Playoff Preview, Week 4

When the Red Sox and Cardinals met in the World Series in 2004, neither had advanced that far in the postseason since the 1980s. They’d met twice in two distant-memory World Series, St. Louis winning both in seven game classics, and each had established a rich tradition, but the recent past hadn’t been kind to either.

Nine years later, when they face off for the fourth time in October, they’re battling for the title of the Team of the 2000s. Each has won two championships in the last decade, and at least one of them has made the League Championship Series every year in that span save for 2009, when each was swept in its Division Series, and 2010, when neither made the playoffs for the only time since 1997.

Each team won a league-high 97 games in the regular season, marking the first time since 1999 that each league’s best regular-season team won its pennant. 97 wins, of course, are more of an accomplishment in the American League, particularly in the East, where Boston played 76 games against the Rays, Orioles, Yankees, and Blue Jays. Then again, the NL Central was no walk in the park this year, with Houston shipped off to the AL West and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati putting quality products on the field.

One may argue that the Cardinals are better than their 97 wins suggest, with Michael Wacha emerging as an ace late in the season and dominating in two playoff wins. Boston could make a similar claim, with Xander Bogaerts breaking out in the ALCS and the team’s bullpen depth less exposed in the postseason.

Why Boston could win
The Red Sox have faced teams of St. Louis’s quality all season- strong pitching staffs like Tampa’s and Detroit’s and deep lineups like… well, Tampa’s and Detroit’s (they finished 5th and 2nd, respectively, in team offensive WAR). Fangraphs tells us that the top six offenses in baseball were all in the AL, and the Cardinals faced those teams a total of six times, going 2-4 on a road trip to Oakland and Anaheim in late June/early July.

Boston hits for power- their .446 slugging percentage topped the majors. Boston gets on base- so did their .349 on-base percentage. Boston steals bases efficiently- their 123 stolen bases were fourth in baseball, while their 19 caught stealings were the fewest in the league. Boston pitches well- their 108 team ERA+ was seventh in baseball- and the relievers they’ll use in this series combined for an even 2.00 ERA.

Bullpen depth- the primary weakness that plagued the Red Sox throughout the season- should be buried in the World Series. As long as the starters- Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Jake Peavy- can pitch six innings a game, John Farrell will be happy to turn the ball over to Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and the inimitable Koji Uehara. Should one of those starters lay an egg, Brandon Workman and Ryan Dempster are capable of pitching several innings- if only moderately effective ones- in relief.

Why the Cardinals could win
Like Boston, St. Louis is a very complete team. Fangraphs ranks their offense seventh overall, far ahead of any other NL team, and they rarely got to use Allen Craig and Matt Adams in the same lineup, as they will at Fenway Park in this series. Their 107 ERA+ was only a tick behind the Red Sox, and that included less than 65 innings from Michael Wacha, the rookie who carried them through the first two rounds of playoffs.

The Cardinals probably have the advantage in both the rotation and the bullpen in this series. Adam Wainwright throws strikes all day (1.3 BB/9) and keeps the ball in the park (.56 HR/9). I’ve heard the term “ace” thrown at Jon Lester a lot lately, but he’s no Wainwright. Wacha has given up eight hits in 21 innings in three playoff starts, which makes John Lackey’s impressive October look like John Lackey circa 2011. Clay Buchholz vs. Joe Kelly seems like an obvious advantage for the Red Sox, but after missing half the season, Buchholz doesn’t seem to have built up the strength to pitch deep into games. St. Louis also has the advantage of bullpen depth, with six relievers Mike Matheny won’t be bashful about employing in high-leverage situations.

As much better as the Red Sox were offensively all year, they’ll be weakened by leaving David Ortiz or Mike Napoli on the bench in St. Louis, while the Cards will get better with Craig and Adams in the middle of the lineup.

Finally, this is baseball, where the better team wins, what, 55 percent of the time? Each of the last three World Series has featured an AL team that appeared stronger than its NL counterpart, but the NL has won all three and five of the last seven fall classics.

Expect another classic this year.

Red Sox in 6

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