World Series preview: Dodgers vs. Astros is two 100-win teams battling it out

For the 113th installment of the World Series, we have a Los Angeles Dodgers team that hasn’t won baseball’s ultimate prize since 1988, the year Kirk Gibson famously limped around the bases, against a Houston Astros team that has never won a World Series.

That’s just one of the many subplots in this series, which begins Tuesday in L.A. It’s also the first World Series between two 100-win teams since 1970, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. Both teams used big summer trades to fuel their postseason runs — the Dodgers getting Yu Darvish and the Astros adding Justin Verlander.

They’ve helped both teams get here. The Dodgers steamrolled through the first two rounds of the postseason, only losing one game. The Astros looked like dynamos in the first round against the Boston Red Sox, but the New York Yankees fought them to seven games.

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Now the baseball season is down to two teams that are probably a bit more alike than you might think. Yes, the Dodgers have the largest payroll in the game and the Astros are 15th, but otherwise, their approaches aren’t too different. They’re both led by strong starting pitchers, with lineups that complement young, homegrown stars with proven veterans.

They’ve both tried to build strong bullpens that can thrive in the postseason – with the Dodgers having a little more success than the Astros.

Now we’ll see whether the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw finally get the postseason glory that has eluded them in recent years — or if the Astros’ high-profile rebuilding project yields the best possible results.

SCHEDULE
Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 24 in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. ET (TV coverage on Fox)
Game 2: Wednesday, Oct. 25 in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game 3: Friday, Oct. 27 in Houston, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game 4: Saturday, Oct. 28 in Houston, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game 5*: Sunday, Oct. 29 in Houston, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game 6*: Tuesday, Oct. 31 in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game 7*: Wednesday, Nov. 1 in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. ET (Fox)
*if necessary

PREVIOUSLY
History in this one is hard to come by for these two teams. The Astros and Dodgers haven’t met in interleague play since the 2015 season, when the Astros swept the Dodgers in a three-game series in Houston. And that has as much bearing on this series as the Dodgers taking four of six from the Astros back in 2010.

Speaking of things that don’t matter: The Astros and Dodgers franchises were rivals in the National League for a spell in the early 1980s. Back in the Astros’ NL days, they played way more often, with the Dodgers having a 388-323 advantage. It’s all meaningless in the days of Carlos Correa and Justin Turner, but you can bet some long-tenured fans on each side remember.

Here are some other “previously” matters to consider: Nobody on the Astros who has ever faced Clayton Kershaw (there’s seven of them) has ever homered, though Jose Altuve has a .400 career average against Kershaw in 15 at-bats. Only four Dodgers have ever faced Dallas Keuchel. Logan Forsythe has had the best success, getting seven hits in 20 at-bats.

The Astros have seen ex-AL West pal Darvish quite a bit, hitting a combined .190 against him. George Springer has homered twice off Darvish, though. Dodgers hitters have a .229 average against Verlander. Curtis Granderson has homered off him twice, but also struck out 10 times.

Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Justin Verlander of the Astros will be key pitchers in the World Series. (AP)

PITCHING
Game 1: Clayton Kershaw (18-4, 2.31 ERA) vs. Dallas Keuchel (14-5, 2.90 ERA)
Game 2: Rich Hill (12-8, 3.32 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.36 ERA)
Game 3: Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) vs. TBD
Game 4: Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) vs. TBD
Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD
Game 6*: TBD vs. TBD
Game 7*: TBD vs. TBD
*if necessary

Surprise! Kershaw starts Game 1 for the Dodgers. Everything worked out perfectly for Los Angeles. Kershaw not only managed to pitch well against the Chicago Cubs in Game 5, but will be on normal rest for Game 1. He’s been the best pitcher in baseball for years, and the concerns about his postseason struggles are overblown. For example, in the 2013 NLDS, he posted a 0.69 ERA over two starts. In the 2015 NLDS, he had a 2.63 ERA in two starts. And against the Cubs in 2017, he had a 2.45 ERA in two starts. He good. There’s not much more to say.

Behind Kershaw, the club will go with Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood. Darvish is usually a Cy Young contender, though he’s coming off a rough year by his standards. But he improved with the Dodgers, and has been lights out thus far this postseason.

You could probably make the case both Hill and Wood would receive Cy Young votes had they remained healthy. That’s really the only knock on both pitchers. But the Dodgers had the depth to weather their annual injuries, and both guys should be at 100 percent for the World Series. This is an exceptionally dangerous quartet … probably the best No. 1 thru No. 4 in the majors.

Three of the four pitchers the Dodgers will put out there are left-handed, but that really won’t make a difference. The Astros tied for first in the majors with a 120 wRC+ — an advanced stat that measures offensive performance — against lefties. But they ranked first in the majors with a 122 wRC+ against righties. They hit everyone.

The Astros were fortunate with how their rotation shaped up as well. Dallas Keuchel will get the nod against Kershaw in a battle of former Cy Young winners. Keuchel returned to form after a tough year, getting back to his groundballing ways. He would have led the majors if not for a neck injury that limited his innings. He returned, and didn’t seem bothered by the issue, posting a 2.95 ERA over his final nine starts. He was basically himself again.

Behind him, slots ALCS MVP Justin Verlander. The 34-year-old has been in one of the best streaks of his career since joining the Astros. It helps that Verlander rediscovered his slider during the second half of the season. He raised his strikeout rate by 10 percent and cut his walk rate by more than half since joining the club. Verlander posted a 1.06 ERA in five starts with the team, and carried that over to the postseason, with a 1.49 ERA over four starts.

After that, it’s tough to say. A.J. Hinch went with a combination of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 7 of the ALCS. He could do that again, or he could split them up. The team does have Brad Peacock, who posted a 3.00 ERA in 21 starts in the regular season. His only postseason start was abbreviated. He allowed three runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Red Sox. He was used as a reliever in the ALCS.

The Dodgers have the edge in the battle of the bullpens, and that’s not recency bias. Los Angeles posted a 3.38 ERA in the regular season, which ranked fourth. Kenley Jansen is the best closer in baseball. He posted a ridiculous 109 strikeouts against seven walks. But L.A’s bullpen isn’t just him. Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, Brandon Morrow, and Josh Fields all posted ERAs under 3.00. The team has also used starter Kenta Maeda as a reliever, and he’s thrived in the role.

The Astros bullpen ranked just 17th in the majors with a 4.27 ERA in the regular season. They might not be as deep, but they still feature a strong quartet at the back-end. Ken Giles, Chris Devenski and Will Harris all struck out more than a batter per inning. Joe Musgrove came in just under that, but posted a 1.44 ERA. Luke Gregerson had strong peripherals, but a 4.47 ERA. Francisco Liriano is Francisco Liriano. Hinch seemed to lose confidence in both, barely using them in the ALCS.

Jose Altuve celebrates as he crosses home after hitting a home run during the ALCS against the New York Yankees Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

THREE KEYS FOR THE ASTROS
• Jose Altuve: This one isn’t too deep, but Altuve needs to hit for the Astros. Imagine that, the MVP candidate needs to be at his best. But consider it this way: There have been four games this postseason in which Altuve hasn’t gotten a hit. The Astros are 1-3 in those games. In games where Altuve has gotten a hit, they’re 6-1.

• Hit the ball in L.A.: The Astros’ high-powered offense is actually the inverse of itself when on the road. Consider this: At home in the postseason, Houston scored 31 runs. On the road, 13 runs. That’s the difference between a .213 batting average on the road and .276 at home, and two homers on the road and 10 at home.

• Get more from their bullpen: The Astros have one very glaring weakness in the postseason and it’s the bullpen. While the Dodgers’ bullpen has been amazingly good with a 0.94 ERA, the Astros’ has been the exact opposite. In 10 games, their ERA is 5.03, which is a cause for concern — especially against a Dodgers team that’s had great success wearing down starting pitchers.

Kenley Jansen celebrates after Game 5 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

THREE KEYS FOR THE DODGERS
• Corey Seager’s back: Is it gonna be “Corey Seager’s back!” or “Ugh, Corey Seager’s back.” We’ll see soon enough. The Dodgers’ star shortstop was out for the NLCS with a back injury, but the Dodgers offense didn’t miss him a ton. Still, if you’re the Dodgers, you want one of your best bats in the lineup now that they’ve reached the most important series. No official word yet on whether Seager and his 22 homers will be back, but it looks promising.

• The road to Kenley Jansen: The Dodgers have built a team that doesn’t need a starting pitcher to go seven or eight innings before handing the ball over to star closer Kenley Jansen. As we noted above, their bullpen has been the best this postseason. That may be, but the most volatile part of any game is potentially the gap between the starters and the closer. The Dodgers have beefed that up with Brandon Morrow, Tony Cingrani and new relief ace Kenta Maeda. To succeed in the World Series, that group will be just as important.

• Protect the home-field: The Astros themselves have shown us how important home-field has been this postseason. In the ALCS, they were like two different teams when they were at home and when they were on the road. It’s obvious, the Astros are tougher to beat at home. But the Dodgers host four games in L.A., so the Astros will need to win at least one on the road to win the World Series.

FIVE KEY NUMBERS
• 556: Difference in pitches between both teams. The Dodgers have thrown just 1,004 pitches this postseason. The Astros have thrown 1,560 pitches. Los Angeles has done this all postseason, throwing far fewer pitches against the Cubs in the NLCS. They are not just efficient on the mound, but they wear out opposing pitchers.

• 206: Combined number of regular season wins from both teams. It’s the first time since 1970 that two teams with over 100 wins have met in the World Series. The Baltimore Orioles beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games in that series. The Orioles had more wins during the regular season. What does that mean in 2017? Absolutely nothing. It’s just fun that two most dominant teams from the regular season are meeting in the World Series.

• 17.3: Strikeout rate for the Astros in the regular season. The Astros ranked first in the category. They’ll have their work cut out for them, as Dodgers pitchers posted the second-highest strikeout rate (26.1 percent). That’s been the story all postseason for Houston, though. The New York Yankees ranked fourth in strikeout rate. The Boston Red Sox ranked fifth. Houston beat both of them.

• 3: Number of Cy Young awards won by Kershaw. Including Kershaw, there have been eight players in Major League history to win at least three Cy Young awards. Kershaw is the only one without a World Series ring. This will be his first chance to rectify that.

• 121: The Astros wRC+. That figure led the majors. We’ve already mentioned the team’s offense, but it’s important. That’s the one area where the Astros hold a clear advantage over Los Angels. The Dodgers have better starters, a better bullpen, a better defense and better baserunners according to the metrics. But the one area where Houston bests them is on offense. It won’t be easy to hit Los Angeles’ fearsome foursome, but the Astros have hit everyone this year.

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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