Managers Alex Cora and Dave Roberts will mix and match their star-studded World Series rosters, eyeing an edge in a game of chess this Fall Classic.
The World Series begins on Tuesday from Fenway, where the Boston Red Sox will host the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1. We know who will start the opener—lefties Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw—but how will managers Alex Cora and Dave Roberts leverage their loaded lineups? Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the highly-anticipated World Series matchup:
The Dodgers love to work with the platoon advantage—57.3% of the time, a few notches above both baseball’s average and Boston’s 52.4%—and their roster reflects that, with plenty of mix-and-match pieces that can be configured in drastically different fashion from one game to the next. The Dodgers also love to pinch-hit more than any other team in baseball: 303 times in the regular season, compared to the National League’s average figure of 241. (That’s also more than any team since the 1992 Dodgers, with 304.) In other words, the club’s lineup is very much not a static construct, and you can expect a lot of different moving pieces. So what’s that going to look like?
There are just two players who have started each of L.A.’s 11 postseason games so far: Justin Turner at third base, and Manny Machado at shortstop. Now, there are four more who have appeared in each of the team’s postseason games—remember that obsession with pinch-hitting?—but as far as the starting lineup goes, there’s not necessarily much in the way of a sure bet outside of Turner and Machado. That doesn’t apply just to who’s playing, but to where they’ll be playing. The Dodgers have fully embraced positional versatility, which gives them maximum flexibility to tweak the lineup on the fly. In this postseason alone? Enrique Hernandez has started at second base, centerfield, and right field. Chris Taylor has started at second base, leftfield, and centerfield. Max Muncy has started at first and second. All that switching around makes it difficult to predict exactly how the team will be arranged on the diamond, to say nothing of how they might look on the lineup card, but much of it depends on the opposing pitcher. Based on what they’ve done so far, then, here’s a loose idea of what to look for against the Red Sox.
Dodgers vs. Red Sox’ lefties
The Dodgers will kick off the series against them—Chris Sale in Game 1, followed by David Price in Game 2. The team’s most successful hitter against southpaws in the regular season, albeit in a small sample, was David Freese. The 35-year-old postseason icon was on fire from the moment he was acquired at the end of August, tearing up left-handed pitching with a 1.331 OPS. He should get the nod here at first base. Enrique Hernandez is likely to be seen at second; the outfield should feature Matt Kemp in left, Chris Taylor in center and Yasiel Puig in right. Austin Barnes, finally, is probable behind the dish. That’s more or less the starting line-up that trotted out against Milwaukee’s lefties in the NLCS, and it makes sense that the team will stick with that general idea here.
Dodgers vs. Red Sox’ righties
Now for something almost entirely different. Boston’s Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi, in some order, will take the mound for Game 3 and Game 4. At first base, they’ll probably face Max Muncy, L.A.’s only player with multiple home runs this postseason besides Machado. Hernandez will likely still be at second, as the righty doesn’t have a huge platoon split. As for the outfield: Joc Pederson in left, Cody Bellinger in center, and, again, Puig in right. One potential swap? Bellinger for Taylor. The former was the slightly superior hitter in the regular season, but that hasn’t been the case lately. Bellinger has struggled to get hot in October, 5-for-36 through the NLDS and NLCS. Meanwhile, Taylor has led the team in postseason hitting—1.067 OPS—and he’s the more impressive fielder. Like Hernandez, he only has a modest platoon split, and it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the right-hander snag more playing time, even against fellow righties.
At catcher, look for the switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal, although this is another one that might be subject to change. Given his defensive woes throughout the postseason, L.A. might be hesitant to lean on him too much.
Dodgers vs. Red Sox' bullpen
The Red Sox’ relief corps is extremely righty-tilted, with just one left-hander. (That would be Eduardo Rodriguez, who threw a single inning in the ALCS.) In Games 1 and 2, then, expect more of the aforementioned righty-facing line-up to come off the bench to pinch-hit against them.
Boston’s bullpen creates a far different situation from what Dave Roberts & Co. just faced against Milwaukee in the NLCS. The Brewers called to the ‘pen early and frequently, and their relief crew was anchored by a major lefty threat in Josh Hader. The Red Sox are far more likely to lean on their starting pitching—granted, nowadays, “leaning on starting pitching” will probably mean a maximum of about 6.0 IP, but still!—and there’s no frightening lefty lurking. Boston’s biggest bullpen presences in the postseason have been Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes, along with closer Craig Kimbrel; Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly have taken much of the rest. Compared to Milwaukee, this is a set that’s certainly easier to manage against, if not significantly easier to face.
Red Sox lineup
Unlike the Dodgers’ jigsaw puzzle of a lineup, the Red Sox’ batting order is a more stable group. That isn’t to say that Alex Cora doesn’t seek platoon advantages like Dave Roberts does—only that he fiddles with his starting nine less than Los Angeles’ skipper, a man who cycles through lineups like the rest of us go through socks.
The core of Cora’s lineup—Mookie Betts at leadoff, followed by Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts—should remain unchanged throughout the series. All four are regulars regardless of the handedness of the pitcher on the mound, and they’re the best hitters Boston has to offer. The only question will be Martinez’s position or presence when the series moves to Los Angeles and its retrograde National League rules for Games 3, 4 and 5.
The 31-year-old Martinez, who is Boston’s second-best hitter behind Betts, played 93 of his 150 regular-season games this year (and every inning of the postseason) as the designated hitter. There’s good reason for that: He’s a disaster with a glove on his hand. But Cora won’t have that luxury at Dodger Stadium; to keep Martinez’s bat in the lineup, he’ll have to put him in the field.
The safest and most likely scenario involves sitting Jackie Bradley Jr., the ALCS MVP but also the worst hitter in Boston’s outfield, and sliding Betts over to center and starting Martinez in right. The wildest and arguably superior option, though, is moving Betts to second base, his original position in the minors but one he’s spent just 15 games at since 2014 (including six emergency innings this season). But Betts can hack it at the keystone, and Cora should seriously consider that choice, as it’d allow him to play Martinez, keep the defensively excellent Bradley in center, and replace an inferior bat in either Ian Kinsler or Brock Holt at second.
As for the rest of the lineup, Cora will mix and match depending on who’s pitching for the Dodgers.
Red Sox vs. Dodgers' lefties and righties
Against lefties, Boston’s order will probably include Steve Pearce—who mashes southpaws—at first base, Kinsler at second (assuming Cora doesn’t employ the Mookie Gambit), and Eduardo Nuñez at third. Versus righties, you’ll see Mitch Moreland at first, Holt at second, and Rafael Devers at third. Rounding it out will be Bradley in center and Christian Vazquez behind the plate, having displaced noodle-bat Sandy Leon there.
The biggest complication for Cora is at third. Nuñez (a righty) and Devers (a lefty) create a sensible platoon there, but the former is such an unsteady defender that Cora may shy away from using him. There’s also the fact that Devers is hitting .350/.409/.500 in 22 plate appearances this postseason, including a big three-run homer off Justin Verlander in Boston’s ALCS-clinching Game 5 win. Nuñez, meanwhile, is slashing a meager .188/.278/.250 in 18 PA to go along with his Keystone Cops routine at the hot corner—oh, and he’s been dealing with ankle pain since ALCS Game 3.
But with Los Angeles starting three lefties in Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu and Rich Hill, Cora may take the hit on defense with Nuñez in order to gain the platoon advantage. That feels like a mistake—not just because Nuñez hasn’t hit or fielded well, but also because adopting a hard left/right strategy gives ample playing time to Kinsler, who’s barely produced since coming to Boston in an August waiver deal (.242/.294/.311 in the regular season, .250/.280/.375 in the playoffs). That latter fact is another vote in favor of playing Betts at second, as Holt (a 109 OPS+ this season) is better than Kinsler but still rather average on the whole.
Boston’s southpaw hitters should get plenty of work in the late innings, though, as the Dodgers’ bullpen is righty heavy, particularly in high-leverage situations. Alex Wood, Caleb Ferguson and Julio Urias are Roberts’ only lefty arms in relief, and Wood and Urias are starters by trade. Those three probably won’t be appearing in crucial situations late, though Urias or Ferguson could work as spot LOOGYs for Benintendi, the Red Sox’ best lefty hitter. Kenley Jansen, Pedro Baez, Kenta Maeda, Ryan Madson and Dylan Floro will log the majority of the close-and-late innings, and those last three are vulnerable to lefthanded hitters. Moreland, Holt and Devers (and Bradley, if he does sit for Martinez) could play crucial roles off the bench against Los Angeles’ relief corps.
One last thing Cora will have to figure out: pinch-hitting for the pitcher. It’s not something he’s had to do much in his rookie season on the bench, but it’ll become an issue in the middle portion of the series. This is where the last piece on Boston’s bench, third catcher Blake Swihart, may finally come into play. Mostly unused against the Yankees and Astros, Swihart’s positional flexibility—he can play the outfield and has appeared at first, second and third in his brief major league career—gives Cora options to replace just about anybody if he needs to make a double-switch and reduces the likelihood of an empty bench late or having to pinch-hit with Leon, one of the worst hitters in the majors.
For the Red Sox, it’s tempting to go with Devers, who has shown serious upside at the plate when given the opportunity and who lengthens an already tough lineup. But with the Dodgers starting three lefties, his opportunities may be limited. Instead, I’ll go with Rick Porcello, who will start either Game 3 or 4 but will probably appear before that in a relief capacity. The veteran righty surprisingly helped stabilize a shaky bullpen in the ALDS and ALCS, giving Cora an extra trustworthy arm to join Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. That said, Porcello in relief is a weapon that can only be used once at the start of the series, either in Game 1 or 2; otherwise, his start would be sacrificed. But he could handle the seventh or eighth in one of those games to give Cora some needed depth, and may play a bigger bullpen role after Game 4.
As for the Dodgers, the best bet is to expect something from David Freese, who will start Games 1 and 2 at first base against Chris Sale and David Price. His impact may be limited to what he can do against those two pitchers, as Boston has no high-leverage lefty in its bullpen. But it wouldn’t be October without Freese contributing some massive hit in a crucial moment, be it as a starter or off the bench.
Alex Cora’s 108-win campaign is already one of the most impressive ever by a first-time manager. Now, he’s trying to become just the fifth rookie skipper to steer his team to victory in the World Series. (He’d join Bucky Harris of the 1924 Senators, Eddie Dyer of the 1946 Cardinals, Ralph Houk of the 1961 Yankees, and Bob Brenly of the 2001 Diamondbacks.) After displaying a fairly cautious approach in many regards during the regular season—a relatively quick hook with his starters, a hesitance to use relievers on consecutive days, a deep aversion to the bunt—he’s dialed up the aggression as the postseason has called for it. See: Cora’s decision to call on Chris Sale, his projected starter for Game 5 of the ALDS, to instead finish out Game 4. It’s difficult to get much bolder than that.
Dave Roberts, meanwhile, has been here before. It’s just his third season as a manager, but it’s his second consecutive year in the Fall Classic. Perhaps the best summary of his style is the previously mentioned pinch-hitting figure—after all, you don’t rack up the most plate substitutions in more than two decades by accident. That deliberate nature extends to other areas of the game, with an eye toward protecting against risk. Roberts is no great fan of stealing (99 attempts, 22nd in baseball) or signaling for a hit-and-run (248 baserunners going on a swing, 23rd in baseball). The Red Sox ranked third and second, respectively, in those two measures. The contrast between these areas just might be one of the most interesting matchups of the series.