It’s been a weird postseason. Rampant paranoia, with allegations of spies and widespread theft (of signs). Rancorous disagreement, over cowboy interference. Trick starts. Infected belly rings. A postseason worthy of a David Fincher treatment.
With a Red Sox-Dodgers showdown looming, we’re going to be treated to a matchup between two of the oldest teams in baseball, one that feels like it must have happened many times before, even if it hasn’t, regardless of whether it should’ve. The last time these teams met in the postseason was over a century ago. The year was 1916 and the Great War raged on. The Dodgers were then called the Brooklyn Robins, and Babe Ruth figured prominently in the proceedings.
While we’re on the subject of the past, which is where we look to predict the future (i.e., who will win this series), where shall we set our sights? While regular season matchups can perhaps offer us a glimpse, we can’t go there, as they didn’t face each other this year, and haven’t since 2016. While there might be some talk of the fact that Los Angeles has only won in Boston once in their history, those were not the same teams before us today.
While the small-sample-size theater of postseason baseball so often lays waste to the most meticulously thought-out predictions, a team’s regular-season record is often as good a place as any to turn. Boston won 108 games, while Los Angeles only won 92 games and required a 163rd to lay claim to their division. While winning 16 more games might be enough for some folks to lay hands on a Boston victory, a more thorough accounting paints a different picture.
I’m feeling a bit like a broken record talking about the broken nature of the Dodgers’ record at this point, but they keep advancing and I’m obliged to carry on. By expected records, Los Angeles was extraordinarily unlucky, projecting as more in the realm of a 100-win team, while Boston was a little lucky, projecting as, alas, more in the realm of a 100-win team. And then there’s the caveat that Boston faced an easier schedule. They played the terrifically terrible Baltimore Orioles (.290 winning percentage) a total of 19 times, going 16-3 with a +61 run differential against them. It turns out that these teams might be more evenly matched than their regular-season records let on.
Should we go through each position and decide who has the advantage? That way is fraught with difficulties, given that Los Angeles has employed platoons with seemingly surgical precision this season and we don’t yet know how Boston will handle playing in Los Angeles. Perhaps a comparison of each team’s pitching staff to the other’s? When both managers are calling on their starters to come in and close games, this task becomes more than a little tricky. It turns out there’s no simple way to settle on a winner, which bodes well for the spectators.
With their 108 wins, Boston set a franchise record. They stormed out of the gates and had a 21-7 record by the end of April and, although they fought with the Yankees for the division for a good chunk of the season, they always had a clear path to October. The Dodgers, on the other hand, were eight games back in the NL West on April 30 and were ten games under .500 on May 16. Injuries to Justin Turner and Corey Seager seemed to derail their season early, but they persevered. Turner came back and finished up the season with a 151 OPS+, but Seager was out for the season. Solution: snag the best available player prior to the trade deadline in Manny Machado.
While the Dodgers mostly sat pat this past offseason and attempted to get under the luxury tax (seemingly correctly so, both then and now, given that they’re in the World Series again), Boston pulled out all the stops and took over the Dodgers’ mantle as the biggest-spending team in MLB. Their signing of J.D. Martinez proved particularly prescient, as his 173 OPS+ makes him their second best hitter, falling short of only the likely MVP Mookie Betts and his 186 OPS+. Martinez was a sizable addition to a lineup that constituted one of the best offenses in baseball this year.
But Boston’s lineup (29.6 fWAR) falls just a bit short of the best offense in all of MLB, as Los Angeles’ led both leagues (33.0 fWAR). That’s largely due to the Dodgers’ defensive success, as the Dodgers put up a 111 wRC+ to counter the Red Sox’ collective 110 wRC+. But Dodger hitters were asleep at the wheel at times this postseason, with a notable 26-inning stretch during which they scored a total of two runs against the Brewers.
While L.A. has struck out an awful lot in the postseason (117 Ks to date), this was the team that led the National League in home runs this season (235), and they haven’t disappointed in the postseason. They’ve hit 13 of them so far, with Game 7 of the ALCS decided by a two-run home run by Cody Bellinger and then padded by a 3-run crotch-chopper by Yasiel Puig.
While the Dodgers’ propensity for two-thirds of the three-true-outcomes is clearly evident in their .218 AVG thus far, the Red Sox’ lineup have ridden a .253 AVG and 50% more doubles through October to a spot in the Fall Classic. While I’d love to contrast a Dodgers’ fancy-new, home-run-heavy scheme with a Red Sox’ classic, ”keep the line moving” approach, and declare the Dodgers the more forward thinking team, that’s clearly not the case.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora has been employing his starters in a purely 2018 fashion this postseason, with a Boston starter going longer than six innings just the once, and that was in a 16-1 blowout against the Yankees. And the notion of “projected starter” seems a quaint memory, with one of Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi or David Price seemingly always in the bullpen when there’s a potential high-leverage situation on the horizon, regardless of who’s supposed to pitch the next game or the game after.
The last of those pitchers, Price, was repeatedly warming up towards the end of Game 4 in the ALCS, which led to doubts that he would start Game 5, but then he did. He of a seven-year, $217 million contract in the 2015 offseason which has caused some rather divisive takes, in light of his 0–9 record and 6.16 ERA over 11 starts. But all that went out the window when he finally broke that streak against the Astros, securing his first postseason win in the clincher.
But Price isn’t the only pitcher in the World Series with a reputation for postseason problems. Clayton Kershaw has received his fair share of criticism as “the best pitcher in baseball… in the regular season.” But Kershaw has 0.79 WHIP and 2.37 ERA this postseason, holding opposing hitters to a very Kershaw-esque .169/.225/.246. And he disrupted the narrative a little further when manager Dave Roberts brought him in as the closer in the NLCS in L.A.’s clincher against the Brewers, bringing home the NL’s first back-to-back pennants since the 2008-2009 Phillies.
The fact that both managers are aggressively using or warming up their starters late in games might suggest that there are issues with their latest innings relievers. But that’s really only the case for Boston, as Kenley Jansen has a 0.00 ERA/1.06 FIP in his 6.2 innings of work this postseason. While Craig Kimbrel might have helped Price take home his first postseason win and picked up the save in the Sox’ clincher against Houston, he’s sporting a 7.11 ERA/6.48 FIP that is very much out of character for one of the best closers we’ve witnessed in recent history. There’s been a lot of talk about him tipping his pitches, but that doesn’t really explain away the fact that he’s walking 18.8% of the batters he’s faced.
There’s a lot more to hypothesize on. Will Boston play Betts at second base or bench their second best hitter when he loses the DH/plays unadulterated baseball in Los Angeles? Is Sale okay to pitch? How will Boston respond when Puig and Machado ride a tandem bike around the bases?
But as far as an ultimate prediction, when it’s a closely matched series between arguably the best teams in their respective leagues? Seven games seems about right, and we don’t deserve anything less. If I must, I’ll take Boston winning their fourth title this century and making the Dodgers wait just a little bit longer, given the Yankees-Astros gauntlet that the Sox have already run to get to this point.
- Red Sox over Dodgers in 7