When the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of the playoffs, I was mildly disappointed. The Pirates had a great story, great players like Andrew McCutchen and were a city that deserved some time in the limelight. But the Reds are a team I can root against as much as I root for the Cardinals. Not so with Pittsburgh.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Dodgers may have some characters on the team but the hand wringing over their alleged disrespect for the game never struck a chord (Note: this said "cord" at one point but was corrected to accommodate copy editors with little to contribute to the conversation other than their distaste over a few grammatical errors.) with me. I find Yasiel Puig to be an interesting phenomenon. The chronic vilification of young players that don't measure up to some arbitrary expectation is a tiresome one. The Cardinals dispatched the Dodgers in some fascinating pitching matchups and for that I am glad.
Today, however, I am glad that there is a true villain to be found. After a 5-2 win over the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox will play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. I hate the Boston Red Sox.
Specifically, I hate them for 2004 and, clearly, I do not let go of my sports grudges in any rapid fashion.
And yet, 9 years can change a lot. David Ortiz is the only remaining player from the 2004 squad on the 2013 Boston Red Sox. There is no Jason Varitek or Manny Ramirez. No Johnny Damon with his poorly spelled name or stupid beard. The imagery of a bloody sock carries a different connotation for a city struck by terrible violence this year than it evoked on the ankle of blowhard Curt Schilling. If for some reason that gives you pause as to whether 2013 is a cast worthy of hate, the Red Sox employ one Jonny Gomes of the Cardinals-Reds brawl.
None of this makes the Red Sox any less of a good villain. If I could issue an early warning to all the readers though, the real villain in all of this will likely be narrative chasing sportswriters. Two iconic teams facing off in the World Series with rapidly different structures. The Cardinals being home grown and the Red Sox being (more so) a creation of the free agency market. The "Best Fans in Baseball" versus "Boston Strong". If ever their was a moment to feign illiteracy, I suggest now.
Yet these are the right two teams to be in the World Series. They are the two teams with the highest run differential in MLB (192 - Boston, 187 - St. Louis). They are the winners of the strongest division in each league. Whoever wins this World Series will be a deserving winner. A winner who was able to win both the marathon and the sprint.
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The Red Sox are composed of some interesting individuals that, at times, is drowned out by the larger "Boston" aspect. Here are three players you might not be familiar with that are important parts of the upcoming series:
- Koji Uehara - At one point during the season, Uehara pitched a pseudo perfect game retiring 27 consecutive batters during relief appearances. The Boston closer is not young having spent time in Japan before coming over to the MLB; he is now 38 years old. He also throws like he's 38 years old with an average fastball speed of 89mph. He relies on a split finger pitcher to do most of his damage. Uehara doesn't walk anyone and had a nearly 12:1 K:BB ratio during the regular season. He racked up 3.3 fWAR as a reliever across 74.1 innings. He's been nearly untouchable all year allowing 33 hits and 9 walks during that time. If the Red Sox make it into the 9th inning with a lead, the Cardinals odds are not good.
- Xander Bogaerts - At the ripe age of 20, the Red Sox have entrusted third base to Bogaerts for parts of the postseason. It's provided them with a robust defense on the left hand side as Bogaerts (a shortstop throughout the minors and likely Boston's 2014 starting shortstop) compliments Stephen Drew. As competent as Bogaerts is defensively, however, he's also got a heck of a bat. He can hit for power but also has solid plate discipline. While Bogaerts is new to the big leagues, he's a future superstar.
- Daniel Nava - Boston has a potent batch of outfielders including a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino. Daniel Nava completes the trio with a strong 2013. Nava may just be a flash in the pan -- his .352 BABIP is almost certainly due for some regression in a negative fashion -- but he's also altered his approach at the plate. In 2012, Nava found a power stroke that he didn't previously have and translated that to the majors. This season he's continued to hit more line drives and get on base at a respectable clip. Nava's downfall is that he's a terrible fielder but the bat compensates enough to make him an average player.
The Red Sox are a complete team. They have offense from top to bottom of their lineup. They have solid if beatable starting pitching. They have a dominant pair of relievers in Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara. This is a complete team. There is no simple recipe for success against them.
Of course, the same could be said for the Cardinals. If you want a plausible advantage the Cardinals have, it's premised on the pitching staff. Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha (small sample size withstanding) are better than the Red Sox starters.
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Where there is no simple recipe for success, there are some tactics that Mike Matheny would be wise to employ. Matheny is a questionable tactician but specifically, he's too generous with starters not named Wainwright or Wacha. Here are three things Matheny should remember for the playoffs:
- Have a short hook with starters not named Wainwright and Wacha. Use guys like Seth Maness, Shelby Miller and Kevin Siegrist aggressively -- not to mention Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez. Don't let the games get away from you and continue to force hitters to adapt to a pitcher they haven't seen before. Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly should never see a hitter for the third time in this series unless they are pitching a dominant shutout. Even then, I'd think twice about it.
- Use a lefty against David Ortiz as often as possible. The Cardinals are fortunate to have two capable lefties. If Siegrist and Randy Choate aren't seeing David Ortiz once a game, then something has probably gone wrong. David Ortiz has a 94 wRC+ against left handers in 2013. He had a 186 wRC+ against right handers. In other words, Ortiz versus lefties is a below average hitter. Versus right handers he's Barry Bonds (career 173 wRC+).
- Watch the switch hitters. Both Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava bat from both sides of the plate. They have different strengths though and the platoon susceptibility is noteworthy. Victorino is much better against left handers and Nava is almost useless against lefties. Conversely, Nava hits very well against right handers and Victorino is closer to average against them. These are the kind of splits that have to be exploited in the post season.
While it's not a tactical matter for the manager so much, another thing to keep an eye on is the duel between Ellsbury and Yadier Molina on the base paths. Ellsbury is an excellent baserunner and Yadier has inspired t shirts to eulogize his arm. It should make for one of the more interesting on field competitions that essentially revolve around two people.
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There's so much more that could be said about both teams. For today, the only thing left to say is: