The Red Sox and Dodgers Are Both Really, Really Good: A World Series Preview

Boston and Los Angeles are awash in superstars, big money, bright managers, and enough postseason heebie-jeebies to keep us watching.

AP Images

Well, look what we have here! Just an all-the-marbles matchup of *squints* two historical baseball bluebloods in major American cities with two of the top three payrolls in the biz! The Red Sox and Dodgers have superstars, forward-thinking managers, unwieldy fan bases, and a championship on the line. How did they get here? Who has the edge? What players might surprise? What does it mean? What is the point? When will the universe subsume into itself, leaving Boston and Los Angeles the only two anchor holds in the sporting galaxy? I know none of these answers!

In their first year under manager Alex Cora, Boston blitzkrieged to a team-record 108 wins and their fourth World Series in fourteen years. After suffering the ignominy of back-to-back last place finishes, the Red Sox have now reeled off three straight division titles for the first time in Boston history, which, if you ask anyone from Boston, is the history of America. Congratulations for doing something that’s never been done in the history of the nation, Boston!

In the most American of ways, this Boston club has reinvigorated itself with the pulsing thrum of cheap youth labor and profligate, nothing-matters excess. The team spent more money this season — $229 million in player salary — than any other organized sporting club on planet Earth. All those millions allow the team to employ the likely American League MVP, the newly-good best closer of all time, this ganglingly-flinging K artist, and the major league RBI leader. Plus, the team has two under-22 lefties who rake and about whom much has been ballyhooed, and Boston is paying them like busboys by comparison.

The Red Sox have gone 7–2 on their World Series journey, easily dispatching the arch rival Yankees and defending champion Astros. David Price — the playoff flounderer to whom the team pays the highest salary — has accounted for the team’s two losses, but also for the team’s most impressive win: the pennant-clinching, nine-strikeout Game 5 domination of the Astros.

The Dodgers have returned to the scene of their 2017 sadness. Playing in their first World Series since 1988, last year’s L.A. club sparred with Houston for seven games before falling short. Despite getting the 104-game-winning band back together, the National League champs’ reunion tour was weird.

The team was 16–26 after a month and a half, and was still under .500 up to June 6 (at which point Boston was already 24 games over). Justin Turner missed the first forty games, then Corey Seager got hurt. In May, every single Dodger starting pitcher spent time on the disabled list. The team’s three All-Stars were — wait for it — Kenley Jansen (okay, that is good), Matt Kemp (okay, cool, this is 2011), and Ross Stripling (okay, cool, we are living in a simulation).

L.A. concocted some kind of sorcery and made a minimum-wage minor leaguer into maximum Max Muncy, the…best power hitter in the NL? The Dodgers traded for Manny Machado, because of course they did, and called up Walker Buehler, who is maybe their best starter now? Clayton Kershaw was not so good anymore, and then he was good again. Jansen morphed into a BP pitcher for a few weeks, and then was hospitalized with a serious heart issue. Just typing this paragraph was exhausting. Perhaps the team runs on the energy of a thousand Puigs.

Everything. They’re good at everything.

Everything. They’re good at everything.

The Red Sox do not strike out. They whiff at the third-lowest rate in the league (19.9%), led by probable MVP Mookie Betts’ 14.8 strikeout rate. Moreover, the team doesn’t swing and miss — the squad was third in the majors in contact percentage. And when the Red Sox do swing, they don’t do it lightly — Boston made the second-lowest amount of soft contact in all of baseball. It certainly follows that the Red Sox would pace the league in runs scored.

Of particular interest in this matchup is Boston’s performance against sliders. According to FanGraphs, Boston is one of only two teams to have created positive runs against the pitch in 2018. That just so happens to be the pitch favored by Dodgers ace and playoff fever dreaming Clayton Kershaw, who hurled his slider 42.3% of the time this year, making it his new favorite pitch. Only one starter (Jhoulys Chacin) threw the slider more, and no team hits it better than Boston.

These dudes can’t run like their manager, but they sure can walk! L.A. led the major leagues in walk rate this year, and came by it honest. Pitchers were understandably afraid to attack, well, basically all of the Dodgers’ hitters, and the Dodgers hitters obliged their obsequiousness. In all of Major League Baseball, L.A. swung at the fewest pitches outside the zone (27.2%) — so they didn’t chase bad pitches. But the club also rapped at the fewest pitches inside the zone (64.5%).

When the Dodgers did utilize their bats, they did so with skyward gusto: second in fly-ball percentage, fourth in pull percentage, and fourth in hard contact rate, which all adds up to the second-most home runs in baseball. So it seems that, umm, L.A.’s strategy of abstaining from poor pitches and absolutely cremating good pitches works!

Boston’s hirsute closer, who has the highest strikeout rate in the history of the sport (minimum 500 innings), was a blind man dancing bachata across the Mass Turnpike in the division and championship series. Kimbrel, despite becoming a wacky inflatable man advertising his pitches, somehow emerged relatively unscathed, accruing four saves in the Red Sox’s World Series journey. Apparently he’s fixed, and apparently Chris Sale…was kidding about the belly button ring?

Okay so despite a paragraph that left New Englanders clutching their TB12-emblazoned anxiety quilts, those pitchers are still really, really good. And what they’re really great at is punching batters out. Upping the minimum to 1,000 innings, Sale himself has the highest K% in MLB history. And reliever Matt Barnes (Boston fans hope his stuff will make an LA star flinch) had a more prolific strikeout season than both of them!

The Dodgers don’t strike out a ton (middle of the pack in K%), but Sale, Kimbrel, and Barnes are three of the best punchout pitchers in the game. If Boston can thread together enough innings from this trio — and get the reemergent version of David Price — perhaps they can lock the rest of their relievers (24th in ERA and 25th in HR/9 over the last two months) away in the bowels of Fenway.

Dodgers pitchers do everything that Red Sox pitchers do, just better, with more diversity, heightened frequency, and less stress. They even have a tall, historically significant lefty who becomes a sad-faced, soft-tossing water buffalo in the playoffs! Los Angeles, though, has twice the pitching depth, with full-time starters Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda relegated to the bullpen, and four starters whom they trust in October.

For the season, Dodger hurlers actually had a higher strikeout rate than Boston’s, despite the Red Sox’s estimable trio. L.A. pitchers cajoled opposing batters into doing exactly what their batters don’t do: swing, a lot. The Dodgers got opponents to swing at the second-highest rate, while inducing the fourth-softest contact when those swings connected. All those swings meant few walks (third in walk rate), scant baserunners, and nary the Kimbrel-level anxiousness.

The Dodgers avoided free passes in large part because they threw first-pitch strikes — they led the majors in that category. Boston hitters saw the second-fewest first-pitch strikes in the league, presumably because of the Red Sox’s willingness to bash them. LA already silenced the Braves’ exuberant hackers by lolling first-pitch breaking balls in the divisional round, and it follows that we’d see more of that in the World Series.

Both teams hit the ball so well that it hardly seems fair. Both teams employ smart managers who are unafraid to make difficult moves. The degree of launch-angle-inspired rants by old school baseball men promises to skyrocket, thanks to both clubs’ batting strategy. There are career-postseason-narratives-in-the-balance for days.

The Red Sox do everything really, really well. The Dodgers do everything really, really well. And that little bit of emphasis, that extra little bump, the bonus tinge of versatility, the capable arm out of the pen, is enough to give the Dodgers their first World Series championship in thirty years.

Dodgers in seven.

Humor, sports, music. raleighmccool at gmail dot com

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