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October 7, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three Preview: Red Sox at Rays

by Bret Sayre

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It’s win-or-go-home time for Tampa Bay again, but this is no new occurrence for this group. In fact, they’ve played three elimination games in just the last eight days to get to this point. In Game Three, each club will send their best right-handed starting pitcher to the mound (no offense to John Lackey, but no such niceties for Jeremy Hellickson). The Rays shared a similar home field advantage to Boston during the regular season (51 wins at Tropicana Field), and they’ll need all the help they can get to claw their way back to Boston.

Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) at Rays (Alex Cobb) 6:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Rays 50.2%, Red Sox 49.8

Projected Starting Lineups:

Rays vs Buchholz (R)

Red Sox vs Cobb (R)

David DeJesus (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

Daniel Nava (L) 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:
After allowing 19 runs in the first two games of the series, the Rays have certainly felt the wrath of what looked to be the best offense in the playoffs. And while the series now shifts to a much more pitcher-friendly environment, PECOTA essentially has this game as a toss-up. Fortunately for the Rays, they have their best hope on the mound in Alex Cobb—one of the hottest pitchers on the planet right now. In his last four starts, including the wild card game against Cleveland, Cobb is 4-0 and has allowed just three earned runs in 29 innings, while striking out 31 and walking just six.

It’s going to be quite an uphill battle for Tampa Bay at this point in the series, but none of that matters if they can’t get past Clay Buchholz and the Red Sox tonight.

Focusing In:
It’s been a season of highs and lows for Alex Cobb in 2013. The highs have all been performance related, as he’s taken a big step forward this year—mostly due to missing more bats. His strikeout rate jumped nearly five percentage points from 18.6 percent in 2012 to 23.2 this season and his swinging strike rate jumped one and a half percentage points to match (9.2 versus 7.7). Unfortunately, he had two months of his season stolen from him when he was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Eric Hosmer on June 15. Just the fact that he made it back on the mound this season after that injury was a huge accomplishment, but he’s been even better since his return.

Since Cobb returned to the mound on August 15, he has a 2.41 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 58 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings. In case that doesn’t sound impressive enough, he only faced one team during that nine-start stretch who finished under .500—the Mariners, who he faced twice (including his worst start of the stretch at Safeco Field). If you draw the sample out to include the wild card game, Cobb has had a Game Score of at least 60 in seven of his last 10 outings.

This season, Cobb faced the Red Sox four times, including three outings at Tropicana Field, and he accumulated a 5.16 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 20 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. The most recent of those starts came on September 11 in Tampa, where he gave up three runs and allowed 10 base runners in 5 2/3 innings. In fact, since May 1, Cobb has only had two starts with a Game Score of 45 of lower in 17 tries—both against the Boston Red Sox.

In the other corner is your 2013 ERA leader (if that pesky innings qualification was lowered to 100). And like Cobb, we can break down Clay Buchholz into pre- and post-injury performance. Before he was sidelined for more than three months with bursitis in his throwing shoulder, Buchholz was borderline dominant, going 9-0 in 12 starts with a 1.71 ERA, 1.02 ERA, 24.9 percent strikeout rate and 2.8 strikeout-to-walk rate. Every one of those numbers would have been a career-best for the Texan. Since he’s been back, the ERA (1.88) and WHIP (1.04) has remained shiny, but his strikeout rate is down to 16.5 percent—almost exactly in line with his past four seasons.

The biggest difference between the Buchholz of recent memory and the Buchholz of 2013 has been his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark, despite pitching in one that allowed 153 homers on the season. Between 2011 and 2012, he allowed 35 homers in 272 innings, but this season that number was limited to just four in his 108 1/3 frames. As you’d expect, his HR/FB rate was less than half of his career rate in 2013 (4.5 percent versus 10.1 percent) since he showed no discernible change in batted ball outcomes during the season. But is 2013 the outlier or not? In 2010, the first season Buchholz began really using his cutter, he also had a much lower than “normal” home run rate (allowing just nine bombs in 173 2/3 innings). Looking at his current HR/FB rate and shrugging him off as unlucky during the 2013 season is just as shortsighted as saying he was the best pitcher in baseball because of his shiny ERA.

Unfortunately for the Rays, Buchholz is likely coming into this matchup with a lot of confidence—in nine career starts at the Trop, he has a 2.26 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings. Just this year he’s had two starts against them, allowing a whopping zero runs in 13 innings with 19 strikeouts. In fact, he also has a career 2.57 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 16 career starts indoors (versus a 3.81 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in the great outdoors).

Matchup to Watch:
While David Ortiz was the one who hit two homers in Game Two, the most dynamic player for the Red Sox in this series may be Jacoby Ellsbury. The free-agent-to-be has five hits and nine at bats and has stolen a pair of bases—but the most surprising thing about his success thus far is that it’s come in two games started by southpaws. For the season, Ellsbury has a .641 OPS versus lefties compared to an .863 mark against righties. If Cobb can’t keep the leadoff hitter at bay in this game, it’s going to be a tough task to extend the Rays’ season.

My Prediction:
The Boston bats continue to show no mercy and the Red Sox are able to take the series sweep 6-2, led by a big night from Dustin Pedroia.

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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