Go over to Google and type in ‘world series preview'. As of this writing, that search yields more than 57 million results. As of your reading, that'll probably be higher.
Wednesday evening, the 2010 Fall Classic takes center stage, and during the approach, most every baseball site on the internet will have something - if not several things - to say about the matchup. This isn't unique to the World Series or baseball or anything. It happens with everything important. The Super Bowl. The Stanley Cup. The NBA finals. The Packers against the Vikings on Monday night. Pretty much anything relevant in college. People love important games and people love important series, and to whet their appetites, people love previews.
And previews can be great. Previews tend to include some analysis, and they often identify keys that could make all the difference. We all want to be informed. Nobody wants to watch a game clueless. We all want to know what to keep an eye on, and what specific players or matchups or situations could prove to be deciding factors. This is where previews come in handy.
Here's the problem. At least, here's the problem, as far as baseball and the playoffs are concerned. We already have a hard time predicting how an entire season is going to play out. Every year there are surprising teams and surprising players at each end of the spectrum. So when you start talking about individual games or individual series, the whole exercise runs into a wall.
So much of baseball on a day-to-day basis is dependent on luck. Or, if you don't like the word ‘luck', so much of baseball is dependent on the unsustainable. Take Game 6 of the NLCS. Why did the Giants win? Juan Uribe hit a home run to the opposite field down the line. Carlos Ruiz lined into a double play with two runners on. Shane Victorino bobbled a catch near the wall in center field. Who could've predicted that? Who could've predicted that the Giants would win after Jonathan Sanchez recorded a feeble six outs?
Baseball is an analyst's dream. There are numbers to measure everything you could ever imagine, and those numbers are readily available, for free, to the public. Baseball allows itself to be numerically broken down to the microscopic level. How does Elvis Andrus project to do against Jonathan Sanchez's changeup? If we wanted, we could investigate that question. We could look at how Andrus has done against similar changeups in the past, and use that to form an expectation.
But baseball, over a small sample size of games, doubles as an analyst's nightmare. You can do all the number-crunching you want. You can look at hours of video, and talk all you want to the players, and investigate the weather forecasts, and you can find some things that you think are really important. You can have a lot of confidence in what you uncover. But there's no telling whether they're going to matter at all in, say, a best-of-seven series. You can have everything figured out, and then one guy hits a grounder just a foot too far away from the shortstop. Or a pitcher doesn't have a good feel for his slider. Anything. Even the smartest baseball series preview can end up looking ridiculous, because you never know when Juan Uribe is going to get into a pitch by Ryan Madson and drive it the other way into the seats. Over small periods, baseball might as well be unpredictable.
This post, right here, is a World Series preview of sorts. Like most every other baseball site on the web, we're going to give this a go, because it's what people want, and because it's so much fun to think about. But in this post, we're going to try to be honest. What follows is a list of keys that may end up being significant over the course of the series. They're keys that, on the surface, seem to be interesting, and they're keys that you'll probably hear discussed on TV and radio by national journalists and analysts. Accompanying each key, though, will be a quick take on how much it's likely to matter. Because at the end of the day, Bill Selby has a home run against Mariano Rivera, and Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado, and Frank Thomas do not. Baseball's a silly game. Anything can happen.
Key 1: The Giants' home field advantage
Because the National League won the All-Star Game - courtesy of Brian McCann, who the Giants already eliminated - San Francisco is set to host as many as four games during the World Series, while Texas is limited to three. It isn't difficult to imagine how this could be a factor. The Giants went 49-32 at home during the season, while the Rangers were a paltry 39-42 on the road. San Francisco's got a big ballpark, while Texas doesn't, and San Francisco will have a very partisan crowd. Additionally, Giants players are more familiar with the contours of their yard, and it plays by NL rules, crossing out the DH. Everybody wants to play at home, and the Giants could end up playing at home more often.
Chances of it making a difference: pretty low. The chances that playing in San Francisco makes a difference are fairly high. The chances that possibly playing one extra game in San Francisco makes a difference are not, because we're talking about one game. Everything comes down to this one game, and maybe in that one game, the Rangers' pitcher gets a hit. Maybe the Rangers don't hit any balls to the warning track. Maybe bounces off the outfield wall don't come into play. Home field only really matters if we go to a full seven games anyway, of which there's no guarantee. It could mean nothing at all.
Key 2: Former Giant Bengie Molina
Catcher Bengie Molina played for the Giants from 2007 well into 2010 before getting traded to make room for Buster Posey. The team to which he was traded? None other than the Texas Rangers, for whom Molina is the regular backstop. Having caught so many innings in San Francisco, Molina is no doubt familiar with much of its pitching staff, and he will no doubt attempt to impart his knowledge onto his teammates. Every little edge.
Chances of it making a difference: pretty low. It's hard to nail down how much this could matter. We don't' really have much of an established history of catchers facing former teams, so we don't know what the historical numbers might look like. However, while it might seem that having Molina's brain gives Texas an advantage, it's difficult to explain how. What could Molina tell his teammates that isn't already readily apparent on video or in the numbers? And hearing explanations is different from facing live pitching anyway. Even if Molina did manage to divulge some helpful secrets, there's no telling whether that would go on to translate to improved performance at the plate.
Key 3: Vladimir Guerrero in the outfield
In San Francisco, teams play by NL rules, and according to NL rules, there is no designated hitter. What that means for the Rangers is that, in San Francisco, they won't have a convenient place to put Vladimir Guerrero. Ron Washington's solution? Apparently, Guerrero is going to play the outfield, and David Murphy and Jeff Francoeur will ride the bench. The upside for the Rangers is that they like Guerrero's long-time productive veteran bat. However, Guerrero is not very mobile, and in at least three of the four NL games, the Rangers will be facing a right-handed pitcher. Based on the numbers, Murphy is the better bet, both at the plate and in the field.
Chances of it making a difference: moderate. Guerrero is not a good outfielder. It doesn't matter in which corner they place him; balls will probably find him, and he'll have a lesser chance of catching them than Murphy would. Additionally, playing Guerrero over Murphy against guys like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain gives away the platoon advantage. We know Murphy's the better fit. Whether this matters just comes down to the vagaries of a small sample size. If Vlad gets hot, then it won't have made much of a difference. Also, if he proves to be a liability, Ron Washington will probably stop playing him in the field.
Key 4: Andres Torres' injury
In Game 6 of the NLCS, Torres injured his groin and hip diving into first base. He's said to be in good shape headed into Game 1 of the World Series, but nobody outside of Torres can be sure how he actually feels. And if Torres plays below 100%, that could have an effect on his running. Both on the basepaths and in the field, where he's a critical component of the Giants' team defense.
Chances of it making a difference: very low. Torres will have had a good amount of time to rest up a minor injury prior to Game 1, and he should be good to go. Even if he's not quite at 100%, no player is at 100% at this point in the season. Everybody's a little banged up, and there's not much reason to believe that Torres is significantly more banged up than anybody else.
Key 5: Cliff Lee's unhittability
The Rangers are coming into the World Series with arguably the hottest and best starting pitcher in Cliff Lee. Over three playoff starts spanning 24 innings, Lee has allowed just two runs and one walk while striking out 34, and the Rangers, naturally, have won each of those starts by a comfortable margin. Lee's the big edge. He's the advantage the Rangers have had over every opponent, and they'll be looking for him to give them an edge again against San Francisco.
Chances of it making a difference: fairly high. Why only "fairly high"? For one thing, I'm making these up as I go along. But for another, it's important to recognize that Lee is no guarantee. Lee's going to start a maximum of two games in the World Series. Two games. Those could be two gems, similar to the games he's already thrown. Or they could not. On 11 separate occasions this season, Lee allowed at least four runs in a start. He isn't always at his best. Recall that the Giants were able to beat Roy Halladay in one game, and able to make him work hard in another during the NLCS. And also, going up against Lee will be Tim Lincecum. Lee is excellent, but so is Lincecum, and the difference between them isn't so large that the Rangers with Lee are invincible.
Key 6: The Rangers' momentum
The Rangers aren't only coming off an ALCS defeat of the Yankees. They're coming off an ALCS defeat of the Yankees that saw them bat .304 as a team, with an .890 OPS. They're coming off an ALCS defeat of the Yankees that saw them allow 19 runs in 53 innings. The Rangers didn't only play good baseball; they played excellent baseball, and if they're able to carry that momentum over into the World Series, they'll be in super shape.
Chances of it making a difference: practically zero. Momentum in baseball simply doesn't exist. It doesn't carry over. The Yankees swept the Twins in the first round. They're at home. The Phillies swept the Reds in the first round. They're at home. The Rockies were the hottest team in baseball in September, until they weren't. The Padres were one of the best teams in the National League, until they weren't. Everything gets set back to zero on practically a daily basis. One start, or one hit, or one error, and whatever momentum a team has or doesn't have can do a 180.
Key 7: Josh Hamilton vs. Javier Lopez
Lopez, the Giants' sidearming lefty specialist, did some excellent work in the NLCS against the Phillies, shutting down both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. His innings were absolutely critical, and he was able to get the job done. Now the Giants will again go up against a team with a fearsome left-handed bat, and the Giants will again look to Lopez to keep him quiet in crunch time. It'll be up to Hamilton to work good at bats against a pitcher who's very difficult to read.
Chances of it making a difference: fairly low. It's tempting to think of Lopez as a lefty killer, but he's really not. For his career, lefties have hit him for a .233 average, with a decent amount of walks. He's fine, but he's not exceptional. And as for Hamilton, though he's at a disadvantage against lefties, let's remember that he hit home runs off southpaws CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Boone Logan in the ALCS. He isn't hopeless. If we do see this matchup a few times during the World Series, there's no guarantee that it'll work in the Giants' favor. And there's no guarantee that it'll come up in a critical situation at all, for that matter.
Key 8: Neftali Feliz's uneasy nerves
Rookie closer Neftali Feliz has had some shaky appearances so far in the playoffs. He walked five batters in his first three games, and there's been a lot of speculation that maybe he's uncomfortable and somewhere below his best in the postseason. The Rangers can't afford a lack of trust in their closer going into the World Series, nor can they afford trust in their closer to backfire. It's hard for a bullpen to survive if its stopper is iffy.
Chances of it making a difference: very low. You'll recall that Feliz is the guy who froze Alex Rodriguez to end the ALCS. Even if there was some nervousness at one point, he seems to have gotten through it, as his past two appearances have been terrific. He should be all good to go. It's worth remembering that he's not that much less experienced than most anyone else on either team. Feliz is not a perfect pitcher, and he might get beat, but if he gets beat, I think it'll be because he got beat. Not because he beat himself.
In case you can't tell, I'm not really in the business of making predictions. Not with baseball, and especially not with baseball over a short series. Even if I said ‘Rangers in 5,' and the Rangers won in 5, that wouldn't necessarily make me right, because they could win for reasons entirely other than what I expected. And if one's prediction is right but his reasons are wrong, then his prediction isn't right so much as it's lucky.
So I'm not going to sit here and try to project the outcome. Rather, I'm fully prepared to just sit back and take everything as it comes. The Rangers are probably a better team than the Giants. They're probably a better playoff team than the Giants. But the difference isn't that big. There is no clear favorite, and there is no clear underdog. There are just two teams that, if they played this series 1000 times, might win 550 times and 450 times, respectively.
How close they are - that's a big part of what makes this World Series so interesting, and so worth looking forward to. I think the Rangers will win. I will not predict it. All I'll predict is that this is going to be a hell of a week.