On Winning and Inevitability

October 23, 2018
The Red Sox will win the 2018 World Series.
 
Or…they might not. A seven-game series allows for any number of surprises, and the Dodgers are a talented baseball team. They have Kershaw and Buehler and Bellinger and Turner and Jansen and Muncy and Puig. They’re coached by Dave Roberts, who’ll hear a few claps when the Series opens in Boston. The Dodgers are a great baseball team, and there is a good chance that they will win four of the next seven games.
 
But I’m not nervous. I'm convinced that the Red Sox have this one in the bag.
 
Taking a step back: I haven’t watched the Red Sox as much this year as I have in the past. This is almost entirely due to the fact that I now live in the eastern time zone of the United States, where Red Sox games typically start at 7:00 pm. At 7:00 I’m dealing with my kids: I’m doing baths and getting pajamas on and checking heads for ticks. Ticks became a serious thing while I was living overseas, and I’ve spent a lot of time this past spring and summer dutifully combing my kids hair for the little buggers. They are awful. I hate ticks.
 
So my baseball watching has fallen off. When we lived in New Zealand, the east coast games started at 11:00 am, which is a perfect time to start paying attention to baseball. I’d work until 11:00 and then take a break to catch the first pitches of whatever matchup seemed interesting. I’d have lunch during the middle innings, and tune into the radio broadcast of the late games when they started at 2:00 pm. By the time I was picking up kids from daycare, 85% of baseball had wrapped up for the day, and I could slide into my parental duties without much concern.
 
No more. Since I’ve moved back to the States, I haven’t watched baseball as closely as I did in previous seasons. I haven’t experienced the ebb and flow of the full season in quite the same way that I did in New Zealand. I’ve had distractions. I’ve had other priorities.
 
I regret this because what I have seen from this year’s Red Sox is the best team I’ve ever had cause to root for. This year’s version of the Red Sox are a very good baseball team. Certainly, they’re the best team in the franchise’s long history, and they are a World Series win away from forcing themselves into the discussion as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
 
None of that is based on objective fact: I have not yet scratched through the numbers to see how the Red Sox compare to the 1998 Yankees or the 1975 Reds or the 1927 Yankees. Maybe I’ll get there, but for now my perception of the Red Sox is entirely subjective: I have simply never seen a team win like the Red Sox win.
 
Well…what do I mean by that?
 
I have watched perhaps a third of Red Sox games this season, and I have seen them win just about every permutation of game they could win. The Red Sox have won pitching duels on the back of unbelievable starting pitching. They’ve blown out opponents by double-digits, and they’ve won comeback games where they were chasing a crooked number late, in the teeth of good bullpens. There have been games when the relief corps has stepped up to hold an opponent at-bay for five or six innings, and games where the outcome hinged on defensive players making incredible plays. The hitters at the top of the order have hit like MVP’s, and the hitters at the bottom-of-the order and the platoon players have delivered clutch hits after terrific at-bats. The Red Sox bats have been patient when patience is needed, and they’ve been confident and aggressive when the moment has called for it. They’ve played loose and smart on the base paths, and they’ve taken risks in in-game decisions. Through it all, they have won and won and won.
 
I suppose that the same could be said for every winning team in a baseball season, but the Red Sox seem to exist on the edge of outcomes. I didn’t see many games where the Red Sox weren’t competitive, games where they didn’t at least make things uncomfortable for their opponents. They won a high percentage of their games, and they made a lot of their losses close.
 
The Red Sox success came to feel, as the season progressed, like an inevitability. At the outset the AL East was supposed to be a slugfest between Boston and New York, but the pennant race has mostly has Boston out and ahead, with New York chasing.
 
This has hidden the fact that the roster has sizeable gaps all season long. While Mookie and J.D. have played like MVP’s, the team has gotten almost no offense from their catching platoon of Leon, Vazquez, and Swihart. Boston has struggled to find a bat at second base, swapping Holt and Kinsler in for Nunez and getting little for the effort. Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers have been more adequate than excellent at the corner infield positions, and Jackie Bradley Jr. spent the bulk of the first-half fighting the Mendoza line before coming on strong in the second half. The starter who paced the team in innings pitched (Porcello) posted a 4.28 ERA this year, and the collection of arms in the bullpen show a lot more threes and fours in the ERA line than ones and zeros. Even Craig Kimbrel has seemed vulnerable: prone to giving up dingers at the exact wrong moment and uncharacteristically wild. Through all that, the Red Sox have steadily won games.  
 
And they won in a tough division. They buried the Yankees with a four-game sweep in early August, and won going away division that saw the Bombers click 100 victories and the Rays 90. They beat New York in an extremely tense and dramatic ALDS, and then they beat the 103-win Astros in the ALCS, losing Game 1 and then clobbered their way through four straight wins. They’re playing an LA team whose Pythagorean record was 102-60, and the Dodgers might be the easiest opponent Boston has faced this postseason.
 
So what are the most compelling storylines coming into the World Series? I’ll throw five out for you.
 
1.       How will Boston’s bats respond to the lefties in the Dodgers rotation?
 
Boston has had baseball’s best offense in 2018, but they’ve been slightly less effective against southpaws, posting a collective .719 OPS against lefties, versus an .817 mark against right-handers. The Dodgers have Kershaw, Ryu, Wood, and Hill, and could conceivably run out a sequence of six left-handed starters in a seven-game series.
 
While Boston managed to smoke Yankees lefthanders J.A. Happ and C.C. Sabbathia, Dallas Keuchel held Boston to a respectable two runs through five innings before his bullpen imploded in Game 3 of the ALCS. While the pundits of old have scoffed at starting lefthanders in the shadow of the Green Monster, the Dodgers have to rely on their wrong-siders to notch wins at Fenway. It could work.
 
2.       Will the Mookie show up, and where will he play on the diamond?
 
Mookie has scorched some baseballs this postseason, but he’s still waiting for a first postseason dinger, and his average during these playoffs is an un-Mookie .206.
 
The more compelling question is whether or not Alex Cora is going to give Mookie some starts at second base, to get J.D. Martinez’s bat in the batting order during the games in Los Angeles. While it seems unlikely that the Red Sox will take that approach, Betts was a solid defensive infielder, and the abysmal recent at-bats by Kinsler and Nunez might force the issue. And Alex Cora has shown that he’s not afraid to pull some surprising levers in the postseason.
 
3.       Who is catching for LA?
 
Dave Roberts’ commitment to Yasmani Grandal lasted all the way through Game 2 of the NLCS, when the Dodgers catcher allowed a run to score on a passed ball in the 8th, and then struck out with the bases loaded in the ninth.
 
Grandal is a far better hitter than Barnes, and his defensive metrics suggest that he’s at least in the same ballpark as Barnes as a defender. Grandal rated as the better catcher at throwing out basestealers (27.8% to 21.7% for Barnes), and both men were equally effective at keeping Dodgers pitchers on track: Grandal had a 3.35 Catcher ERA, to Austin Barnes’ 3.37.
 
Roberts gave the bulk of World Series at-bats to Barnes last season, and Barnes didn’t do a lot to make Roberts look great. It will be interesting to see if Roberts decides to make the same decision a second year in a row, or if he’s going to give Grandal more than the three at-bats he had in the 2017 World Series.
 
4.       Will Yasiel Puig make the rest of the players on the diamond irrelevant?
 
Yasiel Puig is a mercurial player, and it is understandable that fans have a love him/hate him relationship with Puig. I am in firmly in the ‘love’ camp: I enjoying watching players who care about winning games, and Yasiel Puig obviously cares about winning games.
 
I am sure I’ve mentioned this before. I was in Australia when the Dodgers played the Diamondbacks in the season opener a few years ago. A friend met me in Sydney, and we got to the cricket grounds early, and talked our way into a seating area that went along the right-field fence. This put us in extremely close proximity to Yasiel Puig, and to a handful of other players. All of the other players were warming up the way that players typically warm up: they’d catch any ball hit within three feet of them, and lollypop a throw to the infield. Everything else they’d ignore.
 
Not Puig. He was chasing everything: he was crashing into the outfield wall and hotdogging the easy catches and cutting off other outfielders and throwing hard to the cutoff guy. His joy was palpable: while everyone else was warming up with calm constraint, Puig was playing like a giddy kid who had snuck onto the field, and was making the most of his time before security caught on.
 
I don’t know that Puig will ever be a great player, but he is certainly a player motivated by the higher stakes of postseason baseball. During the regular season, he can seem disinterested and lazy, but during the big games, his focus comes on. His three-run homer in Game 7 of the NLDS was the punch that knocked the Brewers out, and he hit it off a very tough pitch: off-speed and low and a couple inches off the far corner of the plate. The outcome of the game hinged on what Puig was going to do in that at-bat: it was 2-1 with two runners in scoring position, two outs. Puig didn’t shy away from the moment: he stepped into the box looking to do damage and he knocked a nearly impossible pitch to a deep part of the ballpark. If the Dodgers win this thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if Puig is the reason why.
 
5.       Is Kimbrel broken, or just a lousy tipper? 
 
Craig Kimbrel has been a disaster in these playoffs (16 baserunners in 6.1 IP, 7.11 ERA), and it hasn’t felt like luck: Houston and New York clobbered Kimbrel’s fastball, and it took some nice defensive plays for Kimbrel to collect five saves this postseason.
 
The news broke that Kimbrel was tipping his pitches, a nice bit of information that former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne pointed out to Alex Cora. The retired Cy Young winner noticed that Kimbrel was giving something away by where he was setting his glove prior to pitching. Kimbrel has adjusted: he’s now going to come set at the belt instead of holding his glove higher. We’ll know early on whether he’s corrected this ‘tell’, or if there is something else that the Astros and Yankees were reading in his mechanics.
 
6.       What will be the outcome?
 
Red Sox in six, of course.

Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
When I was in junior high, I was a fan of one of the greatest teams in history - the 1969-71 Orioles. They won 318 regular season games, were 9-0 in the ALCS, and were 8-9 in world series games. They lost two of three world series, defeating only the 1970 Reds, who were arguably the best of their three NL opponents. Anything can happen.
11:34 AM Oct 27th
 
phorton01
I'm struck by the contradiction in your Puig comment. First you say that he stands out as a player who loves the game so much that he is motivated and energetic even in meaningless warmups. Then you note that he gets bored by regular season games.

I guess mercurial is right.
7:41 AM Oct 27th
 
MarisFan61
About tipping of pitches:

It's always hard for me to understand how opposing teams can know it, without the pitcher's team itself having any idea.

I mean, each team studies its pitchers under a microscope.
(I mean metaphorically.) :-)
For sure you have the manager and the pitching coach doing it. That's part of their job, to study their pitchers closely, for every possible advantage. They're constantly observing each pitcher -- to see how he's throwing, to see how each of his pitches is doing, to see if there are any signs of tiring or sore arm or any kind of slightest thing wrong.
(Right?)
Presumably now and then they study video of the pitcher.
Also presumably the pitcher himself is doing all these things too.
Maybe also his wife or girlfriend(s).
And presumably also the team's catchers.
The bullpen coach also observes every pitcher under a microscope.
Also the team might have analysts who also do some of that.

How can they not have a clue that the guy is doing something in his delivery that gives away the pitch?
2:34 AM Oct 24th
 
DavidTodd
good stuff
go Dodgers
1:42 AM Oct 24th
 
MarisFan61
Dave: Let me take the opportunity here to hark back to your "Trout-Betts" article of earlier this year.
I thought you were way jumping the gun on proclaiming Mookie as the possible real rival to Trout.
Turns out you weren't.

I've also taken big note of how many different ways these Red Sox can win. I consider that big -- not just for winning, but also for considering a team great.

BTW, hope nobody in your family had any bad consequences from those ticks!
10:56 PM Oct 23rd
 
pgaskill
On the Yankees site that I follow (River Avenue Blues), sometime probably in July or August, somebody commented re guess who:

Something to the effect of: “When we win, they win. When we lose, they win. When we get rained out [something that happened to us very often this year], they win.”​
8:24 PM Oct 23rd
 
OldBackstop
Right, so.....uh, ticks. My English Creme Retriever was out for ten minutes this morning and I pulled 23 ticks of her. With FrontLine they don't bite in to her....they just hitch hike into the house.

I have had three Lyme's bullseyes, four times tested positive, and had something tick borne thing years ago called babiosis (sp?) which they had to report to the CDC.

Go BoSox!​
7:22 PM Oct 23rd
 
 
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