Star-studded World Series will hinge on depth

This is one Fall Classic that has a great chance to live up to its name. The Houston Astros will play the Los Angeles Dodgers — the first showdown of 100-win teams since the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds met in 1970. The Astros were born in 1962 and have never won a World Series, so as recovery efforts in Houston continue after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, you know what this would mean to the city. The Dodgers have a storied history but are finally in the World Series again after 29 years. We have two exciting teams with superstar power. Here’s a quick preview:

Clayton Kershaw versus Justin Verlander

They won’t be facing each other, as Kershaw is lined up to start Game 1, while Verlander will probably start Game 2, but it will be wonderful drama to see these two aces in the World Series. They are arguably the two greatest pitchers of this generation — since Verlander’s rookie season in 2006, Kershaw ranks first in WAR among pitchers and Verlander ranks second — but neither has a ring. Verlander has pitched in two World Series and has gone 0-3 in three starts with a 7.20 ERA, while Kershaw is obviously in his first World Series.

“When you’re a kid, you just hope you make it to the big leagues,” Kershaw said after the Dodgers clinched the National League Championship Series. “So to get to say you’re going to go play in the World Series, it’s an incredibly special moment. … You know, we have four more wins to go, obviously. But we’ve heard 1988 so long in L.A., it feels good to say that we’re getting to the World Series in 2017, and with four more wins, hopefully get to get one home.”

Verlander is coming off two spectacular American League Championship Series starts, holding the Yankees to one run over 16 innings and recording 21 strikeouts. Kershaw isn’t necessarily at the top of his game or in peak physical health after missing time with a back injury over the summer, but you also get the feeling that it’s such a relief for him to get here that he’ll pitch without the same burden and pressure as earlier rounds. He also hasn’t had to pitch on short rest like in previous postseasons, and in his three starts, he threw 100, 87 and 89 pitches. Look for both to show why they’ve dominated the game over the past decade.

Dodgers’ bullpen on fire

In going 7-1 in the postseason, the Dodgers have been the one team that hasn’t had to scramble in the bullpen. Manager Dave Roberts hasn’t used starters in relief — except Kenta Maeda, who was moved to the bullpen for the postseason — and hasn’t had to extend his top two relievers, Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow. Jansen appeared in seven of the team’s eight games, but he topped out at 18 pitches and only had to pitch twice on back-to-back days. Morrow also appeared in seven games, throwing 8⅓ innings but just 102 pitches over the 14 days it took the Dodgers to play both series.

Collectively, the Dodgers’ bullpen has allowed four runs in 28⅔ innings with 32 strikeouts, two walks and a .125 average allowed. It didn’t allow any runs in 17 innings against the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. Maeda has been a revelation, throwing harder out of the pen with five perfect innings so far in the postseason.

So, how do the Astros to get to the Dodgers’ pen? Somehow, you have to get Roberts off his script. He hasn’t really had to make any tough decisions with his bullpen. His starters have only gotten two outs in the seventh inning in eight games, but even that has been by design, as only Clayton Kershaw in a Game 1 blowout in the division series was extended past 90 pitches. You either have to get to the starters early and force Roberts to use the back end of his pen — Ross Stripling or lefties Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani in suboptimal matchups — or at least find a way to run up the pitch counts on Maeda, Morrow and Jansen.

Chris Taylor, Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig versus Astros pitchers

The Cubs never figured a way to get these guys out. All three have playoff OPS figures above 1.000, and Turner and Puig have posted .500 OBPs. Yes, small sample size and all that and Cubs pitchers certainly had trouble throwing strikes, but the three also showed a lot of discipline at the plate:

Puig, in particular, looked focused throughout the NLCS. As Roberts said at one point during the series about Puig’s maturation in 2017: “He’s learned every pitch is important.” Get this: In 35 plate appearances in the playoffs, Puig has swung at the first pitch just twice. Against the Cubs, he often just stood there with absolute zero intention of swinging at the first pitch.

If these guys remained locked in, it means Astros pitchers will have to get them out with pitches in the strike zone. That might not be a big issue for Verlander, who since joining the Astros has allowed a .227 wOBA overall as compared to .235 on pitches in the strike zone. But that’s a bigger deal for Dallas Keuchel, Will Harris and Chris Devenski, who all see their wOBA increase by about 30 pitches on balls in the zone. Not surprising, those are the softer throwers on the Houston staff.

Houston hitters versus fastballs up in the zone

As Maddon mentioned a couple of times during the NLCS, the Dodgers love to attack with fastballs up in the zone. Indeed, they ranked fifth in the regular season in percentage of pitches in the upper half of the zone. The Astros, however, hit .290/.357/.504 against fastballs in the upper half, the third-best wOBA in the majors. Of course, Houston also ranked first against fastballs in the lower half. Basically, the Astros are just really good at hunting out fastballs and mashing them.

The guy who has five home runs this postseason? Try sneaking a fastball by Jose Altuve. He hit .384/.443/.631 on fastballs in the upper half. On the other hand: Three of those five home runs have come against off-speed pitches.

The Dodgers won’t deviate from their plan, so the key is for the pitchers to really execute and deliver the fastballs at the very top of the zone. Against high fastballs — at the very top of the zone and above — the Astros hit .177 and ranked 13th in wOBA (albeit with a .425 OBP thanks to walks).

How does A.J. Hinch manage the Houston bullpen?

Hinch clearly has lost faith in much of his bullpen, perhaps on overreaction to some very small sample sizes of performances. He used Verlander in Game 4 of the division series in relief. He let Verlander throw 124 pitches in Game 2 of the ALCS. With a 7-1 lead in Game 6 of the ALCS, he used closer Ken Giles in the ninth inning; then in Game 7, his first — and only — reliever was Lance McCullers Jr., who had started Game 4. Also in the ALCS, All-Star Devenski faced just five batters over the entire series. Joe Musgrove, who had a 1.44 as a reliever, faced just four batters. Harris faced seven.

Anyway, it leaves Hinch with some options. If he stays with Keuchel, Verlander and Charlie Morton as his top three starters, he could start Brad Peacock or Collin McHugh in Game 4 and use McCullers exclusively out of the bullpen. Or he could still use McCullers as the Game 4 starter, which also could leave him as a bullpen option in Games 1 and 7. Still, at some point, you have to think Devenski, Musgrove and Harris will have to get some big outs and even Francisco Liriano will be used as a matchup option against Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. It’s possible that the performance of those guys — and not Verlander or Kershaw or Altuve or Jansen — will decide this series.

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