Through two games of the World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers — owners of the best record in the majors — and the Tampa Bay Rays, possessing the best record in the AL this season, have each won a game. While the Dodgers have been our favorite to win the World Series since the preseason and remain a heavy favorite according to our model, the Rays are a talented and creative team that won the second-most games this season with the majors’ third-lowest payroll. Such meetings of the MLB’s two best teams in its championship series are rare, so what have we learned about this matchup through two games? And what does it mean for the World Series going forward as play resumes today?
The Dodgers lineup is absurdly deep
After he helped send the Dodgers to the World Series with a memorable home run in Game 7 of the NL championship series, Cody Bellinger homered again Tuesday. While he’s coming off an uneven season, he was still a better-than-league-average hitter, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s OPS+ metric. Through his age-24 season, he’s already won an MVP (2019) and Rookie of the Year Award (2017). According to Baseball-Reference.com, the most similar batters to him through age 24 include Darryl Strawberry, Giancarlo Stanton and Manny Ramirez. What was also remarkable about Bellinger’s soaring home runs was his place in the batting order when he slugged them: sixth. It’s remarkable the Dodgers have such a hitter in the bottom half of their lineup. In the following inning Tuesday, Chris Taylor, batting seventh, singled home Max Muncy to give the Dodgers a 5-1 lead. Enrique Hernández — who came off the bench to hit in the eighth spot — followed with an RBI single to blow open the game.
The talent and depth of the Dodgers’ lineup is rare and a great advantage. This season, the Dodgers’ lineup posted above-league average OPS marks for eight out of nine lineup positions. Their No. 6 hitters this season combined to be 31 percent better than league average for that spot. The Dodgers’ seventh, eighth and ninth hitters combined for a sOPS+ number of 136, or 36 percent above league-average production for the bottom third of a lineup. The Dodgers’ 7-8-9 spots combined to tie for the 18th best such production ever recorded in the game. For opposing pitchers, the threats must seem endless.
Ice-cold bats need to warm up for the Rays
While rookie Randy Arozarena is having an all-time great postseason, a number of Rays regulars have not hit well this postseason, batting .213 as a team through Game 2. Those slumping Rays included Brandon Lowe, who led the team in home runs and WAR in the regular season but entered Game 2 batting just .107 in the playoffs.
So that Lowe smashed a first-inning home run Wednesday, and homered again in the fifth to stake the Rays to a 5-0 lead, is exactly the type of bat the Rays need to get going. The Rays advanced to the World Series with regulars Lowe, Austin Meadows and Willy Adames all batting less than .200 with OPS marks of .549 or worse entering Game 3. The Rays need them to break out.
Kershaw is changing his story
Longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been criticized for years about his postseason performance. For his career, Kershaw has a 2.43 ERA in the regular season (175-76 record) compared with a 4.22 ERA in the postseason (12-12 record).1
But if he can follow up on his excellent Game 1 outing and help the Dodgers to a title, he can end questions surrounding his ability to perform in the playoffs. Kershaw is putting together an excellent postseason, with a 3-1 record and 2.88 ERA over 25 innings, the most in the postseason field.
Kershaw has a couple of performance trends that are working in his favor. His velocity has increased this season after setting career lows in 2018 and again in 2019. He’s also relying on his slider at a 42 percent rate in the playoffs, the second most often he’s thrown it in a postseason, and up from his rate in the regular season, which has increased in recent seasons. He’s throwing it more often than his fastball (41.7 percent) this October. Kershaw threw 35 sliders in Game 1, nearly 45 percent of his total offerings, inducing 21 swings and 11 whiffs. He’s thrown 145 sliders this October, and opponents are batting just .200 in those instances. The slider might be Kershaw’s narrative-changing ace card.
The Rays’ pitching gives them a chance … if they don’t stray from their plan
The Rays have excelled in limiting their starting pitchers’ exposure, averaging the fewest pitches per start this season (71). For instance, in Game 7 of the ALCS, Rays pitcher Charlie Morton was pulled after throwing 66 pitches despite having allowed just two hits over 5⅔ shutout innings. The idea is that pitchers generally perform worse each cycle through the opposing lineup. Those practices, coupled with an elite bullpen and backed by one of the game’s best defenses, have allowed the Rays to be nearly the equal of the Dodgers in preventing runs this season — despite operating with just a fraction of their payroll.
So it was surprising to see Rays manager Kevin Cash allow Tyler Glasnow to throw a career-high 112 pitches in Game 1. Glasnow wasn’t particularly sharp, surrendering four of his six total walks before the fifth inning, when the Dodgers blew the game open.
In Game 2, Cash managed more as he had most of this season, pulling starter Blake Snell after 88 pitches, in line with his season average. The Rays’ bullpen held the lead, and the formula that worked so often in the regular season — and during the playoffs in the run-up to the World Series — was successful again. The Rays likely need to stick with the plan and for it to stay effective if they hope to deliver a Dodgers upset.
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