1 December 2020

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World Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays vs Los Angeles Dodgers

Not many expected it to happen, but the 2020 MLB season has made it to the World Series. After 16 teams entered October, only two remain and they are the best teams in their respective leagues. From the American League is the team with the best record in the division at 40-20 and the winners of the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays. Representing the NL is the team with the best record in in the entire league at 43-17 and the winners of the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both teams are built in very different ways with both finding success and winning through their respective methods. For the Dodgers, it’s all about star power, featuring 3 former MVPs, 2 former rookies of the year winners, and a former Cy Young award winner. For the Rays, they don’t have as much money as the Dodgers and play more analytically. Only one player on the Rays has won any of the big awards (Cy Young) and they play more based on individual matchups. To evaluate which team has the edge, the fair thing to do is go position by position. 

Catcher

When it comes to a traditional MLB team, each team carries two catchers: one for offense and one for defense. That’s the platoon the Dodgers have themselves working with consisting of Will Smith, who’s been one of the best hitting catchers in the league since making his debut in 2019 and Austin Barnes who mostly serves defensively to work as Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher for his starts. None of this is to say Smith and Barnes are bad in the other category, it is just that one is better than the other when it comes to specific elements of the game. Tampa Bay’s catchers are in a different situation. With the strength of their team being the pitching, both their catchers, Michael Perez and Mike Zunino, are both known primarily for their defense. That being said, they have both had big hits in this postseason, with Zunino hitting  four home runs this postseason which is tied 2nd for the all-time record of home runs by a catcher in a postseason. Perez has seen inconsistent playing time since he’s only been used in cases where Zunino has needed off days. Perez does have 1 home run this postseason but still offers less offensive than Zunino. Though the Rays have the edge defensively all around, the Dodgers have more to offer offensively, and the defense you receive from Smith and Barnes is not all that bad. This is however an example of how even though the Dodgers have an advantage, it’s still very close.

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Advantage: Dodgers

1st Base

For multiple positions, the Rays choose to use a platoon of two players, a lefty for right-handed pitchers, and a righty for left-handed pitchers. The combo at 1st is Ji-Man Choi, who does really well against righties and bad against lefties, and Yandy Díaz who does well against lefties and bad against righties. Choi has been having a better postseason than Díaz offensively and is also the better defensive option. Díaz did have a better regular season than Choi although both dealt with injuries during that time. For the Dodgers, they have Max Muncy, who’s been one of the best 1B in baseball since joining the team. What Muncy has going for him is his consistency and how well he does in the postseason. He can also hit well against both left and right handed pitchers so he’s not as big a concern regarding matchups. The advantage here goes to the Dodgers since he offers more as one player than Choi and Díaz . However, when numbers are compared, Díaz and Choi combined are as good as Muncy is alone.

Advantage: Dodgers

2nd Base

This is one of the positions that the Rays should have the edge over the Dodgers in, however, their 2B, Brandon Lowe, who was the team MVP during the regular season, has performed awfully in the playoffs. He has only 6 hits in 57 at-bats and only 1 home run. The Dodgers have been using a duo of Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernández in this spot, with Taylor getting more time at the position. Taylor has quietly been one of the better hitters in the game and always comes through when it counts. Even though he hits 9th in the lineup, he has the power to hit in the higher parts of any lineup that isn’t as stacked as the Dodgers are. Since Taylor has been playing better, the advantage goes to the Dodgers, but if Lowe can get hot, he will be a key reason why the Rays have a chance at winning. 

Advantage: Dodgers

3rd Base

At third is another platoon for the Rays. The lefty of the duo is Joey Wendle who produced well on the offensive side during the ALDS, but not much during the CS. What has been making Wendle so good at the hot corner is his great defense. The Rays defense this postseason has been phenomenal and Wendle being at 3rd base has been a key reason why. The righty of the combo is ALDS hero Mike Brosseau. Brosseau is more of a bench/utility guy who only really gets hitting chances against lefty pitchers, but he makes his hits count. For the Dodgers, they have Justin Turner, who’s bat always comes alive during the postseason and is the Dodgers’ all-time hits leader in the playoffs. Turner also plays great defense so the advantage once again goes to the Dodgers.

Advantage: Dodgers

Shortstop

At last, a position where both teams have only one player. The Rays are rolling out Willy Adames who is yet another guy who does what he’s paid to do: play great defense combined with decent offensive capability. Adames is another Rays bat that has struggled in the postseason and the Rays will need him if they want to be able to win big. For the Dodgers, its NLCS MVP Corey Seager. Seager set a record for most home runs in the NLCS with 5 and most RBIs in the NLCS with 11. Seager also plays solid defense and is one of the former Rookie of the Year winners mentioned earlier. The clear advantage goes to the Dodgers here, with Seager having a much better offense than Adames and similar defensive ability. Even though Seager gets the nod here, there is still a possible X-factor here. The Rays boast the top farm system in baseball, and that include the #1 overall prospect in baseball, Wander Franco. Franco is on Rays’ playoff pool and has posted a picture on Instagram of a jersey with his name with a world series patch. If he’s in play for this series, he has the chance to be a game changer. But for now, the advantage still goes to the Dodgers. 

Advantage: Dodgers

Left Field

Finally, a position in which the Rays have an advantage. The Dodgers do have an effective duo in AJ Pollock and Joc Pederson, who both produce great offense against their respective matchups (Pollock against lefties and Pederson against righties). Whichever of the two is not starting in the field has instead been starting as the Designated Hitter. The Rays’ left fielder has been playing at a much higher level in these playoffs. That player is the ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena. Arozarena was on a tear in his short playing time in the regular season, but in the postseason, he’s been on another level. He has set a record for most home runs in a postseason by a rookie (7) and the only rookie postseason category he doesn’t hold the record for is hits, which he only trails Derek Jeter by just 1. Arozarena also plays great defense and is clearly the best option in LF going into this series. The Rays will need him to continue his torrid pace as he has all postseason long.

Advantage: Rays

Center Field

In center field, this series features two defensive wizards and Gold Glove Award winners. For the Rays, they have Kevin Kiermaier who is the longest-tenured Ray on the roster. His defense is part of what makes the Rays outfield very strong and he can get clutch hits from time-to-time, but it’s not what he’s the best at doing. The Dodgers have former Rookie of the Year and reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger. Although Bellinger didn’t live up to his 2019 MVP season, he still had a great year with his biggest moment coming in game 7 of the NLCS when he hit the go-ahead home run for the Dodgers. His defense is also very good, including a game-changing home run robbery against the Padres during the NLDS. While Kiermaier has the advantage defensively, Bellinger is still very good in the field and has the much better bat. 

Advantage: Dodgers

Right Field

The final hitting position is yet another lopsided affair though that’s not to say the Rays do not have good players here. The Rays have many different options with this position with Austin Meadows who’s great against righties and Hunter Renfroe who had the series of his life defensively during the ALCS. Both haven’t been hitting that well during the postseason, albeit for Renfroe hitting a clutch grand slam during the Wild Card against Toronto. Since the two haven’t been hitting as well, the Rays have been having Manuel Margot in right who has been amazing on both sides of the field. Margot was never much of a hitter, only more of a defensive outfielder, but he has hit more home runs in the postseason (5) than he did during the regular season (1). As good as Margot has been, the Dodgers have their other MVP, the $365 Million man, Mookie Betts. Betts has been everything the Dodgers hoped he would be when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire him from the Red Sox. Everything he’s done, from his amazing offensive prowess to his Gold Glove defense has helped the Dodgers including three key plays during the NLCS which helped stop the Braves from gaining momentum and instead shifted it all into the Dodgers’ favor. Betts is easily the best player here and the best overall player from both teams in the entire series.

Advantage: Dodgers

Starting Pitching

Here’s where the games will get interesting. Both teams have great rotations both featuring a former Cy Young winner. The Dodgers are headlined by ace Clayton Kershaw, who had a return to his prime form during the regular season, and has done great so far. Kershaw has had bad experiences with the playoffs in the past, especially in the World Series, but with his current track record, he’s looking to exorcise  the demons. Following him are four young pitchers: Julio Urías and Walker Buehler who’ve both been lights out this postseason, Tony Gonsolin who hasn’t been great this postseason, and Dustin May who’s been in the middle in terms of production. All four pitchers for the Dodgers were fantastic in the regular season, so expectations are high for them. With the new addition of two days off during the World Series, any of those back three may be used out of the bullpen since that’s what they did with them during the NLCS, mainly Dustin May.

The Rays’ rotation is just as formidable, featuring former Cy Young winner Blake Snell who’s been pretty good so far this postseason. Following him is Tyler Glasnow and his electric pitch combination of a 100 mph fastball and a dirty curveball. Their final big name is longtime veteran Charlie Morton, who’s always pitched well in big games, including game 7 of the 2017 World Series against a similar looking Dodgers team. Aside from those three great pitchers, they don’t have much of a back end. Ryan Yarbrough has been used as their 4th guy in the rotation but more as a long reliever. The 5th spot in the rotation has been a bullpen day, but with the days off included, they can avoid having bullpen days and use their relievers properly. 

Although the Rays have a smaller rotation, the new edition of days off between games 2 & 3, and 5 & 6 help the Rays since they won’t need to rely on one, maybe two bullpen games. With how good their top 3 are, the advantage here is going to the Rays since the pitching here is what they’re built around and what’s been a main point in why they’ve been so good.

Advantage: Rays

Bullpen

The final section regarding the players is another area that is close. Both teams had great bullpens all season, however one of them has been performing better during the playoffs. The Dodgers’ bullpen has guys with great pitch arsenals that have been extremely successful. These include Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Dylan Floro, Jake McGee, Adam Kolarek, Victor González, Pedro Báez, and Joe Kelly. Though they all had great regular seasons, postseason performances for all of these pitchers has been full of ups and downs. The biggest example of this has been closer Kenley Jansen. Jansen had a great regular season and was one of the best relievers in baseball during the year. However in the postseason so far, it hasn’t been going so well since he’s been gotten to by both the Padres and the Braves. With how good the Rays are at putting at bats together, this bullpen has their work cut out for them, especially depending on how often they’ll be called on.

For the Rays, it’s been a bit smoother of a ride. What the Rays do best is take any pitcher and turn him into an amazing reliever. Nearly every pitcher in their bullpen recorded at least 1 save during the regular season and each arm is able to do their job efficiently. These guys are Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, John Curtiss, José Alvarado, Ryan Thompson, Aaron Slegers, and Josh Fleming. Anderson was the closer this year and only gave up 1 run all season, but he’s already given up more runs in the postseason. That being said, every other pitcher has been able to step up in his place, reinforcing the idea that the bullpen is the Rays’ biggest asset. They’ve been in positions where even though the starters have been throwing fantastically, the Rays are able to go to their bullpen early and still hold a lead. All season long, the Rays are the only team with 0 blown leads after the 7th inning. The Rays bullpen is easily the stronger of the two and they get the advantage.

Advantage: Rays

Manager

The final part of this analysis is the most important part of the team: the manager. Both managers have been great at managing their respective teams, however one has more experience than the other. Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts has taken the Dodgers to the playoffs in every year he has been at the helm. However, Roberts can sometimes be notorious for over managing in the playoffs and many times, most notably in 2018 and 2019, that has cost the Dodgers. For the Rays, they have Kevin Cash, who is arguably the best manager in baseball and a likely front runner for AL manager of the year. Cash is terrific at getting the most out of all of his pitchers, both starting and relieving. He does very well at using all of the depth pieces that the Rays have to their fullest and gets the most out of his players. The key for this series will be seeing which manager can outsmart the other, since both use heavy analytics to make their decisions and gameplans, but Cash has had more success with that than Roberts has. The easy advantage here goes to the Rays.

Advantage: Rays

Final Verdict:

Although the Dodgers have the advantage in nearly every position, do not let that deceive you from how good the Rays are. The numbers may be in favor of the Dodgers, but they’re a lot closer than they seem. The Rays won only three less games than the Dodgers and had the best record in the AL for a reason. This is going to be a close series, and one that will go either 6 or 7 games. With the Rays’ strong pitching and defensive game against the Dodgers’ strong offensive game, these 2 teams are set to match up for an exciting series. 

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