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October 4, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game One Preview: Rays vs. Red Sox

by Bret Sayre

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The Red Sox and Rays took rather different paths to get to this American League Division Series. The Rays have won three consecutive elimination games and will be playing their fourth road game in four different cities in six days. Meanwhile, the Red Sox won the AL East by six games and actually organized an inter-squad game on Wednesday at Fenway Park just to stay sharp. Here is a look at the PECOTA odds and projected lineups for Game One.

Rays (Matt Moore) at Red Sox (Jon Lester) 3:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Red Sox 55.7%, Rays 44.3%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Rays vs Lester (L)

Red Sox vs Moore (L)

Desmond Jennings (R) CF

Jacoby Ellsbury (L) CF

Wil Myers (R) RF

Shane Victorino (S) RF

Ben Zobrist (S) 2B

Dustin Pedroia (R) 2B

Evan Longoria (R) 3B

David Ortiz (L) DH

Delmon Young (R) DH

Mike Napoli (R) 1B

Sean Rodriguez (R) LF

Jonny Gomes (R) LF

James Loney (L) 1B

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) C

Yunel Escobar (R) SS

Will Middlebrooks (R) 3B

Jose Molina (R) C

Stephen Drew (S) SS

The Set-Up:

As you would expect, PECOTA favors the Red Sox by a decent margin in this matchup. During the regular season, the Red Sox had the best home record in the American League, acquiring 53 victories against only 28 losses in the friendly confines of Fenway Park. They also took 12 out of 19 from the Rays, as Zachary Levine pointed out (among many, many other things) in his Series Preview.

One big unanswered question is whether the added stress of the last few weeks, and added travel of the past six days, will start to slow down the suddenly surging Rays. The Tampa Bay bullpen was worked heavily down the stretch, throwing 13 more innings in September than the next highest playoff team (Pittsburgh). They also are unable to have reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price lead the charge in this series, instead relying upon a high-upside 24-year-old in Matt Moore to lead them into hostile territory. Of course, he’s also the same pitcher who threw seven shutout innings in Game One of the 2011 ALDS in Texas against the high-powered Rangers. Oh, and did I mention that was his second career major-league start?

Focusing In:

If there were a handful of pitchers in the American League the Red Sox might prefer to avoid, I would expect Matt Moore to be on that list. In his career, he’s faced the Sox five times (four starts and one relief appearance), posting a 3.86 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings. If you’re saying to yourself, “but Bret, that’s not the stats of someone they should really be afraid of,” hold your horses—I’m getting there. The real scary part lies in how this current group of Red Sox players has specifically performed against the left-hander. In 88 career plate appearances against Moore, all active Red Sox have hit a collective .157/.205/.253 with just one homer against him. And that includes David Ortiz, who has a 1.346 OPS against him in 14 trips to the plate.

The non-Papi portion of that list is riddled with small sample sizes, but it’s also riddled with shockingly inept performances—especially from a few hitters who generally are at their best against southpaws. Here are some of the gory details:

  • Dustin Pedroia: 2-for-14 with a walk and a double
  • Jonny Gomes: 2-12 with a double and five strikeouts
  • Mike Napoli: 1-for-9 with a walk
  • Jacoby Ellsbury: 0-for-6 with two walks
  • Shane Victorino: 0-for-7

For those of you counting at home, that’s five of the top six hitters in the Red Sox lineup. Then again, most of those statistics were acquired before the beards.

As far as how he’s looked as of late, upon returning from elbow soreness on September 3, Moore has been good on the surface, but a little scary underneath. Yes, he went 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 29 innings in September—and that sounds great. Unfortunately, he also walked 20 batters in that stretch and averaged 92.58 MPH on his four-seam fastball, the lowest average of his career over any full month. With the above-average patience of the Boston lineup, Moore is going to have to be a more accurate with his pitches than he’s been in recent memory.

In the home dugout, the Game One starter is enjoying a nice bounce-back season from a disappointing 2012. And things have been going even better for Jon Lester as the season has gone on. While his overall stat line is impressive, Lester has gone 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 74 strikeouts versus just 22 walks in 87 2/3 innings since the All-Star Break. He’s also only allowed four homers in that stretch, after giving up 15 in the first half and 25 last season.

Unlike Moore, Lester is hitting the playoffs as he’s at his strongest physically. In fact, as you can see in the chart below, his fastball velocity has increased with every month of the season since May.

Month

Fourseam

Sinker

Change

Curve

Cutter

4/13

93.34

91.49

85.27

75.71

90.57

5/13

93.18

92.53

85.58

75.98

90.53

6/13

93.34

92.50

85.88

76.00

90.27

7/13

93.58

92.57

86.17

76.05

90.41

8/13

94.07

93.00

86.62

77.19

90.23

9/13

94.24

91.84

87.03

78.08

90.51

And the 94.24 MPH average velocity on his four-seamer is Lester’s highest for any month since 2010.

Having pitched in the AL East his entire career, Lester is no stranger to pitching against the Rays, but this year as seen some highs and lows against his division rival. While his overall numbers against Tampa Bay seem pedestrian, his four 2013 starts have consisted of three quality starts (in which he gave up no more than two runs) and one that he’d certainly like to have back. On June 11, Lester gave up seven runs without making it through the fifth inning—throwing only 50 of his 98 pitches for strikes and giving up homers to Desmond Jennings, Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce.

Finally, in a cross between useful data and ephemera, Lester will be pitching tonight on five days rest—something he’s done very successfully this season. During the 2013 season, Lester made 12 starts on five days rest and went 5-2 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 60 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings.

Matchup to Watch:

While he hasn’t had as many at bats as some of his more experienced teammates, Desmond Jennings has had a fair amount of success against Lester in his career—hitting .360 with four extra-base hits (one homer) and a 1.025 OPS in just 25 at bats (including a 462/.462/.846 in 13 at bats this season). On top of that, he’s also a career .350/.435/.750 hitter in the post-season with two homers and two doubles in just 20 at bats. Jennings is very likely to get three at bats against the Red Sox left-hander, and if he can make them count, it would go a long way towards the Rays pulling the upset in Game One.

My Prediction:

The Red Sox take the opener 6-4, led by a big home run by Mike Napoli.

Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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