2023 World Series Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Texas Rangers

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

The World Series. It’s a playoff-capping battle that’s so iconic that other sports and activities borrow its name. The World Series of Poker, of Darts, of Snooker, the FINA Marathon Swim World Series, even briefly the World Series of Country Music Proudly Presents Stock Car Racing’s Entertainers of the Year – these events didn’t pick their name by accident, they’re basking in the glory of a long-running staple. Even as baseball matters less and less, the World Series is a big name on the marquee.

One of the best parts of playoff baseball, at least in my eyes, is that the brightest stage isn’t exclusively the domain of the top couple of teams in the game. Sure, the Dodgers and Astros have been there a lot in the last decade. Sure, the Cardinals and Yankees have a bunch of rings. But baseball is a variance-rich sport, and the playoffs are short. Make the dance and you might end up one of the last few teams standing, even if your squad doesn’t have its own wing in Cooperstown. One obvious example? This year’s clash between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Rangers are the closest thing we’re going to get to a postseason standby here. Sure, their last playoff appearance before this run came in 2016, but their roster is packed with playoff heroes. Corey Seager carried the Dodgers to a 2020 title. Max Scherzer seems to always be pitching in win-or-die games. Nathan Eovaldi saved Boston’s bacon in 2018 and has made a career out of coming up big in important spots. Will Smith pitched for the last two World Series winners (seriously!). Aroldis Chapman isn’t what he once was, but at his peak, he was a key figure in breaking the century-long Cubs curse. Their manager is Bruce Freaking Bochy, an October legend who has never lost a Game 7. The Rangers as a franchise might not be a World Series name brand – their trips to the Fall Classic in 2010 and 2011 ended in losses — but the ingredients are no different than what you’d expect to get in the luxury aisle.

Even that accounting of Texas’ star power gives the team short shrift. I didn’t mention Marcus Semien, who was second in the American League in position player WAR this season, or Jordan Montgomery, who is quickly making a name for himself as a big game pitcher. I didn’t bring up their exciting young core or supporting cast of veterans, either. This team has the lineup and rotation of a perennial October menace.

Just listen to the batting order they’ll roll out. Semien, Seager, Evan Carter, and Adolis García kick things off. Semien and Seager need no introduction. García doesn’t anymore – he did all the introducing he’ll ever need to do when he buried the Astros in the ALCS. Carter obliterated the minors so thoroughly in his age-20 season that the Rangers called him up to the majors, and then he obliterated the majors all September. Now he’s vaporizing opposing pitchers in the playoffs, to the tune of a .449 OBP and .538 slug.

The lineup doesn’t get any easier after that. Josh Jung and Mitch Garver each boast huge righty power. Nathaniel Lowe does the same from the left side. Jonah Heim and Leody Taveras are the weakest offensive links, but they’re each league average hitters who play sterling defense at premium positions. Robbie Grossman is available to smash lefty pitching off the bench. The Rangers had one of the best offenses in baseball all season. They’ve been the best offense in the playoffs. The combination of a tremendous top four and relentlessly solid bottom half means there are no easy innings, no letup for tired arms.

The Texas starting rotation isn’t quite the top-to-bottom nightmare for opponents that the lineup is, but it’s still a strength. Eovaldi gets my vote for the headliner: He was excellent in the regular season, got healthy in time for the playoffs, and has torn through opponents in his four starts. Montgomery isn’t far behind him – heck, maybe he’s ahead of him in the pecking order, not that it particularly matters. He doesn’t quite have Eovaldi’s playoff track record yet, but he’s clearly in top form at the moment, churning out grounders and keeping the ball in the yard.

Those two stalwarts relegate Scherzer and Andrew Heaney to third and fourth, respectively, but Scherzer is always one solid start away from rejoining that top group. He’s looked shaky since returning from injury, but c’mon, he’s Max Scherzer. In aggregate, this is a solid group of starters who should be able to keep work off of the bullpen in four or five of the possible seven games remaining in the team’s season.

That’s a good thing, because if the Rangers were a drawing of a horse, the bullpen would be the unfinished half. Bochy’s circle of trust goes roughly three deep, and even that trio isn’t particularly intimidating. José Leclerc is more cromulent than dominant; he’s not as bad as his 4.35 playoff ERA or 6.84 playoff FIP, but he walks a huge number of opposing hitters and doesn’t strike out enough to make up for it. Chapman has somehow skated through the playoffs without a blowup inning, but his strikeout and walk rates are the same (14.8%), and he’s quickly gone from closer to setup man to lefty specialist. Josh Sborz has been the best of the three, and Bochy leans on him extensively. If there’s a big jam in the middle innings, Sborz is coming in, regardless of who’s hitting.

That’s the good part of the bullpen. After that, it’s a bunch of swingmen and converted starters. Cody Bradford has looked decent, but he’s a rookie swingman with mediocre peripherals. Dane Dunning is there to soak up low-leverage innings. Martín Pérez is on the roster to face lefties, a job he has to do because Smith hasn’t been up to the task. Chris Stratton has only pitched in blowouts. Toss out Montgomery’s 2.1 innings of relief work in the ALCS, and they’ve put up a 3.91 ERA and 5.43 FIP in the playoffs as a unit. When Bochy is wondering if Eovaldi can wriggle out of a sixth-inning jam, or whether Montgomery should tangle with the right-handed middle of the Arizona lineup, he’ll picture his alternatives and shudder just a little bit before sticking with his horses.

Put those three phases of the game together, and you can imagine how a lot of Rangers playoff games might go. They have the edge in the early innings, with a relentless offense and a good chance that some playoff hero is on the mound. When that hero falters, though, it’s time to hold onto your butts, because the late innings might be a thrill ride. Even in those late innings, the Rangers do fairly well, because their offense is just that good. But if they’re a nine out of 10 in the early innings, it’s more like a six out of 10 in the late ones. It’s a great overall team – you don’t end up with the fourth-best run differential in baseball on accident – but they do have a clear weak point.

If the Rangers are ersatz royalty, a bunch of playoff heroes wearing unfamiliar uniforms, the Diamondbacks are true interlopers. Like the Rangers, they signed a tried-and-true World Series performer in an attempt to make the playoffs. Just one problem: Madison Bumgarner washed out of the league completely this year. The rest of the Arizona squad is a mixture of well-traveled veterans, unheralded stars, and young kids making a splash.

As you’ve no doubt gathered this October, Ketel Marte and Corbin Carroll have been the drivers of Arizona’s meteoric rise this year. Marte has been doing it for quite a while now; he posted a six-win season in the desert in 2019, and that was already his third season as a Diamondback. Injuries and defensive inconsistency held him back intermittently in the following years, but he finally has a full-time home at second base, and his defense has improved markedly there. His hitting has never been in question; he’s marginally better from the right side of the plate, but he’s a true switch hitter who presents a tough matchup for any pitcher. He has power and patience from both sides, and rarely strikes out.

Carroll is still in his rookie season, but he seems squarely headed for a future as one of the top few players in the game. His ten-pounds-of-fun-in-a-five-pound-bag game is delightful, and he plays like his hair is on fire at all times. He gets on base, runs with wild abandon, and hits for shocking power for someone his size (or for anyone at all, really). Stack those two atop the lineup, and you’re going to end up with a bunch of baserunners for the middle of the order, unless they drive themselves in with homers.

That middle of the order frequently determines the Diamondbacks’ fate; when they’re clicking, it feels like there’s nowhere for opposing pitchers to hide. Tommy Pham, Christian Walker, Gabriel Moreno, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. mix and match in the 3-6 slots of the lineup, and they all have slightly different skills. Pham has the best eye, Walker has the most raw power, Moreno has the best hit tool, and Gurriel is your classic power/average combination with no walks to speak of. Regardless of how they do it individually, though, they all get to similar overall numbers in support of the two gamebreakers at the top. Recently, Torey Lovullo has moved Moreno and his singles-heavy offense to the three spot to juice the bases even further for the rest of the lineup, which means that a Diamondbacks righty popping a homer will frequently result in a multi-run swing.

The bottom of the lineup is hardly terrible – Alek Thomas is a sublime defender and and has been a pretty good hitter in his own right this postseason. Evan Longoria provides veteran moxie. Geraldo Perdomo gets the classic “second leadoff” spot in the nine hole, and he’s overqualified for that spot; he’s a below-average hitter, but he’s dangerous on the basepaths and takes a ton of walks. The weakest link here is probably Emmanuel Rivera, who enters the lineup instead of Thomas against lefty starters, but he’s at least a solid defender.

That sounds pretty good, but it’s clearly a cut below Texas’ lineup. Arizona goes two deep with studs and then four deep with good role players; the Texas group is more like four studs and five good role players. That will particularly be the case with Montgomery and Heaney on the mound; because of Arizona’s lineup construction, Pham generally leaves the game in favor of Thomas when righty relievers enter, but that leaves Rivera in the lineup against bad matchups. In essence, the Diamondbacks offense will be sub-optimally constructed in half the games, and at a slight disadvantage even when they’re at full strength.

Of course, the offenses don’t play against each other. Arizona’s rotation has the firepower to quiet the Rangers offense. Zac Gallen had a Cy Young-caliber season, though his second half was worse than his first and he’s been shaky in the playoffs so far. His weirdo mixture of curves, changeups, cutters, and slow-but-slippery fastballs makes for a very hot/cold profile. When he’s on and locating well, all of his stuff moves so much that hitters alternate between flailing at pitches with unbelievable movement and taking obvious strikes because they’re still befuddled by the last pitch they swung through. When he’s scuffling with either location or movement, he falls behind in the count and lets hitters simplify the game against him. It’s not exactly true that you can tell how a Gallen start will go based on the first inning, but it definitely feels that way at times. Getting two elite starts out of him would go a long way towards Arizona winning the series.

Merrill Kelly did not have a Cy Young-caliber season, but he was great nonetheless, and he’s been the better of the two in the playoffs so far. Like Gallen, his game is built around control, but to an even greater extent. He throws the kitchen sink; six different pitches at least 5% of the time. That makes him hard to predict, so hitters mostly try to stay back and minimize their chase rate; Kelly throws a ton of pitches outside the strike zone hoping to induce swings. Taking them is easier said than done, particularly for swing-first crushers like Seager and García.

In the NLCS, Brandon Pfaadt joined the exciting Diamondbacks rookie cohort after a season of being in the uneven young pitcher group. His sweeper is the most aesthetically pleasing pitch I’ve seen this postseason; it seems to activate halfway through its path home and veer sharply left. His fastball – well, sometimes the shape makes it miss bats, and sometimes the location and velocity combine to create meatballs. So far in the playoffs, he’s limited the damage and replaced the production that Arizona hoped to get from Gallen, but boy do I worry about his matchup against a power-happy Texas lineup.

If you thought Texas’ rotation thinned out quickly, you’ll be horrified to see who the Diamondbacks start when their three top arms aren’t available. In the NLCS, it was lefty reliever Joe Mantiply. Against the Rangers, it might be Mantiply again – or maybe Luis Frías or Miguel Castro. They aren’t carrying a fourth starter – call it the Bumgarner hole if you want – instead relying on an expansive bullpen approach to make things work.

But that bullpen’s depth is an open question. Paul Sewald and Kevin Ginkel are no-doubt beasts at the end of the game. Sewald in particular has been unreal in the playoffs, though he’s the kind of reliever who’s always one game away from being in a funk and also one game away from breaking out of it. Ginkel looks like the next out-of-nowhere relief star; his slider simply can’t be hit. When Arizona takes a lead into the late innings, they generally keep it.

After that, things get decidedly dicier. Lovullo loves to play matchups – he went after Philadelphia’s lefty boppers with Mantiply and rookie Andrew Saalfrank at every opportunity. But Saalfrank is overworked and potentially overmatched; he walked seven of the 13 batters he faced in that series. There are other good relief options – Ryan Thompson has been awesome and Castro is roughly average – but not a lot of them. Four of the relievers on the Arizona roster have faced 15 or fewer batters across three rounds of playoff games. In other words, those are break glass in case of emergency guys. The team has avoided emergency thus far, but it’s done so by working its top relievers hard.

If you’re wondering how this series will play out, then I have a disappointing answer for you: I don’t know. But I do know that I’ll be focusing on a few particular breakpoints. First, I want to see how Texas handles the lefty-to-righty transition part of Arizona’s lineup. Carroll is much worse against lefty pitching, while the four hitters who follow him mostly eat it alive. I think this argues in favor of leaving in Scherzer and Eovaldi to take a big bite of the order the third time through if they can handle it; the Rangers simply aren’t well-equipped to play a handedness matchup game two times through the order every night. That means that Carroll will get a decent number of cracks at righty starters, and it also means he’ll probably get tired of jumping out of the way of a shakily commanded 102 mph heater from Chapman.

I’m also curious to see how Lovullo manages his bullpen. This Rangers lineup is built to exhaust opposing pitchers. Every batter either makes you work or is capable of hitting one out of the park at the drop of a hat. Both Gallen and Kelly approach lineups like that by nibbling around the edges with excellent command, but it’s easy to foresee some tough decisions for Lovullo. Pitch counts will get high, brows will get sweaty, Saalfrank will walk batters in scary spots; it’s all virtually guaranteed. The Rangers give you no choice but to pitch with stress; Arizona has been pitching with it, and skating through regardless, all October long.

Will those two matchups determine the outcome of the series? Maybe! But it’s baseball, so maybe Heim will hit five homers or Pfaadt will turn into Bumgarner for a week and put the team on his back. Maybe Taveras will win three games with his glove, or Longoria will ignite two huge rallies. The beauty of baseball is that you can never point to an absolutely imperative individual matchup; something else could always overwhelm it. My prediction is that we’ll spend a lot of time focusing on the wrong things – and that the Diamondbacks will pull out three late victories to take the series in six games, despite the odds being ever in Texas’ favor.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 months ago

Great writeup!