Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 25, 2018

With More Than Just Power, Red Sox Are Halfway To A Title

The requisite number is of course four wins, not two, so in a sense observing that this year’s World Series isn’t yet over is merely stating the obvious. Starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, ten teams have overcome two games to none World Series deficits. In each of the three most recent occurrences – the Royals in 1985, the Mets one year later and the Yankees in 1996 – those first two losses came at home, surely a more parlous situation than the one the Los Angeles Dodgers now face.

Dodger fans can take heart in the knowledge that in addition to their team being the first, more than six decades ago, to rally from two games down, two of L.A.’s three most recent titles, in 1965 and 1981, were achieved after dropping Games 1 and 2. And perhaps a few of the Red Sox faithful are mindful that when the Metropolitans stormed back to capture the title in seven games in 1986, it was at the expense of the Fenway nine. Given that it’s been more than two decades since the Yankees rallied against Atlanta in ‘96, and since the previous ten instances happened about every four seasons on average, one might even posit that the Great Game is long overdue for another such comeback.

Still, as the two teams wing west on Thursday before resuming hostilities in Game 3 Friday evening at Chavez Ravine, Red Sox fans are both joyous and confident, and a neutral observer can understand why. Los Angeles still has time to turn the Series around, but everything about the first two contests made the many pundits who predicted domination by Boston look prescient.

In winning by scores of 8-4 and 4-2 Red Sox hitters posted a .297 batting average and an on base plus slugging percentage of .772. The corresponding numbers for Dodger batters are anemic, just a .175 average and .462 OPS. Other than Matt Kemp’s 2nd inning home run off Red Sox ace Chris Sale in Game 1, the Dodgers’ hits have all been singles. In contrast Boston has five extra base hits. The Red Sox are batting .333 with runners in scoring position, against only .200 for L.A. Most impressive has been the ability of Boston hitters to grind out at-bats in high pressure situations. Ten of the twelve Red Sox runs have scored with two outs. The Dodgers have plated just a single run with two away.

As for pitching, Boston’s bullpen was viewed as a weakness prior to the start of the Series. But so far Red Sox relievers have surrendered just one earned run in eight innings of work, for an ERA of 1.13. L.A.’s bullpen has seen eight and a third innings of action. The six different Dodgers who have been handed the ball have compiled a 3.24 ERA, which is a decent number until it’s compared to 1.13. Ryan Madson was the first reliever called upon by L.A. manager Dave Roberts in both games, and each time he walked the first man he faced and allowed all the runners he inherited, two in Game 1 and three in Game 2, to score.

Perhaps Los Angeles will thrive in the more hospitable environment of Dodger Stadium. The difference in Game 3’s location will be measured not just by the vocal support of the crowd, but also by the temperature. Game 1 was played under windy and chilly conditions Tuesday night, and by the latter innings of Game 2 Fenway Park was frosty. When Walker Buehler toes the rubber to get Game 3 started late Friday afternoon West Coast time, the forecast is for the low 80s. That and the fact that with right-hander Rick Porcello starting for the Red Sox the Dodgers will finally have their left-handed bats in the lineup may help to warm up L.A.’s offense. The Dodgers are a team that’s already overcome adversity, rising from ten games under .500 in mid-June to win the NL West, and rebounding from a two games to one deficit in the NLCS against Milwaukee.

But should the Red Sox go on to win their fourth title in fifteen years, whether it be in a four game sweep or a seven game marathon, then perhaps the real lesson of this World Series will be that the sport has not changed quite as much as is widely believed. By now it counts as received wisdom that the Great Game has entered an era in which power trumps all. Through a combination of factors, from changes in the aerodynamics of the baseball itself to hitters altering their swings to lift balls over extreme defensive shifts and into the seats, the number of home runs rose dramatically for several seasons in a row before declining slightly this year. The concomitant effect of all that free swinging has been a steady climb in the number of strikeouts. Whether it’s a ball over the fence or a batter walking back to the dugout after fanning, the decrease in balls in play has, we are told, led to a decline in action on the field and a deadening of the sport.

The overall numbers across the Great Game don’t lie, but what they perhaps disguise is that playing an extreme version of the so-called modern game is not the surest route to a November parade with the Commissioner’s Trophy. While the Red Sox won their division in 2017, the team managed only 168 home runs, better than just three other franchises. With the addition of designated hitter J.D. Martinez and improved slugging from the rest of the lineup, this year Boston hit 208 homers during the regular season, good for ninth place. But Red Sox hitters were also able to temper the urge to flail away. Boston batters struck out 1,253 times, the fifth lowest total in the majors. Last year’s champions, the Houston Astros, did even better, ranking second in home runs and dead last in strikeouts in 2017. Houston was disciplined at the plate this season as well, finishing tenth in homers and twenty-ninth in K’s. Both teams have proven that it’s possible to display plenty of power without a matching increase in strikeouts. Boston of course won a franchise record 108 games this year while the Astros notched 103 and 101 wins the past two seasons.

By way of comparison, L.A. ranked second this year in home runs, behind only the Yankees, but also eighth in strikeouts, fanning more than just one other team that made the postseason. If the two stats must go hand in hand, the Dodgers numbers wouldn’t be surprising. But the Astros, with a title, and the Red Sox, now halfway to one, prove otherwise. To provide some context, compared to five years ago, before the supposed shift in the game, the Red Sox increased home runs this season by seventeen percent while slightly decreasing total strikeouts. The Dodgers hit nearly fifty percent more balls out of the park than in 2013, but at a cost of a more than twenty-five percent increase in strikeouts.

Of course, if L.A. batters, who like their foes hit one home run in the first two games, put several balls into the Dodger Stadium outfield seats and rally this weekend, advocates of the modern game will feel a whole lot better. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra said in 1973. The Mets team that he was managing that season proved his wisdom by rallying from last place with a month to play to win the NL East. But several years earlier, when Berra’s playing career was winding down and he had ceded catching duties for the Yankees to Elston Howard by moving to the outfield, he was asked about dealing with the long late afternoon shadows in left field at the old Stadium. “It gets late early out there,” Berra observed. Dodger fans are hoping that this World Series will yet prove to be an example of the Yogism uttered when he was a manager. But unless things turn quickly, it’s the older expression, from Berra’s playing days, that will apply.

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Responses

  1. Nice overview, Mike. We have a great weekend for sports ahead of us.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Especially in LA, where in addition to the Dodgers (MLB), the Kings and Ducks (NHL), Clippers (NBA), Rams (NFL), and Galaxy (MLS) all played at home today. WOW!

      M-


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