World Series Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

All roads lead to this. Los Angeles. Tampa Bay. For the championship.

(1) Los Angeles Dodgers vs. (1) Tampa Bay Rays

 

While it may be the two #1 seeds who have made it to the World Series, these teams appear to have had very different paths to this moment. One team with the second-highest payroll in baseball, the other with the third-lowest. One team with their third World Series appearance of the past decade, the other making it to their second one in franchise history. One franchise that came into existence in 1998, while the other franchise had 20 World Series appearances by that time. And yet, despite all these differences, these teams feel like simply two sides of the same coin. Andrew Friedman, President of Baseball Operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the architect behind the Tampa Bay Rays last World Series appearance, and his influence is still felt heavily in that Rays organization. His mentality of pushing the envelope when it comes to analytics, an emphasis on homegrown talent, and an outside-the-box approach to in-game lineup management are what make up the identity of both franchises. Don’t expect to see the same lineup twice from either team, and don’t expect the pitcher who starts each game to even make it to the second inning. While you’ll hear plenty of David vs. Goliath, make no mistake, the Dodgers’ “Goliath” is a David at heart.

 

Series Schedule

 

All games in the best-of-seven series will be held at Globe Life Park in Arlington

Game 1: Tuesday, October 20, 8:09 PM ET – Clayton Kershaw vs. Tyler Glasnow

Game 2: Wednesday, October 21, 8:08 PM ET – TBD vs. Blake Snell

Game 3: Friday, October 23, 8:08 PM ET – Walker Buehler vs. TBD

Game 4: Saturday, October 24, 8:08 PM ET – TBD vs. TBD

Game 5: Sunday, October 25, 8:08 PM ET – TBD vs. TBD

Game 6: Tuesday, October 27, 8:08 PM ET – TBD vs. TBD

Game 7: Wednesday, October 28, 8:09 PM ET – TBD vs. TBD

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17)

Offense

Dodgers Projected World Series Lineup

(Source: Fangraphs)

The Dodgers enter the World Series coming off of an intense battle of wills with the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, where they slugged their way back from a 3-1 deficit to win their third National League pennant in four years. Los Angeles will look to finally capitalize on their remarkable streak of eight straight postseason appearances, with only the Tampa Bay Rays left standing between the Dodgers and their first title since 1988.

The Dodgers lineup enters the World Series a different beast than in years past. Of course, there was the addition of superstar Mookie Betts, whose impact cannot be understated following a series in which he made not one, but two season-saving catches within the span of twenty-four hours. Despite an NLCS where he went batted just .269 with one extra-base hit, Betts found his way on base with five walks and had a series-altering impact with his defensive play.

 

 

Cody Bellinger also continued his impressive postseason performance in the championship series, and now has a .910 OPS in the postseason, second-highest on the Dodgers in 2020. This is all coming after back-to-back seasons where Bellinger struggled mightily in the playoffs, failing to eclipse a .550 OPS in either year. The difference this season is that Bellinger is now taking his walks, and forcing pitchers to come to him in the zone where he can do the most damage.

 

Cody Bellinger 2017-2020 Postseason

(Source: Fangraphs)

When Bellinger has been ahead in the count in 2020, he has slashed .328/.549/.705. If he can continue to draw walks and not chase the low-and-inside curveball, the Dodgers will be set up for some big innings, especially with Bellinger’s nearly elite 28.6 Ft/s sprint speed on the bases. Together with Betts and Chris Taylor, the Dodgers also have one of the best fielding outfields in recent memory.

And for those wondering about the health of Bellinger’s shoulder following his (incredibly on-brand) injury Sunday night:

 

 

Then there has been the emergence of the young catcher, Will Smith, whose 3-run home run in Game 5 marked one of the turning points of the NLCS for the Dodgers. Despite hitting for just a .641 OPS in the postseason thus far, Smith has the second most RBI on the team with 11. He’s slashing .375/474/.688 with runners in scoring position and is somehow even better with two outs. He’s undoubtedly been an invaluable part of the Dodgers’ offense in October, despite suffering a .235 BABIP against Atlanta.

While an argument can certainly be made that Betts, Bellinger, or Smith have been the MVP of this Dodgers team so far (as well as many others), no one has been quite as dominant with the bat as Corey Seager. After all, he had one of the greatest NLCS performances ever against Atlanta, setting records for the most home runs (5) and RBI (11) in the series. Seager’s bat has been a force of nature in 2020, and he’s entering the World Series with a 1.124 OPS following his first healthy season since undergoing elbow and hip surgeries in 2018 and battling hamstring issues for much of last year. With Seager sandwiched between Betts and Justin Turner, opposing pitchers will be forced to pick their poison when dealing with the top of this Dodgers lineup.

Speaking of Turner, the stalwart third baseman did not exhibit the same consistency to begin the 2020 playoffs as he has become known for in previous years. However, despite Turner’s slow start and 2-for-18 line entering the championship series, he began to heat up against Atlanta and went 7-for-25 with 3 XBHs and a .859 OPS. As the Dodgers’ franchise leader with 71 playoff hits, he remains a legitimate threat in the heart of their lineup, despite an unassuming cumulative playoff line thus far.

Joc Pederson will also look to stay hot against Tampa Bay, as ‘Joctober’ is in full swing once again in 2020. Along with Turner, Joc has consistently been one of the Dodgers’ most clutch performers throughout their playoff streak and has carried that into this season with a .900 OPS in 25 postseason plate appearances this year. He is no stranger to big World Series moments, with four home runs and a .981 OPS in his career in the Fall Classic.

Max Muncy has continued to give the Dodgers quality at-bats as well, and leads the team with a .434 on-base percentage, even while sporting the second-worst batting average in the lineup at .211. His 1.043 OPS in the NLCS was bolstered by his two key home runs in the series, and he almost had a third until Cristian Pache brought it back in the park. That series may prove to be just what Muncy needed coming off of a disappointing 2020, where he never quite put it together during the regular season.

Rounding out the Dodgers’ bottom of the order are AJ Pollock and Chris Taylor, who are both still searching for a way to get locked in entering the World Series. Pollock went just 4-for-20 in the series against Atlanta, while Taylor was slightly better with a 4-for-18 line. If Pollock and Taylor start producing, it will lengthen L.A.’s lineup drastically, offering little respite at the bottom of the order for opposing pitchers. As we touched on in our NLCS preview, Taylor will once again be seeing pitches to hit in the zone batting out of the 9-spot, with Mookie Betts and the top of the lineup lurking on deck behind him. If Taylor can consistently work counts and get on base, his speed will make him something of a second leadoff hitter for the top of the order to follow.

The Dodgers’ bench depth remains one of their strengths in 2020, as evidenced by NLCS hero Enrique Hernández, whose Game 7 home run tied the game for L.A. in the bottom of the 6th, breaking down the door for their eventual comeback. Austin Barnes will once again pair up with Clayton Kershaw for his starts, which means Will Smith will likely once again serve as the Dodgers’ DH in Game 1. Dave Roberts can also turn to the powerful Edwin Ríos (career 9.64 AB/HR inc. playoffs!) off the bench, as well as the corner infielder Matt Beaty. It remains to be seen if Terrance Gore will be added back to the roster in a pinch-running role after being left off the NLCS squad.

Along with adding Mookie Betts, there is one key element to the Dodgers’ postseason success in 2020 that has historically eluded them in previous playoff runs: the ability to hit with runners in scoring position. This year, the Dodgers have been one of the best teams at hitting with runners in scoring position in the postseason, which has been their downfall in the past.

 

Dodgers Batting With RISP

(Source: MLB Stats)

In the spacious Globe Life Park, where the Dodgers have played since the division series, home runs can be few and far between, and so teams will need to capitalize on scoring opportunities with runners on base. The Dodgers showed their tenacity time and time again in their comeback performance in the NLCS, and have refused to go down easily with their backs against the wall, slashing .298/.434/.546 as a team with two outs. If they can continue to string together tough at-bats against the Rays and fight with runners on base, the Dodgers will be on their way to their first World Series in 32 years.

 

Rotation

Dodgers Projected World Series Rotation

(Source: Fangraphs)

Once again, the Dodgers will be handing off the ball to their venerable ace, Clayton Kershaw, for Game 1 of the World Series. The Texas native has enjoyed a resurgent year in 2020 after rediscovering some velocity on his fastball, which is now averaging 91.6 mph, up from 90.3 mph in 2019. He enjoyed a masterful performance in the wild card series against Milwaukee, striking out 13 in eight shutout innings on only 93 pitches. His next game against San Diego may not have been as dominant, but he still pitched a solid outing and put the Dodgers in a position to win the game. All systems were a go for Kershaw entering the NLCS until a resurgence of his back issues flared up before his scheduled Game 2 start. Kershaw’s back spasms kept him off the mound until the pivotal Game 4, with the Dodgers down 2-1 in the series. He took the mound, not looking as sharp as he had in his previous two outings. He had trouble missing bats and gave up a solo home run to Marcell Ozuna, but his outing was not nearly as bad as his final line indicates. He was once again left out for one inning too many by Dave Roberts, and the bullpen allowed two of his baserunners to score after he departed the game. It also didn’t help that the Dodgers were only able to muster one hit (a home run) while Kershaw was in the game. Following the 10-3 loss, the Dodgers offense rallied back to life to take the series, which bodes well for the Dodgers starters entering the World Series. Kershaw will be starting Game 1 against the Rays on full rest and is a strong candidate to start a Game 6 if necessary.

Walker Buehler, fresh off a gutsy performance in the NLCS to force a Game 7, is slated to Game 3 on Friday. Starting Game 3 also allows for Buehler to start on full rest, which is vital as the Dodgers will need innings from their ace while the bullpen recovers from the showdown with Atlanta. Buehler now has a 1.00 ERA through 3 back-to-the-wall starts for the Dodgers, and is conveniently lined up to pitch again in a possible Game 7 scenario. The Dodgers are continuing to monitor his blisters on his throwing hand, though he seemed to have them more under control in his latest start.

The Dodgers starters set to follow Kershaw and Buehler in the series are a little less certain, but the remaining games will once again undoubtedly feature some combination of Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and Julio Urías. May was twice used as an opener in place of a Gonsolin start this postseason and has also appeared out of the bullpen. He has been mostly successful so far, but his Game 7 start almost became a nightmare for L.A. when May opened the game with eight straight balls out of the zone. He was able to salvage the inning and limit the damage to just one run, but his fastball command will be a major factor if May is going to find success against the Rays. Tony Gonsolin has not looked sharp in his two appearances so far and has surrendered seven earned runs in just 6.1 innings of work. The Dodgers’ usage of Gonsolin thus far has raised some eyebrows, as he was expected to start the deciding Game 7 before Dustin May was nominated as the opener just four hours before first pitch. Gonsolin then struggled when he entered in the 2nd inning and never settled in, and exited in the 4th after surrendering the lead on an Austin Riley single. Gonsolin was the Dodgers’ second-best starter during the regular season and posted a 2.31 ERA (2.29 FIP) and 0.84 WHIP in 46.2 innings, so it’s odd that the Dodgers have shied away from using him much to this point in the postseason. That said, a benefit to that decision is that Gonsolin is now one of their freshest starters entering the World Series. Expect him to get another opportunity to start in earnest soon as the Dodgers will attempt to stretch their pitchers out as much as they can to save their bullpen.

After Corey Seager, it could be argued that few had as great an impact on the Dodgers’ NLCS comeback than Julio Urías. His 1.13 ERA through 8 innings of work in the NLCS helped to shut down Atlanta’s potent offense, and guided the Dodgers to two clutch victories in Game 3 and Game 7. He is another likely candidate to get a World Series start but may be used again in a bulk role out of the bullpen depending on the situation.

 

Bullpen

Dodgers Projected World Series Bullpen

(Source: Fangraphs)

The Dodgers’ bullpen enters Tuesday’s game coming off an all-hands-on-deck performance in the NLCS after Dodger starters combined to average just over four innings per start during the seven-game series. Kenley Jansen appeared to have figured something out in his mechanics in the series, and threw three perfect innings of relief against Atlanta, stymying their hitters with the kind of life and movement on his cutter that hasn’t been seen all season. If he can continue to be lights out in the World Series, it would be a major boost to the bullpen.

Blake Treinen has quickly become one of Dave Roberts’ most trusted relievers in high-leverage situations and has largely rewarded that faith with clutch shutout innings in Game 5 and Game 7 of the NLCS. The Dodgers will most likely try to stay away from Treinen in the opening games against Tampa Bay, as he just pitched on three consecutive days against Atlanta. The electric Brusdar Graterol will also be called upon for key outs against the Rays offense and has been effective in a fireman role so far, despite his inflated 4.76 ERA. The one concern with Graterol, however, will continue to be his inability to generate whiffs on his sinker, despite his blistering 100+ mph velocity.

Victor González and Pedro Báez have also been reliable in getting high-stress outs, despite seemingly having flown under the radar for much of the playoffs. González’s gleaming 23:2 strikeout to walk ratio during the regular season makes him a very valuable option out of the bullpen, despite his status as a rookie. Southpaws Jake McGee and Adam Kolarek balance out the bullpen, and give the Dodgers plenty of options when the starter comes out of the game. The wild card Joe Kelly is also available, in the hopes that he can recapture some of the magic from his 2018 postseason in which he posted a 0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings for the Red Sox.

As mentioned earlier, it is also not out of the question for one or more of the Dodgers’ young starters to also come on in relief as well, if the situation calls for it.

 

Tampa Bay Rays (40-20)

(Post) Season in Review

I opened last week’s ALCS preview for the Rays by calling them perpetual underdogs, and while it’s been (accurately) pointed out that it’s hard for a one seed to be an underdog, simply getting there is an impressive act of defeating the odds. Even after an early-season swoon that saw them fall to 6-8, the Rays’ chances of making the playoffs never dipped below 80%. They proceeded to go 36-12 over their next 48 games, culminating with an easy Wild Card sweep of the Blue Jays in which they outscored their opponents 11-3. It’s totally up in the air whether being the best team in the league by way of efficiency-ball is actually good for the sport, but no matter how I might feel about it, building the best team in the league with a bottom-five payroll is without question an event that defies probability.

Since officially becoming the AL’s best team, they’ve had the rest of us hanging on to the seat of our pants with thrilling (and at certain moments for all fan bases, excruciating) five- and seven-game series wins over the Yankees and Astros. Nobody should be particularly happy about being just the second team in the divisional era to blow a 3-0 series lead, but hey, they’re also the first team to win the pennant despite losing games four, five, and six! On a pedantic note, all three of the previous teams to overcome dropping three straight in the ALCS (2004 Red Sox, 2007 Red Sox, 2017 Astros) went on to win the World Series.

Against Houston, the pitching trend that characterized their win over the Yankees was somewhat flipped. While the Rays formidable but inconsistent rotation was shaky in the ALDS, keeping them in the game long enough for the bullpen to shut the door, it was clutch performances from Charlie Morton (10.2 IP, 0 ER) and Ryan Yarbrough (5 IP, 2 ER in Game 3), with some help from Blake Snell (9 IP, 3 ER), whose clutch performances patched over an unsteady bullpen to eventually close out the ALCS. Morton was the clear star of the pitching staff, and his series-leading .46 Win Probability Added doubled any other Rays pitcher. Snell’s control and command were lackluster in each of his starts, walking and striking out six in the series. Ultimately, though, he used the Rays’ league-best defense to his advantage, allowing just one of nine hits against him to go for extra bases, and he largely kept the Astros off the scoreboard, earning a win in a game in which the offense had considerable difficulty solving Framber Valdéz. Yarbrough, whose two earned runs in Game Three came on a pair of solo home runs, outdueled a pumped-up Jose Urquidy long enough for the Rays to break the game open, on a night in which John Curtiss, Josh Fleming, and Diego Castillo struggled out of the bullpen.

Despite being perhaps their biggest strength up to this point in 2020, the Rays’ typically rock-solid bullpen finally began showing some cracks in the ALCS. After tag-teaming with Snell to shut down the Astros offense in game one, the bullpen came perilously close to losing leads in games two, three, and seven, also taking losses in game four, in which three of the four pitchers employed in a bullpen game allowed runs, and game six, when Castillo (3.2 IP, 4 H, 3 BB, 2 ER) and rookie Shane McClanahan (5 H, 3 ER) imploded when called upon to rescue a struggling Snell.

Finally, of course, there’s the Rays offense, which has largely been driven by some guy named Randy and a few exquisitely clutch pieces of hitting. Tampa Bay only once scored more than four runs in any of the seven games—when they scored five in game five—and they weren’t particularly adept at getting on base, running a .201/.296/.379 slash line. In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot that the Rays offense did well during this series. The struck out more than any other team (32.4%), walked less than any other team (9.2%), and ran an xwOBA nearly fifty points worse than any other team (.290). But their big boppers made their hits count. The vast majority of the team’s offense, win or lose, came from four hitters: ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena, Ji-Man Choi, Manuel Margot, and Mike Zunino, who combined for 29 hits, including 10 home runs, and driving in 17 of the 25 runs Tampa Bay scored in the series. The rest of their regulars—Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Díaz, Mike Brosseau, Kevin Kiermaier, Joey Wendle, Willy Adames, and Hunter Renfroe—managed just 19 hits and a single home run. Adames came just a few feet away from leaving his mark on the series nonetheless, but little doubt remains that this Rays team continues to perform as more than the sum of their parts. The top of the lineup won’t be hot forever, and the rest of them could end their cold streaks at any moment. But no matter who’s performing and who isn’t performing at any given moment, this offense, like the bullpen, knows what its job is, and can usually find somebody to execute it.

 

Offense

Rays Projected Lineup
Rays Bench

In flux as always, Kevin Cash continued his dedication to never doing the same thing twice in the ALCS, using seven lineups in seven days after using 59 different starting lineups during the regular season. By this time, we know who all the main contributors are, but the Dodgers pitching staff poses some different challenges from what this lineup faced against New York and Houston.

The Rays’ 121 wRC+ against lefties this year ranked fourth in all of baseball, and while they struggled with Framber Valdéz, Houston’s sole lefty starter, they’ll get plenty of chances to run their best lineup out there with Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías grabbing at least two (and potentially as many as four) starts in this series. Rays players have even less experience against the Dodgers staff than they did against the Astros, with only former Padres Renfroe and Margot having more than a tiny handful of plate appearances against Kershaw, Urías, or Walker Buehler, and to no success at that. Renfroe was simply unable to hit Valdéz’s curveball in two ALCS starts and doesn’t seem likely to draw much playing time in the series.

Margot, on the other hand, will look to keep the hot hand after having the series of his life against the Astros. For better or worse, Cash has about as much use for narrative in his managerial decision making as I do a 12-pound block of cheese, which is to say, Margot’s hot hand will likely have no bearing on how much he plays against the Dodgers. Still, top-of-the-order mainstays Austin Meadows, Nate Lowe, and Yandy Díaz have been utterly underwater in October, picking up just 10 hits in 137 playoff plate appearance. That being the case, Margot and fellow lefty-masher Mike Brosseau, who led off in both of Valdéz’s ALCS starts, could get plenty of chances to get on base in front of Lowe, Arozarena, and Choi.

Those latter two are the real stars of the lineup at the moment. Little more needs to be said about Arozarena, whose 11 extra-base hits and 10 incredibly clutch RBI have taken over this postseason. Concerns about his proclivity to whiff against non-fastballs have proven (temporarily) misplaced, as he’s ripped fastballs, sliders, and curveballs with equal impunity in October. The only place he’s continued to struggle is with changeups, whiffing on five of eight swings against them and failing to eclipse 80 MPH on any batted balls. But like everything else in the playoffs, this also works to Arozarena’s advantage: Clayton Kershaw is almost famous for not throwing a changeup, while Urías uses it only as a third pitch and Buehler has completely phased it out of his arsenal.

Whether Arozarena can stay hot or not, the Rays chances in this series will be informed by whether the left-handed near the top and middle of the lineup can be run producers. Despite also sitting for both of Valdez’s starts, Ji-Man Choi came alive over the last four games of the ALCS, knocking five hits and walking three times. However, over the course of his career, he’s been Dr. Jekyll against righties (121 wRC+) and Mr. Hyde against lefties (61 wRC+), much fewer lefties of the quality he’ll face in this series. The jury is out on how much he’ll be in the lineup as much as whether he can keep his bat hot. Austin Meadows, meanwhile, has been tough to watch against all kinds of pitchers for most of the season, playoffs included. With the Dodgers’ glut of lefty starting options and right-handed relievers, Meadows may be best used as a bench bat to make way for lefty-mashers Brosseau and Díaz in the starting lineup, as Kevin Kiermaier’s defense will get him his share of innings regardless of how well he’s swinging the bat.

All that being said, Brandon Lowe might be this lineup’s most critical question mark. Lowe is generally great against lefties, but as Ben Clemens chronicled recently, he’s in the midst of a brutal postseason thanks in large part to an inability to lay off pitches out of the zone with one and two strikes. So this matchup can go a few different ways. On the one hand, he clearly sees lefties well, and the Dodgers throw the ball in the zone more than anybody else. On the other hand, that’s also because Dodgers pitchers have nasty enough stuff to get away with throwing it in the zone. Kershaw, Buehler, and Urías are a tough draw for anyone struggling to see the ball, but perhaps facing less whiff-reliant pitchers like Dustin May, Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly, and Brusdar Graterol will give him an opportunity to break out. Every team that makes it to the World Series catches a lot of breaks, but it’s hard to say how long the Rays will continue to catch those breaks as long as one of their two most dangerous hitters is a net negative.

Lastly, a few players have mashed their way to stardom, but the Rays have made plenty of their own luck with here-and-there contributions from the bottom part of the order. Neither Joey Wendle nor Willy Adames have had terribly productive postseasons, but they’ve delivered some of the biggest hits of this postseason run. Mike Brosseau is hardly an everyday starter, but he’s done his job against lefties to perfection when asked. Mike Zunino has historically provided more than enough value as a defender and framer behind the plate, but it helps that he’s liable to take one about 475 feet on any given pitch. It’s all provided for some great moments, but if the Rays continue to only have two or three hot bats at the same time, it’s hard to rely on those guys consistently picking the right spots to do their part. Their hopes in this series might rest on the magnitude of regression we see from the two parts of their lineup. That is to say: if Arozarena and Margot and Choi finally come back down to earth, will Lowe and Meadows and Díaz and Adames pull themselves up enough to meet in the middle?

 

Rotation

Rays Projected Rotation

For how fluid the Rays’ offensive situation always is, the starting rotation is about as concrete as the stadium parking lot. Tyler Glasnow is slated to start game one on Tuesday, followed by Blake Snell in game two. With an off-day on Thursday, Charlie Morton will be on five days’ rest for game three, and with the Dodgers lefty-heavy lineup, Ryan Yarbrough seems in line to get a straight start rather than pitching behind an opener, though that could always change depending on the outcomes of games one through three.

Former AL East denizen Mookie Betts is the only Dodger to have significant experience against either Snell or Glasnow, and as he is wont to do, he’s got an OPS in the .890s in 27 plate appearances against each. Ironically (or perhaps deliciously), the only other action Charlie Morton has seen against most of Mookie’s teammates came in the 2017 World Series, and we all know how well they fared against him then. (Narrator: they did not fare well). At this point, it seems foolish to bet against Uncle Charlie doing his thing. His fastball has more juice than it has all season, his curveball is tough as to square up, and he’s doing all the little things right with a mountain of pressure on him. He’s been here before, and the Rays have a lot of things to worry about before they get to him.

Glasnow will be walking a much thinner line against this Dodgers lineup, one that was the best in the majors against right-handers by wRC+. Glasnow is a big, 6’8” bundle of moving parts and levers, and when he’s consistently in sync, he’s as tough to beat as anyone in baseball, lefty or righty. If it’s in the right spot, you can’t hit 100 MPH coming from 50 feet away. Unfortunately, it’s also hard for a 6’8” bundle of levers to consistently move in sync, and when Glasnow hasn’t had it all together, it’s been a tense watch. With his strikeout stuff intact, he was able to keep the Rays in the game long enough to eke out a win against the Yankees, but he found no such luck against a weathered Astros lineup, giving up four runs to each with control that was more theoretical than material. The Dodgers chased out of the zone fewer than almost any team this year (23.3%), they whiffed less than almost anyone (24.7%), and when they do swing, they hit it harder than just about anyone (league-best average exit velocity and hard-hit rate). If Glasnow’s control is shaky again, he could be in serious trouble against a lineup that knows how to take a walk and punishes mistakes.

Snell is in a similar boat. When he’s clicking, it generally doesn’t matter who the other team is. But he hasn’t clicked much this season, having quite a bit of difficulty working deep into games, first taking his time building up to full strength in the regular season—an entirely valid approach, given the nature of 2020—and then dodging bullets against the Yankees and Astros, competing for outs without his good stuff, failing to make it past the 5th inning in any start this postseason. As we just discussed, this is a Dodgers lineup that doesn’t give any freebies, and the margins will be as thin as they’ll ever be. Snell is flat-out good enough that he’s more than capable of pitching well without having everything working, but trying it repeatedly is playing with fire. He thrives on getting whiffs out of the zone with his curveball, slider, and changeup, but they move so much that they’re difficult to command with precision. When Snell doesn’t have the control to establish the fastball, as he didn’t in the ALCS, he’s going to be working around trouble more often than not. The breaking stuff is good enough to get through a lineup a couple of times, but it’s hard to do more than that when you can’t break an 18% CSW% on a usually-dominant four-seamer. Look for him to be better at spotting it up in the zone before attacking with breaking balls.

Whatever their lineup does, it’s my opinion that the fate of the Rays likely rests in the hands of these three. Any two of them can almost single-handedly win this series with a pair of dominant starts, which Snell and Glasnow feel like they’re almost due for. Whether it happens is up in the air, but if the Rays wind up hoisting that piece of metal, it will probably be because one or more of these three stepped up (or continued to step up, in Morton’s case) in a big way.

 

Bullpen

Rays Projected Bullpen

Incidentally, that’s about the opposite of what I said last week when I prognosticated that a Rays win would come on the back of a dominant bullpen performance. And most of what I wrote last week still holds true, actually. As Mike Petriello showed us recently, John Curtiss, Josh Fleming, Aaron Slegers, Aaron Loup, Ryan Thompson, and Shane McClanahan will be able to give the Dodgers one of a million different looks at any given time as the matchup calls for it, perhaps the biggest reasons that the Rays prevent runs at such an astonishing clip despite getting fewer innings out of their starters than almost anyone else. Considering the Dodgers’ proclivity for pounding right-handers who don’t throw very hard and their ability to stagger their lineup, the three-batter minimum rule means Kevin Cash will have to choose his spots carefully with unorthodox arms like Slegers, Loup, and Thompson. With Loup and Fleming ranking near the bottom of the league’s velocity tables, McClanahan (and the recently returned José Alvarado) may have to make quick work of putting the ALCS behind him if Cash needs velocity against the Dodgers’ formidable string of lefties.

Those pitchers are excellent at performing their roles, and the odds are that they’ll continue to do so in the World Series, in spite of a couple of ALCS hiccups. However, they likely won’t be the unit that wins or loses this series. That might come down to how the true aces of this bullpen rebound from a shaky week against the Astros.

As I highlighted last week, average leverage index makes it clear that when the going gets tough, Kevin Cash overwhelmingly turns to three pitchers in particular: Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo, and Nick Anderson. After being lights out through the ALDS, the trio combined to give up 7 runs on 14 hits and 7 walks in 12.1 innings of work, notching saves in all four ALCS games but making some Rays fans tear their hair out in the process. If there’s one major question facing this pitching staff entering what’s sure to be a grueling series, it’ll be which version of the back-end of their bullpen shows up.

The Diego Castillo experience is always a little bit wild, as some days he simply doesn’t have his good control, as sometimes happens when you throw that hard and that violently. A rough couple of games isn’t super out of the ordinary, and there’s little to suggest that he shouldn’t be trusted in high-leverage spots in this series. Ditto goes for Fairbanks, who has mostly worked around whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into, and has now shown that the playoffs lights aren’t too bright for him. If any of the Rays’ starters should falter in a big moment, it feels overwhelmingly likely we see one of these two to stop the bleeding.

And then there’s Nick Anderson. Anderson might have been the big leagues’ most dominant reliever this side of Devin Williams entering the postseason, allowing a single earned run in 19.1 innings pitched with just three walks and 26 strikeouts. Since then, things have become much murkier. He’s allowed a run in four consecutive appearances dating to Game 5 of the ALDS, and shockingly, he failed to strike out a single Houston hitter in the ALCS. It’s hard to find any meaningful surface changes to his arsenal, with the biggest shift appearing to a 10% reduction in overall swing rate, down to roughly 50% in the postseason from 60% in the regular season. Perhaps accordingly, his first pitch strike rate has dropped from nearly 70% down to 58%. Working behind in the count more is bound to send a pitcher’s performance into the red, but it doesn’t seem like a likely explanation for the most dominant reliever in the league suddenly being unable to buy a strikeout. Maybe the Astros had a great scouting report on him. Maybe there’s something wrong that we just haven’t seen yet. A lot in this series will depend on which one it is.

 

Recent History

 

Due to the nature of the COVID-impacted season, the Dodgers and Rays did not face off in interleague play during in 2020. When the two teams faced off in the 2019 regular season, they split a four-game series. One of the major storylines for these two teams in the World Series will be the influence of Dodgers’ president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who was the Rays’ general manager the last time they made the Fall Classic in 2008 when they fell to the Phillies in five games. Friedman’s fingerprints are all over the front offices of both pennant-winning teams, and his highly-analytical approach to player development has been a shining example to his peers across baseball. It’s poetic, in a way, that the final obstacle on Friedman’s quest for his first World Series ring is his old team, one which he helped to lay some of the groundwork for years ago. And baseball is nothing, if not poetic.

 

Prediction

 

It’s been a long road to get back to the World Series for the Dodgers, but they have emerged stronger for it. They’ve faced a pandemic, united as leaders for social justice reforms, and overcome insurmountable odds on their winding path back to the World Series. They have shown the tenacity that their previous teams have lacked in the postseason, and have fought tooth-and-nail every step of the way to get here. If the Dodgers continue to battle against Tampa Bay and finish the season strong, which I believe they will, they will emerge as World Champions for the first time since 1988. The Rays represent their final test as the class of the American League, but if 2020 has shown the Dodgers anything, it’s that anything is possible. Get your ring, Clayton. Dodgers in 6.Noah Scott

It’s hard not to love what this Rays team has put together, but they have enough moving parts and question marks that it feels like too much has to go right to compensate for the other team being so much more talented on paper. This Rays playoff run has felt like a beautifully played Jenga game, but when the tower goes down, it goes quick. Dodgers in five.Zach Hayes

 

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)

Noah Scott

Noah Scott is a long-suffering baseball writer and knuckleball connoisseur. If you want to talk old timey baseball names, traffic on the 405, or lukewarm hip-hop opinions you can find him on Twitter @noahascott6

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