(Kimball Crossley has been a professional baseball scout for 20 years, most recently for the Toronto Blue Jays.)
The Los Angeles Dodgers are a bunch of jerks.
Cody Bellinger is a jerk. So is Joc Pederson. And Yasiel Puig. And Manny Machado.
This has nothing to do with their personalities. It has to do with their approach at the plate.
“Jerks” is how I describe extreme pull hitters. They look to jerk pitches out of the ballpark, and are not really trying to use the whole playing field. Most of the Dodgers hitters have that approach, and they are quite good at it, having led the NL in home runs as well as runs, despite finishing eighth in team batting average.
So if the Red Sox are to beat Los Angeles, they will have to shut down those pull hitters.
How do you do that? Usually with well-placed fastballs away, the occasional fastball in to keep them honest and from leaning over the plate, and a ton of offspeed, especially offspeed on the outer half and moving away from the swing path of those jerk swings.
The Red Sox have some pitchers well-armed to do that, and some who are not. The Dodgers are a much better offensive team against righthanded pitching than left, and Game 1 starter Chris Sale has the stuff to keep the Dodgers’s lefthanded pull hitters either on the bench or in a funk. He can also neutralize their dangerous righthanded pull hitters with his ability to command his fastball and mix in his offspeed pitches.
But which Sale will show up on Tuesday? The one with mid-90s velocity who faced the Yankees in the ALDS, or the one who struggled with an average fastball against the Astros in the ALCS? Sale comes into this series well-rested, which means you can expect him to have his good stuff in the opener, but maybe not so much if he comes back later in the series, especially if it’s on short rest.
Another lefty, David Price, does not have anything resembling Sale’s breaking ball. He relies on his changeup and his fastball command. When he had both against the Astros, as he did in the clincher of the ALCS, he was outstanding. When he didn’t, as in Game 2, he got hit hard. His feel for his changeup and his resulting confidence in it is crucial. You can tell a pitcher he needs to use his changeup more, but if he doesn’t trust that he can command it and run it down and away in the zone, he will shy away from it.
How the non-jerk righthanded hitters in the LA lineup fare against Sale and Price will be key. David Freese, Justin Turner, and Matt Kemp are three veteran players who know how to make adjustments and will look to go the other way.
Nathan Eovaldi, Boston’s best pitcher this postseason, likely will not be as effective against the Dodgers and all of their lefty sluggers. His stuff plays best against righthanded hitters, which made him a perfect matchup for the Yankees and Astros.
The same could be said for Ryan Brasier, who began the season in the minors after playing last year in Japan, but who has emerged as perhaps manager Alex Cora’s second or third most reliable option out of the bullpen. Brasier, who features a plus fastball and slider combination, is not as effective if he has to face a lot of lefthanded hitters, especially ones who sit on fastballs.
In fact, a big weakness for the Red Sox is a lack of a lefthanded go-to reliever in the pen, which could be huge when they start a righty and the Dodgers stack their lineup with lefthanded hitters. Even when Eduardo Rodriguez has been good – and he has struggled of late and appears to have lost the confidence of his manager – he was never a lefty killer because his slider has never been a good pitch.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher of this generation with his combination of power stuff, plus command, and deception. But he no longer has the power stuff, and must rely on the other two attributes. You have to be behind home plate to appreciate how deceptive Kershaw can be. He hides his arm behind his body and batters don’t see the baseball until after he releases it. The fact that the Red Sox have not seen a lot of Kershaw because he is in the NL West could mean they will struggle against him.
Two other Dodger starters are lefties and both also rely on deception and finesse more than power. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s arm, like Kershaw’s, is tough to pick up, and he mixes all of his pitches well. Rich Hill is a spin master. He has one of the best breaking balls in baseball, but also has a fastball that plays better than you would expect with its below-average velocity because of its spin rate. His ball has more revolutions per minute than almost any pitcher in the game. Because of this, he gets away with a lot of what seem like hittable fastballs up in the zone.
Righthander Walker Buehler, the other Dodger starter, showed in the deciding Game 7 of the NLCS he is an explosive power pitcher with plus stuff across the board.
The Dodger pen has been a weakness at times this season, but has been improved of late by the addition of two pitchers who started much of the season in Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood. Maeda, like the Sox’ Rick Porcello, is a righty craftsman who can carve up a lineup without being overpowering. His fastball has more velocity and he can better keep hitters honest using offspeed. Wood is another lefty with deception who provides a tough angle to lefthanded hitters, but also has the arsenal to get righties out.
Both teams come in with closer concerns. Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel were both as good as it gets last year, but have been spotty and unreliable at times this season. Jansen has done it in the past with basically one pitch, a hard cut fastball. But the velocity and movement of that pitch have been down this year.
The theory that Kimbrel has been tipping his pitches does not really explain his recent struggles. He has not been able to control either his plus fastball or breaking ball, in or out of the zone, and has fallen victim to walks and giving up hits when behind in the count.
Some keys for the Boston lineup will be how much they get out of Rafael Devers, Mookie Betts, and J.D. Martinez. The youthful Devers is a classic expand-the-zone hitter who will chase borderline pitches and get himself out at times. However, he has such strength and life in his bat that he can drive some bad balls a long way.
Betts was solid but not great in the ALCS, missing some hittable pitches, and has yet to show this postseason how effective he can be. He remains the toughest out in the Boston lineup because there is no great way to attack him. I look for him to have a huge series.
Martinez continues to dominate with the bat, but I still say he can be exploited with the good fastball up and in. The Astros did not do that well, as they fed the slugger a steady diet of offspeed pitches until it finally caught up with them in Game 5 of the ALCS.
One “jerk” hitter the Red Sox may not have to face as much as they might under normal circumstances is Yasmani Grandal. Never known for his defense, the Dodgers catcher has been in a major funk this postseason and has struggled with passed balls. This has meant more playing time for Austin Barnes, a less dangerous hitter. A lot has been discussed the last couple of weeks about all the pitches getting past the catchers, but one factor not being considered enough is framing. Catchers are trying so hard to pull pitches back into the zone with their glove that they are not catching it clean and also not getting their body in front of the ball to block it.
The use of the DH in the AL home games and not in the NL will again be an issue, as it forces the Sox to make a decision about what to do with Martinez. If he plays the outfield he severely weakens his team’s defense, and may force the Red Sox to take one of their more productive hitters of late and put him on the bench. The Dodgers offense would appear to welcome the DH too, since they have so many quality hitters, like Kemp, Puig, and Max Muncy (35 homers in 395 at-bats this year), who often start the game on the bench.
In the games without the DH, I have a feeling Cora will handle double switches and pinch-hitting for the pitcher better than Dave Roberts, despite the fact that the Dodgers have a host of players who can play multiple positions and are used to moving all over the field within the same game. Roberts just doesn’t seem to focus on gaining little percentage edges over the course of a game the way Cora does.