MLB Coverage: 2013 World Series Preview

The 2013 World Series is set to start on Wednesday, and at least on paper the St. Louis Cardinals-Boston Red Sox matchup has all the makings of a classic. We have the two #1 seeds in each league, something that hasn’t happened since 1999. We have two tradition-laden franchises, and the two best fan bases in the sport.

With the Cardinals and Red Sox each having won two World Series relatively recently (2004 & 2007 for the Sox, and 2006 & 2011 for the Cards), what’s at stake is nothing less than the honor of being baseball’s top franchise of the still-young 21st century.

TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will break this series down by the method we’ve used for each of the six postseason series to date–compare each team in terms of its ability to get runners on base, to hit for power, their starting pitching and relief pitching. Then we conclude with some historical context and make a pick.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Each team is stacked with hitters who know how to work counts, draw walks and get tough hits, which could lead to some long games. Based on regular season production, the Red Sox have five players who are genuine assets–Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. Then you can add in the part-timers of Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava.

More important, there is no obvious liability. Even Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.338) and Stephen Drew (.333) have respectable OBPs, though Drew is doing nothing in the playoffs.

On the St. Louis side, Matt Carpenter is a machine, with a .392 OBP and though his overall playoff numbers are poor, he started to wake up in the final two games of the National League Championship Series. Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Yadier Molina are all excellent, and while Carlos Beltran’s OBP of .339 isn’t spectacular, Beltran is hot in this postseason.

St. Louis does have a liability in shortstop Pete Kozma (.275), though he’s drawn four walks in the playoffs and been on base a third of the time. David Freese had a rough season, although I don’t think anyone on the Boston side is ready to attach the label “liability” to someone with his playoff resume.

Each team has one very big X-factor. The Red Sox have inserted late call-up Xander Boegarts into the lineup at third base for slumping Will Middlebrooks. Boegarts has gone 3-for-6 and walked five times, as the pressure of October means nothing to him. Boegarts’ effect on the lineup is similar to that a young Ellsbury had six autumns ago, when he was called up in September, displaced Coco Crisp midway through the playoffs and ended up a World Series hero.

St. Louis’ unknown is Allen Craig. The track record is much longer in this case, as Craig was one of the team’s best offensive players in the regular season, with a .373 OBP and an extraordinary ability to get the job done with runners in scoring position. A September injury put his foot in a boot and he did not play in the National League playoffs. The reports are that Craig is ready to go for the Series and will be in the lineup as the DH in Games 1 & 2, which will be under American League rules in Fenway Park.

HITTING FOR POWER: Ortiz still carries the load for the Red Sox, having hit 30 home runs in the regular season, slugged .564 and then added to his postseason legacy with an epic Game 2 grand slam. If Ortiz doesn’t hit that ball out, we’re almost certainly using this space to discuss Detroit Tiger hitters.

Ortiz is joined by Mike Napoli, who started to heat up at the end of the Detroit series, hitting a big home run off Justin Verlander and a massive blast off Anibal Sanchez. Saltalamacchia has good power. But this Red Sox team is not a proto-typical team that cranks out the deep ball. What they have are a lot of hitters who can pepper the gaps or the Wall, from Ellsbury to Pedroia to Victorino to Gomes/Nava and even Drew. And as Victorino showed in Game 6 of the ALCS, and Pedroia came within inches of showing, they can all go deep often enough to make a pitcher alert to the threat.

It’s not often a National League lineup goes as deep in power as St. Louis, but Carpenter, Molina, Holliday and Beltran are all threats, and you have to assume that whatever issues Freese has had this year (a surprisingly woeful .381 slugging percentage), that he’s one or two swings away from altering a game. Matt Adams, the big first baseman slugged .503 and hit a towering home run that sealed the Division Series win over Pittsburgh.

Craig remains the X-factor here–with a .457 slugging percentage, he’s got muscle, but if he were going to be hindered his foot, you would think it would show in the generating of power with his lower body.

STARTING PITCHING: Jon Lester is the Boston ace, and the 3.75 ERA is misleading, at least as far as assessing this Series. Lester had a rough stretch in midseason, but finished the regular season strong and with a 2.33 ERA in three playoff starts has been dominant in October. John Lackey gets the ball in Game 2. He’s not going to strike fear in anyone’s heart, but he’s beaten both David Price and Justin Verlander–the latter in a 1-0 game–both results that significantly altered those respective series in denying the opposition a game they were likely counting on.

Clay Bucholz is a mild X-factor in this series. He’s still made just six starts, including three playoff outings, since his return from the disabled list and fatigue is obviously an issue. But he pitched extremely well for five innings in the Game 6 clincher against Detroit, and with a 1.74 ERA in the regular season, he has more potential for dominance than any other Boston starter if he gets his conditioning back in time. Bucholz will pitch Game 3 in St. Louis, which would make him the Game 7 starter in Fenway if this Series comes to that.

Jake Peavy starts Game 4, and I just have a hard time shaking my skepticism about this guy. His competitiveness is fun to watch and his addition to the rotation at the trade deadline–a time Bucholz was still hurt–was clearly a lynchpin to the team’s blowout of the AL East race. He also pitched brilliantly in the Game 4 clincher of the Tampa Bay series. But the numbers also say his ERA with the Sox was 4.04, and he was awful in his outing against Detroit, the only starter on either side you could say that about in the entire ALCS.

Adam Wainwright gets the ball in Game 1 for St. Louis and he meets every standard of ace. A 19-game winner, a 2.94 ERA, and that ERA is 1.57 in three playoff starts, which include a Game 5 masterpiece that eliminated Pittsburgh.

St. Louis then follows up with Michael Wacha, who makes you wonder where on earth he came from. He’s 3-0 in the playoffs and two of those were NLCS wins over Clayton Kershaw, an achievement that got Wacha the honor of being series MVP. I’m surprised to learn that his playoff ERA is 0.43–the surprise comes from the fact that I’ve watched all three starts and I don’t remember where the run came from. That’s dominance and it’s the greatest display of coming from nowhere to helping a team win a pennant since Roy Hobbs in The Natural. In the non-Hollywood world, the question will be if he has two more such outings in him. We never did find out how Hobbs fared in the World Series.

The Cardinals have some issues in their 3-4 spots, at least by the high standards of postseason play. Joe Kelly’s 2.69 ERA in the regular season was certainly impressive, but he has not been sharp in the playoffs, and now he’s going to face a DH-augmented lineup for the first time. Lance Lynn won 15 games but the 3.97 ERA in the regular season was relatively high, and his playoff performances have been worse.

It remains a mystery to me why St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has left Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06) buried in the bullpen in October–there are no reported injury issues, Miller has tossed an inning in relief and been sighted warming up several other occasions. As a Boston fan, I hope Matheny persists with this one more series.

The way the pitching matchups shake out create an intriguing dynamic–St. Louis looks better up front, with Boston stronger in the back, meaning that each team’s pitching edge will come when it’s on the road.

BULLPEN: The Boston bullpen was rightly credited with being a big reason the team survived Detroit. Koji Uehara was unhittable and won ALCS MVP honors, continuing how sharp he’s been ever since getting the closer’s job in midseason. Craig Breslow has been no less dominant in setup, and Junichi Tazawa has been effective all year, including getting Miguel Cabrera in two key spots in the ALCS.

St. Louis has followed the pattern they used in the championship runs of 2006 and 2011, which is to have a bullpen almost suddenly appear in late September. Suddenly Seth Maness looks unstoppable, Kevin Siegrest has been dominant and veteran Randy Choate has been a big stabilizing force.

Cardinal closer Trevor Rosenthal throws some serious heat, and has 29 saves with a 2.63 ERA. He can also look a little unpredictable at times–not unpredictable like the Detroit relievers, but enough that Boston can get an edge if you get a tie game and Uehara and Rosenthal have to match zeroes for an inning or two.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: We touched on the historical context above. A lot is being made of the tradition of these two franchises and all their previous Series meetings–seven-game battles in 1946 and 1967 won by the Cardinals, and the 2004 Red Sox sweep that ended 86 years of frustration. I do think the honor of being the top team since the last Yankee Dynasty (1996-2001) ended is something that has slipped under the media radar.

THE PICK: Las Vegas has slotted Boston as a (-150) favorite to win the Series, with St. Louis available at (+130) if you want the dog prices. I was initially pessimistic about the Red Sox chances, feeling that the Cardinals had narrow, but consistent edges throughout the lineup and the top of the rotation. I think that’s true, but I overlooked potential big Boston advantages in the back end of the rotation and what looks to be a slight edge in the bullpen. There’s also the intangibles that Lackey brings to the table in a big game.

What’s more, I really like Boston’s chances in a Game 7, if the matchup is Bucholz-Kelly. It’s possible Matheny could roll the dice on Wainwright in Games 1, 4 & 7, but you really don’t see managers do that anymore and Lynn is already announced as the Game 4 starter.

It boils down to this–if Lackey can split two starts with Wacha (a potential Game 6 would be one), then I think the Red Sox either clinch or at least get it to a seventh game, where I think they would win. I’ll lean Boston’s direction, not as strong as the Vegas moneyline suggests (I’m more in the -115 or -120 range), but enough to say it’s Sox in a six-game Series that will feel like seven.