Tuesday, October 18, 2011
What to watch in the World Series
By David Schoenfield
Nelson Cruz and David Freese were the hottest hitters in the LCS. Can they keep it up?
I’m anticipating the most exciting World Series we’ve seen in years, hopefully the first seven-game showdown since 2002. We have two explosive offenses, unpredictable starting rotations, potentially dominant bullpens, Albert Pujols, Babe Cruz, mad scientist Tony La Russa, “Dancing With the Stars” aspirant Ron Washington, Matt Holliday, Josh Hamilton, one third baseman who just hit .545 in the National League Championship Series, another who had a three-homer game earlier in the playoffs.
What’s not to like about this matchup? One franchise is playing in its 18th World Series and attempting to complete one of the great miracle comebacks in baseball history; the other is back for the second year in a row, seeking its first championship and perhaps starting a dynasty of excellence. Neither team ranked in the top 10 in payroll and each has just one big free-agent signing on its roster. Nobody is buying a World Series trophy this year.
Can Nelson Cruz be contained, let alone stopped? After setting postseason records for one series with six home runs and 13 RBIs in the American League Championship Series, Cruz enters the World Series on an absolute tear. Can he be expected to keep that going? The obvious answer: No. Will he keep it going? Unlikely. Here’s a look back at the 10 “hottest” hitters from the LCS over the past 10 seasons and how they fared in the World Series.
The quick and dirty math shows this:
LCS: 30 home runs
World Series: 4 home runs
This, of course, is really just a simple law of averages. As good as Cruz was against the Tigers, he’s not the second coming of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. We saw this last year with Cruz: After hitting .375 with five home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he hit .200 with one home run in the World Series. Remember, this is a guy who can be pitched to: He had 116 strikeouts and just 33 walks in the regular season, so expect the Cardinals to feed him a lot of offspeed stuff away or off the plate.
Watch how David Freese attacks the first pitch. The NLCS MVP hit .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the series -- figures matched in one series only by Lou Gehrig in the 1928 World Series. Freese is 7-for-10 with two home runs in at-bats ending on the first pitch in the playoffs and hit .406 (13-for-32) during the regular season on the first pitch, with four home runs (the MLB average is .330). The Rangers will have these scouting reports, but the problem is Freese usually follows Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holiday in the lineup. If there are guys on base in front of him, he’s going to see pitches to hit.
Octavio Dotel versus Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Cruz. The middle of the Rangers’ order usually features those four right-handed batters in a row, making it easier for Tony La Russa to match up -- and that means we’ll see a lot of Dotel against those guys. Dotel pounds the outside corner against righties with his fastball/slider combo and he was lethal against right-handed batters: They hit just .145 with one home run (and just four extra-base hits) in 123 at-bats. Beltre in particular is prone to chasing that low-and-away slider and considering Napoli is really the one of the four with much patience at the plate, it will be interesting to see if Dotel can silence this fearsome foursome.
Jason Motte is on a roll. The Cardinals’ closer -- although La Russa declines to call him that -- has faced 25 batters in the postseason and retired 24 of them. Like Dotel, he’s much tougher on righties -- .162 average allowed in the regular season with a 45-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, versus a .270 average against lefties -- and the fact that Josh Hamilton is the Rangers’ only left-handed batter that you have to worry about matching up against works in the Cardinals’ favor. I also love the way La Russa has been handling him: He already has three saves of at least four outs.
Can C.J. Wilson deliver a big start? The Rangers’ No. 1 starter has allowed six home runs in three postseason starts, after allowing just 16 all season. Is he fatigued after a career-high 223 innings? Just in a little slump? As deep as the Texas bullpen is, it seems unlikely the Rangers can win the World Series without at least one shutdown outing from a starter, and Wilson still gives them the best option for that.
Who wins Game 1? Wilson’s Game 1 start against St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter becomes even more important when considering this factoid: The winner of Game 1 has won seven of the past eight and 12 of the past 14 World Series. However, the winner of Game 1 is only 2-4 this postseason.
Lance Berkman versus the Rangers’ left-handed starters. Berkman is much better from the left side of the plate and La Russa has the lefty-killing Allen Craig available from the right side, so it will be interesting to see what La Russa does in games in St. Louis when a left-hander starts. Berkman began his postseason with a bang -- a three-run homer off Roy Halladay in his first at-bat -- but hasn’t delivered an extra-base hit in the 10 games since. I suspect Craig will start in right field in the opener against Wilson. While he’s not a good outfielder, he is an upgrade defensively over Berkman, who may be the worst everyday right fielder in the majors. When the games move to Texas with the designated hitter, La Russa’s decision becomes easier, as he can put both guys in the lineup, making the Cardinals that rare NL team that can field a nine-deep lineup to match the best of the AL.
Ron Washington versus Tony La Russa. Washington’s new secret weapon in the bullpen -- Alexi Ogando and his high-90s fastball -- has allowed Washington to avoid some of the questionable bullpen moves he made last season. La Russa will use Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes to match up against Josh Hamilton, so that should leave Washington without worrying whom to hit for David Murphy or Mitch Moreland (when he’s in the lineup; Michael Young will undoubtedly play first base in the games in St. Louis). La Russa is unlikely to pinch hit for anybody except his second basemen, and if he carries 12 pitches, even that becomes less likely in the NL games. It means both managers should be able to get the matchups they want out of the bullpen.
The key decisions both will face, of course: How soon to yank the starting pitchers? Will either team get a quality start after both rotations struggled in the LCS? I think the team that wins the World Series will be the team that goes deepest with its starters. Yanking guys after three or four innings will be playing with fire.
Finally … may the hottest team win. Let’s be honest here: The World Series isn’t about crowning the best team of the baseball season. It’s about crowning the team that plays the best in October -- the team with the hot bullpen, or the third baseman who hits over .500 or the right fielder who slugs six home runs in six games.
Just look at the World Series champs of the wild-card era: