By Cliff Corcoran
The smallest thing can turn a postseason series. In the Astros' victory over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, plays at the plate and near the outfield wall played a critical role in a hard-fought seven-game set. When Houston ace Justin Verlander first reached the World Series with the Tigers in 2006, Detroit was undone in part by the awful fielding of its pitchers, who made an error in every game, including one by then-rookie Verlander in each of his two starts in that Series.
Those are the sorts of things that disappear into the larger sample of the long season, but in a mad race to four wins between two of the best teams in the game, there is no time to learn from mistakes, or for the breaks to even out. We can't predict fluke events or close plays, but we can dig into what is knowable for some factors that might prove significant in this Fall Classic one way or the other.
Of the 50 players who will be active for the 2017 World Series, just three have played in a World Series before. Those three are Verlander and Carlos Beltran for the Astros, and Chase Utley for the Dodgers, and the latter two are likely to spend more time on the bench than on the field.
The last World Series to feature fewer than four players with previous World Series experience was the 1906 Fall Classic, just the third modern World Series ever played, and even that Series had an equal number of former champions: one. 1906 White Sox left fielder Patsy Dougherty had won the first modern World Series with the 1903 Boston Americans. The only player with a ring on either roster for this World Series is Utley, who won with the 2008 Phillies.
As for age, the greatest concentration of youth on either team is in the Dodgers' lineup, where 22-year-old Cody Bellinger, the youngest player on either team, will be joined by 23-year-old Corey Seager, 26-year-olds Yasiel Puig and Enrique Hernandez, and 27-year-olds Chris Taylor and Austin Barnes.
Seager will return to the Dodgers' active roster for the World Series, but we won't know what version of Seager will take the field for LA until the lid is lifted in Game 1. Seager finished third in the National League MVP voting as a rookie in 2016, and was just as good for the first five months of 2017. However, an elbow injury sapped his production down the stretch, with Seager hitting just .159/.217/.238 from Aug. 29 to Sept. 24, a performance that factored significantly in the Dodgers' surprising late-season losing streak. Between the final week of the regular season and the Division Series, however, Seager perked up, batting .323/.462/.613 across 39 plate appearances, only to suffer a lower back injury that kept him out of the NLCS entirely. Seager's NLCS replacements (Charlie Culberson and, via centerfielder Taylor moving to shortstop, Joc Pederson) combined to go 6-for-18 (.333) with three doubles and a triple to slug .611 on the series, but the Dodgers rightly see a healthy Seager as a better bet than a repeat of that performance.
The Dodgers and Astros have played a total of just three games against each other in the past five years, those coming in Houston in August 2015. The last time the Astros played in Dodger Stadium was May 2012, a little more than a week before Houston took a then-17-year-old Carlos Correa with the top pick in that year's draft and more than a month before the Dodgers signed 21-year-old Cuban defector Yasiel Puig.
As a result, there's precious little history between the opposing hitters and pitchers in this Series. For example, despite the fact that Astros closer Ken Giles spent his first two seasons in the National League, the Dodgers' 25-man World Series roster has combined for just seven plate appearances against him. The only hit in those seven plate appearances against Giles was a home run by deposed catcher Yasmani Grandal in June 2014. Similarly, Houston's Evan Gattis and Cameron Maybin have combined to hit three home runs off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, but the most recent was in 2013.
Only three Dodgers (Logan Forsythe, Utley and Taylor) have faced the Astros' Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel, and only ex-Ray Forsythe has more than six plate appearances against him (he's 7-for-20, .350, with a triple but no walks). No Dodger has made more than Forsythe's nine plate appearances against Houston's Game 2 starter, Verlander, while Chase Utley is the only Dodger with an extra-base hit against him, a double from 2007. Meanwhile, the only current Dodgers pitchers longest-tenured Astro Jose Altuve has faced more than six times are Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish, who will start Games 1 and 3, respectively. Altuve is also the only Astro to have had success against Kershaw, going 6-for-15 (.400) with four doubles against the Best Pitcher in Baseball.
Long-time Texas Ranger Darvish is a familiar foe for Houston, but not a welcome one, as the active Astros have hit a collective .197/.257/.299 against him. Only George Springer (6-for-18 with two home runs) has had a modicum of success against their former intradivision rival. The one quirk here is that Astros catchers Brian McCann and Evan Gattis have caught LA's Game 4 starter Alex Wood roughly 20 times each, when all were Braves. The last of those games was in 2014, and neither has ever faced Wood as a hitter, but both might have easier time tracking the ball out of Wood's funky, left-handed delivery than their teammates, who are a collective 1-for-12 against Wood without a walk or extra-base hit.
With seven righties in their typical lineup (including switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez and either righty Gattis or switch-hitter Beltran at designated hitter in Houston), you would think the Astros would match up well against a Dodgers rotation that will include three southpaws (Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Wood). However, the Astros righties have had a slight reverse split as a group this season. Individually, only Gurriel and Gattis have had reverse splits among Astros top righties, but both switch-hitters have been far better against right-handed pitching, as has lone right-handed bench bat Cameron Maybin. Add in the typical struggles of lefties Josh Reddick and Brian McCann against same-sided pitchers, and you wind up with an Astros lineup with four favorable right-on-left matchups (Springer, Altuve, Correa, and Alex Bregman) amid five other hitters who struggle against lefties, or at least have this year. The Dodgers, who are also heavily right-handed, have more conventional platoon splits.
Often when previewing a World Series matchup, we opine about how the American League team could suffer for the loss of a key hitter in their lineup when playing without the DH in the National League ballpark. That could work the other way this year. The Astros' designated hitters have hit just .205/.279/.385 thus far this postseason and managed just two hits in the ALCS. Houston is unlikely to suffer greatly from their absence in LA. However, the Dodgers could benefit from the addition of the DH in the middle three games in Houston with veteran lefty Andre Ethier having slugged .476 in 47 plate appearances (regular and postseasons combined) since his return from the disabled list on Sept. 1. Ethier has made just two starts this postseason, but he went 2-for-4 with a game-tying homer in the first of them, in Game 3 of the NLCS.
Led by Altuve, the Astros were the more prolific base-stealing team during the regular season, but the Dodgers have been more active in the postseason, swiping five bases in eight tries to Houston's mere 1-for-2. Meanwhile, Astros catchers McCann and Gattis have combined to throw out just 12.5 percent of opposing basestealers this season (postseason included), less than half the league-average rate of 27 percent. Five different Dodgers have stolen a base this postseason, including catcher Barnes, who is faster than the average Major Leaguer regardless of position. A sixth has attempted two steals but been thrown out both times (Puig, of course). The Dodgers could thus be a persistent threat to swipe a bag in this series.
The first two games of this World Series could be the hottest in postseason history, with temperatures ranging into the high 90s in Los Angeles (the existing record is 94 degrees, the start-time temperature of Game 1 of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix). Both of these teams are warm-weather clubs, so the heat won't be unfamiliar to them, but it will still be interesting to see if it has any impact, particularly on the starting pitchers. If the starters fatigue more quickly due to the combination of the heat and the intensity of the games, it would seem likely to favor the Dodgers, who have a vastly superior bullpen.
However, more heat means more sweat, and that could prove problematic for LA's Game 2 starter, Hill, who has a history of blister problems, most recently missing a month early this season due to a blister on his left middle finger. Hill has thrown fewer curveballs since his return in an effort to avoid further issues, but he's still throwing his breaking ball a third of the time, which can translate to 30 or more curves per start. Balancing the curve, the sweat and the Astros lineup, which led the Majors in runs scored during the regular season, in the SoCal heat could prove tricky even for a pitcher as inventive and resourceful as Hill.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.