World Series Preview: Red Sox – Cardinals

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
St. Louis         105     57     .648     854     657    101-61
Boston             98     64     .605     949     769     97-65
 
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          5.28     .278     .344     .460     319     214     548     1085
Boston             5.86     .282     .360     .472     373     222     658     1185
 
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          4.06     .251     .308     .402     280     169     438     1029
Boston             4.75     .255     .316     .408     318     159     447     1132

After 2,458 games spread over seven months, it all comes down to this. Way back in April, before a single game had been played, I picked the Boston Red Sox as my American League champions and predicted that a team from the National League Central would represent the NL in the World Series. It turns out I was right, but like nearly every other set of preseason predictions I saw this year, that team I picked from the NL Central wasn’t the St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s a little too late to talk about why St. Louis is here after no one gave them much of a chance coming into the season; that was a topic we covered in August while they ran away from their division. While they may not have been thought of as the best team in their league before the season, they were certainly the best team in their league during the season. The Cardinals had the best record in baseball with 105 wins, led the NL in runs scored and runs allowed, and coasted to a division title with two other good teams in their division — the NL runner-up Houston Astros and the 89-win Chicago Cubs.

At the same time, I think the Red Sox were also the best team in their league during the year, although their record didn’t quite show that. But as I talked about in previewing the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox finished behind the Yankees in the standings but dominated them in both runs scored and runs allowed. They also won 98 games while playing one of the toughest schedules in baseball, led the world in runs scored, and beat a hot Anaheim Angels team in the ALDS and their arch-rivals in the ALCS.

I feel as confident this year that we’re going to see the two best teams in baseball battle it out in the World Series as I’ve ever felt. This is truly a clash of titans, two power teams with wrecking-ball offensive attacks and quality pitching staffs. And if the World Series is anything like the league championships, we’re in for one hell of a show. Now, let’s try to pick a winner …

HITTING

There’s no sense in starting with anything other than the hitting. The Red Sox have the most dangerous offense in baseball, with power and on-base skills up and down the lineup. St. Louis’ lineup is far more top heavy, or more accurately, middle heavy. While the Red Sox have Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in the middle of their lineup, they can’t come close to the star and fire power that the Cardinals have in Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. However, thanks to being in the NL and having Mike Matheny at catcher, the Cardinals’ lineup isn’t as deep as Boston’s. Along with Fenway Park, that’s how the Red Sox managed to outscore St. Louis by nearly 100 runs this year.

With that said, St. Louis’ lineup will get a little deeper in four of the seven games, because unlike some NL champions from past years, they have a decent designated hitter option in John Mabry. Mabry isn’t known for his offense, but he had a very good year at the plate, hitting .296/.363/.504 in 275 plate appearances, and has hit .272/.340/.475 over the last three years. Of course, it sounds as though Tony La Russa apparently isn’t sure who he’ll tab as his DH, despite Mabry being the obvious choice.

The flip side of that coin is that the Red Sox will have to make an interesting decision when they travel to St. Louis. Without the DH at their disposal, do they stick with Kevin Millar at first base and keep the red-hot, ALCS MVP Ortiz on the bench? Or do they sacrifice the defense and keep Ortiz in the lineup? Either way, whether they bench Millar or Ortiz, they are losing a very valuable hitter and a big part of their gauntlet of a lineup.

Here’s how the offenses stack up:

BOSTON              OPS+      ST. LOUIS           OPS+
Manny Ramirez       152       Albert Pujols       175
David Ortiz         145       Jim Edmonds         173
Trot Nixon          123       Scott Rolen         160
Jason Varitek       121       Larry Walker        152
Johnny Damon        117       John Mabry          125
Kevin Millar        117       Reggie Sanders      105
Mark Bellhorn       107       Tony Womack          93
Bill Mueller        106       Edgar Renteria       90
Orlando Cabrera      79       Mike Matheny         67

While Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen and Walker were all more or less (and mostly more) as good as Boston’s two big guns at the plate this year, the Cardinals have three below-average hitters in Tony Womack, Edgar Renteria and Matheny, compared to just Orlando Cabrera for the Red Sox. Looking at all 18 players, St. Louis has four of the five worst hitters from both teams.

The differences in the two lineups make for an interesting contrast. In the NLCS, the Astros had very little trouble handling the non-superstar portion of St. Louis’ lineup, but eventually you’re going to have to go through Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds, and that’s where the Cardinals did their damage. The Fearsome Foursome combined for 10 homers, 23 RBIs and 22 runs scored in seven games, slugging .600, 1.042, .640 and .667, respectively.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, take more of a Chinese water torture approach to scoring, sending up quality hitter after quality hitter until they break the opponent down. Ortiz had an incredible ALCS, hitting .387/.457/.742 with 11 RBIs in seven games, but Ramirez was barely a factor, scoring just three times without driving in a single run. Instead, they got big contributions from Cabrera (.379/.424/.448), Jason Varitek (.321/.355/.571) and, ultimately, Mark Bellhorn and Johnny Damon, who combined for four homers and 11 RBIs.

There is no doubt that both of these offenses are extremely dangerous, but the Red Sox would seem to have the edge, not only because they were more productive during the season, but because they have fewer spots in the lineup that can be pitched to. That’s a small factor when talking about two teams that combined for over 1,800 runs this year, but it could have an impact during this series.

PITCHING

The unenviable task of trying to get all of those hitters out goes to two very good pitching staffs. The matchups for the first four games of the series are set, and as we saw in the ALCS, things tend to change once you get past that middle game of the series.

            BOSTON              ERA+      ST. LOUIS           ERA+
Game 1      Tim Wakefield       100       Woody Williams      100
Game 2      Curt Schilling      150       Jason Marquis       113
Game 3      Pedro Martinez      125       Matt Morris          89
Game 4      Derek Lowe           90       Jeff Suppan         100

Assuming Curt Schilling is healthy — which is far from a safe assumption — that would give Boston a big edge in both the Schilling-Jason Marquis matchup in Game 2 and the Pedro Martinez-Matt Morris matchup in Game 3. Then, if both rotations stay in order, those same matchups would occur again in Game 6 and Game 7. Considering the way Jeff Suppan pitched against Houston and the fact that he had a better ERA+ during the season, I’d say his matchup with Derek Lowe in Game 4 is to St. Louis’ advantage, despite how Lowe pitched in the ALCS. The Game 1 matchup between Tim Wakefield and Woody Williams looks even in just about every way.

As the Red Sox showed in the ALCS, they have quite a bit of flexibility in their pitching staff, with Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo moving between the bullpen and the rotation with ease, and Lowe, who wasn’t even supposed to be a starter in the series, starting two games and winning Game 7. Without Lowe stepping in or Wakefield and Arroyo being capable of double-duty, where would the Red Sox have been against New York? Of course, the other way to look at it is that Boston’s bullpen needed the help they got from Wakefield and Arroyo because they aren’t very deep.

That is definitely not an issue with St. Louis, as the Cardinals, even with Steve Kline injured, have perhaps the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. While Boston used Wakefield and Arroyo to compliment (and supplement) their reliable relief trio of Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin and Alan Embree, the Cardinals boast a minimum of five reliable relievers and have no need to make their starters do anything but start. They are so deep, with Jason Isringhausen, Julian Tavarez, Ray King and Kiko Calero, plus Kline when he was healthy, that Cal Eldred, who pitched 67 innings with a 3.76 ERA during the regular season, barely got any action in the first two rounds.

Overall, I’d give Boston the edge in the starting rotation and St. Louis the edge in the bullpen. However, if things get to the point of being a war of attrition with the pitching staffs like Boston faced against New York in the ALCS, the Red Sox are far more flexible and able to go deep into extra innings with multiple-inning appearances by guys like Wakefield and Arroyo.

DEFENSE

One of the things that I noticed while looking through some of the stats for this series is that Boston’s pitching staff and St. Louis’ pitching staff each allowed nearly identical batting lines this year. The Red Sox allowed opposing hitters to bat .255/.316/.408, while the Cardinals’ opponents were at .251/.308/.402. Four points of batting average, eight points of on-base percentage and six points of slugging percentage are all that separated the two teams, yet the Cardinals gave up a startling 112 fewer runs, a difference of about 0.7 runs per game.

How can that be explained? Well, one big reason is that the Red Sox made 118 errors this year to rank 25th in baseball, while the Cardinals made just 97 errors to rank ninth. Among all 30 major-league teams, only the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks, who had an MLB-worst 51-111 record and allowed the fourth-most runs in baseball, gave up more unearned runs (105) than Boston’s 94. The Cardinals, meanwhile, allowed just 54 unearned runs.

The Red Sox were particularly sloppy defensively early in the year, before tightening up their defense by swapping Nomar Garciaparra for Cabrera at shortstop and, to a lesser extent, grabbing Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts as defensive specialists. The defensive improvements were a big part of Boston’s second-half success and that has certainly carried into the postseason. The Red Sox team we saw in the first two rounds of the playoffs looked nothing like the team that was kicking balls around the diamond in the first half of the season.

Of course, errors are hardly the best way to judge a defense, they’re simply a way to explain how the Cardinals allowed 112 fewer runs with similar hitting stats against them. A far better overall judge of a player’s defense is not their ability to cleanly field balls that are hit to them, but rather their ability convert balls in play into outs, period. A player might make a lot of errors, but if he’s getting to more balls than anyone else, that more than makes up for his miscues.

During the year, the Cardinals turned 71.1% of the balls put in play against them into outs, the best Defensive Efficiency Ratio in all of baseball. The Red Sox converted 69.5% of balls in play into outs, which while a good rate, ranked fourth in the AL and 14th in baseball. Boston’s defense is likely better now than their season totals suggest, but the Cardinals still have the edge here.

OVERALL

I think the Red Sox have the edge in hitting and in their starting rotation, while the Cardinals have a better bullpen and a stronger defense. However, clearly these are both extremely good teams, deep and powerful, with quality players all over the roster and very few team weaknesses. Boston has a better offense, but St. Louis still has a great offense. The Cardinals have a deeper and more reliable bullpen, but the Red Sox still have Foulke and plenty of capable relievers. Boston has the edge in the rotation, but the Cardinals still have four solid starting pitchers. And on and on.

In the World Series, and particularly with a matchup that is this close and between teams that are this great, it usually comes down to something unexpected happening or someone having an extraordinary performance. Can Schilling and his bionic ankle repeat their ALCS heroics two more times? Or will the injury be too much for him to handle? Will someone step up and have the game of their life like Damon in Game 7 against the Yankees? And who will be it be?

Because my future-telling abilities aren’t quite polished yet, and because I can’t imagine this series not going the distance after what we saw from these two teams in the league championships, I’m going to stick with the prediction that I made way back in April.

Red Sox in seven.

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