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The 5 Players Who Could Determine The World Series

When you think of the World Series, you probably picture stars: Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Randy Johnson and the like. But lesser-known players also play pivotal roles in late October: David Freese, Mike Lowell and David Eckstein have each been named World Series MVP in the past 15 years. Whoever wins the Fall Classic starting tonight between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers will need contributions from stars and role players alike. Here are five players — some stars, some not — who are poised to help determine the World Series.

David Price

The Boston Red Sox lefty and long-time regular-season ace has a chance to change his postseason reputation. He can shed one label, that of playoff choker, and add another: World Series hero. Price had never won a postseason start, winless in his first 11 starts with a 6.16 ERA, until he shut out a vaunted Astros lineup over six innings in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Price tried something different in that game that could be a road map going forward: He leaned on his change-up.

Price threw 93 pitches in Game 5, and 39 were change-ups — a usage rate of 41.9 percent. The pitch generated 12 swinging strikes and 13 foul balls. This was dramatically different from Price’s Game 2 start against the Astros, when only nine of his 80 pitches were change-ups. Price has never leaned on the changeup in any of his 289 career regular-season starts more than he did in Game 5. It was an excellent pitch for the left-hander in 2015 and 2016, but Price began to favor his cutter more the past two seasons. Perhaps trading cutters for change-ups is the formula to end his personal postseason curse.

Here’s a Price change-up against George Springer in Game 5, a pitch with excellent fading action:

And another bat-missing change-up against Carlos Correa:

There’s reason to believe that Price will continue to favor the pitch: He doesn’t have a breaking ball he trusts, throwing his curveball on only 2.9 percent of his offerings this season. And a left-handed pitcher’s change-up darts away from right-handed batters, which could be effective against the Dodgers’ right-handed threats like Justin Turner, Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers crush right-handed pitchers, so it’s imperative that Price and Chris Sale pitch well for the Red Sox. And with Sale’s velocity down after two second-half DL stints related to his shoulder, the Red Sox may need Price to be their ace. He might have the pitch and plan to do it.

Walker Buehler

While striking out 22 batters in 16 2/3 postseason innings — and allowing just 18 base runners — Buehler has shown his talent. He has also rewarded the Dodgers for taking a risk on him with the 24th overall pick in the 2015 draft despite knowing he had an elbow injury — one that would necessitate Tommy John surgery later that year. Buehler has had some poor luck and timing this postseason, given his 5.40 ERA in October. But the right-hander’s underlying skills are elite, including an excellent breaking ball — ranking 11th among all qualifying MLB curveballs in vertical movement and first in groundball-to-flyball ratio — and a fastball that has averaged 97.3 mph this postseason, ninth among all pitchers in October.

The Red Sox also tend to destroy right-handed pitching, ranking second in the majors in offensive efficiency against them behind only the Dodgers. And each team will begin the series with two left-handed starters. The Dodgers will start Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 against Sale and Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 2 against Price. But right-handers are going to have to pitch, and they’ll pick up more innings in the mid- and late stages of the series. Buehler will start Game 3 — and he is as talented as any right-handed arm still pitching.

Matt Barnes

Bullpens matter more than ever before in the postseason. This October, relievers have accounted for 50.4 percent of total innings thrown, up from a record mark of 46.5 percent last postseason. (In 2010, the bullpen share was 32.3 percent.) These teams haven’t been bullpenning like the Brewers, but their relievers still matter a great deal.

While Boston reliever Craig Kimbrel entered the playoffs with a reputation as one of the best closers of all time, he’s been supported by lesser-known names like Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Entering the World Series, Barnes and Braiser rank second and fourth in the playoff field in reliever Win Probability Added.1 Barnes struck out 14 batters per nine innings this season, but he also walked 4.5. If he can pitch like a relief ace for another week, he’ll give the Red Sox an edge.

Austin Barnes

The Dodgers’ regular-season backup catcher was one of the best part-time players in baseball in 2017, slashing .289/.408/.486 and measuring as an elite pitch framer. While Barnes struggled offensively in 2018, starting catcher Yasmani Grandal’s defensive problems in part prompted L.A. to start Barnes in five of the seven games of the National League Championship Series, including Game 7 against Milwaukee starter Jhoulys Chacin — despite the fact that Grandal typically gets the call against right-handed pitchers. (Both catchers grade as elite framers: Grandal ranks No. 1 this season, and Barnes ranks 13th.)

Barnes batted just .151 against right-handed pitchers this year with 48 weighted runs created plus.2 He’s more respectable against lefties (.246 average, 101 wRC+), and that should matter in Games 1 and 2 against Sale and Price. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts hasn’t announced his Game 1 lineup, but Barnes may need to provide an impact at the plate and behind it.

Mookie Betts

The possible, if not probable, AL MVP has had a quiet postseason to date, slashing .205/ .295/.282. Betts has yet to hit a postseason home run this year despite hitting a career-high 32 in the regular season — one in which he joined other undersized sluggers in learning how to pull the ball and tap into their power. But this series sets up well for Betts, who posted a 212 wRC+ against lefties, tops in the majors, and a .368 average against southpaws.

While Betts’s bat has been cold thus far in the postseason, his glove remains consistently elite in right field. He tied Lorenzo Cain as the top outfield defender in baseball this season with 20 defensive runs saved. He made several excellent defensive plays in the ALCS, including one controversial near-catch of a home run. Fenway Park’s right field has unusual and awkward dimensions, and Betts’s experience there could give the Red Sox another small edge. Betts has not endured many extended cold streaks this year, and if he breaks out in the World Series, he could win two MVP titles this season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Win Probability Added measures the change in win expectancy from at-bat to at-bat.

  2. Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, adjusts for park and league scoring environments. A mark of 100 is league average.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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