by Paul West
For the first time since 1970 and only the 11th time overall, the World Series is between two teams who each won 100 games in the regular season. It’s often the case that two teams seem on a collision course to a championship matchup, but something usually derails one or both of said teams–which is why it’s unusual for 100-win teams to win a World Series, much less two face off at the end. But the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros have held serve all the way to their respective pennants, and now the Fall Classic is a classic matchup: baseball’s best starting rotation against baseball’s best offense.
The Astros were first in baseball in runs scored, batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. American League MVP frontrunner Jose Altuve was the AL’s leader in hits as well as the MLB leader in batting average, and was only two behind Whit Merrifield for the AL lead in steals. Meanwhile, the Dodgers can hit home runs in bunches, but the secret of their success has been the performance of their aces. In Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish, the Dodgers have two of the most heralded aces of their generation. Acquired at the trade deadline, Darvish lengthens a rotation whose third and fourth starters–both lefties–were 26-year-old Alex Wood, who went 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, and 37-year-old Rich Hill, who went 12-8 with a 3.32 ERA. In 27 combined ALCS innings, the Dodgers’ starters posted a 2.67 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 4 walks. This is a classic matchup of pitching-dominant versus hitting-dominant. Here are a few factors which may determine which side wins.
The Dodgers have home-field advantage, meaning four of the seven games will be played without the designated hitter. This is always an advantage for the NL team–hence the term home-field advantage–but even more so for a pitching-oriented NL team facing a potent AL offense. Were this, for example, a pitching-dominant AL team like some in years past, the advantage would be less pronounced. Evan Gattis and Brian McCann, who make up the Astros’ catcher/DH platoon, constructed two outstanding at-bats which fueled the Game Seven win which got them here.
After a myriad of twists and turns, Josh Reddick‘s career path has led him to a World Series berth against one of several teams which have tested his upside and subsequently looked elsewhere. He’s struggled on offense lately, but his speed and athleticism in the outfield have still allowed him to contribute; still, especially in games without the DH, the Astros will need Reddick to return to form if they’ll have a chance against the Dodgers’ pitching. Reddick had an excellent year at the plate, batting. 314 with 77 runs and 84 RBIs. He only hit 13 home runs, but he had 34 doubles, and has immense raw power. He also recently spoke of his motivation being enhanced by the fact that he was booed by the home crowd during his brief 2016 stint as a Dodger. The fact that three of the Dodgers’ projected starters are lefties will likely push him toward the bottom of the order, where it’ll be even more important that he balance the lineup in support of Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer.
While the notion of his playoff struggles has been exaggerated, it remains true that Clayton Kershaw hasn’t been the dominant pitcher in his postseasons that he’s been otherwise. It could be argued that there’s more pressure on Kershaw this series than on any other Dodger–and I’m aware that, by typing this, I’m unfortunately contributing to yet another potentially unfair postseason narrative. But narratives aside, Kershaw remains the team’s unquestioned ace, and is widely considered one of the best pitchers of all time. He’s also in a position to cement his legacy with a series befitting his established greatness. He’s battled injuries for the past two seasons, and still doesn’t quite seem like himself since returning from a back injury; but if he returns to form this week, look out. One key variable to keep in mind? Altuve is 6 for 15 off of Kershaw, with 4 extra-base hits.
The Astros pocked up their own historic ace at the deadline, in the person of Justin Verlander, and thus far it’s paid off. Verlander put the Astros on his back during their mid-ALCS hitting slump; he threw two brilliant games, including a 124-pitch, 13-strikeout, complete-game gem in game two, earning the ALCS MVP. Lefty Dallas Keuchel–who won a Cy Young as the Astros’ ace in 2015–will start game one, against a lefty-heavy Dodgers lineup which can be strikeout-prone.
Once mercurial and misunderstood, but never quite what many made him out to be, Yasiel Puig has acclimated before our eyes. Puig has retained the joyful hyperactivity for which he’s been both celebrated and derided since his arrival; but now, along with his prodigious all-field power, he’s constructing good at bats when it counts. When he’s clicking, his power, speed, and positive energy animate a streak Dodgers lineup with numerous dangerous hitters, including Justin Turner and Sporting News NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger.
This has the makings of a series that could go seven. Keuchel’s off-speed lefty arsenal is a good complement for Verlander’s righty power pitching; meanwhile, Altuve’s good numbers against Kershaw might help the newly reawakened Astros lineup steal Game One. Expect a little bit of everything in this one.
Astros in seven