Using ESPN as a barometer (we’re just looking for quantity, not quality here), they had 45 top baseball experts predict the World Series before the season. More than half (24) said that the Red Sox and Phillies would meet in the Fall Classic, with 19 of them taking Boston to win it all.
We are reminded time and time again how little these predictions mean. Last year, just one of 36 ESPNers picked San Francisco to reach the World Series. None tabbed Texas as the American League representative.
Still, these forecasts are part of what make baseball great. Another annual item, which is just as insignificant in the grand scheme of things but something that simply needs to be done, is the World Series preview that matches up each team position-by-position, as if that will dictate who comes out on top.
It doesn’t and it never will, but since this week’s Red Sox-Phillies series is being tabbed as a World Series preview, let’s put these two teams side-by-side and see who comes out on top. At least in our own little fantasy world.
(Note: Players are rated on their current status, as in their value to their team in 2011. Also, positions with injured starters are treated just so. If they were injured in October, they wouldn’t appear in one of these, right? And rather than match up every starter and each member of the bullpen, let’s just stick to the three scheduled starters. If the preseason predictions come true, we can do the whole kit and caboodle in October.)
Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Jason Varitek vs. Carlos Ruiz/Brian Schneider
In April, when Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek were providing next to nothing at the plate and struggling to mesh with the rotation, Carlos Ruiz had his average well above .300. Back then, it was an easy call. That may not be the case anymore.
Saltalamacchia is hitting .347 with a .990 OPS in June. Varitek hit .333 in May and has not dipped much in June. They have actually provided one of the more productive catching spots in the AL, all while providing much-improved play behind the plate.
Ruiz got hurt after his early burst and has come back to earth offensively. He enters the series hitting .253 with three home runs, and Brian Schneider is a definitive backup, unlike Varitek who plays almost half the time. Ruiz is noted as a great game manager. So, too, is Varitek, and his guidance is turning Saltalamacchia into one as well.
First base: Adrian Gonzalez vs. Ryan Howard
If this was a night at the MGM, every other fight would be on the undercard. It’s interesting to note that Adrian Gonzalez credits Ryan Howard with helping him generate more power after a conversation on bat weights caused Gonzalez to make a change. Whatever he has done, it has worked.
As great as Howard is, Gonzalez is having a season for the ages. Phillies fans may disagree, but this is an easy call right now.
Second base: Dustin Pedroia vs. Chase Utley
Injuries hurt both of these great players last season, and Utley is just getting going in 2011 after missing the first 46 games with a knee injury. If both are healthy, it’s a wonderful debate: the scrappy, emotional Dustin Pedroia against the slick, steely Chase Utley. And if both are healthy, the slight edge might go to Utley, who averaged 29 homers and 101 RBIs over a five-year span before the injuries began to hit.
For now, Pedroia may have the upper hand. He has offset some early struggles at the plate by massively increasing his walk totals in front of Gonzalez. Pedroia’s on-base percentage is at .391, higher than in any of his end-of-season figures. He’s hitting .366 in June.
Utley is batting .313 with 13 RBIs over his last 19 games, so he may be rounding into form.
Shortstop: Marco Scutaro vs. Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins is hitting only .260, but the fact that he is healthy and wreaking havoc atop the Philadelphia lineup means so much to that team. Like Utley, his best days may be a few seasons in the past, but unlike Utley versus Pedroia, Rollins versus Marco Scutaro is an easy choice. And that’s even with Scutaro outhitting the former MVP by 16 points.
Third base: Kevin Youkilis vs. Placido Polanco
Kevin Youkilis gets up limping six times a game, but somehow presses on. Even in what he might classify as a down year, he is on pace for 124 RBIs, which would shatter his career high. And, as expected, there have been few issues with the defensive transition across the diamond.
Placido Polanco is a nice player who mans the position very well and always seems to be hovering around .300. Just doesn’t bring quite as much to the table as someone like Youkilis.
Left field: Josh Reddick/Darnell McDonald vs. Raul Ibanez
Obviously, this matchup is transformed by the absence of Carl Crawford, on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. In his absence, Josh Reddick and Darnell McDonald have been platooned, the former hitting everything and the latter almost nothing. It balances out to a degree, but the production varies so drastically from game to game. Also, although Reddick has been hot (12-for-29 entering the series), he is an average defender and figures to slow down at the dish.
Raul Ibanez, 39, is clearly in decline. His numbers have dropped dramatically since his memorable first year with the Phillies in 2009. Still, he is a streaky guy who still has a few runs in him, as evidenced by a May in which he hit .315 with seven homers. Ibanez is not the player he once was, but he represents a bit more than the tandem the Red Sox have in left.
Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Shane Victorino
This is another head-to-head that has no real wrong answer. Both players are very good at what they do. Jacoby Ellsbury, however, has been a bit better in 2011. He enters the set hitting .303 with a league-leading 25 steals and nine home runs, already tied with his career best.
Shane Victorino endured one stint on the DL earlier in the year. He is batting .354 (23-for-65) over his last 16 games. Phillies fans love him, and with good reason. Ellsbury just has a little bit more going for him right now.
Right field: J.D. Drew/Mike Cameron vs. Ben Francisco/Domonic Brown
Both teams have played four different players in right field at one time or another, and both teams are still waiting for someone to step up. This is a virtual black hole in either lineup. Overall, Philadelphia’s grouping has the edge in batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases. It’s a slight edge, and the Phillies’ numbers are still unimpressive, but that’s good enough for us.
Pitching matchup No. 1: Josh Beckett vs. Cliff Lee
Perhaps it is fitting that the first guy the Red Sox face in this series is Cliff Lee, since so many thought that they would see him over and over in matchups with the Yankees.
While both pitchers are excellent, this matchup can best be graded based on timing. While Josh Beckett is pitching for the first time in 13 days because of an illness, Lee is locked in. The lefty is 4-0 with a 0.27 ERA this month, striking out 24 and walking six in that span. Again, that ERA is 0.27, or one run in 33 innings.
If Beckett can shake off the rust and look anything like what he did his last time out at Tampa Bay (complete game one-hit shutout), then he can hang with Lee’s pace. We will have to see that before siding with anyone other than the left-hander.
Pitching matchup No. 2: John Lackey vs. Vance Worley
Talk about a head-scratcher. If experience, name recognition, career stats and salary mean anything, then John Lackey is the runaway winner. His struggles have been so severe this season, however, that it’s tough to pull the trigger on him right now. Also, Lackey has mentioned that there is still something going on with his elbow. The unknown surrounding that issue doesn’t help his cause.
Vance Worley is just 23. He has held opponents to one or zero runs in four of his six starts. However, he has never lasted longer than six innings and has never faced an opponent quite like Boston.
There is just too much up in the air to call this one. We’ll leave it up to you.
Pitching matchup No. 3: Jon Lester vs. Cole Hamels
Anyone who has seen Jon Lester at his best would take him in a heartbeat. Anyone who has seen Cole Hamels at his best would take him in a heartbeat. Both are fantastic southpaws with postseason pedigree and the ability to dominate.
Simply put, Hamels has been the better pitcher this year. Whether that has to do with NL hitters vs. AL hitters is something we could debate until the cows come home. For now, a quick look at the numbers suggests how good the Phillies lefty has been.
Hamels entered Monday ranked in the top five in the NL in wins (nine), ERA (2.49) and strikeouts (108). He leads the league with a microscopic 0.96 WHIP. And while Hamels has produced eight straight quality starts, Lester has posted a 4.74 ERA over his last nine.
Bullpens: If Phillies closer Ryan Madson is able to go, it’s an advantage to the hometown team. Madson has been bothered by a sore right hand that has left his availability up in the air. When healthy, he has saved 15 games and has led a bullpen that ranks as one of the better in the NL. Antonio Bastardo (3-0, 0.96 ERA), who has been a revelation, and Michael Stutes (3-0, 2.92 ERA) will handle the closing duties in Madson’s place.
Boston’s pen is vastly improved from last season. Also, Bobby Jenks is expected to return during the series, which will simply add more firepower in the later innings. The Phils have had just a few more shutdown performances from their corps. This one is close, and largely dependent on Madson. We will make the call assuming he is good to go.
Conclusion: By winning six matchups and losing five, it is rather obvious that Philadelphia will win each game by a 6-5 score.