- Clayton Kershaw appears to have his curveball back, Chris Sale may not be healthy and everybody thinks signs are being stolen. It's bound to be a fun World Series.
BOSTON — Boston vs. Los Angeles is the ultimate clash of cultures, and we’re not talking lobster rolls vs. fish tacos. The Red Sox and Dodgers want to win the World Series in very different ways. The series will be decided on which offense is able to best impose its will on the opponent.
This is the first World Series since the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in 2013 that the championship will be decided between the highest scoring teams in each league. The Red Sox grind teams with a relentless, contact-heavy lineup that does not give away strikes or at-bats. The Dodgers live on walks and home runs— a take-take-boom! approach.
The Red Sox want to slow play the series—fouling off pitches, stepping out of the box, stringing hits together. The Dodgers are in hurry. They want to strike quickly.
Last year the Red Sox were the most patient hitting team in baseball—okay, the most passive team. When Alex Cora took over as manager this year, he drew on his experience as the Astros bench coach by telling his Red Sox hitters, “You guys were so easy to game plan against. You had way too many bad takes.”
A bad take is when a hitter lets a hittable pitch go by without swinging. Boston hitters took 4,767 called strikes last year, the most in baseball. This year they took 651 fewer and would up in the middle of the pack, 15th.
“That’s all because of him,” hitting coach Tim Hyers said, pointing to Cora. “He was on that from day one of spring training.”
But the Red Sox still are adept at not expanding the zone and at putting the ball in play when they swing. Only the Indians and Astros made contact more often than did the Red Sox. They are a traditional rally team at a time in baseball when rallies are dying. This postseason there have been 524 strikeouts and 416 hits—a worsening of the regular season ratio.
Here’s the difference between the Red Sox and Dodgers: this postseason the Red Sox are hitting an unsustainable .370 with runners in scoring position. The Dodgers are hitting .190 with runners in scoring position. But the Dodgers still made the World Series because they slug no matter the count. Scoring position to them is the batter’s box.
The Dodgers have hit 13 home runs this postseason, only four when they were ahead in the count. The Red Sox may be a better two-strike hitting team this postseason than the Dodgers, at least as batting average is concerned (.201-.163), but the Dodgers outslug the Red Sox in those counts (.288-.254) and far out-homer them (7–1).
If there is one swing that best exemplifies the Dodgers it is the violent one Yasiel Puig put on a nasty 1–1 knuckle-curve from Jeremy Jeffress of Milwaukee in NLCS Game 7. The pitch was located almost perfectly for a pitcher—down and away, out of the zone. Yet Puig somehow hit a screamer of a line drive over the centerfield wall.
“There are only so many hitters in baseball who could do that,” Dodgers president Andrew Friedman said. “That just shows you the kind of talent he has.”
If the Dodgers continue to swing like that, it doesn’t matter what they hit with runners in scoring position.
Here are the other key elements toward deciding this World Series.
Chris Sale is not at full arm strength
Sale threw 303 pitches this year at 97 MPH or above—none since Aug. 12. This is not the same Sale, who for three months has battled inflammation in his left shoulder, a condition that responds well only to rest. He is a five- or six-inning pitcher who has a handful of bullets at 95 or 96, but otherwise competes with his outstanding changeup and slider. His stuff is still good enough to win, but in throwing in the low to mid-90s he has lost some margin for error – and a mistake or two over the plate is where the Dodgers’ ability to slug comes in.
Mookie Betts will not start at second base
Boston thinks—for now, anyway—that it’s too big an ask to play their rightfielder at second base in the middle three games in Los Angeles. The Red Sox took a full infield practice yesterday and Betts was not a part of it.
Here’s the way the Red Sox see it. The Dodgers are starting two lefthanded breaking-ball pitchers in Los Angeles: Rich Hill and Clayton Kershaw. Jackie Bradley Jr. hit .077 this year against lefthanded breaking balls—four hits all year. He’s better starting those games on the bench, with Betts in centerfield and Ian Kinsler at second base.
The Dodgers have a righty, Walker Buehler, lined up for Game 3. Now do you really want to put Betts in an uncomfortable position for one game—which really would be six innings or so, because you don’t want him out there in the late innings of a close game—and compromise your defense? It doesn’t make sense. Betts at second base, though, would be possible in an in-game emergency.
The Dodgers have the better bullpen
Ryan Madson and Pedro Baez have been shutdownn relievers for Los Angeles. What makes the Dodger bullpen so unique is that they can call on several former starters who bring a deep arsenal of pitches, not just the usual fastball-breaking ball two-pitch combo teams run out of bullpens: Julio Urias (with his velocity climbing), Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda.
“They’re difficult to prepare for,” Hyers said.
Also, give an edge to the Dodgers’ closer (Kenley Jansen) over the Red Sox’s closer (Craig Kimbrel) and consider the Boston bullpen walks too many batters and is facing the most selective lineup in baseball, and you can see games that are decided late favor Los Angeles.
Clayton Kershaw has re-discovered his curveball
As much as people talk about Kershaw’s diminished fastball velocity, he has added velocity to his slider. His problem is that the fastball and slider have become too similar. In September Kershaw threw 82% of his pitches between 87 and 92 mph.
But in the postseason Kershaw has gone back to his old friend, the curveball. And he’s a much better pitcher when he flips in his mid-70s breaking ball. Check out the change in Kershaw:
In NLCS Game 5 Kershaw dropped in two curveballs for strikes to his first batter, Lorenzo Cain. He wound up throwing 21 curves in the game, the most for him since May. If Kershaw throws a few curves for strikes in the first inning of World Series Game 1, look out.
The Dodgers must contain Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez
You know those two guys are tough outs. But they have not received enough attention for being a historically great hitting tandem. Their low marks for the two of them (by Martinez) were a .330 batting average and .629 slugging. Only eight tandems could ever say that, only one other one (Todd Helton and Larry Walker in 2001) since Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig in 1937.
Martinez owns Kershaw (.455/.500/1.091 in 13 plate appearances) and is such a hitting savant that he bats .560 on first-pitch breaking pitches and changeups. (League average is .219). Good luck with holding down Martinez.
As for Betts, the Dodgers should crib from what the Astros did to him: don’t feed him fastballs. Betts hit .377 against fastballs, second best in the league. In the ALCS Houston threw him only 43% fastballs.
The games will be really, really long
Electronic surveillance (i.e. sign stealing with the help of dedicated high-magnification cameras) has become a huge problem in further slowing the game down. These two teams are as bad as any when it comes to electronic offense and defense. Even with nobody on base, paranoid catchers routinely go through multiple signs—that includes (follow me here) giving signs to change the signs before giving the signs.
The paranoia is real. Teams in the LCSs were warned about keeping their base coaches near the batter’s box and away from the foul lines, where they can peek at catcher’s signals and relay what’s coming by the position of their feet. MLB stationed multiple Resident Security Agents around replay monitors behind the dugouts to guard against relaying signs picked up off the broadcast and in-house video feeds. (The Dodgers, for instance, at home monitor six in-house dedicated cameras.)
The Brewers used multiple “dummy” signs from coaches on the bench during the NLCS, like a college football sideline signaling in plays. They also were convinced the Dodgers sometimes were relaying signs from second base (hand on the back of the helmet: off-speed pitch; hand on top: fastball). The Red Sox were so sure the Astros were trying to pilfer signs that in ALCS Game 5 third-base coach Carlos Febles did not give a single sign for the first five innings—just to mess with them.
A reminder: the Dodgers used 43 pitchers to cover seven NLCS games. Their games this postseason average three hours, 37 minutes.
The grinders that are the Red Sox are in even less of a hurry. Their nine postseason games average 3:47, with nothing quicker than 3:28.
Now it’s just the World Series at stake—a World Series with the highest scoring teams from the leagues. The games should be long. The series should be long. Who wins it probably comes down to either the Red Sox out-hitting the Dodgers or the Dodgers out-slugging the Red Sox.