In Game Five of the World Series on Sunday night, behind a stifling seven-inning, three-hit effort from David Price — on three days of rest, even — and a pair of home runs by Steve Pearce, the Red Sox completed their dismantling of the Dodgers with a 5-1 victory and a four-games-to-one Series win. Like the other games in the series, this one was close for a while. Ultimately, though, the Red Sox pulled away late, with the Dodgers unable to produce a run beyond David Freese’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the first inning. On top of their franchise-record 108 wins, the Red Sox went 11-3 in the postseason, losing just one game in each round of the playoffs. They’ll take their place among the most dominant championship teams of recent vintage, and have a claim as the best in franchise history.
To these eyes, the World Series turned on eight factors, areas that set the Red Sox apart from the Dodgers in what was, at times, a fairly close series that will nonetheless look rather lopsided in the history books.
Continuing what they did against the Astros in the ALCS, the Red Sox scored the majority of their runs against the Dodgers with two outs. In fact, the totals and rates in the two rounds match up almost exactly: 18 out of 29 runs scored against Houston (62.0%) and 18 of 28 against Los Angeles (64.3%). In the World Series they hit .242/.347/.484 in 72 plate appearances with two outs and put up video-game numbers — .471/.609/.882 in 23 PA — with two outs and runners in scoring position. Their OPS in that latter situation set a World Series record:
As Craig Edwards noted in his examination of the phenomenon, teams typically score about 37% of their runs with two outs, but for the entire postseason, 45 of Boston’s 84 runs (53.6%) scored in that context. Boston’s 18 two-out runs ranks third in World Series history behind only the 1982 Brewers’ 20 (out of 33) and 1997 Indians’ 21 (out of 44). It wasn’t enough for either of those teams, who lost seven-game series.
If you’re wondering about the Dodgers, they hit a dreadful .172/.274/.297 in 73 PA with two outs, scoring six of their 16 runs. They were a bit better with two outs and runners in scoring position (.231/.231/.462 with five runs in 13 PA), but it wasn’t enough.
A Bridge Too Far
Besides the Red Sox’ relentlessness with two outs, nothing typified this World Series as much as Dave Roberts trying to squeeze extra outs out of his flagging starters, with dreadful, series-turning results.
- Game One: With the Dodgers having just tied the game at 3-3 and chasing a tiring Chris Sale, Roberts let Kershaw start the fifth inning, facing Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi for the third time. The former walked, the latter singled, Kershaw departed without recording an out, and both runners came around to score once Ryan Madson entered the game.
- Game Two: With a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning, Hyun-Jin Ryu got two quick outs on a total of three pitches, then gave up singles to No. 9 hitter Christian Vazquez and then Betts. He was allowed to stay in to face Benintendi, whom he walked, and all three runners scored on Madson’s watch.
- Game Five: With Kershaw already having served up a solo homer to Betts to extend the Red Sox’s lead to 3-1 in the sixth, Roberts let him return for the seventh, when he allowed a leadoff homer to J.D. Martinez.And while he was able to prevent any further scoring, the hole out of which the Dodgers had to climb — and the margin with which Price thus had to work — was that much bigger. The Dodgers never even got the tying run to the plate after Betts’ dinger.
This isn’t about pitch counts so much as it is a slow hook with a pitcher slipping into trouble during his third time through the order. Certainly, it was exacerbated by the Dodger bullpen’s performance, which was at its worst in Game Three after Roberts did pull Rich Hill too early for some tastes; having criticized the manager in multiple contexts previously, I was OK with that move at the time while acknowledging that, given how gassed the bullpen was after the 18-inning epic Game Three, he would have been justified in riding Hill further.
In all, Dodger relievers combined for a 5.40 ERA and 5.96 FIP in 25 innings, not to mention the seven inherited runners whom Madson allowed to score. Time after time, it just felt like the L.A. skipper was a move or two behind counterpart Alex Cora.
As I noted in the midst of Boston’s seemingly endless late-inning rallies in Game Four, every pitcher in that contest who had also thrown least 12 pitches in Game Three allowed at last one run except for the Red Sox’ Matt Barnes, who pitched a third of an inning. Joe Kelly, who threw only 12 pitches in Game Three, was the only one of nine relievers to emerge unscathed; even Craig Kimbrel, who had strung together four scoreless outings after apparently solving his pitch-tipping issues, gave up two runs.
What’s more, the six Dodgers relievers who pitched in Games Three and Four combined to set an unenviable record. Previously, the most pitchers on one team in a single World Series who allowed runs while pitching on zero days of rest (i.e. the day or night before) was four — and that’s for an entire series! Four teams had done that — namely the 1991 Twins, 2010 Rangers, 2015 Mets, and 2017 Dodgers — with Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow both giving up runs in Game Two (after pitching Game One) and Game Five (after pitching Game Four) last year against the Astros.
Jansen, whose 2018 struggles both on and off the field — the latter concerning yet another episode of an irregular heartbeat, which will require surgery next month — have been well documented, joined some unenviable company when he blew back-to-back saves by allowing game-tying homers to Jackie Bradley Jr. and Pearce in Games Three and Four, respectively. Three other pitchers have blown back-to-back save chances in a single World Series: the Phillies’ Mitch Williams in 1993 against the Blue Jays (Games Four and Six), the Diamondbacks’ Byung-Hyun Kim in 2001 against the Yankees (Games Four and Five), and the Mets’ Jeurys Familia in 2015 against the Royals (Games Four and Five). While the Dodgers were able to get Jansen off the hook, albeit by gassing their bullpen, in that 18-inning marathon, all of those closers’ teams save for the Diamondbacks eventually lost the World Series.
Starters in Relief
As in the first two rounds, the Red Sox were able to augment their bullpen with stray innings from their starters, generally on their throw days. Price pitched two-thirds of a scoreless inning in Game Three in addition to starting Games Two and Five; for my money, he should have been the MVP on the basis of his 13.2 innings of work, with three runs allowed, instead of Pearce, who didn’t even collect his first hit until Game Four. Eduardo Rodriguez got one out apiece in Games One and Three and then went six-plus innings as the emergency starter in Game Four. Nathan Eovaldi, who was scheduled to start that game, pitched perfect innings in Games One and Two before his heroic six-inning effort in Game Three that, alas, ended when he served up a walkoff homer to Max Muncy. And of course Game One starter Chris Sale closed out Game Five by striking out the side, clinching the title by getting Manny Machado to chase a slider:
In all, that’s 10.1 innings of one-run relief from pitchers who also started for the Sox in the playoffs, part of a unit that produced a 1.40 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 25.2 innings in the World Series.
The Dodgers, who got key innings from Hill and Kershaw out of the bullpen in the NLCS, didn’t try the gambit at all in the World Series; meanwhile, converted starters Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood, who combined for 47 regular-season starts for the Dodgers, allowed three runs in 5.1 innings in the World Series. The former, who was so dominant in a relief role during the Dodgers’ 2017 run (nine appearances, 10 innings, one run allowed, 10 strikeouts), often serving as the bridge to the rest of the bullpen, simply wasn’t the same this October, allowing three runs (and three inherited runners) in 6.2 innings over eight appearances and seemingly never garnering the same trust from Roberts.
In the 114 World Series that have been played, there have been just 25 pinch-hit home runs. Just six of those have been three-run homers, and two were hit by the Red Sox in this series. Eduardo Nunez’s three-run shot off over Fenway Park’s Green Monster off Wood sealed Game One for Boston; prior to that, you’d have to go back to Game Three of the 1989 World Series, when the Giants’ Bill Bathe went deep against the A’s Gene Nelson, for the last such pinch blast. Yet just four nights later, in Game Four, Mitch Moreland’s three-run homer off Madson cut into the Dodgers’ 4-0 lead, the first three of nine unanswered runs that helped put the Sox within one win of a championship.
In all, Red Sox pinch-hitters went 3-for-10 with a walk, two homers and seven RBI; the other hit was merely Rafael Devers’ go-ahead single off Dylan Floro in the ninth inning of Game Four. Dodger pinch-hitters, on the other hand, were a dismal 1-for-15 with a walk and no RBI.
There’s no getting around the struggles of the 30-year-old, three-time Cy Young-winning southpaw, who was poised to change the script when it came to his spotty, over-scrutinized body of postseason work with two strong starts out of three in the first two rounds, not to mention his closeout of the Brewers in Game Seven of the NLCS. Instead, he was roughed up for nine runs in 11 innings over the course of his two starts, and now the question of what he has to do to win the big one — and whether he’ll do it in Los Angeles — will linger.
Despite the declining velocity of his fastball, Kershaw’s slider was a devastating weapon during the regular season. Batters hit .185/.224/.296 for a 49 wRC+ against it, though his swinging-strike rate on the pitch dropped from 24.4% in 2017 — his seventh straight year above 21% — to a career-low 13.9% this year. Nonetheless, according to Baseball Savant, he didn’t have a single start during the regular season in which he gave up more than four hits on his slider. In Game One, however, he surrendered five — and three of the four runs he allowed scored on those hits. He gave up just two hits on the slider in Game Five, one on the first-inning Benintendi single that preceded Pearce’s homer and the other on Betts’s sixth-inning homer. In the two games combined, he netted just six swings and misses on 65 sliders thrown, a 9.2% rate.
The changeup has generally been a reliable pitch throughout the 33-year-old southpaw’s career, with batters hitting just .234/.261/.354 (79 wRC+) against it while swinging and missing 16.9% of the time. Price took his whiff rate to 18.6% this year, but batters tagged at a .276/.310/.417 (107 wRC+) clip. He rediscovered the pitch during the ALCS, getting 12 swings and misses from among a season-high 39 changeups in the Game Five clincher.
Price was more conservative with the pitch in his World Series Game Two start, getting four swings and misses from among his 25 changeups, but he went back to it as a weapon in Game Five, netting nine swings and misses plus five called strikes from among 23 thrown. The Dodgers didn’t put a single one of his changeups into play.
With their respective performances in this series, Price lowered his career postseason ERA from the second-highest to the third-highest among pitchers with at least 60 innings, while Kershaw climbed from the eighth-highest to the fifth-highest:
|1||Tim Wakefield||1992-2008 (9)||72.0||1.6||4.8||6.8||6.75||5.63|
|2||Al Leiter||1993-2005 (5)||81.2||1.0||4.0||7.5||4.63||4.29|
|3||David Price||2008-2018 (9)||99.1||1.4||2.5||8.2||4.62||4.31|
|5||Clayton Kershaw||2008-2018 (8)||152.0||1.3||2.6||9.8||4.32||3.78|
|6t||Vida Blue||1971-1975 (5)||64.2||0.8||3.2||6.5||4.31||4.02|
|6t||CC Sabathia||2001-2018 (9)||129.1||1.0||4.4||8.4||4.31||4.30|
|8||Kevin Brown||1997-2004 (3)||81.2||0.9||3.4||7.8||4.19||3.87|
|9||Matt Morris||2000-2005 (5)||73.1||1.1||4.2||5.4||4.05||4.99|
|10||Zack Greinke||2011-2017 (5)||67.0||1.2||2.0||7.9||4.03||3.86|
|11||Livan Hernandez||1997-2007 (4)||68.0||0.8||4.8||6.2||3.97||4.55|
|12||Andy Pettitte||1995-2012 (14)||276.2||1.0||2.5||6.0||3.81||4.16|
|13||Jack Morris||1984-1992 (4)||92.1||0.9||3.1||6.2||3.80||4.12|
|14||David Cone||1988-2000 (8)||111.1||1.0||4.7||7.6||3.80||4.48|
|15||Don Gullett||1970-1977 (6)||93.0||0.5||3.7||5.8||3.77||3.83|
As I noted after the ALCS clincher, Price’s performance proves that “Hasn’t pitched well in the postseason” isn’t the same as “can’t pitch well in the postseason,” and while Kershaw himself has shown that with some stellar starts over the years, ultimately, he’ll have to endure another year of questions as to whether he can ever win the big one.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.