Five keys that will decide the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series
In what should be a fantastic World Series pitting the top two teams in the majors, here are five things that could swing the outcome.
1. The Red Sox' plate discipline
The Red Sox reached the World Series in part because they worked the Tigers' starting pitchers to the bone. No team in MLB took a higher percentage of pitches during the regular season, and in the ALCS, the Sox' long at-bats twice forced Detroit ace Max Scherzer out of the game with leads. Both times, Boston's bats took advantage of the Tigers' bullpen to win the contest.
The Red Sox led the AL in on-base percentage and were second in walks drawn. Their patience is their greatest offensive asset. The Cardinals are equipped to counter that with a staff that was 10th in the majors in percentage of strikes thrown and fourth in the NL in walks allowed -- both numbers the best the Sox have seen this October. This World Series will most likely be decided in the strike zone.
2. The Cardinals' young relievers
The Red Sox have had tremendous success by waiting out the opposition's starting pitchers and then beating the bullpen. Of their seven postseason wins, three came against the other team's relief crew, including the clinching games in both the Division Series and ALCS.
The World Series, however, will be the first time Boston has faced a team with a bullpen stronger than its rotation. Forcing out the St. Louis starters will mean taking a run at a bullpen loaded with young power arms like Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist, along with veteran John Axford and some strong matchup pitchers in Seth Maness and Randy Choate. There are no soft touches in this 'pen, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has allowed Rosenthal and Martinez to pitch multiple innings when necessary.
The performance of the Cards' young arms, so dominant against the Pirates and Dodgers in the earlier rounds, will determine whether the Sox can create more late-inning magic.
3. Bats hitting baseballs
In a sport that has seen strikeouts rise to one out of every five plate appearances, making contact has served teams well in the postseason. Since 2009, the team with the better regular season contact rate has won 26 of 34 postseason series, and four of six in 2013.
The Red Sox have been this postseason's exception, winning two series despite ranking 22nd in MLB in making contact. The Cardinals are very good at this, striking out less frequently than all but four MLB teams. As pitching continues to evolve past hitting -- in no small part due to the development of power relievers who routinely strike out 25-30% of the batters they face -- it seems that the skill of putting the bat on the ball is becoming more important. St. Louis rates a significant edge on Boston in that department.
4. Allen Craig's return
The Cardinals were terrible against lefthanded pitchers throughout the season, batting .238/.301/.371, which made their pummeling of Clayton Kershaw in NLCS Game 6 such a surprise. They'll face Jon Lester in Games 1 and 5 of the World Series; the return of Craig for at least one of those -- he'll be the DH for St. Louis in the games at Fenway Park -- is important. The Cardinals simply don't have another good option for the designated hitter slot other than Craig, who has been sidelined since early September with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. Craig hit .315/.373/.457 this year and is a career .302/.336/.549 hitter against lefties. Getting him back for the World Series is a much-needed boost for an offense that has been held to three runs or less six times in 11 postseason games.
In the World Series two years ago, the Cardinals' defensive wizard faced off with the Rangers' Ian Kinsler, another high-volume, high-efficiency base stealer. In Game 2, Kinsler got the better of Molina with a ninth-inning stolen base that helped trigger a game-winning Texas rally.
This season, Ellsbury stole 52 bases and was caught just four times. For seasons in which we have caught-stealing data -- since 1919 -- just one other player has ever stolen 50 bases and been caught less often (Max Carey, 1922). The Red Sox also have Quintin Berry off the bench; in parts of two seasons, Berry has never been caught stealing in the major leagues, while swiping 24 bags in the regular season and four more in the playoffs.
Molina, of course, is one of the greatest throwers in the game's history, not only gunning down a high percentage of runners, but keeping many from even trying. He caught 1,115 innings this season, more than any other NL catcher. Despite this, nine NL catchers allowed more stolen bases than Molina allowed attempts (46).