The Second Season Begins: The wicked clevah 2009 ALDS Preview

Truth be told, none of the following matters. Seriously. Remember last year? According to the numbers, we didn’t have much business being in a series with the Angels, let alone winning it. We all know how that turned out.

Still, inquiring minds want to know what we think of the matchup. Maybe it’s because the puerile conventional “wisdom” continuously spewed by the professional media – “we’re in their heads!” – sounds suspiciously like what we heard from Yankee fans pre-2004. Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to understand that while the numbers from the first season don’t dictate the outcome of the second season, neither are they irrelevant.

Either way, wicked clevah is back – per your request, or over your protest, whichever- with a barely informed take on the matchups between yours and my Boston Red Sox, and our eternal foe, the Los Angeles Angels. Oh, and by the way, if you’re waiting for the “of Anaheim,” I wouldn’t hold your breath. With no further delay, on to the breakdown.

Red Sox Hitting

The good news is that you can probably ignore the splits versus the Angels staff listed above. It includes far too many one or two game sample sizes to be meaningful in any realistic sense, and is included for the sake of completeness more than anything else. The bad news is that we are not, as currently consituted, an offensive juggernaut. We’re more than adequate, but lack the thump of lineups of yore – particularly if Varitek plays. Which I hope he does not, for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure I buy the rumors that Varitek’s advantaging fastballs in his game management to offset his diminished arm strength – and I certainly don’t have the numbers to make that case – but the fact is that he is essentially a liability now both at the plate and behind it.

What the 2009 flavor of the Red Sox is, however, is reasonably balanced. We’re third in the league in runs, second in OBP, and second in OPS. All of that is good. The bad is that the Angels, as we’ll see, are pretty comparable – they scored more runs, but rank third to our second in OBP and OPS.

The gist is that the 2009 Red Sox, particularly with Victor Martinez starting in place of Jason Varitek, are a club that can and will score runs against the Angels staff. What’s difficult to foresee is whether or not they’ll produce adequately in a short series. This club, as anyone who’s watched the season unfold will ruefully acknowledge, has been prone to streaks both hot and cold. As of Thursday, assuming that’s when we get underway, we’ll need to produce, and produce quickly. If we have another cold stretch, we’ll be going home early.

Red Sox Pitching

Pitching and defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. We’ll have to hope that’s not entirely true, because as Theo lacknowledged this week, we’ve gone from being a terrible defensive club to one that’s still not stellar: “By our numbers, we’re still not the defensive club we want to be. But we’re better. On certain days with certain lineups out there, we can use defense as a weapon to help out our pitching staff.”

Because of the attention to this problem – and in spite of it, early – our pitching has been generally very good. The rotation has gone from surplus to deficit, starting a one legged Wakefiled down the stretch. And the bullpen has seen its more than few declines in individual performance. But on balance, we’re as well positioned as any other club in either league heading into the postseason when it comes to pitching.

Do I know what we’ll get from Beckett or Buchholz following their last outings? Not at all. And that’s without talking about Matsuzaka, who’s luck with the bases loaded – like the center – cannot hold. But I trust Lester to get us started on the right note, and I feel confident that between Beckett (though his velocity is, as far as I can tell, down by a one to two MPH) and Bucky, we’ll get one quality outing, and it’s not out of the realm that we could get two. Which gives us a good shot, particularly in a short series.

The bullpen, meanwhile, has been without question the finest assembled in Theo’s tenure. While the gambles on Penny and Smoltz provided little, additions like Ramirez, Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Saito, have been crucial in giving us the depth necessary to not work Oki and Pap into the ground. I don’t know what they’ll do about the rest of the staff, but I’m hopeful that Delcarmen doesn’t make the roster. Even before the car accident (thank Jebus he’s ok), he was not right. MDC’s not reliable when he’s throwing 95+; when he’s topping out at 93 and averaging 91, he might as well be throwing BP.

But with Pap rounding into form – his .167 batting average against in September was his best month of the season, and he’s walked only six people since the All Star break compared to eighteen before – and Wagner, Ramirez, Okajima capable of providing quality innings, the pen is as deep as it’s been. Bard, to me, is the wildcard. Here’s his batting average against by month: .233 (May), .237 (June), .103 (July), .302 (August), .292 (September). Before the break, hitters averaged .193 againt him; it’s been .270 since. Or, as Keith Law summed it up: “Dan Bard, Aug 4th to today: 16 IP, 20 H, 5 HR, 11 BB, 22 K, .313/.416/.594.” That’s what we in the business know as “suboptimal.” If he can correct the ailment, be it mechanical or psychological in origin (I’ve seen no evidence that it’s velocity related), I can see him getting some high leverage innings. Until then, however, he should be relegated to a lower profile role in the pen.

One other notable asset to our staff: every man on it – with the potential exception of a Byrd if he makes the roster – has the ability to miss bats. To the point that they’re second in the league in strikeouts. The lowest K/9 of the likely roster members is Buchholz at 6.65, and – his performance to date notwithstanding – he has the ability to strike people out on any given night. Perhaps the ability is overvalued, but strikeout pitchers are at something of a premium in the second season.

Angels Hitting

Again, I don’t think the Angels will be getting too geeked over Hunter, Kendrick, and Napoli’s combined 1.135 OPS. Well, Napoli’s maybe: he terrifies me. But again, with the sample sizes essentially miniscule and therefore statistically meaningless, we’d do better to look to the more significant season worth of data we have on the Angels offense. Which, regrettably, tells us that they’re good. Not too different from our offense, in fact.

Whether or not the talking heads are correct and Abreu’s sheer presence has convinced the previously walk averse Angels of the value of not making outs, the fact is that this Angel’s offense is quite capable. Their team batting average is nearly thirty points better than ours, while we own a ten point advantage in slugging percentage. OBP is essentially a wash.

Add it up, and they’re a potentially dangerous offense capable of working pitchers, getting on base and scoring runs. The OBP in particular is a concern, when coupled with their vaunted dedication to smallball and our more than adequately demonstrated inability to control the running game.

Angels Pitching

Pitching-wise, the Angels have had their challenges this season. Adenheart, a talented young pitcher, was killed by a drunk driver early in the season in an awful tragedy. Shields, a staple of past Angels bullpens, is on the DL. Ditto for Escobar and Moseley. Arredondo has been for now left off the roster, less effective than he was a year ago.

Still, the Angels have cobbled together both a credible rotation and a capable bullpen. The staff has not distinguished itself over the course of the season: it’s 9th in ERA, sixth in earned runs, ninth in strikeouts, and 11th in batting average against. They’re helped out, however, by their defense: as you can see above, three of the four starters own ERA’s lower than their Fielding Independent Pitching rates. And every one of them has pitched well against the Red Sox at one time or another: even Lackey, who’s had bad luck at Fenway, pitched quite effectively there in his last appearance in Boston though losing the game.

The bullpen, meanwhile, is fronted by a closer with unimpressive numbers. It’s true that he probably struck out Nick Green, saving the game, but on the season Fuentes has surrendered a less than stellar 53 hits and 24 walks in 55 innings pitched. Throw the save numbers out: he’ll get the job done more than he won’t, but he is the antithesis of a shutdown closer. Which could be magnified in the postseason.

The addition of Ervin Santana, however, could be a real boon and help them stabilize the setup innings. While his strikeout rate was down this year as a starter, in short bursts one would expect that weakness to be mitigated. Though he struck out only two in his last start on the 28th, he maxed out at 95.8 MPH. The rest of the arms in the bullpen are capable if not overwhelming. Bulger – assuming he makes the roster (he’s got a sore shoulder) – and Palmer use a wide arsenal and change speeds enough to get people out, while Jepsen can dial it up to the mid 90’s but is fastball reliant.

They’re good, and more than capable of shutting us down, but they are not dominant.

What to Expect

This is not the Angels team we’re used to seeing. Sure, they’ll still play small ball more than they should, but the offense is less easily kept off the bases than in the past. With an improved offense and a consistent pitching staff, the Angels deserve their berth and our respect. It’ll be a battle.

P.S. If I get a chance, I’ll take a look at the benches and the respective defenses, but in the meantime, this will have to do. Questions? You know here to find me.

Update: If you’re an Insider, ESPN’s Keith Law has his previews up for both the Angels and Sox.

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

image courtesy Erik Dasque

(image courtesy Erik Dasque)

We just got our asses kicked, pal.

Spare me the “we scored as many runs as they did” arguments: the Yankees just savaged us with a plastic hamster. If you are lucky enough to score four runs off an in-form CC, you need to take advantage of that. Instead, Beckett was completely unable to stop the bleeding, surrendering runs in six of the eight innings he pitched. The bludgeoning was so bad, in fact, that I’m kind of surprised to see that no one is speculating along the same lines as yours truly. The first pitch dongs were one thing, but the curveball Cano hit out last night was not a bad pitch: decent break, caught the outside edge of the plate, and yet was crushed. I have to believe the Sox are at least asking the question of whether he was tipping (the Cardinals, apparently, believe that Smoltz was), but none of the media thought of it so maybe he did just pitch that badly. Or, more accurately, has been pitching that badly.

Because while it was bad that our ace got his teeth kicked by our most hated rivals while the offense managed to scrap together a few runs off their #1, what’s worse is that this, in some respects, it’s not a surprise. The big Texan’s had a distinctly odd season. The fiancee and I – oh, did I not mention that? yeah, I got engaged, it’s awesome – saw him dominate the Rays in the season opener. He followed that gem with four starts in which he gave up 4,3, 8 and 7 runs, respectively. That was good for a 7.22 ERA in April. And who’d he give up 8 against, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: they wiped the floor with him last night as well.

Anyway, since the start of May, Beckett’s generally been excellent (ERA’s by month: May 2.38, June 1.51, July 3.35). Or rather he had been, until his last start at Toronto, a 5 and a third, 7 run clunker. Throw in the start previous, in Detroit, and Beckett’s given up 10 home runs in his last three starts, after giving up 10 in his first 22 starts combined. That, my friends, is what we in the business call a problem.

So what’s the problem? Damned if I can tell. PitchFX tells us his velocity seems ok: 94.5 and a half on the fastball, topping out at 96.5. Nor is there anything obvious in the plots. We know he’s throwing strikes – they were the balls leaving the park at a high velocity. But he’s also out of the zone enough that they can’t tee off. No, I don’t know what’s wrong. I haven’t done a deep look at the numbers, but nothing jumps out at me from what I’ve seen.

Which makes me wonder – based also on the approaches the Yankees took to the plate last night – if he isn’t tipping his pitches. If that seems implausible, think of it this way: it’s either that, or he’s suddenly and inexplicably pitching very, very badly. I prefer the former.

Either way, I’m sure Farrell and company are hard at work on the issue as I write this, which is good. We need Beckett to be Beckett, because we’re going to need everybody performing to get to the postseason. Speaking of…

The Postseason

My problem with the folks that pronounce definitely that we’re either out of the division race or still in it is that they’re both wrong. We’re not technically out of it, but we’re not in it, really, either. As of this morning, the Monte Carlo simulations run by Clay Davenport and the fine folks from BP, we’ve got a 3.09% chance of winning the division. Let’s be generous and round that up to 3.1%: we’re still not likely to win this thing, although mathematically, it’s still possible. Yes, we’ve played the Yankees well – this weekend and the last series notwithstanding, we’re 9-6 against them. But they’re destroying everyone else, and we are most certainly not. Hence the seven and a half game lead.

The obvious question then is whether we can secure the wild card, and the answer is that we can, but that our competition is stiff. The same projection has us at a 52% probability to win the wild card, with the Rays at 24% and the Rangers at 15%. That sounds good, but a.) that’s only a 1 in 2 chance of making the playoffs, and b.) we’re one bad week – and sweet Jebus knows we’ve had plenty of those – away from being where the Rangers are now.

So yes, we can make it, but our margin for error is effectively non-existent. We can’t have any more team wide slumps, no major injuries, and our rotation can’t afford any more Smoltz-esque starts. And speaking of Smoltz…

Smoltz

As could have been predicted, Smoltz’s generally awful performance coupled with the team’s coincidental malaise led to a bunch of “Theo screwed everything up this offseason” commentary. Smoltz, like Penny, was – in my view – a good bet that just didn’t pan out. Nor would it have, I don’t think. Yes, as Nick Steiner gleefully covers – he’s a Cardinals fan – the ex-Brave’s first outing for the Redbirds was a gem: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, and 9 K’s. But as he acknowledges, this is a.) the NL west, b.) the worst team in the NL west, and c.) the best pitcher’s park in the game.

Were there positive signs when Smoltz was throwing for us? Absolutely. He was striking people out, not walking too many and his velocity was acceptable, if not overwhelming as in the past. But, as I said on the fangraphs blog, we just couldn’t afford to keeping losing games while he got himself straightened out. If we were sitting in the Yankee’s seats right now, with a comfortable margin in the division, I have little doubt Smoltz would still be here, and maybe pitching more to his peripherals. But in the meantime, he was getting crushed and killing our bullpen.

So I was fine with the signing, just as I’m fine seeing him go. Because one of the kids is, at this point, probably a better choice for a rotation spot.

Buchholz

To answer your first question, no, I do not feel “vindicated” about my assessment of one Clay Buchholz. While I am, of course, please that he’s pitched very credibly and kept us in games against – in succession – Sabathia, Verlander and Halladay, the simple facts are that his performance is not going to be sustainable unless he improves. When you’re walking almost as many as you strike out per nine – 4.7 vs 5.6 – you’re going to have problems. So he needs to at least quit putting guys on base, and it would help – his new two seam, groundball machine notwithstanding – if he struck a few more guys out.

But am I exceedingly glad that the media – or at least the Cafardo and Mazz contingent – isn’t running things? You bet. Cafardo? “I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.” Forget the nerve damage – that couldn’t have been foreseen. But Salty’s line this year? .236/.293/.375 for a .668 OPS. And remember, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to remain a catcher. Mazz, you might recall, was rather in favor of a Clay Buchholz and Jason Bay for Matt Holliday swap. Holliday’s numbers in the big boys league? .286/.378/.454 for an .831 OPS, which is right in line with 2005-2007 numbers away from Coors Field.

Or maybe you remember when Cafardo said this: “With Justin Masterson making a solid impression in the majors and Buchholz down in Triple A, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of the two starters the Sox are higher on at the moment.” Even while he followed that with a caveat that the Red Sox valued him too highly to trade, the statement made zero sense to anyone who views a player’s potential beyond what they are doing right now.

Masterson’s a good player, and one that I was sorry to see go. But in three starts with Cleveland, he’s had two decent starts and one very bad one, and – more troubling – he still can’t get lefties out (.323/.401/.463 in ’09, numbers which have declined from his .238/.365/.422 in ’08). This was apparent last year when Cafardo wrote those words – all you had to do was look at the numbers – but the media seemingly can’t be bothered to look beyond what they see on the field that day, that minute.

Is Buchholz as valuable as Stephen Strasburg? Not even close. But am I glad that the front office viewed him with a bit of perspective that the media apparently can’t be bothered with? Hell yes. Just as I’m excited they improved the defense behind the kid. Which brings us to Josh’s question.

A-Gon

Like the Globe’s Adam Kilgore – who’s doing a very nice job, incidentally – I was curious, initially, to see whether Gonzalez would be an actual upgrade in the field. At the time, A-Gon’s UZR/150 was below that of Nick Green. But it’s apparent to both of us that this move had delivered as expected, and the math agrees: A-Gon’s up to 6.5 runs above average, better than Green’s 5.2. Interestingly, the forgotten Lowrie’s at 21.3.

Anyway, while age the knee surgery may – undoubtedly has, actually – subtracted from Gonzalez’s once exceptional range in the field, he’s at least been surehanded in the field. It might be that Green’s errors stick out all the more because they’ve been so brutal and ill timed, but I’m happy to have Gonzalez back, particularly considering the cost. Shortstop prospects, we have, and we didn’t give up any of the good ones. We did, however, give up some talented kids to get us a new catcher.

Martinez

Much attention has been paid this past week to Martinez’ role, as his insertion at catcher had – until Saturday and Sunday – welded Varitek to the bench. Which is, frankly, where he needed to be, given what he was bringing to the table offensively and – it must be said – defensively. Johnny Bench, Martinez is not, but the kid can hit, and as Schilling said on WEEI the other day, he caught the last two Cy Young award winners, so he’s no idiot.

Were Hagadone and Masterson a steep price to pay for the transaction? Indeed. Hagadone, coming off Tommy John surgery, is the rare high velocity lefthander, and if he can add a third pitch to the slider, has upper rotation written all over him. Masterson, his lefty difficulties notwithstanding, is a hugely versatile pitcher, capable of seamlessly shifting back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back.

What we got back, however, as Keith Law covers, is versatility and flexibility going forward:

For Boston, he could replace Jason Varitek, or could fill in at multiple positions, playing every day but splitting time across catcher, first base and DH, especially the last when a left-hander is on the mound. He’s a legitimate switch-hitter and controls the strike zone, so at worst the Red Sox just got a catcher who can get on base and who’s under contract for a reasonable $7.5 million next year.

This is, as Theo might put it, a move made with both today and tomorrow in mind. Which makes it tough to argue with, in spite of the cost.

As for the Kotchman deal, don’t look at me: I still don’t get that one. I know he’s controllable for two more years, but LaRoche must have made himself very unpleasant to get turned around inside of two weeks.

Before I close, two quick items: one good, one sad.

I, like the rest of Red Sox nation, would like to wish Jerry Remy a fond welcome back following his return to the booth Friday night. I also give him a lot of credit for speaking publicly about his depression. This can be a shameful affliction for many under the best of conditions, and the baseball industry is, well, how do we say it: not terribly progressive. While I haven’t, fortunately, suffered from it, a lot of people that I know have, and it’s my hope that revelations like Remy’s will act to destigmatize depression for those who have it. So welcome back, and thank you.

On the sad news front, my sincere condolences to the family of Greg Montalbano, one time Northeastern pitcher (and Carlos Pena teammate) and Red Sox prospect (and Kevin Youkilis teammate). After suffering for cancer for several years, Greg succumbed last week. From everything I’ve read, he was a good man with a very healthy perspective on his lot in life. He will, like all good people, be missed.

Sunset on the '08 Season

Georgetown sunset

At 11:40 last night, Patrick – the bartender at Byrnes – flipped from TBS to the Weather Channel, ending the 2008 Red Sox season in the process. There would be no comeback, not this time, not this year. Now it’s time for golf, or if your’re Mikey Lowell, hip surgery.

The story of Game 7, as far as I’m concerned, is not terribly complicated: Lester pitched a very good game, while Garza pitched a great one. Yes, Lester no hit them for the first three, but Garza might as well have been throwing BBs. The onetime head case pitched inside to left and right hand batters, he threw hard, and he was locating two different breaking balls. Frankly, it was something to behold. If you weren’t a Sox fan, that is.

Had you told me last week that the Rays would take the series by beating Lester twice, I would have bet substantial cash that you were wrong. But in the end, the better, healthier team won. Neither Lester nor my watching from a venue in which I had been undefeated in the playoffs could have derailed the Rays on a night like that, one in which Garza channelled Josh Beckett, circa 2007.

With a bit of time to regroup, I find that I’m a bit hollowed out but ok. As are most of the people that I’ve spoken with and/or read. I’ve been very pleased to see that the reactions, by and large, from the fanbase reflects my own feelings: gratitude for another excellent summer of baseball, respect for a well constructed young club that played with a lot of heart, and hope for the future. We didn’t win a championship, and that hurts. It’s crushing, actually. But neither will I succumb to the Yankees mindset, in which anything less than a championship is a failure.

If we had ended this series by being shutout in Game 5, despair and anger would have been understandable, if still not productive. But in pushing it to Game 7, battered and facing long odds – as long as you’ll see – this year’s edition of the Boston Red Sox earned my respect, and I believe they should have yours.

Heading in to the offseason, we’ll have a lot more on what just happened and what might happen next, but for now I’d just like to congratulate the Tampa Bay Rays on a well played series, and thank the Boston Red Sox for a run that made us all proud, even as they fell short.

John 3:16

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You haven’t heard from me, because, really, what was there to say? Since we last talked, we’ve been savaged with a plastic hamster. Twice.

But that’s in the past, and revisiting just how many runs we’re talking about, how many hits, or how many times I’ve been crotch-kicked is pointless. A loss is a loss, whether you lose by 1 or by 10.

Nor will I tell you that we will win tonight. Given how good they’ve been, and how bad we’ve been, any such proclamation would ring hollow. What I will tell you, is that we can win tonight. We’re still alive, and that’s more than 27 other teams can say.

So don’t give up.

We’re beaten up, we’re dropping like flies, and we’ve been embarrassed on consecutive nights at home. But we play tonight with a chance to win. Personally, I’d like to believe that we’ll do something with that. Particularly since I’ll be watching the game from Byrnes’, where I am undefeated in this postseason.

So watch, root, believe. Because even the Lord said, “Go Sox.”

The ALCS So Far

beckett

It’s pretty simple: Beckett is not healthy. I don’t know if it’s his elbow, his oblique, or something else, but the man is not right. To argue anything else is to insult our collective intelligence, because the available evidence supports no other conclusion. It’s not that he’s surrendering runs; even the best postseason pitcher of this generation will do that, from time to time, and this Rays club is solid one through nine. It is, rather, the manner in which he’s going about his business. You’ve probably read by now that over the course of 93 pitches, Beckett got precisely one fastball by a Ray. One. Also, that his velocity is significantly reduced; he’s reportedly operating from 90-93 at this point.

It’s far from impossible to make the transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher; that’s effectively what we’ve seen Schilling do the last few seasons here. But I seriously doubt that can be done – or at least done effectively – in playoff games. The stakes are simply too high, and the hitting that much better. Given that Beckett’s not likely to become Jamie Moyer in time for a potential Game 6 start, I hope our manager and the front office are asking themselves the heretical if necessary question: is Beckett our best option as a starter at this point? Or might we get more out of Byrd?

All of that would occur privately, of course. I expect none of Francona, Farrell or Beckett to claim anything other than that the pitcher is fine, because as much as it’s obvious to you, me and the Rays’ hitters that that is demonstrably false, it gains them nothing to allow that the pitcher’s injured. The media in general, I think, has been less inclined to question the official word than one might expect in the days leading up to yesterday’s start, but that’s all over in the wake of a second subpar outing.

The question at this point is what happens next? The good news is that we emerge from Tampa with a split. If you’d told me in advance that we’d get one in spite of a less than five inning start from Beckett, I would have called you a liar. The bad news is that without Beckett, our chances of taking the series are compromised.

Tomorrow’s Lester outing is, as anticipated, a must win game. If we can take that, we would then have to win two out four games started by Wake, Matsuzaka, Beckett and Lester – though it’s possible that Beckett could be bumped in favor of the young lefty if we were facing elimination. Certainly possible – particularly if Matsuzaka pitches as he did in Game 1, but we must win tomorrow. If we don’t, we’re in serious trouble, I think.

In other news, not that I doubted he’d turn things around, but it was nice to see Petey unload yesterday. If we can sustain some of the offense that we got in the early going yesterday – tough to do, since it principally came off a pitcher with a diminished arsenal – I like our chances going forward. The starters, with the exception of Beckett for the reasons noted above, are doing their job, and the pen has greatly exceeded my pessimistic expectations. But to take this series, we’re going to need runs. Quite a few of them, I think. And a fair number of them are going to have to come from Petey, since the Large Father – like Beckett – isn’t the Large Father at the moment.

Where I'll be Watching the ALCS

fan, originally uploaded by sogrady.

Won’t be at the park, sadly. But I will be spending each and every game with friends and fans, somewhere. Herewith a schedule of my ALCS watching venues:

  • Game 1: Friday, Oct. 10, 8:37 p.m.:
    Here in Maine, at Byrnes’ Irish Pub in Bath. (2-0 at this venue this postseason)
  • Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 11, 8:07 p.m.:
    Down Boston, at the 21st Amendment.
  • Game 3: Monday, Oct. 13, 4:37 p.m.:
    In NYC, at the Rivera Cafe. (1-0 at this venue this postseason).
  • Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 14, 8:07 p.m.:
    Boston, at the 21st Amendment.
  • Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 16, 8:07 p.m.:
    TBD, likely Bath @ Byrnes’
  • Game 6*: Saturday, Oct. 18, 4:37 p.m. if NLCS is still being played; 8:07 p.m.:
    TBD, likely Boston @ 21st Amendment
  • Game 7*: Sunday, Oct. 19, 8:07 p.m. :
    TBD, likely Boston @ 21st Amendment

To answer the obvious question: yes, I’ve carefully planned my work schedule around the postseason schedule. Which wasn’t easy, please note.

Anyway, stop by if you happen to be near any of the aforementioned venues: most of you know how to get in touch with me.

The wicked clevah ALCS Preview

Aaaand the Pitch!, originally uploaded by TheBusyBrain.

We could talk about Game 4, but why? It’s not as if it would be news to you. You saw Lester do his thing, Varitek tag Willits, and Lowrie single off the same Shields that made him look foolish at the game I attended. And you went nuts just like I and the other 30 Sox fans gathered at the Riviera did. If you didn’t, you’re almost certainly in the wrong place.

Besides, we’ve got bigger things on our mind than recapping a series won. I can’t speak for you, but I’m far more interested in the Tampa scouter than the Angels’ bitterness. One of those things is relevant, after all, and one is not. So let us look forward, then, rather than backward. Because while it is meet and right that the players should celebrate the shit out of the series win, you and I have work to do. Not that I didn’t celebrate, mind you.

With the obvious caveat that 18 games is not that much bigger a sample size than the nine that proved more or less irrelevant during the ALDS, here are a few numbers, and a few comments. On to the wicked clevah ALCS Preview…unless you’d prefer to click through 15 pages of Nick Cafardo analysis.

The Season Series

Was far less one sided than was the Angels season matchup, actually. But for Pap’s brief and unproductive infatuation with fastball, we would have split at worst. As it is, they took the head to head matchup with us 10-8, which was the bad the news. The good news is that over the course of those 18 games, we outscored the Artists Formerly Known as the Devil Rays by 20 runs, 87-67. Which means precisely dick where the standings and the division title are concerned. Still, it’s worth noting that Tampa’s average margin of victory was 2 runs while the Sox typically won by 5.

If you think you hear a but coming, well, aren’t you just the sharpest tack in the box.

The Injuries

Do not bode well for the good guys, obviously. Lowell has been subtracted – mercifully, I think, after watching him gimp through Game 3. Drew is day to day. Beckett is not healthy, in my completely uneducated and uninformed opinion. What about an educated and informed opinion? Well, the folks from Dugout Central think he might be hurt. The Rays, meanwhile, aren’t much healthier than any other club playing in October, but they enter the series with significantly less injury concerns than our guys. Which puts us at a decided disadvantage, as Keith Law noted in his series scouter:

At full strength, Boston would be the favorite despite Tampa Bay’s home-field advantage, but Boston is not close to full strength. Lowell is out, which hurts the Sox’s infield defense and gives his at-bats to Sean Casey or Mark Kotsay. Beckett is on the roster but not at 100 percent. Ortiz is still struggling to hit stuff on the outer half the way he has in the past.

If you deduce from the above that he’s not picking us to win, you’re correct. He has the Rays moving on in 7. And for the record, he correctly predicted the results of the first series.

The Rays Lineup

Is not stellar, it’s true. Their collective season line of .260/.340/.422 was outperformed – significantly – by our own .281/.359/.450. Also, they’re significantly left handed. Law:

The Rays lean heavily to the left as a lineup, a big advantage against Boston except when Jon Lester is on the mound. If Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t use his changeup, and if Josh Beckett is struggling to throw to his glove side, those left-handed bats — like Carlos Pena and Akinori Iwamura — should have a field day.

The Rays, however, never did fall apart down the stretch as predicted by many of the less savvy analysts. Quite the contrary, in fact – they actually improved down the stretch. After posting a .260/.336/.409 prior to the All Star break – at which point they were breathing down our necks in second place, you might recall – they improved their on base abilities slightly and their slugging significantly, at .261/.345/.441.

All in all, this is a lineup that while potentially unimpressive on paper, has won ballgames consistently all summer – and may be improving still.

Here’s what their presumptive starters did against us this season:

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Navarro .190 .250 .206 .456
1B Pena .314 .429 .647 1.076
2B Iwamura .319 .385 .551 .935
3B Longoria .245 .373 .367 .740
SS Bartlett .254 .286 .328 .614
LF Crawford .234 .308 .362 .669
CF Upton .128 .255 .256 .512
RF Gross .204 .291 .408 .691
DH Floyd .125 .276 .125 .401

Murderer’s row, they are not. But they’ve got guys who hit us well – Pena in particular – and managed to do enough damage to take an 18 game series from us.

The Rays Pitching

The pitching staff of this club was, in my view, the single most important factor in their 2008 ascendance. Over 1457.2 IP, the Rays posted a highly respectable staff ERA of 3.82, and allowed a line of .246/.314/.400. Notable is a rather pronounced home/road split. At home, the Rays are exceptional, with opposing hitters only putting up a .230/.301 /.365 line, which jumps to .261/.327/.435 when they’re on the road.

While the success of the rotation can probably be chalked up to maturation – Shields, Kazmir, Garza et al have always had ability – the bullpen is more difficult to explain. Balfour was picked up via waivers in spring training, Howell is a failed starter, and so on. Whatever the cause, however, Tampa’s staff has been as excellent as it has been unexpected on the year. Or maybe you thought Sonnanstine would or could beat Beckett twice.

Anyway, here’s how they’ve performed against us this in 2008.

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Shields 4 .256 .318 .397 .715
Kazmir 4 .324 .433 .689 1.123
Garza 4 .250 .316 .429 .744
Sonnanstine 2 .152 .216 .196 .411

Check out the Sonnanstine numbers in particular; the kid is like kryptonite to us. Not that the front three are slouches either. Our average margin of victory might have been five runs, but with the exception of a late season shelling of Kazmir, they generally didn’t come off these guys.

The Sox Lineup

As mentioned, we’re banged up. In ways obvious – Lowell being absent – and not. Papi, as an example, hasn’t really been the same since returning to the lineup with a wrist that made a clicking noise. He has been far from poor, at .277/.385/.529, but it’s just not Papi. Consider that from April 22nd, when he began pulling out of his pronounced early season slump, to May 31st, his last day in the lineup before going on the DL, he put up numbers like we’re used to seeing: .313/.408/.626. Nor was he in the ALDS what he was in the same series last year: this year’s version hit .235/.350/.294, last year’s .714/.846/1.571 (not a typo). Some of it, of course, is that he’s not getting younger. But it also seems reasonable to suppose that his newfound mortality is at least in part a consequence of his injured wrist.

With that sunny comment, let’s look at how our guys fared against the enemy pitchers.

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Varitek .167 .246 .259 .505
1B Casey .286 .444 .286 .730
2B Pedroia .296 .378 .451 .829
3B Youkilis .232 .382 .429 .810
SS Lowrie .179 .361 .214 .575
LF Bay .235 .278 .765 1.042
CF Ellsbury .292 .347 .369 .716
RF Drew .324 .447 .649 1.095
DH Ortiz .243 .300 .585 .895

We’re not lighting it up any more than the Rays are, in other words. You might notice that I’ve started Kotsay over Casey and/or Cora, which is due to his offense (.730 OPS to Cora’s .536 and Kotsay’s .431), but again we’re talking exceedingly small sample sizes so I have no idea what the lineup will actually look like.

The Sox Pitching

Was, as discussed in the ALDS preview, non-terrible. Tampa edges us in ERA, 3.82 to 4.01, but we struck out hitters at higher rate (7.36 K/9 to 7.06). Which is, as the Baseball Prospectus Secret Sauce indicates (see here for Neyer’s explanation), more than slightly important. True, our staff had their issues against this club – this game in particular was a swift kick in the nuts – but our overall numbers against Tampa hitters are ok, in general.

Of course, we know more now than we did at the close of the season. We know that Lester is throwing well, that Beckett is not, and that Matsuzaka is pitching exactly as he did during the regular season – struggling to get through five. We also know that Wake, who struggled in September – not making it through three innings on two occasions – is getting the fourth start. The order, as you’ve no doubt heard, is Matsuzaka/Beckett/Lester/Wake, which puts Beckett and Lester in a position to pitch games six and seven, should either or both prove necessary.

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matsuzaka 3 .228 .366 .298 .664
Beckett 5 .209 .244 .364 .609
Lester 3 .240 .313 .320 .633
Wakefield 3 .279 .361 .525 .886

Pretty good, with the exception of Wake. Of course are numbers were terrible against the Angels, and we pitched quite capably, so the above should be taken with a grain or three of salt. There are many variables at work here – many of which contradict each other. Take Wakefield: his numbers this year against Tampa are, to put it mildly, not strong. But lifetime, he’s 19-5 against Tampa in 41 starts, allowing a line of .226/.296/.364. So which do you put more faith in? The more recent small sample size, or the less current but more statistically significant metrics? You got me. What can we expect from Beckett? Same answer. And so on.

Ultimately, I expect us to pitch capably, if not dominantly. Where that gets us is anyone’s guess.

The Prediction

You know the drill – no predictions. Though there is bad news on that front; the smartest guys in the (ESPN) room – the same two that correctly picked us in the first round – are picking the bad guys these days. Law has us falling four games to three, while Neyer has us out in six. It gets worse: Steve Phillips picked us to win. More specifically, the ESPN simulations have us losing Game 1 52% of the time.

From where I sit, the series may come down to Beckett. If we assume that Lester at least gives us a chance to win in his two starts, and that we might reasonably expect to take one of the three Matsuzaka/Wake starts, our erstwhile ace becomes the key. If he pitches like he did Sunday, we’re in serious trouble, in my view. If, on the other hand, he’s at a level closer to what we saw last year, it would dramatically reduce the pressure on everyone else.

Offensively, we’re going to need more from Papi and Petey both. A lot more. We were frankly lucky to advance, in my view, getting as little as we did from those two against the Angels. It’s not reasonable, after all, to expect Bay to sustain his ALDS OPS of 1.356, meaning that offense will have to come from other sources. If the little guy and the large father can get back on track, it would be another means of reducing the number of high leverage innings our staff must throw.

Like most observers, I expect a tight series. We may not be the favorites, banged up as we are, but we’ll have a chance to win. This time of year, that’s about all you can ask.