The 2018 World Series is poised to be an epic one, pitting two titans against each other in what should be ballgames littered with stars and elite players. Per usual, each team has their strengths and while having different facets, that aren’t necessarily weaknesses, but aren’t as strong. You have to be picky with the 108-win team that Boston is, while the Dodgers are robust in all four facets of the game: starting pitching, relief pitching, hitting, and defense.
But there are areas, obvious or subtle, that can stand out and change the momentum of a game. And in baseball, one measly game in the beginning or middle of the series could change the entire outlook of the matchup. Here are the biggest matchups and X-factors to look at because they will have a large say on the outcome of the Fall Classic.
Strength vs. Strength
As mentioned earlier, each team has their strength, and in this case, it’s two different ones that will directly face each other. It’s the American League’s best offense vs. the National League’s best pitching staff.
The Red Sox come into the series with the game’s best offense overall. They topped the sport in batting average (.268), on-base percentage (.339), slugging percentage (.453), OPS (.792), runs (5.4 runs/game), and third in home runs.
Yes, they are aided by the hitter-friendly confines of Fenway Park, but unlike the Colorado Rockies, the Sox can actually hit away from home. They are naturally better at home but are a top five in the game in runs, OPS, and top ten in home runs away from home.
The lineup is a top-heavy one that has received below-average production from the bottom of the lineup, but the top of it is elite enough to overcome this. They are anchored by J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts, two of the three favorites for the American League MVP award this season, and just two of four players with an OPS in the 1.000s.
And beyond them, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers are young, talented, and dangerous bats who continue to get better. In Bogaerts’ case, he has already played five full seasons, but is only 25, and is coming off his best season yet.
And on the other side, the Dodgers’ staff is headlined by this generation’s best pitcher, and arguably the best (not greatest) starting pitcher ever, statistically, in Clayton Kershaw. The lefty has lost his velocity, but has adjusted admirably and is still one of the game’s elites.
He is at the front of the NL’s best rotation, and arguably the best one in the game that also includes standout rookie Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Those four had a collective 2.82 ERA this season.
The Dodgers were second in total ERA, starters’ ERA, FIP, WHIP, fourth in strikeouts-per-nine-innings, and third in strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and walks-per-nine. And in the NL, they topped the charts across the board.
And like Fenway Park is a hitter’s park, Chavez Ravine is regarded as leaning towards the pitcher’s side, although it’s closer to being neutral. But the Dodgers’ staff is still a top-five unit on the road as well.
The bullpen skewed the overall numbers negatively the regular season, but in the postseason, they have a 1.30 ERA, sub-1.000 WHIP, 51 strikeouts, and a .180 batting average against. They have been shredding down hitters whenever they take the field and have taken after their rock, Kenley Jansen, who has returned to form.
Both sides will have their hands full, but it appears that the Red Sox would prefer to be in slugfests while the Dodgers, who have the lineup length to hang with Boston, would prefer it to be low-scoring.
The four primary outfielders that the Dodgers have used, and will continue to use in Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger, and Yasiel Puig have played a combined zero games at Fenway Park. Why is that important? Because the outfield there is a different animal and not as simple as Dodger Stadium.
Left field has the 30-foot Green Monster that is just 310 feet away, right field is 380 feet and barely over 302 feet at it’s shortest, but then center field goes as deep as 420 feet. You hardly, if ever, find dimensions this extreme and varying, but that is not where it stops.
The Green Monster is something that has taken fielders time to adjust to and given many a hard time because of its distance and height. It takes time to learn when to charge back for a catch and when to play the ball off a bounce. For example, Chris Taylor won’t be able to make the miraculous catch he made in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers in Boston.
Then in center, you have a pocket extension in the shape of a mini triangle that is nothing like any other ballpark has. It will make an already tough position to play, that much harder. And in right-center field, the Red Sox’s bullpen shoots out and has a low wall, which makes for a dangerous area to be cautious in because people have tumbled over and/or hurt themselves there.
And to make things harder, there is no foul area for the fielders to make a play. The field bends around a bit and extends into the corners of the field, so the fielders will have to be wary of that. Anything hit towards the corner is going to be in play, if not a home run.
This gives the Red Sox an advantage because they have elite defenders in the outfield who know how to play the park. The four Dodger names listed above are strong defenders in their respective positions, but never playing there can make them average because of all the angles and bounces prevalent. And being an “average” defender in this ballpark can be the difference between a scoreless inning or two-to-three runs because the smallest of steps will make a difference.
Red Sox Frontline
The Red Sox two best starters are Chris Sale and David Price, and they are far from leaving a relaxed feeling in Red Sox fans’ minds. Chris Sale had two trips on the DL this season, both because of shoulder inflammation. And both trips happened at the beginning of August, where he made just one start between July 27th and September 11.
And when he returned, the lefty made four appearances spanning one inning, three innings, 3.1 innings, and four innings. But in his return, Sale’s fastball had a notable drop in velocity. His four-seamer averaged just 92.8 mph in September, a far cry from the 96.4, 97.7, 97.6 averages from May to July. And even in his lone start in August, he averaged 98.2 mph over five innings.
That was the thing to keep an eye on during the playoffs, and he has averaged just 93.4 mph in his postseason appearances while topping out at 96.7 mph. This is a guy who was consistently in the high 90s while touching triple-digits. This intimidation factor is what made him so dominant.
And last week he was in the hospital for a stomach problem, which put his status for Game 1 into question. However, he is expected to make the start, but the question is just how effective he will be. If he can’t match Clayton Kershaw, the Sox will more-than-likely drop the first game. And effectiveness is the question with Game 2 starter David Price too.
Before his dominant six-inning start to close out the ALCS, Price had a 5.45 ERA in 79.2 postseason innings which spanned 19 appearances (11 starts). He has been what Clayton Kershaw has been made out to be.
The difference is however, Kershaw has been inconsistent and not a “choker,” while Price has crumbled time and time again, and one start doesn’t get rid of his narrative. It’s a great sign and building block, but if we haven’t removed the negative label surrounding Clayton Kershaw and October, no way should we do so with Price who has been worlds worse.
If both guys are hindered once again, the start of the series will not have a pretty beginning for the Red Sox. Both can go pitch-for-pitch with the Dodgers’ best arms, but anything less would automatically give Los Angeles an advantage because Boston’s Game 3 and 4 starters are right-handers, which the Dodgers feast off of. Because of this, Sale and Price setting the tone for the series will be even more critical.
Other Things to Keep an Eye On
Craig Kimbrel’s Effectiveness
The Red Sox closer has allowed five runs in 6.1 innings this postseason, including four straight appearances with runs allowed. If he doesn’t get things together, the Red Sox won’t win the four games necessary.
Red Sox Bottom Order
The bottom of the order will need to hit if they want a chance at winning. The can’t keep relying on the top-of-the-order, especially against these Dodgers because they can easily exploit that flaw.
Luckily for the Sox, Jackie Bradley started to warm up in the ALCS and Milwaukee’s bottom of the lineup, including the pitchers, did the most damage against Los Angeles in the NLCS.
Dodgers Manufacturing Runs
The Dodgers’ offensive approach is progressive and straightforward: home run, walk, or strikeout. They are at the forefront of the transition away from small ball, and that was their letdown during the NLCS and before that, in crucial moments in the regular season. In the postseason so far, they are 16 for 84 with runners in scoring position. If they hit even like the average team with runners in scoring position, they’d have won the NL West easily and would not have needed seven games to take care of the Brewers.
But that is their flaw and will need to learn to manufacture runs. The three true outcomes work in larger sample sizes because you have a longer time to regress or improve to the mean, but in the postseason, you need to adjust and just put the ball in play because you don’t have as many games.
The Dodgers are playing the best team in baseball, so any flaw will push them further away from ending their 30-year title drought.