SB Nation

Steven Goldman | October 23, 2013

World Series preview

There's no scrappy, underdog story here. This is the Cardinals vs. Red Sox, equipped with the best records in baseball, each looking for their third title this century.

The 2013 World Series may not feature your teams, but it features the right teams. This isn't a mismatch like the 1998 World Series, which featured the 114-48 Yankees against the 98-64 Padres, or a dynastic A's team against an underpowered Mets club that won 82 games.

Since baseball went to the division series/wild card format in 1995, the World Series has featured:

  • The two teams with the best record in each league three times, or 16 percent.

  • The team with the best record in one league, but not in the other seven times, or 37 percent of the time.

  • Neither team had the best record in its league eight times, or 42 percent of the time.

  • Wild Card making the World Series nine times, or 47 percent of the time.

  • Wild Card winning the World Series five times, or 26 percent of the time.

  • Both teams in the World Series were wild cards once, or five percent of the time.

This year's World Series matchup is one of the three pairings of the two teams with the best records in their respective leagues, joining 1995 (Atlanta Braves vs. Cleveland Indians) and 1999 (New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves).

Both teams are battle-tested. The Cardinals emerged on top of the hyper-competitive NL Central and survived two difficult postseason rounds to reach this point. The Red Sox played in a division that, with the Yankees not quite their usual selves, was perhaps not as competitive as it was just last year, but the continued success of the Orioles and Rays still made for a hazardous trip to the postseason. The Rays didn't give them very much trouble in the first round, but the six-game struggle against the Tigers in the American League Championship Series misses being a classic perhaps only because it didn't go the full seven games. The Red Sox barely hit, struck out 73 times in 193 at-bats, and barely outscored the Tigers for the series as a whole. Perhaps the Tigers lost the series as much as the Red Sox won it, but you can't say that the Sox did not seize hold of the breaks when they came their way.

There's no telling what kind of Series this will be; just because the clubs are closely matched doesn't guarantee an exciting or competitive contest. There is every reason, though, to think that it will be. Both of these teams have tremendous depth; the Cardinals have strong hitters at every position but shortstop, the Sox at every position, period.

Neither team has to hold its nose when it gets to the back of its rotation either. The Cardinals have such depth that Shelby Miller, who went 15-7 with a 3.06 ERA during the regular season, has been virtually ostracized by manager Mike Matheny in October, while Boston's two least-effective starters, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster, have been banished to the back of the bullpen. Both teams have solid bullpens headed up by highly effective closers with vastly disparate styles.

Whatever the outcome, this Series will have no mismatches.

Offense

Cardinals

Whether Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso starts there, shortstop is the Cardinals' only weak spot on offense. Consider park- and league-adjusted OPS (OPS+) as a shorthand for productivity. A figure of 100 is league average, 110 would be 10 percent above league average. Counting only players who had 300 or more plate appearances, the Red Sox had nine players with an OPS+ of 110 or better. That's a record. The Cardinals had six. In addition to the shortstops, they missed at third base (David Freese) and center field (Jon Jay). Jay was a career .300 hitter coming into the season and Freese was the MVP of the 2011 World Series, so although neither is a great player -- Jay in particular has been badly exposed on both offense and defense this October -- the potential for more than they showed in the 2013 regular season is there.

Unlike the Red Sox, the Cardinals don't have a traditional MVP-style center to their offense, though Yadier Molina might yet win the award if voters don't hold the 26 games he missed against him. No player hit 30 home runs or drove in 100 runs. Matt Holliday and leadoff man Matt Carpenter scored over 100, however, a league-leading 126 in the latter's case. Both runs scored and runs batted in being expressions of what other players do, the number of times they crossed the plate in absence of a big RBI man suggests just how well the offense was diffused throughout the lineup.

It's probably a bad idea to cite Carlos Beltran's career postseason record as an added asset for the Cardinals -- those kinds of small-sample heroics usually disappear the moment you start expecting them -- but at .337/.449/.724 in 45 games, Beltran's October performances demand comment. But perhaps the best illustration of the Cardinals' depth is the presence of left-handed slugger Matt Adams, starting at first base only because Allen Craig has been injured and will be restricted to designated hitter in this series. Adams had the best home-run ratio on the team, but was unable to crack the lineup for much of the regular season because Craig and other players were in front of him.

Red Sox

The Red Sox had one regular with a below-average bat in their lineup in 2013, and that was Will Middlebrooks, dragged down by an early-season slump that saw him banished to Triple-A until he learned a thing or two about big-league pitching and came back strong. Middlebrooks might not even start in the World Series, though, as uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts has started the last two games at the hot corner, and is expected to continue to do so.

Bogaerts, who just turned 21 in May, picked up 50 scattered plate appearances before the season ended, but has been unleashed in key moments in the postseason: the Aruban-born talent is hitting .500 with three doubles and five walks, nearly all in key moments that led to rallies, and he's done it all with an approach that belies his youth and inexperience. Cardinals fans watching their own kids on the mound can certainly appreciate such a thing.

The rest of the lineup needs far less introduction, as, like with the core of the Cardinals, these are known quantities. Dustin Pedroia has traded in some power for patience, between a torn UCL in his thumb he's been dealing with since Opening Day and the simple fact that pitchers won't give him the same volume of pitches to crush after seeing him do it for years.

David Ortiz hasn't aged a day since the last time the Cardinals saw him in the World Series, and any fright born of that statement is merited. Mike Napoli might not have his ridiculous 2011 numbers, but he's a threat to hit the ball a very long way if the opposition isn't careful. Stephen Drew is mired in a postseason slump, but he's been hot-and-cold all year -- should he catch fire against the Cardinals' right-handers, he's just one more threat in a stacked lineup.

There is Shane Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have been total pests on the basepaths throughout the season, leading the charge to Boston's 87 percent success rate. Victorino has been even more of a problem for his opponents since August, when he exclusively shifted to the right side of the plate, creating ample opportunity to take a pitch in the ribs or shoulder from pitchers who miss their spots. Ellsbury is playing with a broken bone in his foot, sustained in late August, but you would never know it, as he finished the season strong and has a 992 OPS with six steals in 10 postseason games.

We still haven't mentioned backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.273/.338/.466 with 54 extra-base hits) or the left field team of Jonny Gomes (30 extra-base hits and 43 walks in 366 plate appearances) and Daniel Nava (.303/.385/.445 in 130 contests). They also have backup catcher David Ross, as well as Mike Carp and his 140 OPS+, on the bench. The Sox can hit a little, and have Quintin Berry (24-for-24 in stolen bases in 107 career games) on the bench for when they need some late-game legs, too.

advantage: RED SOX

Pitching

Cardinals

The Cardinals will once again start off the World Series with the team's veteran leader, Adam Wainwright. Wainwright was a durable and effective workhorse for the Cards, two years removed from the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2011. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that with three postseason starts to date he's now up to 264.2 innings on the season, not including spring training starts. That's a lot of pitches -- 3,836 of them, to be precise. He still has some work to do to surpass the 4,040 Justin Verlander threw between the regular and postseasons, but it wouldn't be surprising if he's tired nonetheless. It may come as some consolation to him that at 3,881 pitches, Jon Lester, Boston's Game 1 starter, has been worked just as hard.

Should Wainwright or any of the other starters falter, there is a deep and varied staff. As mentioned earlier, two pitchers on the staff, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, were groomed as hard-throwing starters, but neither could crack the rotation. With the sudden decline of Edward Mujica in September, Rosenthal now brings his 100 mph heat to bear in the ninth inning, while Martinez, who can also dial up his velocity to the century mark, has allowed two runs in 6.2 postseason innings, striking out six.

Unlike the Red Sox, who gave up on having a lefty spot reliever once Andrew Miller got hurt (Craig Breslow being used in long relief in the postseason), Matheny has two such options in Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist. The veteran Choate has career marks of .198/.277/.278 against left-handed hitters and, with a ground-ball heavy approach has been tough for righties to abuse even when they've hit him (.278/.398/.395 career).  Siegrest, a rookie whose 0.45 ERA was the second-lowest by a pitcher with 30 or more innings (Buck O'Brien, the Red Sox pitcher who topped him at 0.38, did so more than 100 years ago), held left-handed hitters to .118/.241/.147 rates, but unlike most specialists was also effective against right-handers (.138/.233/.246). Look for both to be deployed against David Ortiz. Another rookie, Seth Maness, brings a ground-ball-heavy approach from the right side.

The Cardinals will round out their rotation with rookie sensation Michael Wacha, who has hit his stride just in time -- including his final start of the regular season, his last four games have produced 29.2 innings, nine hits, one run, six walks and 31 strikeouts. Joe Kelly, who throws hard but has trouble missing bats, will go in Game 3, and Lance Lynn, often dominating but also equally capable of disappointing (his quality start percentage of 58 ranked just 33rd out of 59 qualified National League pitchers) will go in Game 4.

Red Sox

With Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey all returning to form in 2013, the Red Sox feature a dangerous trio of starters for the postseason. Lester has been phenomenal for almost all of 2013: a three-game stretch where his mechanics faltered and he allowed 17 runs in 15-1/3 innings clouds the fact he owned a 3.27 ERA in his other 198 frames, though, the five runs in 19-1/3 October innings suffices as a reminder of what he's capable of.

Lackey outdueled Justin Verlander his last time out, in a game where Verlander threw a complete game and allowed one run -- if Lackey is feeling it, he's as good as anyone in this series, and when he's off his game, he's still capable of leaving Boston's lineup in it.

Buchholz is a bit diminished, in the sense that he can only go about 75-85 pitches or five innings before the velocity starts to go, the result of an injury that shelved him for much of the season's second half. If manager John Farrell is timely with his hook, however, Buchholz can deliver dominating, albeit short, performances before handing the ball over to the bullpen.

That bullpen is anchored by Craig Breslow, a lefty who can handle right-handers with aplomb, Junichi Tazawa, and, of course, closer Koji Uehara. The Red Sox are in a position to stretch Uehara out for four-, five- and maybe six-out saves should the situation call for it, but if Breslow and Tazawa do their thing, it shouldn't be necessary often. If a starter exits early, the Red Sox also have two deposed-for-the-postseason starters to turn to in Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, as well as pitching prospect Brandon Workman, who has looked more capable in the bullpen role he's unfamiliar with at just the right time of year. Should a LOOGY be necessary, Franklin Morales awaits.

There is one more pitcher, and he's sort of the key to the whole thing for Boston: if probable Game 4 starter Jake Peavy can pitch like he did against the Rays, efficiently shutting them down in the clinching game of the ALDS, then Boston is likely in a good place. If, however, he's incapable of getting out of a tough inning as he was against the Tigers, things could snowball. Luckily for Peavy and the Red Sox, Busch Stadium is pitcher-friendly, and the Cardinals will be without a DH in that contest.

advantage: CARDINALS

Defense

Cardinals

Statistically, the Cardinals were roughly an average defensive team. However, they have only two defensive standouts, shortstop Pete Kozma and Molina, and some serious liabilities, including Matt Holliday, rapidly slowing in left field (or still suffering from the back, hamstring and ankle problems that caused him to miss time in July, August and September), and Jon Jay, who is stretched to cover center field and could be swallowed up by Fenway's vast pasture.

Red Sox

The Red Sox outfield features one of the game's better defensive center fielders in Ellsbury, as well as a converted center fielder, Shane Victorino, in right. While Jonny Gomes might not be what you consider a good defensive player, he plays the Green Monster exceptionally and, so long as he can get to a ball, will make the play and necessary throws -- the same can be said of Nava, should be line up in left instead.

Defensively, the middle infield is arguably the best in the game between Pedroia and Drew, and shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts is currently anchoring third base. You might think Mike Napoli is the weak link with the leather, but watch him out there, and you'll quickly realize that's not the case: he's surprisingly agile and smooth at the position, and has made his share of high-quality plays.

advantage: RED SOX

Manager

Cardinals

This will be a contest of nigh-virginal managers; Mike Matheny is in only his second year as a skipper, while John Farrell is only in year three. Matheny had a conservative approach in 2013, restricting his usage of self-defeating tactics like the sacrifice bunt for his position players and intentional walks. He wasn't hesitant to try to gain a platoon matchup against left-handed pitchers in the postseason, making use of fourth outfielder Shane Robinson instead of Jay (and getting a surprise home run for his efforts).

Based on the evidence of the last 11 games, he's not overthinking the postseason and won't panic his way into ill-considered moves. One advantage he will have in the World Series that was lacking in the previous two rounds: the presence of Allen Craig on the bench in non-DH games. Assuming Craig's long layoff (he last played on Sept. 4) hasn't caused rust, Matheny will have a potent pinch-hitting weapon at his disposal.

Red Sox

John Farrell has been in the game as a player, as a coach, in the front office and now, as a manager. He's the linchpin for a system that thrives when all of the components -- scouts, executives, coaches and players -- work in concert with the information that they have. Farrell might make some seemingly odd moves on occasion, such as playing Gomes against right-handers instead of the switch-hitting Nava, but they are generally driven by data born out of this concerted effort, even if they're presented as more about magic and chemistry.

It's brought the Red Sox this far, and so long as Farrell continues to push the buttons he has this postseason, bringing in the right relievers at the right moments, continuing to trust that Bogaerts' talent will win out, and believing the bench is there to be used when needed, then he's done his job.

advantage: PUSH

Ballpark

Cardinals

Busch Stadium III dwarfs Fenway Park with its seating capacity of nearly 44,000. Roughly symmetrical, the ballpark mildly favors the pitcher, its large foul areas suppressing batting average. Right-handed hitters have had a far harder time hitting the ball out of the park than left-handers. Matt Holliday has been more successful here than on the road (.314/.404/.541 vs. .299/.375/.500), but Allen Craig hit only two of 13 home runs at Busch this year (despite averaging .336 at home), and just 19 of 50 career round-trippers. On the left-handed side of things, Matt Carpenter hit .360 with 30 of his 55 doubles here.

Red Sox

Just over a decade ago, Fenway Park was a dump, and that was intentional: the previous ownership wanted a new ballpark, and was willing to trash a piece of history to get it. Under John Henry and Co., though, Fenway has received the care and reverence it deserves, with millions invested into expanding seating and the comfort of fans -- it's a far more beautiful park now than when they first arrived on the scene.

As far as how it plays, the Red Sox mash at home, as they are built the way they always have been: as a club designed to take advantage of the ins and outs (and very awkward walls) of its home park. Right field is difficult for the uninitiated due to its vastness and quirky corner, but left field is where the real problems for visitors come in: the difference between a single and a triple, between runners advancing and runners scoring, often comes down to how well visitors handle a ball off of the Monster.

Prediction

This is a very difficult series to call. The two teams are closely matched, with very few weak spots. However, the Cardinals have decided to embrace one of theirs by embracing the pitch-to-contact starter Joe Kelly over rookie sensation Shelby Miller. It made some sense to skip Miller in the first round of the playoffs because he had a poor record against the Pirates, but his subsequent banishment in favor of Kelly doesn't make a great deal of sense. Sure, Kelly had a 2.69 ERA during the season, but he didn't do that against teams with a lineup as deep as Boston's. This decision has not yet been confirmed, but even should Matheny opt for Miller, with the Cardinals' other small flaws, such as their lack of range in the outfield and a non-hitter at shortstop, as well as Boston's home-field advantage, the Red Sox should have just enough in the way of opportunities to capture their third flag of this century.

Boston wins it in 7.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Contributor: Marc Normandin | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

Steve_goldman

Steven Goldman is the MLB Editor for SBNation.com, and founder of SB Nation's Yankees site Pinstriped Bible. Steve is also the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel; and editor and co-author of Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings.

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