the majors on a .268/.331/.398 line. Its offense might make for a slightly tougher matchup against the Tigers than the Cardinals would, as the Dodgers hit .229/.320/.349 against power pitchers, which is 25 points of on-base percentage higher but 14 points of slugging lower than the Cardinals managed. Even given what I noted above with regards to the Los Angeles-Boston matchup, it's worth noting that the Dodgers' staff as a whole did a better job of stifling righties (.240/.297/.360) than lefties (.249/.321/.372), but the Tigers are pretty strong against either side, and have gotten this far even with Fielder, the key lefty in their lineup, almost totally neutralized.

Obviously, there will be a whole lot more to say about whichever of these matchups actually comes to pass. But via this shorthand analysis, it appears as though the preferred opponents for each would be as follows:

Red Sox: Cardinals

Cardinals: Tigers

Tigers: Dodgers

Dodgers: Red Sox
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