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October 9, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Four Recap: Red Sox 3, Rays 1

by Zachary Levine

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A fascinating series filled with late drama, unexpected defensive meltdowns, an unlikely walkoff, and a season’s worth of managerial decisions ended in the worst possible way Tuesday night—with Mike Napoli dancing shirtless.

The Red Sox were better team all year and they dismissed the Rays 3-1 both in game and series score, ending a streak of four straight wins for the 2013 Rays when facing elimination. The key sequence began with Xander Bogaerts coming back from down 1-2 to draw a walk in the sixth and then a Jacoby Ellsbury two-out single, a wild pitch, and a Shane Victorino single to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead.

Jeremy Hellickson was yanked in the second inning with control problems, and the Rays escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam thanks to a Jamey Wright strikeout and a beautiful double play started by James Loney. But their offense was shut down by a quick-working Jake Peavy, a dominant Craig Breslow, and a back-to-form Koji Uehara, who closed it out without incident.

But enough details. When the teams left the field on what was very much Wednesday morning already, it was time to take stock of what awaited in the ALCS for one, a single-issue offseason for the other and what the adventures of the Rays in Game 4 might have meant for baseball in general going forward. First the victors:

Where do the Red Sox go from here?
Well, they go home, and by the time those of you in the East are reading this—given that the game ended at half past midnight—they’ll probably already be home.

This series worked out very much as expected. The best offense in the American League carried them most of the way, and their rotation depth finished the job. Not that one game makes or disproves a trade, but this will go a long way toward viewing the Jake Peavy-Jose Iglesias swap favorably in New England. In Boston’s 3-1 clincher, Peavy was effective and even more efficient, giving up a run on five hits and no walks and using just 74 pitches in 5 2/3 innings thanks to a couple of double plays.

Everybody started once in this series with no major issue, and there is no reason to expect any changes to the rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Peavy when the ALCS commences on Saturday. They’ll almost surely be the favorites in that series, and we’ll kick off coverage of that one as soon as the opponent is known.

Where do the Rays go from here?
They’ll talk about this loss in Greater St. Pete for a very short time, but by the time you finished reading this sentence, and I’ll add a few words here to stall in case my estimation is off and hey is that a new shirt, there will be only one important baseball story involving the Rays. What happens to David Price?

The would-be Game Five starter and actually the would-be extra-inning reliever in this one doesn’t get to be either one. So he’ll go from now until the winter meetings or beyond wondering whether his obliterated fastball to David Ortiz leading off the eighth inning of Game Two was his last pitch as a Ray. Whether his last action as a member of the Rays will be apologizing for calling two television analysts “nerds.” It would be a hell of a way to go.

I won’t pretend to know whether or not he’ll go, but there’s another reason why this is THE story in Rays baseball this offseason. The rest of the stories are exceptionally boring.

Usually when a team gets bounced like this, we’re able to look at what caused them to fall just short and address it/overreact to it. Like when the Nationals lost last year because of a bullpen meltdown and then spent $28 million on a closer.

Problem 1: Price and Matt Moore got lit up. Solution: Price and Moore are really good.
Problem 2: Wil Myers didn’t hit. Solution: Myers is really good
Problem 3: They had some defensive lowlights for the ages. Solution: Their defense is really good, second best in the league by defensive efficiency.

But more generally, where exactly do you go improve this team? If you look at WAR by position, handily color coded for you on our chart, the Rays are the only American League team with no positions below 1.5 WAR. (The Dodgers were the only team in the NL with no position below 1.5 WAR.)

Not that the Rays are a team that would go out and throw money at perceived deficiencies, but there are really few places to do anything unless Price is traded and there are shockwaves from that. There’s stability in the rest of the rotation with Jeremy Hellickson still a legitimate 5. All the important position players are staying, as the Rays have a no-doubt option on Ben Zobrist a pretty sure on on Yunel Escobar and an interesting one on David DeJesus – a $6.5M option with a $1.5M buyout. You can see the whole pretty picture here at Cot’s.

Jose Molina will be a free agent, but most of what they’ll have to do is at the low end of the defensive spectrum with no Joyce, James Loney or Luke Scott, but that’s an easy place to fill even if they want to bail out high on Loney. They’ll have to do some reconfiguring in the back end of the bullpen, but they’ll have the parts and nobody will cry over no Fernando Rodney.

The Rays are three wins in four years shy of being the best team in all of baseball in that span, and haven’t even made an LCS much less a World Series. There’s not much more to say than just try again.

Where does baseball go from here?
Analysts fantasizing about bizarre pitching usage really picked up as a genre when baseball introduced its one-game wild card playoffs.

This was that by accident.

One of my favorites in the genre is de facto lying about who you’re starting pitcher will be. You don’t really lie. The righty announced to start still gets out there and faces the leadoff man, but then the lefty comes in and faces a lineup that was tailored to a righty or makes the other manager burn his bench early to compensate.

I don’t really see that coming to baseball, which is slow to adopt anything that might be considered interesting. But I could see what Joe Maddon did out of necessity when Hellickson lost the plate as becoming a legitimate strategy for intentional use.

The off-days in the playoffs help when you’re looking at getting nine pitchers into the game as the Rays did Tuesday night. It means you can blow through every bullpen arm even the ones who have pitched the day before because they won’t be needed the next day. And you can use an extra-extra starter (in this case Game 1 starter Matt Moore) in addition to the extra starter (Chris Archer) that was already scrubbed from the postseason rotation.

All three Rays starters used have much better career numbers the first time through a lineup than the second—no surprise considering the MLB-wide numbers—and none of them had to go a second under this method.

Pitcher

OPS 1st time through

OPS 2nd time through

Jeremy Hellickson

.649

.734

Matt Moore

.657

.702

Chris Archer

.560

.714

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Hellickson was lost out there, and Maddon did a nice job of recognizing it. But I can’t help but wonder who will take this on as a strategy in a decisive game or an elimination game before an off-day. And when that starter cruises the first time through the order, who will stick with the strategy and not the starter.

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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