The suits at MLB headquarters and Fox Sports have to be happy to see the Dodgers and Red Sox facing off in the World Series. Both are marquee teams from major markets, giving the Fall Classic its biggest potential national exposure in many, many years. That’s money in the bank, folks.
But let’s not be cynical here: we should be happy about this matchup too because it really does pit the AL’s best and the NL’s best against each other.
The Red Sox, as we’ve already discussed, were the best team in baseball all year and, Vegas lines notwithstanding, are not anyone’s underdogs. Meanwhile in the National League, yes, I know the Brewers had home field advantage and a better overall record than the Dodgers, but after getting over their horrible start, it’s fair to say Los Angeles was the class of the Senior Circuit for most of the year. They certainly were as measured by run differential and, of course, dispatched the Brewers, primarily due to their depth.
Stars taking on stars. History facing history. A whole lot of celebrities in the stands in both parks and — if we’re truly lucky — Red Sox/Dodgers star Manny Ramirez will throw out the first pitch.
Wait, that’s NEVER going to happen. But some good baseball is over the next week or so. Here’s how it all breaks down:
In the regular season, based on ERA anyway, the Dodgers rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler were better than the Sox’ rotation of Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello. In the postseason, though, the Dodgers’ starters have all mixed in some clunkers with their fine performances while Boston’s quartet has been pretty consistent, leading to each team’s starters doing about as well as the other’s. Of course Boston has faced far tougher offensive competition than L.A. has — they had to go through the Yankees and the Astros — so adjust your analysis accordingly.
David Price will probably be the difference maker here. If his excellent ALCS Game 5 performance, the product of going heavy with his changeup, was harbinger as opposed to fluke, it’s a huge boost to Boston. Same goes for Chris Sale’s durability. He didn’t pitch much late in the season and we don’t know if his ALCS illness is going to play a factor. If there are any issues with Price or Sale, I give the Dodgers’ rotation an edge. If not, well, the Dodgers are still going to have a tall order in facing the Sox’ relentless offense, so it’s not like the edge is massive. At he moment I’ll lean in their direction, but it’s not a heavy lean. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS
The Dodgers are no offensive slouches — they led the National League in runs and homers this year — but top to bottom I don’t think they’re anywhere near as scary as the Red Sox’ balanced lineup is. Indeed, Boston led all of baseball in runs, average, on-base percentage, slugging, total bases and OPS+. Oh, and they also scored 29 runs in five games after an excellent Astros pitching staff. There are no weak links here.
Once you take pitchers batting stats out of it, the Dodgers actually look pretty darn similar to the Red Sox, statistically speaking, and their superior bench — see below — is a big plus, but it’s very hard to make a case that they have a better offense than the Red Sox. Indeed, it’s hard to make a case that any team has a better offense than the Red Sox in all of 2018. ADVANTAGE: RED SOX
The bullpen was the part of the team Red Sox fans worried about most heading into the postseason, but Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly have allowed only two runs in 18 and two-thirds innings in October and Alex Cora’s use of starters Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi in relief has actually made it a strength. Indeed, Craig Kimbrel has been the shakiest part of the reliever corps so far, but perhaps that was because of tipping pitches? Hard to say as that is a go-to excuse for a lot of struggling pitchers, but it’s also hard to say that Red Sox bullpen is as serious a weakness as some feared a few weeks ago.
Heading into the NLCS all of the talk was about the Brewers’ bullpen, but Dodgers relievers were better, combining for a 1.45 ERA over 31 innings in those seven games. The signature game for them was, in hindsight, the series turning point: Game 4, with the Dodgers down two games to one and starter Rich Hill knocked out after five innings. Dave Roberts called on eight — eight! — relievers to shut Milwaukee out after that, and L.A. won it on a Cody Bellinger walkoff single. Can he do that every day? Nah, but it certainly was the case that Roberts has had confidence in every single member of his pitching staff this postseason and that confidence has been rewarded. That kind of depth will allow him to be aggressive in the World Series. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS
If each team follows form, they will utilize platoons, so expect to see Rafael Devers and Mitch Moreland to come off the bench later in games with lefty starters. Same for Joc Pederson and Max Muncy when the Sox go with their southpaws. The Red Sox lineup is superior, but the Dodgers have more depth and flexibility, utilizing every player on its roster during the postseason in ways no team has come close to matching. Indeed, they basically used 12 everyday players despite having only eight positions in which to put them and got the most out of everyone. It’s a nice luxury for Dave Roberts to have. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS
The “Alex Cora played for Los Angeles and Dave Roberts played for Boston” thing is going to be the “Jerome Bettis is from Detroit” storyline of this World Series, I imagine. And I suppose that’s fine, as storylines like that have never killed anyone. Still, there are more fun ones:
- How about “Dave Roberts: drought-ender?” As you may have heard, he was a hero for the Red Sox in 2004, helping to end an 86-year title drought for Boston. While the Dodgers’ drought has been nowhere near that long — 30 years — it has been long for that historically successful franchise.
- How about “Terry Francona managerial tree” as both Roberts and Cora played for Tito in Boston, with Cora arriving the year Roberts left in 2005? If you go with that one, forgot momentarily that they both played much longer for Jim Tracy in Los Angeles, where they were teammates. The “Jim Tracy managerial tree” is nowhere near as fun a storyline.
- How about “For the first in in baseball history, two minority managers will face off in the Fall Classic.” Take that, baseball’s hopefully-dead-and-buried history of not giving minorities a fair shot at such jobs due to the racist belief that they couldn’t handle it. Famously advanced, unfortunately, by a Dodgers figure once upon a time.
In the end, though, storylines won’t matter. Both Cora and Roberts have proven themselves to be outstanding managers and neither of them has ever stood accused of screwing things up which, given the nature of managerial evaluation, is often the first thing anyone notices.
Each will have their challenges here, as the Red Sox’ superior lineup will make Roberts’ decisions about who to call on from the pen and when far more difficult than those he faced in Milwaukee. Cora, like most AL managers, has to decide what to do in the three games in the NL park when he does not have a DH. It’s a much bigger problem for Cora than a lot of teams, however, as his DH — J.D. Martinez — will have to displace the likely AL MVP in Mookie Betts on defense. As we’ve discussed, that will likely send Betts to second base, which takes away a big advantage the Sox have in terms of outfield defense. A tough call, the alternative for which is strategically using Martinez to pinch hit. Better that Cora have to make it than any of us.
A manager’s specific call could very well decide this World Series, but heading into it, there is little reason to doubt the ability of either skipper to make the right call when necessary. I suppose one could give Roberts a nod here simply because he’s more experienced, but that ignores the fact that Cora has already been to the Series as a bench coach and that managing one year in Boston is probably like managing four years anyplace else thanks to the scrutiny and stress. He’s not gonna be a deer in the headlights, folks. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
As my friend Joe Sheehan likes to say in his previews, the last three words of any preview — “[Team] in [Number of Games]” are the least important of them all. That’s thanks to randomness and the overall difficulty in predicting baseball outcomes of an insufficiently large sample size of games and all of that. Still, y’all expect a prediction and I, obviously, have never been afraid of looking wrong or dumb, so I’ll offer one in a second. First, I’ll talk my way through it.
The Dodgers have more areas of advantage as broken down above, but in most areas those advantages are slight. I think Boston’s offense, meanwhile, is significantly better and will prove to be far more exhausting for the Dodgers pitchers to face than anything they’ve seen so far.
This series is no mismatch, though, and one can easily imagine a scenario in which Clayton Kershaw reminds everyone why he was the best pitcher in baseball for several years running, L.A’s big playmakers Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig and come up big and the L.A. bullpen continues doing what it did in the N.L. playoffs and neutralizes the big Boston bats.
Ultimately, however, the Sox need less to go right than the Dodgers do. They simply need their lineup to continue doing what it has done, Chris Sale to be Chris Sale and David Price to simply not be a liability, which he was not the last time we saw him. Simply from an imagination standpoint, it’s easier to imagine the Sox running through the Dodgers than vice-versa. So I’ll call it this way:
BOSTON IN SEVEN