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October 5, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Two Preview: Rays at Red Sox

by Bret Sayre

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After a 12-2 drubbing of the Rays in Game One of the American League Division Series, the Red Sox look to put themselves firmly in the driver’s seat with another victory today in Boston. Unfortunately for them, if they want to do so, they’ll have to go through the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. Here is a look at the PECOTA odds and projected lineups for Game Two.

Rays (David Price) at Red Sox (John Lackey) 5:30 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Red Sox 47.5%, Rays 52.5%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Rays vs Lackey (R)

Red Sox vs Price (L)

Matt Joyce (L) LF

Jacoby Ellsbury (L) CF

Wil Myers (R) RF

Shane Victorino (S) RF

James Loney (L) 1B

Dustin Pedroia (R) 2B

Evan Longoria (R) 3B

David Ortiz (L) DH

Ben Zobrist (S) 2B

Mike Napoli (R) 1B

Desmond Jennings (R) CF

Jonny Gomes (R) LF

Delmon Young (R) DH

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) C

Yunel Escobar (R) SS

Stephen Drew (S) SS

Jose Molina (R) C

Will Middlebrooks (R) 3B

The Set-Up
Oh, how the tide turns in Game Two. After being relatively comfortable favorites in Game One, seeing David Price from 60 feet and six inches away pushes the Red Sox into underdog status. PECOTA has the Rays slightly favored here, liking their chances of stealing home field advantage away from the division champions. Price overcame disastrous career numbers in Arlington to push the Rays into the playoffs on Monday, but to give them a leg up in this series, he’ll have to sustain fantastic career numbers at Fenway Park. In 67 career innings pitching in Beantown, he has a 1.88 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 54 strikeouts.

Just about the only positive the Rays can take away from Game One of this series is that the game was far enough out of hand that they didn’t burn many of the top guys in their bullpen, leaving a lot of fresh options available for Joe Maddon on Saturday night. Then again, the same can be said of the Red Sox, who have the further advantage of actually having won the game. Of their most reliable bullpen arms, only Junichi Tazawa got into Game One—and he threw only three pitches.

Focusing In
John Lackey makes such a nice candidate for Comeback Player of the Year that he did it twice. Sure, he missed all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, but his arm also appeared to explode in his first start of the season against Toronto. In the end, the injury looked much worse than it actually was, as he returned just over three weeks later and rediscovered the form that netted him more than $80 million from Boston in free agency.

Even while missing three starts due to injury, Lackey still managed to throw nearly 189 1/3 innings on the season—and this was enabled by a career low walk rate (5.1 percent) and a career high groundball rate (46.8 percent). That inning total be a big number for someone returning from an entire missed season, but the Red Sox have kept an eye out for Lackey’s workload down the stretch. Here’s what Lackey had to say about it, courtesy of our own Zachary Levine: “I got a little break here in the last couple weeks when we were in a pretty good position as far as playoffs. John kinda gave me a little breather, so that could definitely help me to rejuvenate me a little bit. For the most part, I've felt pretty good all season.”

However, while Lackey’s overall numbers make this a season to remember, his recent past against the Rays has been something to forget. From May 9 to the All-Star Break, Lackey recorded 11 quality starts in 13 attempts. Those two non-quality starts were his only two appearances against the Rays this season, and he combined to give up nine runs and 19 hits in just 10 innings. Collectively, the current iteration of the Rays’ lineup has hit .300/.362/.425 in 225 career plate appearances against Lackey. And he may need to rely a little more on his defense than he usually does, especially against the middle of the Rays’ lineup—Longoria, Zobrist, and Loney have combined for a 9.6 percent strikeout rate against the big right-hander in their careers.

There has also been much made of manager John Farrell’s decision to pitch Lackey in Game Two over Clay Buchholz and his sub-2.00 ERA. And the reason for this? Lackey is 6-3 in 13 starts with a 2.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP at home this season, versus 4-10 with a 4.48 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 16 starts away from home. So you’d think Lackey’s confidence would be through the roof pitching at Fenway, right? “I'm not really sure, honestly,” Lackey said about his success at home. “I don't know what that is. Really this place isn't one of the best places to pitch, so it should be the other way around.”

Opposing Lackey in this matchup is the man who carried his team on his back during Game 163 against the Texas Rangers by throwing a complete game in a hostile environment. At this point, we all know about Price’s diminishing velocity (his 94.5 MPH average velocity is down more than two miles per hour from his ridiculous 96.6 MPH average in 2012), but he hasn’t let that bother him too much. In fact, he still managed to put up a 3.05 FIP this past season, which was the exact same FIP he had in 2012 when he won the Cy Young Award.

Since returning from a triceps strain at the beginning of July, Price has been one of the best pitchers in baseball again, going 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 102 strikeouts (versus only 13 walks) in 131 2/3 innings. But he’s going about it differently, as was on display in Texas. Price’s swinging strike rate has gone down in 2013 from previous seasons, and in 118 pitches on September 30, he generated only four swings and misses. He doesn’t need to have hitters flailing at the plate in order to be successful, but he’s going to need to do a little better than that against a stronger Boston lineup.

This matchup today will also be the sixth time that Price will face off (ace off?) against the Red Sox so far in 2013, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, Price has only allowed 22 baserunners (19 hits and three walks) in 32 2/3 innings—that’s good for a 0.67 WHIP. He also has a 10.0 strikeout-to-walk rate and a 2.48 ERA for good measure.

Matchup to Watch
There’s no more important battle in this game than the three or four at-bats David Ortiz will get off David Price. Thus far in his career, Price has done a fantastic job of neutralizing the dynamic DH, as he’s limited him to a .216 average with no homers in 42 trips to the plate. However, the tables have started to turn as of late, as Ortiz has gone 6-20 (.300 average) with only one strikeout over the past two seasons. Will Papi keep chipping away at Price’s advantage in this matchup or will Price retain the upper hand between the two of them? They’re very likely to face each other in a pivotal spot in Game Two.

My Prediction:
David Price continues his success against his division rival, but Lackey matches him pitch-for-pitch and the Red Sox outlast the Rays 3-2.

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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