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World Series Preview: Red Sox and Cardinals

Much is made of how baseball in October can often be a crapshoot. The differences between the remaining teams, at this point in the season, are so small that nearly any outcome is reasonably possible. And yet, it would be hard to argue that when the dust settled, the best team from the American League and the best team from the National League are still playing. It’s a battle of baseball’s elite, with two great teams looking to exploit any minor advantage they can find. Let’s look at some of the areas that might make a difference in the final series of the season.

Cardinals X Factor: Allen Craig

No National League team needs the DH more than the Cardinals, as Craig’s foot injury has reportedly healed enough for him to hit but not really do anything else. Luckily for St. Louis, they’ll get a position to let Craig do exactly that in their road games, and adding him back into the line-up could be a huge boost for the Cardinals offense.

Craig might not have the stature of some of baseball’s more well known sluggers, but over the last three years, Craig ranks 15th in baseball with a 140 wRC+ [1], meaning his offensive production is 40% better than the league average hitter. It’s difficult for a guy who racks up as many RBIs as Craig does to be underrated, but because he’s a first baseman who specializes in singles and doubles, he tends to get overlooked when discussing the game’s impact bats. But, when healthy, he absolutely has been one.

But the health remains a huge question mark. The Red Sox just exploited a beaten down Miguel Cabrera in the ALCS, and while Craig might be healthy enough to swing the bat, it is possible that Boston will find a way to attack him in a part of the zone that he can’t cover as well at less than 100%. Craig’s production is a wild card, and his ability to hit at something approximating full strength might be a deciding factor in the outcome.

Red Sox X factor: Xander Bogaerts

John Farrell inserted Bogaerts into the starting line-up for the final two games of the ALCS, and given how he performed, it’s basically impossible to see him returning to the bench for the World Series. The 21-year-old is a physically gifted hitter, but he’s been astonishingly patient at the plate so far in the post-season, drawing five walks in just 11 plate appearances. Bogaerts has actually walked more times in the postseason than Dustin Pedroia, even though he’s only started those two games in the first two rounds.

Bogaerts approach at the plate is extraordinary for a 21 year old, so Cardinals pitchers won’t be able to attack him out of the zone as they would be able to with most inexperienced rookies. While Will Middlebrooks possesses more power at the moment, Bogaerts gives the line-up more depth and another hitter who can run up a starter’s pitch count. And as he showed with his big double when he finally did get something to hit from Max Scherzer, he’s not just a walk machine, as he can hit too. The World Series may end being remembered as the coming out party for Boston’s next superstar.

Cardinals key reliever: Kevin Seigrist

The Red Sox feasted on the Tigers bullpen to advance through the ALCS, but they’re about to see something from St. Louis that Detroit didn’t have: a lefty who sits near 100 mph. Seigrist threw hard in the regular season, averaging 95.3 mph during all his regular season outings, but the last month or so, he’s taken it to another level; his fastball has averaged 97.7 mph so far in the playoffs. The only reliever in baseball who threw that hard during the regular season was Aroldis Chapman.

Interestingly enough, however, the huge uptick in velocity hasn’t let to more strikeouts, as he’s only struck out one of the 12 batters he’s faced in the postseason after striking out a third of the batters he faced in the regular season. Usually, increases in velocity also lead to increases in strikeouts, but Seigrist’s strikeout rate began to tail off as his velocity rose in September, and that has now carried over into October as well.

It’s possible that the extra velocity is straightening out his fastball, making it actually easier to hit than it was when he was sitting at 95. He hasn’t struggled so far in the playoffs, and having a lefty who throws 98 is a nice problem to have to figure out, but the Cardinals might want to consider whether or not the extra velocity is actually helping Seigrist, because they’re going to need him to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz in big situations.

Red Sox key reliever: Junichi Tazawa

While Koji Uehara has been shutting down opponents in the 9th (and occasionally the 8th) inning, Tazawa has been nearly as important to the team’s playoff run in 2013. Between the first two rounds of the postseason, Tazawa has appeared in eight of the 10 game the Red Sox have played, and barring an early blowout, he’s a good bet to pitch in every game of the World Series.

The Red Sox middle relief is the shakiest part of their team, and with Uehara showing he can pitch multiple innings, the Red Sox will have the ability to bring Tazawa in in the sixth or seventh inning to help bridge the gap between the starter and the dominating closer. John Farrell has used Tazawa as more of a situational reliever in the early rounds, but Tazawa was an effective pitcher against left-handers this year too, and may be asked to take on a bigger role in the World Series.

Key Matchup: David Ortiz vs Randy Choate

Evan at age-38, Choate is still humming along as the epitome of the cliched left-handed specialist. Choate appeared in 64 games this year but only threw 35 innings, because he frequently is called upon to pitch to the opponents best left-handed hitter and then is promptly removed when he gets that guy out. In his five postseason outings this year, Choate has thrown a grand total of 20 pitches.

But you’re likely going to see Choate in every close game this series, and he’s going to be used to try and neutralize David Ortiz. The complicating factor is that, during the three games in St. Louis, Ortiz is likely to have to serve as a pinch-hitter, as the DH will not be in play in the National League park. So, Mike Matheny is going to have to anticipate when John Farrell will use Ortiz as a pinch-hitter, and get Choate warm in anticipation of that match-up. The key for Farrell might be using Ortiz in early critical situations so that Matheny hasn’t gotten Choate up in time, giving him a chance to swing the bat against a right-handed starting pitcher. For the Red Sox, success will be avoiding this match-up, and keeping Ortiz away from Choate whenever possible.

Cardinals key bench player: Shane Robinson

Jon Jay has been pretty miserable in the postseason, not hitting or fielding his position well, and Matheny turned to Robinson to make a surprise start in Game 6 of the NLCS; he rewarded his manager’s confidence with two hits the day after hitting a pinch-hit home run. With a few days off to get reset, Jay should be back in the line-up for the series opener, but if he continues to falter, don’t be too shocked if Matheny goes back to Robinson at some point in this series. He’s not a big bat by any means, but he’s a better defender than Jay, and might prove useful for the Cardinals in this series.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

As we noted during the ALCS preview, Berry has never been thrown out attempting a steal in his Major League career, and he’s a real weapon as a pinch runner for the Red Sox. However, the Cardinals have a guy behind the plate who just shuts down the running game entirely, and replacing a big hitter like Ortiz or Napoli for the right to try and steal off the game’s best defensive catcher might not be an appealing trade-off for Boston. However, even with Molina behind the plate, Berry’s ability to put a stolen base on the table makes him a fascinating option, and if the Red Sox put him in the game, the drama of Berry-versus-Molina should be a lot of fun to watch.

Key stat: STL pitchers in NLCS: 1.77 BB/9

The Red Sox offense is notorious for taking pitches and drawing walks, but the Cardinals pitching staff just doesn’t issue them. Between them, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have combined to walk five batters in their six postseason starts, and the Cardinals entire pitching staff just pounded the zone against the Dodgers, forcing their hitters to swing the bats if they wanted to put runs on the board. The Red Sox did a good job of mixing up their approach and getting more aggressive against Detroit when it was clear that their work-the-count approach wasn’t working, and they might need to just scrap it all together against St. Louis, at least until their pitchers stop pounding the zone on every pitch.

Modest proposal: The Red Sox should go back to Daniel Nava as their left fielder.

Citing his energy and some gut feelings, John Farrell essentially ended his left field platoon in the ALCS, giving Jonny Gomes regular starts against right-handed pitchers, even though he’s been used mostly against left-handers during the regular season. This promotion for Gomes meant that usual starter Daniel Nava was moved into a reserve role, and he’s now only hit 14 times in the postseason despite. This follows a regular season performance in which Nava hit .303/.385/.445, and hit .322/.411/.484 against right-handed pitching.

The move worked, in that the Red Sox won the series against the Tigers, but with the World Series title on the line, it’s time to put away the hunches and put the best team they can on the field. And the Red Sox best team against right-handed pitching — the only kind of starters the Cardinals have — includes Nava, not Gomes, in left field. Gomes can’t even claim the hot hand advantage, as he’s hit just .200/.259/.280 in the postseason, not a huge surprise considering he’s being asked to face elite right-handed pitchers, a role he’s just not made for. Gomes might be an intense personality whose energy sparks his teammates, but he can yell from the dugouts steps and inspire his teammates by encouraging them between innings.

Nava is a better player than Gomes, and he was the team’s regular left fielder this year for a reason. It’s time for him to get a shot to prove that he can help them win a World Series too.