Click here to read Rany Jazayerli's case for why the Cardinals will win.
The Boston Red Sox owned the best record in the American League this year. Their 97 wins marked a 28-game improvement over their 2012 total, the 10th-biggest year-over-year jump by any team since MLB moved to the divisional format in 1969 (hat-tip Elias Sports Bureau). The only goal left for the Red Sox to attain is winning the eighth World Series title in franchise history.
They're going to do it. Here's why.
1. They're a better offensive team than the Cardinals.
Boston led the American League with 853 runs scored this season, while St. Louis led the National League with 783 runs scored. Adjust for David Ortiz's name being in the lineup nearly every day instead of having the pitcher hit, and you could argue that these two teams were similarly productive, at least from a raw runs scored perspective. Still, there are a couple of reasons to favor the Red Sox here, even with Allen Craig returning to the Cardinals lineup for the World Series.
The first is something that has been discussed so frequently this year, we're not going to delve too far into it here — that the Cardinals owe a good chunk of their 2013 run-scoring prowess to hit sequencing, otherwise known as hitting with runners in scoring position, or clutch hitting. We wrote about the Cards' RISPy business in August, so here's the Cliffs Notes version: Cardinals hitters put up one of the best performances by any team, ever, with runners in scoring position. Generally speaking, when a team performs that much better in those situations compared to the rest of the time, that means we should expect some regression toward the mean at some point in the future. We've already seen some pullback during the Cardinals' first two rounds of the playoffs. Maybe that continues during the World Series, maybe it doesn't. As with everything we'll have to say about this series, we're dealing with a tiny sample of games, small enough that the Cards could sign a unicorn right before first pitch, stick him in the middle of the lineup, and watch him hit .655 with nine home runs. But if you're playing the odds, you probably wouldn't want to bet on the aberrant outcome … even if the Cards did manage to keep it going for 162 games this year.
The second is that the Red Sox have fewer weak spots in their order than the Cardinals do. Which is to say, they might have none. Stephen Drew has struggled to hit during the postseason. But the Cards will start four right-handers during the World Series, and Drew has been a good-to-excellent hitter against righties, whether you're looking at career numbers (.275/.343/.451) or 2013 numbers (.284/.377/.498). We don't have much of a major track record to go on when it comes to likely third-base starter Xander Bogaerts. The 21-year-old rookie bagged just 50 plate appearances during the regular season this year, and backed up Will Middlebrooks during the playoffs before finally claiming the starting job in Game 5 of the ALCS. But combine Bogaerts's strong (and precocious) numbers in the minors with what he has shown thus far in the big leagues — an ability and willingness to work deep counts and put up quality at-bats, even if we can't deduce too much from his numbers — and you've got what looks like a pretty promising no. 9 hitter. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will trot out at least two suspect bats per game, whether it's David Freese vs. Boston's three right-handed starters, Jon Jay or Shane Robinson against Jon Lester, or Pete Kozma against anyone.
2. They're a better baserunning team than the Cardinals.
Per FanGraphs' Baserunning Runs stat, the Red Sox ranked fifth in generating positive value on the basepaths, while the Cards ranked 17th. This might seem like a bit of a surprise given Boston's recent history. After the Sox knocked off the Tigers in the ALCS, we talked about how Detroit's 2013 squad was the fourth-worst baserunning team of the past 50 years. The worst? The 2004 Sox. The success of this year's Tigers and especially that of the '04 Idiots offer two of many data points that suggest that poor baserunning is by no means a deal-breaker when it comes to building a great team.
Still, an edge is an edge, and the Red Sox have a sizable one here. A big chunk of Boston's baserunning success stems from its two best base stealers, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino, who also happen to be faster than anyone else in the everyday lineup. But as WEEI.com writer Alex Speier's in-depth piece on Boston's baserunning illustrated, the Sox get positive contributions on the basepaths from players not normally associated with blazing speed, such as Jonny Gomes. (Speier shared some extremely insightful thoughts on this, the value of team chemistry, and other good stuff in this week's Jonah Keri Podcast.) Teams tend to score fewer runs during the playoffs, and we've seen the Sox scratch out multiple wins in tight games this October. Some of that has been due to the subtle art of hitting grand slams, certainly. But Boston has also generated multiple opportunities (and kept rallies intact) by knowing when to take the extra base and when to stay put. Expect at least a couple of influential baserunning plays from the Sox this series, and not necessarily from Ellsbury and Victorino.
3. They have a better bench than the Cardinals do.
Adding Craig and subtracting the punchless Adron Chambers certainly fortifies the St. Louis bench. When the Cards play at home, either Craig or Matt Adams will offer a big bat off the pine, something they couldn't put forth during the NLDS and NLCS. Still, in games at Fenway Park the Cardinals will have very little bench strength to offer with both Adams and Craig likely to start because of the DH. It's hard to imagine the series going by without Kozma batting in a tight spot and the Cards having no significantly better options (though rookie Kolten Wong could be interesting if Mike Matheny were willing to use him more), or Freese and Jay being severely overmatched when facing a same-handed pitcher late in a game. MLB.com writer and editor Matthew Leach brought up a salient point during the aforementioned podcast: Matheny has at times been a little slow to lift struggling starting pitchers during the playoffs. Leach said that might be partly due to the Cards having few viable pinch-hit options for the pitcher's spot, tempting the manager into trying to squeeze three more outs out of his starters. If Matheny tries to sneak a fairly pedestrian pitcher like Joe Kelly or Lance Lynn past the loaded and extremely patient Red Sox lineup for a third time through the order, that could end disastrously.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, can beat you with multiple weapons off the bench. Mike Carp was a monster this season, hitting .296/.362/.523 in part-time duty (.300/.367/.537 vs. righties). Middlebrooks offers major power in a reserve role, assuming Bogaerts starts. Quintin Berry is the next iteration of pinch-runner deluxe Dave Roberts, only faster, with 28 consecutive stolen bases without being caught to start his career (including the playoffs). I'd still probably rather see Daniel Nava in the lineup against right-handed starters than have Gomes — a useful player who is still not as good a hitter as Nava is against righties — in there. But if the Red Sox are going to carry a player who hit a sky-high .322/.411/.484 in nearly 400 plate appearances against righties as a bench guy, that only boosts their late-inning options, especially in games at St. Louis where they can pinch hit aggressively for the pitcher's spot.
4. John Farrell has gotten the hang of this managing-in-the-playoffs thing.
One of the Cardinals' biggest advantages (on paper anyway) is the strength and depth of their bullpen. Beyond flamethrowing closer Trevor Rosenthal, the Cards have a cavalcade of live arms who can deliver the cheese. If the two teams play games in which the starting pitcher gets knocked out in, say, the sixth inning, you have to like what St. Louis can throw out there for the rest of the game.
But Farrell's willingness to stretch out his best relievers during the postseason has paid big dividends for the Sox. The most obvious move on that front has been Boston's usage of its nearly unhittable closer. Koji Uehara was actually the Red Sox's fourth choice as closer this year, not because the team felt he wasn't good but because of concerns over his durability. At first, the Sox were reluctant to use him on consecutive days. Gradually, they grew more accustomed to pushing him, seeing that he could handle the workload. During the playoffs, we've seen Farrell kick off the training wheels entirely: Uehara has pitched more than one inning in three of his outings this October. Check out the damage his splitter of death does to opposing hitters and you can see why:
Beyond just Uehara, Farrell has used his setup men Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow aggressively, too, reaping overall positive results. Breslow's four straight strikeouts against Tampa Bay's nos. 3-4-5-6 hitters in the clinching game of the ALDS remains one of Boston's signature moments of these playoffs, even if that sequence didn't generate the same buzz that the grand slams by Victorino and Ortiz did. Breslow was used for more than one inning twice in that first playoff series, and Farrell has also used Breslow to finish an inning and start another. Tazawa only has one outing lasting more than an inning in these playoffs, but he, too, has been used to span one inning to the next. Tazawa has also pitched well, holding opponents scoreless in seven of eight outings and being used (successfully) as a weapon against Miguel Cabrera in the ALCS.
Farrell did make one key mistake along these lines in Game 6 of the ALCS, bringing in Franklin Morales in a big spot in the sixth inning, a move that nearly cost the Sox the game before Victorino bailed them out. The larger body of evidence suggests that Farrell learned his lesson from that gaffe, and that he'll lean heavily on the reliable trio of Uehara, Tazawa, and Breslow (with occasional cameos by Brandon Workman). So if the Cards, say, put a runner on in the sixth with one out, don't be surprised if Breslow pitches into the seventh, Tazawa ends the seventh and gets an out in the eighth, and Uehara comes in for a five-out save. In a world ruled by zealous statheads, you'd use Uehara to put out whatever the biggest fire might be, even if it's in the fifth or sixth inning. But until that utopia arrives, Farrell's recognition that playoff games should be managed differently than regular-season games has been a welcome sight, and one that could work to Boston's advantage.
5. I flipped a coin and it came up Red Sox.
We smart-aleck baseball writers are required by law to make strident predictions on every playoff series, then defend them to the death. But let's be real here. The Red Sox are a great team. The Cardinals are a great team. The unicorn theory very much applies to a seven-game series — anything can happen, especially with two evenly matched teams involved.
I'm taking the Red Sox in this series, and Rany's taking the Cardinals, because it's interesting to have two different points of view. But neither of us actually knows exactly what's going to happen (obviously), so we just try to suss out information as best as we can, and go from there. Please do send hate mail to both of us, because it's incredibly fun to argue about baseball, and because we'd send you hate mail, too, if you were writing a column about our favorite teams and didn't declare that the good guys would sweep. However this series turns out, the only thing we're rooting for is a true fall classic.
Red Sox in seven.