After dispatching both the Dodgers and Tigers in hard fought 6 game series, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals find themselves on the cusp of a title. And while this World Series match up may not have fans all over the country jumping for joy, the mood in St. Louis and Boston will reach a fevered pitch over the next week. So without further delay, let’s dive right in:
The Cardinals, not the Red Sox, have the advantage at DH
No team in the American League has resisted the decline of the designated hitter quite like the Boston Red Sox. While many of their AL brethren have decided to take the cheaper, platoon-heavy path at DH, the Red Sox have plowed ahead with a masher who would have felt right at home in the power mad 1990s, David Ortiz.
Big Papi was Boston’s designated hitter in 129 games this year, the the difference in quality between Ortiz and nearly every other designated hitter was the size of the Grand Canyon. Boston designated hitters ranked 1st in OPS by a whopping 169 points, which is greater than the difference between 2nd place Kansas City and 13th place Minnesota in and of itself. The Ortiz-led Sox also finished 1st in the AL in homers, RBI, average, runs scored, and WAR by a hefty margin.
Those are fantastic, amazing numbers, but they won’t do Sox manager John Farrell a whole lot of good at Busch Stadium. When Boston takes the field in St. Louis, Farrell will have a tough decision to make: does he leave Mike Napoli at 1st base, thus sacrificing some offensive production against all the righties St. Louis has lined up, does he start Ortiz at 1st risking some defense while sitting Napoli, or does he make Boston borderline unwatchable in the infield by starting Napoli at catcher and Ortiz at 1st?
Farrell has stated that Ortiz will play some 1st base during the series, but how much remains to be seen. Given how badly American League managers have been burned in the past few years with this particular move (Delmon Young and Vlad Guerrero anyone?), it’s a little surprising to see Farrell opt for Ortiz. Not only does that hurt the Red Sox infield defense severely, it also means Mike Napoli, arguably Boston’s 2nd best hitter in 2013, will have to hit the bench or pick up his catcher’s mitt. And since Napoli has caught as many innings since joining Boston as you or I, I’m going to guess he won’t be starting in the biggest games of the season.
St. Louis, on the other hand, will field a normal lineup at home while picking up an extra hitter, either All-Star Allen Craig or the powerful Matt Adams, on the road. Craig will probably get the start at DH in the first couple of games at Fenway, if only to protect his formerly ailing foot as much as possible, leaving the powerful Adams at 1st. That’s a huge win for the Cardinals, who should see a slight uptick in scoring at Fenway Park simply because they can hit their best 9 players. St. Louis will also pick up a huge advantage playing in front of their home crowd, because one of Boston’s two best hitters won’t be anything more than a pinch hit option.
This is what postseason baseball should be about. Yadi vs. Jacoby. Baseball’s fastest takes on baseball’s best arm. Molina has had a banner year behind the dish, one that started all the way back in March during Puerto Rico’s Cinderella run to the final of the World Baseball Classic. Cardinals’ pitchers watch a full run magically disappear of their collective ERA with Molina behind the plate he caught 43% of would-be thieves, limiting the opposition to just 1 steal per every 43 innings caught.
Ellsbury, on the other hand, was a demon on the base paths this season. He stole 52 bases at a ridiculously efficient 93% clip and according to Fangraphs; no player in baseball generated more value with his legs than Ellsbury did.
The Boston center fielder was credited with 267 stolen base opportunities this year and he ran nearly 21% of the time, so you can expect manager John Farrell to put him in motion at some point over the next week. Boston has played aggressively all year, there’s no reason to expect them to stop now.
Since the calendar hit October, Michael Wacha has been operating with all of the precision of a world-class surgeon or a Michelin star chef, posting a playoff ERA of 0.43 in 21 innings to go along with a 22:4 strikeout to walk ratio. Those numbers would be absurd if Clayton Kershaw were putting them up. The fact that they’re coming from a rookie with less than 100 big league innings to his name is borderline insane. Wacha has undoubtedly been the breakout star of the 2013 postseason and there are three big reasons why: location, location, location.
Check out how Wacha has approached left-handed hitters this postseason:
I don’t think Greg Maddux himself could be any prouder. Nearly 52% of all of Wacha’s postseason pitches have been either low or away (or both) to lefties, which explains why they have managed to hit an anemic .156 in 32 at-bats against the rookie. Wacha has been able to hit Molina’s mitt directly on the outer corner of the strike zone time and time again, following St. Louis’ perfectly built game plan to the letter and he’ll need to do so again.
Wacha could face as many as 5 left-handed hitters in his Game 2 start and he will need to bring his A-game once against to counter Boston’s power.
Shane Victorino’s ongoing hit by pitch quest
Chances are, if you’ve seen a Red Sox game in the past couple of month, you’ve seen Shane Victorino get hit by a pitch. Victorino has been hit 6 times in 10 postseason games after leading the American League in the category with 18 beanings during the regular season.
Victorino crowds the plate entirely, pushing his elbow out over the inside corner of the plate, just tempting a pitcher to miss even slightly. If a pitcher does miss inside, Victorino makes absolutely no attempt to move whatsoever because he’s happily content to take 1st.
This wasn’t as big of a problem when Victorino was switch-hitting, but now that he’s hitting righty on righty, it’s almost as if he wants to see just how far over the plate he can hang. In 115 at-bats (regular and postseason) as a right-hander facing a righty, Victorino has been hit 15 times. That means 10.3% of Victorino’s at bats against a righty end with him getting hit by a pitch. That’s nearly 2% higher than the all-time single-season Major League record set by Hughie Jennings in 1896. At this point, even Victorino’s biggest supporters would have to call the outfielder obnoxious.
Regardless of your opinion of these two franchises and their fans, it’s always good for Major League Baseball to end the season with two of the best teams in facing off. The Cardinals and Red Sox each finished tied for the most wins in baseball with 97 and their run differentials rank #1 and #2 in the league. These are extremely deep, extremely talented ball clubs and they deserve to be here. My guess is that the Cardinals’ superior rotation depth will give them enough of an edge to ward off home field advantage as St. Louis takes the series in 6.
Big thanks to Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, and Fangraphs for the statistical support!