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.

Beckett Not Being Beckett: The Game 3 Reaction

Fenway says hi

I’ll admit it: seven hits in 12 innings was not precisely what I had in mind for my first in person postseason appearance at the park this season. After all, I brought a lifetime 5-1 playoff record to Fenway last night. I recognized that the Angels pitching was excellent – and that our offense can be pitched to, now more than ever – but, well, you saw what happened.

About as fun as a kick in the crotch.

On the one hand, if you’d told me we’d be up 2-1 after three games before the series began, I would have taken it. On the other, we lost a Beckett start, and if Lester can’t clinch tonight we’re looking at a Game 5 started by Matsuzaka. Which is almost more than I bear.

Twelve innings and a one run loss make it seem like the game was close, but in truth, it wasn’t. Ells’ first hit should never have dropped, and without that we don’t score four and we don’t go to extras. Sadly, we were unable to steal the game we didn’t deserve to win, with out best chance dying in the glove of Rivera (or was Willits in by then?) when Lowrie flied out to right off K-Rod with the bases loaded.

Anyway, I doubt reliving the game inning by inning would be all that cathartic, so let’s move on to the post-game comments:

  • Beckett:
    The Texan righthander says that physically he’s fine. Which is entirely unsurprising, whether it’s true or it isn’t. For my part, I say that the available evidence contradicts that claim. Easily.

    When Saunders is throwing harder (96) than Beckett (topped out at 94, sat at 92) according to the Fenway Park gun there’s something wrong. Set aside the results for a minute – while he labored in giving up nine hits over five, Beckett did keep us in the game – he just didn’t look like Beckett. His velocity was down, his command was poor, and he – like Matsuzaka the start before him – could not put batters away. Beckett started the game with one fastball in his first ten pitches and couldn’t cover first base; if that doesn’t scream “problem” I don’t know what would. If you asked the Angels privately, I would bet you a case of Smithwick’s that each and every one of them believes Beckett is still hurt.

    Which begs certain questions: if he’s not healthy – as I assume that he’s not – why not hold him for a Game 5 start and throw either Byrd or Wake? Lose that and you would then have to take one of two pitched by Lester and a more fully rested Beckett. And if he’s not healthy, why was he starting at all? Not only were we behind the 8 ball all day, the start cost us seven innings and 109 pitches from the pen. If last night was a consequence of Beckett trying to do too much and misleading his manager and the training staff as to his physical readiness, it’ll be a shame.

  • Bullpen:
    Much maligned by yours truly during the season, the relievers have pitched brilliantly for the most part. They haven’t been perfect, and have been as lucky (think Vlad’s first-to-third try) as they have been good, but last night was an excellent illustration of their turnaround: seven innings, three hits, one run. Can’t ask for any more than that.
  • Lowell:
    As you’ve no doubt read by now, Lowell looked bad last night. What was not properly conveyed was precisely how bad he looked. Lowell, who’s building a strong case as the toughest player in the league, is a shell at present, and moves as if he were hollow. His range is literally measured in feet, and his at bats are tough to watch. I have nothing but respect for him trying to play – and for gutting out the late innings walk last night – but we need to ask whether at the 30 or 40% he’s playing at currently, he’s an asset or a liability. Painful as that might be for our club.
  • Lopez:
    Just for the record, I don’t blame Lopez for last night’s outcome. His game is not facing righties, and that’s what got to him in the 12th. Why Lopez over Byrd? I didn’t quite follow Tito’s explanation, but I think it was this: Lopez needed to face the lefties coming up. If you use Byrd, he’s on in for a few batters, then it would Lopez’ turn, at which point you’ve burned your long guy (Wake was not an option because Cash had been erased). Seems a little circuitous logic-wise, but frankly there aren’t many great options in 12th inning of a playoff game in which your starter only went five.
  • Lowrie:
    Nor, for the record, do I hold Lowrie accountable for last night. Bases loaded, two out, facing one of the better closers in the game, the kid put a good swing on the ball, which is all that you can reasonably ask. The ball just hung up a few seconds long.
  • MDC:
    Giving credit where credit is due, as I’ve been a critic, MDC looked positively overpowering last night. He threw his change for strikes and made Anderson, in particular, look bad swinging through it. And while I don’t believe it was intentional, I’m glad he hit Napoli. The Angels catcher was far too comfortable in the box.
  • Napoli:
    Speaking of, I’m not sure if it was obvious on the telecast, but his first home run (I was in the dude’s room for the second) was an absolute bomb. The ball was crushed, and there was less than no doubt about it, even as it came off the bat.
  • Papi:
    I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but one common observation last night was that the Large Father just isn’t the same. He hit the ball hard a few times – flying out short of the warning track in his first two at bats – and walked late, but he’s clearly not the threat he was last season, or even early this one. Which is a problem.
  • Pedroia:
    The little guy actively took upon himself the blame for last night’s loss, which was good but hardly necessary. True, he remains hitless, and didn’t deliver in two or three spots last night that might have won us the ballgame. But a.) he’s not the only problem on offense, b.) he’s been unlucky on a few balls that were hit and hit well, and c.) they’re not giving him a lot to hit.
  • Shields:
    Was absolute nails last night. He located a fastball with good velocity (topping at 94), dropped in a mid 70’s hook, and threw in a slider for good measure. None of our guys looked comfortable, and none had particularly good at bats. That’s the good news for the Angels fan; the bad news is that he was leaned on heavily, throwing 28 pitches in 2 and a third IP. His availability tonight, presumably, will be limited.
  • Texeira/Vlad:
    Are easily outdoing their Red Sox counterparts this series. Like our ’07 Papi/Manny combo, they’re hitting pretty much everything (averages are .538 and .583, respectively). They are, frankly, terrifying at the moment.
  • Varitek:
    A few people were surprised that Tito pinch hit for Varitek. I would remind those people that a.) Tito manages – again, as he should – for the moment in the postseason, and that b.) Varitek can still hit lefties with moderate success, but is having serious trouble hitting from the left side of the plate. The move, therefore, was nothing more than a logical decision, if one that didn’t pay off.

What to expect tonight? It’s all on the starters. With an offday tomorrow if the series goes to five games, both clubs will have some flexibility with their respective ‘pens. But not a lot: the workloads have been heavy. Last night alone, the Angels’s relief core all threw around 30 pitches (Arredondo 28, Shields 28, K-Rod 33). Our workload wasn’t that much lighter (Delcarmen 25, Oki 17, Masterson 16, Pap 31, Lopez 20). If one starter goes five against the other’s seven or eight, he’s going to lose.

The good news is that we’re throwing the ace of our postseason tonight in Lester; the bad news is that the Angels are doing the same. True, Lackey’s history at Fenway is less than stellar (I’m on a train and can’t look up the numbers), but his near no-hitter this year was pitched there, unless I’m mistaken.

In other words, I expect another good, tight ballgame. Which makes for good TV. But I have to be honest: I’d settle for a big margin Sox win.

P.S. One thing to keep on the back of your mind: might Beckett be available for an inning or two out of the pen on Wed, if necessary?