Red Sox, Dodgers ride strong two-strike approaches to World Series

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Monday, October 22, 2018

It's the continual conflict of today's baseball: the arsenal of pitchers with high-powered fastballs facing lineups that often go eight or nine deep with power hitters selling out for home runs and the proper launch angle to mash balls over outfield walls.

It's no surprise then that both clinching games of the league championship series turned on home runs. In the American League, Rafael Devers hit a 98 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone from Justin Verlander and lofted it into the Crawford Boxes in left field at Houston's Minute Maid Park, a ball that would have been a home run at just one park in the majors. Right time, right place, and three runs for the Red Sox in a 4-1 Game 5 victory over the Astros.

In the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers, who led the NL and ranked second in the majors with 235 home runs, had spent six games trying to hit home runs without much success. They had hit just three, but managed nonetheless to split those six games. In the finale, Cody Bellinger hit a two-run homer and Yasiel Puig belted a three-run shot and the Dodgers won 5-1 to return to the World Series.

It follows that the team that hits more home runs is the better bet to win the World Series. That's generally true, although the team that hits more home runs is just 8-6 in the past 15 World Series (with one tied in home runs):

Consider as well that over 40 percent of the runs scored in the majors in the regular season came via the home run. With so many strikeouts and so few base hits, sustained rallies are increasingly rare. It's easier to hit a home run than it is to hit three singles. You need to hit the ball over the fence to win.

And yet ... this series might not come down to which team hits more home runs, but which team is best at avoiding the strikeout and at putting the ball in play. After all, the Astros and Brewers hit more home runs in the LCS than the Red Sox and Dodgers, and they're going to be watching on TV.

There is little doubt that Boston's two-strike approach against Houston was a key to winning that series. The Astros had one of the best pitching staffs in history, had struck out the most batters ever with the highest strikeout rate ever. In the regular season, the Astros struck out 28.5 percent of the batters they faced. In the ALCS, that figure was just 19.4 percent. The Red Sox, in fact, struck out at a lower rate than they did in the regular season (19.9 percent), and they were the third-toughest team to strike out in the regular season.

"I think it's been a good [approach]," Xander Bogaerts said before Game 5. "Not a lot of home runs. I think if you go big or go home, we would probably go home. ... I think the big approach, it's not the best one against these guys, just try to single, put up good at-bats and get walks and hopefully the next guy can do damage."

The Red Sox had 40 hits in the series -- 18 with two strikes. In 23 plate appearances with a full count, they hit .364/.696/.455 -- drawing 12 walks against just four strikeouts. Some of the key hits in the series came with two strikes. Ian Kinsler had singled on a 2-2 fastball ahead of Devers' home run in Game 5. In Game 4, Devers' two-run single in the first came on an 0-2 curveball from Charlie Morton. In the third inning of that game, Bogaerts doubled in a run on a 3-2 pitch. In the seventh, Bogaerts and Steve Pearce both walked on 3-2 pitches from Ryan Pressly and Brock Holt later walked with the bases loaded.

"We live in an era that hitting .210 and 30 home runs and 60 RBIs is becoming acceptable," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before Game 5. "We don't mind strikeouts, but not in certain situations. We want them to put the ball in play. They've been having a very humbling approach throughout the series, staying up the middle, fouling off pitches and going the other way, putting the ball in play with two strikes."

As Cora said, you're giving yourself a chance if you put the ball in play. That was the case with Devers' base hit in Game 4. It was just a soft looper into left-center, but he didn't strike out.

"We put together a ton of good at-bats," Holt said. "That's kind of how we've beat good pitchers this whole year, not necessarily singling them to death, but not trying to go up there every time and hit a three-run homer. Put together a good at-bat, you work a walk, you hit a single, a sac fly, that wears guys down. Then you get the big blow. The more guys you can get on base, the chances are you can get a big blow instead of a solo home run."

It's worth noting that the Dodgers' Manny Machado had reached on a bunt single ahead of Bellinger's Game 7 home run -- bunting on a 3-2 pitch (apparently because he had been quick-pitched and didn't have time for a full swing). The rally ahead of Puig's three-run home run started when Max Muncy, who led the Dodgers with 35 home runs, grounded a base hit to the opposite field -- not what you typically see from the Dodgers and particularly not from Muncy, who had three ground-ball hits to left field all season.

Get this, however: In Game 5, with the scored tied 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth and two on and one out, Muncy knocked in the go-ahead run with another ground-ball single to left field on a 1-2 pitch. Two batters later, Puig knocked in another with a two-strike base hit.

So, yes, this World Series might come down to two powerful lineups and their ability to hit the long ball. Or it might come down to those two-strike hits. Let's not call it small ball -- you're not going to see either team bunting -- but let's call it smart ball.