The 2017 World Series gets underway at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night. The Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers will participate in the first Fall Classic featuring two teams that won at least 100 games since 1970. Some would say that these were the two best teams throughout the regular season and both deserve to be in this position. What we can definitively say is that they both deserve to be in this position based on what happened in the LDS and the LCS rounds of the playoffs.
The Dodgers are a growing favorite for Game 1. The line opened in the -160 range, which basically mirrored the market price for the series, and has inched closer to -170 at some shops. The total is at 7 with juice to the under. The visiting Astros will go with Dallas Keuchel and the host Dodgers will counter with Clayton Kershaw, whose playoff struggles have been kept under a microscope throughout his career. He has the chance to put some of those narratives to rest in this round and the chance to give the ultimate middle ringer with one of those gaudy, shiny rings.
One interesting note about this series and this pitching matchup in particular is that both guys are fresher than they would normally be. Keuchel was limited to 145.2 innings in the regular season and has worked 17.1 postseason frames. Kershaw worked 175 innings in the regular season and has also worked 17.1 innings in these playoffs.
Keuchel owned a 2.90 ERA with a 3.79 FIP and a 3.32 xFIP in the regular season. The ground ball specialist posted reasonable strikeout to walk rates with a 13.4 percent K%-BB%, but his ground ball rate is what stands out. While most hitters around the league are tinkering with launch angle and everybody seems to have 20-homer power, Keuchel forced hitters to put the ball on the ground on 66.8 percent of the balls in play that he allowed. He did allow 15 HR, which led to a 21.1 percent HR/FB% because of the low fly ball rate, but he was solid throughout the season.
He’s been even better in the playoffs with a 2.60 ERA with a 1.14 FIP and a 1.96 xFIP, despite a .341 BABIP against. Keuchel hasn’t allowed a home run with a 56.1 percent GB% and has a 25/5 K/BB ratio. He was victimized by variance in his last start against the Yankees in terms of balls in play, but was able to limit the damage. That was the second time in the series that he faced the Yankees. In his two Game 1 starts, Keuchel has allowed one run on seven hits with a 17/4 K/BB ratio. Few pitchers, if any, command the bottom of the zone as well as Keuchel, which is why he has so much success.
Kershaw wrapped up an un-Kershaw-like regular season with a 2.31 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, and a 2.84 xFIP. He missed some time with back problems, but the biggest concern was his home run rate. His 15.9 percent HR/FB% nearly mirrored his now 15 percent HR/FB% in his postseason career. He allowed as many home runs in 175 innings in 2017 as he had across 381.2 innings in 2015 and 2016 combined. His K% was actually its lowest since 2013, but that was still 29.8 percent, so we’re talking about a bar that has been set remarkably high.
Kershaw’s postseason numbers are always getting extra attention. But, when you’re the best pitcher on the planet and can’t perform in the postseason, it’s easy to see why. There will always be extra scrutiny for those guys. Kershaw enters this start with a career 4.40 ERA in 106.1 postseason innings. He has a 3.71 FIP and a 3.26 xFIP. His command hasn’t been as sharp in October, with a 15 percent HR/FB% and 16 HR allowed. Kershaw has allowed 16 or more home runs just twice in his regular season career and this is clearly a smaller sample size. Kershaw has been victimized by variance. In the playoffs, he has a 65.9 percent LOB%, compared to a 79 percent in the regular season. His K/9 and K% are actually higher in the playoffs than in the regular season.
Not all lefties are created equal, and these are two of the best in the business, so take these splits with a grain of salt, but the Astros were the second-best offense in baseball against southpaws with a .347 wOBA. They tied with the Tigers for the best wRC+ at 120. The Dodgers were fifth in wOBA at .337 and fourth in wRC+ at 109, so both teams have had good success in this split.
The Astros had some of the worst production from the DH spot in the American League, so the NL ground rules aren’t a huge deal, but the fact that Keuchel has to hit is a little bit different for him and we have seen pitchers struggle in the next half inning if they have to run the bases or have a long at bat as the final out of the inning. That could generate some live betting opportunities.
The bullpen advantage for the Dodgers is quite big in this series. With Lance McCullers likely unavailable as one of the few reliable arms for AJ Hinch, the Astros will be up against it tonight if this is a close game late. The Dodgers have been holding their starters to around 75 or 80 pitches to keep them fresh and use the bullpen to their advantage. The Astros haven’t had that luxury, so guys like Keuchel and Justin Verlander have been pushed as the middle relievers have struggled.
Free MLB Pick: Los Angeles Dodgers
You can read my full series preview here, but I’ll be previewing each game as long as we go. The Dodgers have a big bullpen advantage in this series and a very fresh group going into Game 1 because they disposed of the Cubs so early. That is a big boost for them in this spot. I would expect a tight, low-scoring affair here, with Kershaw facing a lineup that doesn’t see him often and the same for Keuchel. As long as both guys execute, there should be a lot of weak contact in this one and then both managers will make aggressive decisions in hopes of snagging Game 1. The Dodgers have better bullpen depth.
I do think that the nerves and anxiety for both teams will be on display. That could be a bigger issue for the Astros when it comes to playing defense. As it is, the Dodgers are a much better defensive team. The Astros are very young and haven’t been here. The Dodgers are under immense pressure to validate all of the spending that has taken place to build a team to end what is almost a 20-year World Series drought. That could lead to some interesting things in this game, but the Dodgers and the under would be my two leans, with live betting always the preferred postseason option.