And then there were two.
With three rounds of the 2023 MLB postseason complete, the field has been narrowed down to the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Perhaps not the two teams anyone expected in this year's Fall Classic, and yet, in a season defined by massive payrolls and new rules, the swiftly and expensively rebuilt Rangers conquered the American League while the speed- and defense-oriented D-backs emerged from the National League.
So who's going to win the World Series, beginning with Game 1 on Friday? Let's break it down.
How are they playing right now?
With a loss on the last day of the regular season, the Rangers fell out of first place in the division and into the wild-card round. It was a huge swing in circumstances; instead of going home to rest, the team that had already been on the road for a week at that point played its first six postseason games on the road, and won them all. In fact, the Rangers swept the first two rounds — against the 99-win Rays and 101-win Orioles — and initially looked equally dominant against an Astros team that bested them in the division, before that series went seven. In the divisive final game, the Rangers won in an 11-4 blowout, a score reflective of what this lineup is capable of.
Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, the Rangers have the highest team wRC+ — a continuation of the offensive onslaught that saw the team score the third-most runs in MLB during the regular season. Only three members of the lineup with 30 or more postseason plate appearances have a below-average wRC+. In the short series at the start of the month, the Rangers were able to strategically deploy two starters capable of keeping the other team off the board while going deep into games before they turned things over to their small circle of reliable relievers. The seven-game ALCS exposed some cracks in the rest of the rotation and the weak depth of the bullpen, but with Max Scherzer and Jon Gray back in the mix after missing time to injury, Texas’ pitching should have, well, if not actual stability, then certainly a higher ceiling.
Who are their biggest October stars?
Adolis García: With the next run he drives in, García will tie the record for most RBI in a single postseason. He ended the ALCS, of which he was the MVP, with five home runs in four games and at the center of a hit-by-pitch controversy that seemed to stem from his unmitigated enthusiasm. On the whole, the Rangers are relatively business-like in their approach to success, but not so for García, who admires his home runs, pounds his chest and generally serves as the emotional heartbeat of the team.
He has extra cause to appreciate the run the Rangers are on right now. Not only is he one of the few players still on the team from the 102-loss 2021 season, but also his personal journey to this stage was a winding one. After playing for his home country of Cuba and in the Japanese NPB, García defected and signed with St. Louis at 24 years old — far older than most international free agents. The Cardinals gave up on him, and he ended up in the Rangers' system for cash considerations. Texas, too, designated García for assignment, but he made it through waivers unclaimed. Two-and-a-half years later, he almost single-handedly powered the Rangers past the reigning champs.
Corey Seager: In a slightly less flashy record, Seager set a record for walks in a division series. Maybe not the most exciting, but it was a testament to teams pitching around the generally aggressive swinger. Seager is the Rangers’ $300 million man; when he signed with the team after the 2021 season, it signaled an aggressive approach to getting back to contention that has brought the team all the way to the World Series.
For Texas, Seager has done what he always did: produce consistently. In his nine-year career, he has never had a wRC+ below 100, and this season, he was nearly 70% better than league average. And even though the Rangers haven’t played in the World Series in more than a decade, Seager has proven success in the Fall Classic at Globe Life Field. He was the Dodgers’ World Series MVP when they won there during the neutral-site postseason in 2020.
Nathan Eovaldi: After earning a reputation as a big-game pitcher in Boston, Eovaldi has doubled down on that identity this month with the Rangers. He was part of a rotation overhaul pulled off last winter and went on to have an All-Star-worthy first half. Then he missed much of the second half and struggled down the stretch after he returned from injury.
But since the stakes got higher and the stage got bigger, Eovaldi has been his best self. He has yet to lose this month, with a 2.42 ERA through four starts, which explains why he’ll be the Rangers’ Game 1 starter on Friday.
What should you know about their manager?
This is Bruce Bochy’s fifth trip to the World Series, and it’s the third team he has taken there. It has been a quarter of a century since then-fourth-year manager Bochy led the 1998 Padres to a World Series against the Yankees. Since then, he became a hero in the Bay Area by winning three titles with the San Francisco Giants and retired to his home in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there that Rangers general manager Chris Young, who once played for Bochy, spent seven hours convincing the 68-year-old to come back to baseball. “I said if I got back in, it had to be the right fit,” Bochy said in August.
The feeling has been mutual: Rangers players praise Bochy’s steady presence as the team rode the roller coaster of the regular season into the playoff pressure-cooker. With a gravelly voice and a halting gait, Bochy brings a commitment to consistency — he likes to keep his lineups the same day in and day out and believes in riding the hot hand. In a World Series featuring two teams that haven’t played on this stage for some time, Bochy is a beacon of experience.
How do they win the World Series?
It starts with Eovaldi and Jordan Montgomery. The two of them have combined to start seven of the Rangers’ nine wins this postseason and eight of 12 games overall. If the series stretches on, expect to see each of them twice — at least (more on that later). And don’t expect Bochy to have too quick of a hook, either. Eovaldi has gone at least six innings in each of his starts, and Montgomery has gone at least six twice.
Even when one of those two isn’t on the mound, the Rangers’ lineup should give them a chance to out-mash the D-backs every night. In the regular season, the Rangers outslugged Arizona by 67 homers — the difference between tied for third in baseball and 22nd overall. It’s not all about the longball (they were also second in doubles during the season!), but the Rangers are better at blowing teams out of the water than they are at winning on the margins. During the season, they had a .389 record in one-run games and a .617 record in blowouts (games decided by five or more runs).
Leadoff hitter and ostensible leader Marcus Semien has gone cold this month — he’s one of the three with a sub-100 wRC+ and, in fact, is the lowest of the bunch — but he and Seager should give Texas two opportunities to go ahead with a single swing right at the outset — like Seager did in Game 7 of the ALCS. Rookie sensation Evan Carter can go entire games without making an out, and if García stays hot, who can stop them?
How do they lose?
The bullpen, that’s how.
It’s a little tired at this point to call out the Rangers’ sub-.500 save conversion in the regular season, but a shut-down bullpen can take an unexpected team all the way to the championship, and the opposite … well, it’s remarkable they’ve made it this far. Some of that is attributable to the extra rest days afforded by the playoff schedule; Bochy has been able to rely heavily on the few arms he trusts, including having Montgomery pitch in relief. But we saw in the ALCS that even de facto closer José Leclerc, who is among that inner circle, is fallible, and everyone is getting only more tired at this point in the year.
The Rangers’ pitching depth in general is a problem. Max Scherzer coming back somewhat unexpectedly from September’s IL-stint was exciting — and terrifying. If he can’t shake off the rust, or if he is simply a diminished version of who he once was, the Rangers’ starting ranks start to look rather thin. If the Rangers don’t win when Montgomery and Eovaldi are on the mound, they should be very worried about the series as a whole. Arizona has a credible third starter in Brandon Pfaadt, so beyond the first two games, the pitching edge might flip to the D-backs.
How are they playing right now?
Oddly enough, the Diamondbacks bashed through most of the postseason without heavily featuring their top-of-the-line speed on the basepaths. That changed in the two revelatory NLCS road wins that capped their upset of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Still, manager Torey Lovullo maintains that they are only “close” to playing their best baseball — “Diamondbacks baseball,” in his parlance. What he envisions is a fundamentally pristine style of play that emphasizes blanketing defense, constant pressure from contact-inclined hitters and, yes, swarming aggression on the bases.
Limiting the D-backs to that small-ball idea is oversimplifying things a bit. Ketel Marte has been the offense's engine, batting .358 in the middle of a daunting top-of-the-order combo with Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno. They are most often creating havoc by stringing together line drives, but this team can hit home runs. Alek Thomas and Tommy Pham have provided crucial bursts of power, but they are useful D-backs players in large part because they don’t have to hit homers to be productive.
The pitching staff made a huge adjustment in the middle of the Phillies series — and might need to be similarly attentive to approaches against the Rangers. But the gist of the Diamondbacks’ pitching philosophy revolves around making you swing at pitches that often get hit but within the confines of the fences, where the team’s fleet-footed position players can track down almost anything.
Who are their biggest October stars?
Corbin Carroll: A near-lock for NL Rookie of the Year, you can’t miss Carroll. He’ll be in right field or occasionally center. He’ll be in one of the top two lineup spots. He’ll be in the middle of everything. He is Arizona’s gravitational player, the sun among their stars, the franchise player whose brilliance was so apparent that he signed an eight-year, $111 million extension before his first full season began.
Blazing fast with more pop than you think possible given his compact frame — regular-season power-speed check: 25 homers, 54 steals — Carroll is a nightmare for pitchers and the spark of this dream season for the Diamondbacks.
Zac Gallen: A Cy Young contender who will fall just short because of a couple of rough September starts, Gallen has turned into a dominant starter on the back of a deceptively great four-seam fastball, a dizzying array of secondary pitches that veer off of it in all directions and stellar command.
His playoff numbers, however, have not been encouraging, in part because the fastball command hasn’t been fine enough to set up his other offerings. Gallen will need to rectify that against the slugging Rangers.
Ketel Marte: Marte, the 30-year-old, switch-hitting second baseman and longest-tenured member of the Arizona core, has played in 16 career postseason games and notched a hit in every single one. That streak is tied for the MLB record to start a career and just one game short of tying the overall postseason record.
As Phillies fans can attest, Marte is probably the guy the Rangers are least interested in seeing at the plate in a key moment.
What should you know about their manager?
A basketball junkie who plays pickup games with his coaching staff and references John Wooden, Lovullo has the vibe of a leader who might, say, orchestrate a Cinderella run in March Madness.
He’s refreshingly honest about his tactics and game to stir the pot to show belief in his team. A longtime minor-league skipper who served as bench coach in Toronto and Boston before getting his managerial shot with the Diamondbacks, Lovullo pulls off the fun trick of seeming unbuttoned while in fact working closely with the front office and executing carefully crafted plans. That’s how you wind up with him taking out Brandon Pfaadt after 70 pitches and 5 2/3 shutout innings in NLCS Game 3, then quipping, “I was booing myself as I walked out to the mound.”
Wherever you try to pin Lovullo on the spectrum of new-school to old-school, you’ll probably wind up a bit confounded, mostly because he is so willing to talk through all sides of his moves, dispelling any impression that one mindset drives his decisions — most of which, by the way, have worked out swimmingly, especially his deployment of a bullpen that has coalesced around Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald.
“I want everybody to know, that is trying to think along with me, that we have a strategy,” he said after the Pfaadt move. “I have a strategy for everything that's done. Everything that's done has been well talked about. It's not just analytics. I know how quickly playoff baseball can change.
“So, yes, I am prepared to get booed. I am prepared to get second-guessed. It's my job."
How do they win the World Series?
You know that seemingly undersized college basketball team that makes it into March Madness, then drives the bigger teams into mania and eventually submission with a smothering, full-court press? Yeah, that’s sort of how the Diamondbacks play at their best.
They are close-quarters fighters, locking down all the tiny avenues to success until the opponent is surrounded, Arizona is winning 4-2, and whatever perceived talent advantage there once was has been backed into a corner with one remote way out. In practice, that stems from these basic competencies: By Statcast’s estimation, the Diamondbacks were this season’s third-best team at running the bases, the second-best defensive squad and the very best at limiting opposing base stealers.
Much of their pitching staff — from No. 2 starter Merrill Kelly to crucial rookie starter Brandon Pfaadt to funky bullpen arm Ryan Thompson and lights-out setup man Kevin Ginkel — thrives when throwing bending, cutting, sinking balls out of the zone and fooling hitters into swinging anyway. And that’s not a bad way to think about how the Diamondbacks keep winning against teams that seem to have them outmatched from a talent perspective. They’re good enough to lure the opposition into games decided on the margins. And you do not want to face the Diamondbacks on the margins.
If there’s one hidden edge for the D-backs, it’s Pfaadt’s recent performance compared to that of Max Scherzer for the Rangers. All track records — even from this regular season — would appear to give Texas the edge in that likely Game 3 and potentially Game 7 matchup, but as they’re currently pitching, with Pfaadt finding a sharp slider and winning formula and Scherzer still rusty from an injury layoff, things might tilt in Arizona’s favor.
How do they lose?
On the other hand, battles of haymakers probably won’t favor the Diamondbacks. They don’t have the power bats to go back and forth with the Rangers’ lineup if it’s firing on all cylinders. Most of their pitchers wouldn’t project to fare well if Texas refuses to chase and forces strength-on-strength duels with Corey Seager, Adolis García and the like. Similarly, D-backs hitters could be disproportionately limited by a pitcher such as Rangers ace Nathan Eovaldi, who is unafraid to pump the zone full of high-velocity strikes (see: Wheeler, Zack) and snuff out their opportunities to create deep counts, baserunners and chaos.
Stylistic clashes in baseball are hard to gauge and hard to predict, but the most pressing worry for the D-backs would seem to be a series like the one they initially appeared to be facing against the Phillies, one in which they give up game-changing home runs and feel pressure to pursue similarly grand tasks, instead of remaining focused on gobbling up the 90 feet between bases, stealing strike two and gradually conquering the game from the foundation up.
World Series predictions
Zach: The Rangers have the power edge, the more pedigreed postseason pitching and home-field advantage. That’s … exactly why I picked the Diamondbacks’ opponents the first few rounds this month, and it was exactly wrong.
I thoroughly believed in the Diamondbacks’ upward trajectory prior to this season, picking them to make the postseason in what seemed like an absolutely optimal outcome at the time. I didn’t have the same level of faith once they actually got into the tournament, but they have repeatedly proven they are worthy of it. So why not them?
Behind an infuriatingly persistent lineup and a dialed-in bullpen, the Diamondbacks win the whole thing in six games.
Hannah: Back when Zach was trying to convince me Arizona had arrived, I was arguing that two offseasons of additions were enough to turn Texas into a contender. But just like Zach let his early belief in the Diamondbacks waiver once we got into October, I, too, stopped picking the Rangers once they were up against the Astros. Look where that got us.
Maybe I’m letting recency bias have an undue influence — but what is the point of postseason predictions if not to go with your gut and the small sample size? — but especially in Game 7 of the ALCS, against an Astros team that was also one win away from the World Series with all the reasons to believe they’d be there again, the Rangers looked unbeatable. Scoring 11 runs will do that. The Diamondbacks can’t match that kind of offense, so the Rangers win their first World Series title in five.