The wicked clevah ALDS Preview

2007

So we’re in the playoffs. Which is terrific. Fantastic, even. I don’t know about you, but I savored the shit out of this appearance. Partially because it’s been a long, tough road to get here. But mostly because if you don’t make the playoffs, it’s difficult to win the World Series. Which is bad.

The obvious question at this point – the question on your mind and mine is simple – can we win? That one, at least, I can answer: yes. If the Cardinals, winners of a mere 83 games, could win it in ’06, anything is clearly possible. The playoffs, as several wise people have commented, are something of a crapshoot. And besides, as Bob Ryan says, we are pretty much playing with house money at this point.

But to answer the better, more important question of will we win, I looked at the numbers, and I’m sorry to say they’re not good. Like, really not good. The Angels beat writers may be shooting for the reverse jinx, the MLB Angels guy might lean our way, and Rob Neyer might argue we have the best team, but man, the numbers. I know it’s a small tiny sample size and all that, and that most of it will go out the window tomorrow night at 10 PM ET…but man, the numbers.

So with the reiterated caveat that we’re dealing with an extremely small sample size – all numbers are for the ’08 season unless otherwise specified – here’s your Angels v Sox playoff preview.

The Season Series

Everyone knows this already, but in case you hadn’t been keeping up with current events, we got our asses kicked. The Angels not only took eight of the nine contests between the two clubs, they scored nearly twice as many runs as we did in doing so – 61-33.

Thankfully, that’s behind us, and truthfully it was a long time ago. The last time we saw the Angels was the 30th of July.We’re a different team than we were then, and so are they.

The Injuries

As if the record wasn’t quite discouraging enough, there’s the fact that we are light years from operating at full strength. No club is fully healthy at this time of year, but having your starting third basemen and right fielder afflicted with a torn labrum of the hip and herniated disc, respectively, wasn’t how we’d draw things up. ESPN says they could both play in Game 1, but even if they can, what can they give us?

And then, of course, there was the late breaking Beckett news, which was about as welcome as a kick to the crotch. Before I continue, however, let me compliment the Sox on their tight ship: I’m with Art – if the Angels known Beckett is iffy, they probably opt for the schedule requiring us to use four starters, not three. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the likelihood that Beckett starts on Sunday.

No matter what I tell the ladies, I am not a doctor, so I don’t have the faintest idea. But I can’t say that Art’s review of the Sox history with oblique injuries is particularly reassuring: our last four bouts with the side muscle have cost us an average of just under 21 days. Which, in case you’re scoring at home, is about 14 more days than Beckett will have. But, like Lowell, the kid is tough, so we’ll see.

If he doesn’t pitch, however, or doesn’t pitch effectively, we’re probably in trouble. For reasons that I’ll get into in a minute.

And we’re not even accounting for the fact that Ortiz still seems bothered by his wrist from time to time.

Healthy, we ain’t.

The Angels Lineup

This, according to just about everyone, is the Angels’ primary weakness – Texeira or no Texeira. Which is understandable, given that they put up a .268/.329/.412 line for a .741 OPS. Non-stellar, especially for a team that won a hundred games. As Keith Law puts it in his scouter:

The Angels’ main Achilles heel is their lineup, although they’ll head into October with a stronger offense than their season-long totals might indicate. It is as impatient a lineup as you’ll see in the postseason; they finished 11th in the AL in OBP at .329, and 12th in walks, ahead of only Seattle and Kansas City. Many of their hitters try to get a fastball early in the count and shoot it to the opposite field, eschewing both power and the benefits of patience to try to reach base quickly via singles and the occasional double down the line and then put pressure on the defense. On any given night, they’ll run four below-average hitters for their positions out there in Chone Figgins (who does work the count, but has so little power as to be ineffectual), Aybar, and two of Juan Rivera, Gary Matthews Jr. and Garret Anderson; it’s five on nights when Jeff Mathis starts behind the plate. Vlad Guerrero can still get the bat to the ball — wherever the latter might be — extremely well, but the result of that contact is a little weaker than it’s ever been before. Teixeira’s arrival is one of the reasons why those season-long numbers are a little misleading; he’s put up numbers for the Angels comparable [ed -.133/.188/.333/.521] to what Manny Ramirez has posted for the Dodgers, but in the tougher league.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that against us, at least this year, the Halos have been better than non-stellar. And then some.

En route to scoring those 61 runs, the Angels’ lineup hit .305/.360/.540/.901 against our pitching. And before you ask, yes, that includes two Beckett starts and one apiece from Lester and Matsuzaka. Here’s what their projected started lineup did against the good guys:

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Mathis .231 .259 .423 .682
1B Texeira 1 GP 0-4
2B Kendrick .200 .261 .250 .511
3B Figgins .306 .405 .361 .766
SS Aybar .500 .500 .857 1.357
LF Anderson .378 .395 .649 1.043
CF Hunter .361 .395 .694 1.089
RF Guerrero .270 .325 .459 .784
DH Rivera .286 .353 .357 .710

Granted, Aybar’s not likely to OPS 1.357 against us in the Division Series, but still. They killed our guys pretty good, as you’ll see when I get to the Sox pitching.

But for now, the Angels’ pitching.

The Angels Pitching

For the year, the Angels’ pitching was good. Their 1-2 of Lackey/Santana is about as good as you’ll find, the rest of the rotation is serviceable, and the pen has potentially dominant setup men in front of the record setting K-Rod. Together, the unit put up a 4.02 ERA, 1092K, 457BB, 6.81 K/9 line in 1442.1 IP. Not bad.

The better news, for Angels fans, is that they’re even better that against the Sox. In the 9 games and 80 innings they threw against us this year, their numbers look like this: 3.60 ERA, 50K, 30BB, 5.62 K/9. Not great strikeout or walk numbers, but 33 runs in 9 games is pretty good against our lineup, generally.

Here’s how their top three did against us:

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Lackey 2 .132 .207 .321 .528
Santana DNP
Saunders 3 .254 .346 .437 .782

Credible. Lackey, in particular, after years of getting beaten like the redheaded stepchild by our lineup, owned us in his two starts. If he throws like he did in the regular season against us – rather than his disastrous last start – it’ll be a long day.

The lone strike against the Angels staff is that they faltered in September, albeit while striking more guys out: 4.91 ERA, 225.1 IP, 194K, 75BB, 7.75 K/9. That could easily be attributable, however, to their massive lead in the division.

Anyway, time for a look at our lineup.

The Sox Lineup

Another good news/bad news deal here. The good news is that our lineup was good. As Law put it in his scouting report:

The Red Sox had the best offense in the American League this year, finishing second in runs scored to Texas (who play in a much better hitters’ park) and third in slugging percentage, while leading the league in OBP. They traded their best hitter in Manny Ramirez and got back an equivalent hitter in Jason Bay.

At full strength, they have six strong hitters who are tough outs, usually running 1-6 in their lineup. Dustin Pedroia murders fastballs from up and in to out over the plate, and can foul off a lot of pitches away that he can’t hit fair; his biggest weakness is in under his hands, but few pitchers pitch him there. David Ortiz is weak against lefties, especially lower-slot lefties, who work him soft away, but he hits almost everything else, with good power from left-center all the way to deep right. Bay and Kevin Youkilis are extremely patient hitters. Both let the ball travel well, have good power and will try to pull stuff on the outer half; Bay shows more power, especially when he gets his arms extended. Mike Lowell, when his hip isn’t causing him trouble, has lost a touch of bat speed but still has no trouble with average fastballs; he shows good plate coverage with doubles power. Rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie hasn’t had great results against right-handers since he Wally Pipped Julio Lugo, but takes extremely good at-bats and has murdered left-handed pitching.

The bad news, well, there’s a bunch of it. In order of importance:

  1. Health:
    Note that the above scouting report discusses the lineup using the qualifier “at full strength.” While we might reasonably dispute the predictions of who will play and what percent they’ll be playing at if they do appear, no one’s going to claim that we’re at full strength. If Lowell can’t go, we lose defensively and offensively whoever plays – Casey at 1B, Cora at SS – whomever. If Drew can’t go, it’s the same deal. Kotsay’s a valuable pickup, but he’s not Drew. But then Drew hasn’t been Drew in, oh, a month or two. So health, clearly, is an issue.
  2. Ramirez:
    I’m on the record as being for the Ramirez trade, and I’m not going to backtrack now. But I did say that the Angels in particular probably weren’t that upset:

    “Is it ideal? No. Ask Anaheim, or LA of Anaheim, or whatever they’re called now, if they’re happy to see Manny gone after they couldn’t get him out during last year’s postseason.”

    What were his postseason numbers against the Angels, you ask? .375/.615/1.125. That’s AVG/OPS/SLG. No OPS in there at all. Seriously. In the regular season, Manny’s not quite as inhuman, putting up a mere .298/.414/.569/.983. So losing him hurts. But as we know, Bay’s a good player. What are his numbers? Well, that’s actually the next problem.

  3. Bay:
    To begin with, Bay’s never played in the postseason, so it’s unclear how he’ll perform there. But neither had he played in a big market like Boston, and he’s done just fine so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt there. What’s he done against the Angels, though? This season, nothing. But the lifetime numbers aren’t inspiring: .133/.188/.333/.521. It’s literally a handful of ABs – 15 – so it means very little. Still, it’s not encouraging.

Those are the biggies. There are a host of smaller ones about each player, but I’ll skip that. Here’s what each or our starters did against the Angels this year.

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Varitek .154 .389 .231 .620
1B Casey .231 .231 .385 .615
2B Pedroia .385 .405 .538 .943
3B Youk .241 .333 .690 1.023
SS Lowrie .227 .261 .273 .534
LF Bay DNP
CF Crisp .286 .333 .643 .976
RF Ellsbury .200 .222 .371 .594
DH Ortiz .318 .444 .682 1.126

The Sox Pitching

As a staff, the Sox pitched relatively well. Our staff ERA was a tick lower than the Angels’ at 4.01, and over the 1427.1 IP our guys threw we K’d hitters at a higher rate than the Angels – 7.36 K/9 to 6.81.

Much has been made – and rightly so – of our starting pitching in this series. The injury to Beckett complicates that case, of course, but Lester and Matsuzaka have both turned in solid seasons. Lester, for example, was just named the AL Pitcher of the Month for the second time this season, and while I’m seriously concerned about his innings jump (Hacks with Haggs was the first media blog I saw discuss this), he’s been a horse. Matsuzaka, for his part, won 18 games for the club. Yes, it was in maddening fashion, as he’s clearly averse to pitching to contact, and would prefer to walk man after man, but he struck guys out, was hard to hit, and won games. Beckett, meanwhile, had a more up and down season, but appeared to be rounding into postseason form prior to his oblique strain. Which would have given us a front three that matched up well with most anyone.

And then, the injury. There, we’ll just have to wait and see. As close to the vest as the Sox play things, we’ll know he’s starting when he’s actually out on the mound Sunday. And not until then.

In the meantime, however, it’s worth noting that none of our front three pitched particularly well against the club they’re going to face. Our entire staff, in fact, pitched poorly. As a club, we threw up a 6.23 ERA in 78 IP. Our K rate also dipped to 5.88/9.

You might be thinking at this point that that’s all the bullpen; that the starters fared well, only to be undone. Not so. All three of Beckett, Lester, and Matsuzaka threw against the Angels. none fared well. Here are the numbers:

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Beckett 2 .345 .367 .552 .918
Lester 1 .429 .478 .857 1.335
Matsuzaka 1 .350 .391 .700 1.091

Again, we’re talking about four starts between them, so it’s important not to read too much into the numbers. But I’d still much rather have the Angels’ staff’s than ours.

As for the bullpen, well, you probably know how I feel on that subject. Here’s Law’s take:

The Red Sox’s bullpen has been up and down this season, with even closer Jonathan Papelbon showing some cracks in the foundation. Papelbon has become a fastball-centric pitcher, leaving his outpitch splitter in his back pocket in many outings, even favoring his average slider over the splitter when he does want to go to a second pitch. To be his usual dominant self, he needs to use a second pitch to change hitters’ eye levels and prevent them from cheating on his fastball, which, while hard, is somewhat straight.

Behind Papelbon, the Red Sox have, at least on paper, a strong setup corps. Justin Masterson has stepped into the right-handed setup role, throwing 90-mph sinkers with the occasional 94-95-mph four-seamer and enough mid-80s sliders to keep hitters honest; he generates a ridiculous number of ground balls while also avoiding the free pass. Manny Delcarmen has recovered from a rough patch in early July, when he briefly lost command of his fastball, and is back to pumping 94-96 mph four-seamers with good downhill plane and a plus-plus changeup, throwing both pitches and the occasional curveball for strikes. And Hideki Okajima, who slumped midseason around the time Delcarmen did, has recovered his form as a lefty reliever who can get righties out with his split-change “okie-dokie” pitch and quick, short-breaking curveball. If David Aardsma is healthy enough to pitch, he provides Boston with another power arm — he throws a fastball up to 99 mph and has an average splitter but below-average command — that it can use to keep a close game from getting out of hand.

Aardsma, we know, is out. As for Masterson, MDC, and Oki, the operative phrase to me seems to me “on any given day.” They certainly have the ability to bridge a tight game; they each also have the ability to turn a game around by putting people on base and giving up the ill timed hit. Several people have expressed concern about Papelbon, but I’m inclined to trust him come the postseason until he gives me a reason not to. He pitched poorly on Sunday, but that’s a meaningless appearance.

Do I trust the pen, then? Nope. But can they get it done? No question.

The Prediction

There is no prediction; I don’t do predictions. If you go in for that kind of thing, only four out of ten of ESPN’s “experts” picked the good guys. The good news is that the two smartest – Law and Neyer – see the Sox taking the series. The bad is that the dumbest – Phillips – did as well.

Net net, we’re in for a tough sled. Even at full strength, the Angels could have handled us. Depleted as we are, we can still win, but our margin for error will be very slight. The key, as Francona observed, is playing with a lead. We cannot afford to get into their bullpen down, as Arredondo, K-Rod, Shields and the gang are terrifying.

Whatever happens, I’m proud of our guys for getting here, and I’m planning my schedule around them. Here’s hoping they’re playing for a while yet.

We're In

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No explanation necessary. As soon as we’re mathematically eliminated from the Division, I’ll start working on the matchups for a full blown playoff preview.

For now, I’m just going to savor another postseason.

Enjoy.

Whither the Pen?

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monster, originally uploaded by sogrady.

As I told the Fire Brand audience on Friday, my primary concern in the playoffs – assuming we’re lucky enough to make it there, of course – is not the offense, our performances against Sonnanstine aside. Nor the starting pitching, today’s average start from Lester and his high innings total aside.

No, it’s the bullpen. Both the men in front of Papelbon, as well as the closer himself. Less so Papelbon, of course, but even he has been mortal of late. It’s my belief that he’ll get things straightened out in time. And if he doesn’t, we won’t be around long enough to suffer much.

The question is who’s going to eat the innings in front of him. Maybe you get seven to eight consistently from Beckett and Lester, but it would be foolish to expect that from Matsuzaka, loathe as he is to pitch to contact. Meaning that some combination of Masterson, Lopez, MDC, and Oki (please, not Timlin) is going to have to get some very big outs. Think Texeira, as the Wild Card is our most probable entry.

Can they do that? I have my doubts. You know what I think of MDC, and Masterson’s may be showing signs of fatigue, as Fire Brand’s Ryne Crabb writes. But just to present an opposing viewpoint, here’s Inside Edge’s scouting report (ESPN subscribers only, sorry):

Two right-handers have stepped up to fill the void in front of Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima. Justin Masterson (a second-round pick out of San Diego State in 2006) and Manny Delcarmen (a second-round pick out of a Boston high school in 2000) have provided the Red Sox with solid middle- and late-inning relief over the past few months. Since converting to relief full-time on July 23, Masterson has held hitters from both sides of the plate in check, while continuing to generate ground balls by the bushel (all stats through Thursday):

Masterson as a reliever
Miss pct. of swings Well-hit avg. Ground ball pct.
Masterson 25.8 .212 58.1
League average 19.9 .224 44.5

Delcarmen has also been at his best lately, holding opponents to a paltry .176 well-hit average overall since the All-Star break. His first-half ERA was 4.54; since the break it’s 2.10. Delcarmen has improved his performance by bearing down when behind in the count and limiting the number of baserunners that score:

BAA — behind in count Pct. of runners scoring
Pre All-Star .385 40
Post All-Star .059 32
League avg. .343 36

Delcarmen has also been very efficient, having retired the side in order in 58 percent of his complete innings pitched since the All-Star break, compared to 31 percent before.

If Delcarmen and Masterson can both step up entering the playoffs and bridge the game to Papelbon, we’ve got as good a shot as anyone. If they falter, however, it could be a short postseason. We’re not likely to sustain our regular season offensive production against the pitching we’re likely to face, so run prevention will be at a premium.

An effective bullpen would be an excellent start in that regard.