Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 21, 2018

Then There Were Two

Now at last, the final act. The longest season wound its way through 2,429 games, one less than planned after an ultimately meaningless rainout between the Pirates and Marlins was not rescheduled. Yet after all those innings, pitches, and plays, the postseason bracket could not be determined without the addition of a pair of tiebreaker contests to determine the winners of the National League’s Central and West divisions. So 2,431 regular season games in all, followed by 28 more through the Wild Card, Division, and League Championship rounds of the playoffs. Now at most just seven games remain, and possibly as few as four. No wonder the drama is so intense. All the months that have gone by since Opening Day are now merely prelude to what is about to unfold between the Dodgers and the Red Sox.

The Dodgers and the Red Sox. The first franchise was born in Brooklyn in 1883 and played under eight different names before settling on its ninth and current one in 1932. The second was founded in 1901 as the Boston Americans, switching to Red Sox in time for the 1908 season. Both teams have thus been eligible for every World Series since the first one in 1903, and each has plenty of Fall Classic stories to tell. The Americans prevailed over the Pittsburgh Pirates in that very first Series, rallying from a three games to one deficit with four straight wins to claim the best-of-nine showdown. Eleven decades later, this will be Boston’s twelfth appearance, the third most of any American League franchise. The Dodgers, representing the National League for the second year in a row, are making their twentieth trip to the Series. That ties them for the most appearances by a National League club with their one-time inter-borough and for the last six decades California rivals, the San Francisco Giants, though both are a distant second to the forty World Series in which the American League has been represented by the New York Yankees.

Despite the frequency with which both teams have made it this far, they have met in October only once, and that was more than a century ago. In 1916 the Red Sox downed the Brooklyn Robins, as the future Dodgers were then known, four games to one. Although Fenway Park was just five years old, the Red Sox chose to play their home games for that Series at the much larger Braves Field. Right fielder Casey Stengel led the Brooklyn offense with a .364 average in the Series, but overall Red Sox pitching dominated. Game 2 went 14 innings before Boston pulled out a 2-1 win in front of more than 47,000 fans, 12,000 more than could have been squeezed into Fenway. Babe Ruth surrendered an inside-the-park home run in the top of the 1st inning, and then pitched thirteen shutout innings to earn the win.

Now after a 102-year hiatus these two storied franchises prepare to resume World Series hostilities. In that interim L.A. and Boston haven’t seen much of each other in the regular season either. Since the advent of interleague play in 1997, the only NL franchise to play fewer games against the Red Sox than the Dodgers is Cincinnati. In what could be an ominous sign, Los Angeles has only a single win at Fenway Park.

For more reasons than that the oddsmakers like Boston, and at least at first glance who can blame them? The Red Sox rolled through a historic season, winning a franchise record 108 games. So far in the playoffs Boston has been even better, posting a 7-2 record through the Division and League Champion rounds. That mark was achieved against the only two other teams to win 100 or more games this season, the Astros and the Yankees. Most remarkably, Boston is a perfect 5-0 on the road during the playoffs. Against an outstanding Houston rotation, Boston scored seven or more runs in three of the five ALCS games, the only time all year the Astros allowed that many runs in three straight contests. Having closed out the defending champions with a 4-1 Game 5 victory last Thursday, the Red Sox will be well rested for Tuesday’s Series opener. In contrast the Dodgers were pushed to the limit by the Milwaukee Brewers, with the outcome of Saturday’s Game 7 hanging in the balance until Yasiel Puig launched a 3-run homer to center in the top of the 6th, pushing L.A.’s lead to 5-1 and deflating the capacity crowd at Miller Park.

Still the rules require one team to win four games on the field before the Commissioner’s Trophy is awarded, and by at least one measure the Dodgers and Red Sox appear closely matched. While the regular season’s final standings show Boston 16 ½ games ahead of Los Angeles (L.A. had the extra tiebreaker game), the two teams posted similar run differentials. With 876 runs scored against 647 allowed, the Red Sox had a positive differential of 229. The Dodgers numbers were 804 and 610, for a net of 194. Run differential has long been recognized as a good predictor of a team’s winning percentage, using a simple formula devised by Bill James, which is runs scored squared divided by the sum of runs scored squared and runs allowed squared. The resulting percentage reflects the “expected” win rate for a team over a large enough sample size.

Based on the numbers Boston’s expected win total was 103, just two more than L.A.’s expected total of 101. Obviously over the course of the season the Red Sox overperformed while the Dodgers came up well short of expectations. One can debate the reasons for both, from team chemistry to injuries, and fans certainly will do so well into the offseason. Perhaps that pattern will continue through this year’s final series, and the parade through the streets of Boston will soon be taking place. But if as often happens performances revert to the mean, then this series could in fact be quite close. It’s also worth remembering that on May 16th the Dodgers were ten games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL West. On that same date the Red Sox were already fifteen games over .500. From that point on the two teams’ records are quite close, and it’s the underdog squad that has had to overcome more adversity.

Both clubs have earned their spot in this year’s Series, but only one city gets to have a parade. Some fans will just assume its location, while others will let the Dodgers and Red Sox play.  Starting Tuesday night, the latter group is going to have more fun.

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