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October 1, 2003

Playoff Prospectus

Boston Red Sox vs. Oakland Athletics

by Gary Huckabay

Two of baseball's best front offices have once again done their jobs well, and Oakland and Boston will face off in the five-game ALDS. It's really a classic matchup, with a tremendously vicious offense against a team built primarily on pitching and defense. The thing that would surprise many in the mainstream media is that the team built on pitching and defense is wearing Green and Gold.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Oakland Athletics

2B-R Mark Ellis (.250/.315/.373/.243)
1B-L Scott Hatteberg (.252/.342/.377/.258)
SS-R Miguel Tejada (.278/.336/.472/.280)
DH-L Erubiel Durazo (.257/.372/.429/.285)
3B-L Eric Chavez (.282/.350/.515/.293)
LF-R Jose Guillen (.263/.311/.461/.263)
CF-L Terrence Long (.245/.293/.385/.236)
RF-R Jermaine Dye (.174/.261/.257/.182)
C-R Ramon Hernandez (.273/.331/.458/.272)

In the outfield, the A's have approximately nine healthy hands, seven healthy legs, and two and half guys that can hit. Depending on the health of Jermaine Dye's legs, Jose Guillen's hands, and Chris Singleton's bat, you may see some combination of Billy McMillon and Eric Byrnes patrolling one of the corners and center.

Oakland's lineup isn't the juggernaut A's fans hoped for at the beginning of the season, even with a healthy Erubiel Durazo, and a Steinbachian season from Ramon Hernandez. The A's posted a .254 EqA for the season, in the bottom third of teams in the league. Even if Jermaine Dye had been among the living and matched his career averages of .280/.344/.478, the A's offense would not have reached the heights of league average. Though it may surprise the likes of Joe Morgan, the A's really are the archetype for a team built on great pitching and defense.

Boston Red Sox

CF-L Johnny Damon (.274/.346/.406/.270)
2B-L Todd Walker (.284/.333/.430/.265)
SS-R Nomar Garciaparra (.301/.345/.524/.296)
LF-R Manny Ramirez (.325/.427/.587/.341)
DH-L David Ortiz (.288/.370/.593/.316)
1B-R Kevin Millar (.274/.346/.466/.283)
RF-L Trot Nixon (.306/.396/.578/.325)
3B-B Bill Mueller (.327/.398/.541/.317)
C-B Jason Varitek (.275/.353/.516/.293)

That's not a lineup. It's a natural disaster of biblical proportions waiting to impose itself on opposing pitchers like some sort of Apocalyptic Incarnation of Holy Vengeance. This is AC/DC, circa 1979, showing up to play your high school battle of the bands. This is David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino teaming up to write the sequel to Leonard, Part 6. This is Ricky Jay showing up as the magic act at your kid's birthday party and using a cat-o-nine-tails to beat the living crap out of Barney the Dinosaur. The Boston lineup is something that causes opposing teams to look over and exclaim "That ain't right." In short, Boston has built the offense that Oakland's been talking about building.

How good is the Sox offense? Try a .287 Equivalent Average, and 238 more equivalent runs than Oakland. That's about a run and a half better per game. Are there holes in the lineup? Not really. The Sox hit .285/.347/.456 vs. lefties, .291/.366/.507 vs. righties. The optimistic opposing manager would point out that there's a 70-point OPS drop vs. lefties. Well, that is one way to look at it...the other is to plan to get pounded at least once during the series, and assume that someone from the bullpen is going to have to take one for the team. That's what happens when you face the best slugging team of all time. Heads up, Mr. Halama.

Bench (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Oakland Athletics

OF-L Billy McMillon (.270/.356/.461/.282)
OF-R Eric Byrnes (.265/.333/.461/.275)
OF-L Chris Singleton (.246/.302/.341/.231)
C-B Adam Melhuse (.303/.376/.592/.316)
IF-R Frank Menechino (.195/.362/.268/.245)

Should McMillon be starting? Well, the defense probably takes a big hit, because Billy's a capable corner OF, but no one can really play center, and leaving Jermaine Dye and his eight-digit salary on the bench simply isn't going to happen. The A's' bench is a strength, even with Frank Menechino's Lance Blankenship impersonation. Menechino's never been the same since his elbow injury, but he can fill in admirably defensively, take a walk, and lean into pitches as required. More than one A's fan has written in, hoping to somehow create the karma that will lead to Adam Melhuse starting over Scott Hatteberg, but that's not going to happen.

Boston Red Sox

OF-R Gabe Kapler (.290/.349/.452/.276)
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.259/.309/.451/.258)
UT-R Damian Jackson (.268/.301/.331/.223)
IF-R Lou Merloni (.269/.367/.308/.215)

A solid bench, but really, what's the point? Jackson fulfills the defensive sub/pinch runner role admirably, and should Nixon or Ramirez need time off to heal up, Gabe Kapler can fill in well enough. The Red Sox starting nine is so strong that these guys really have to play specific roles over the course of a season, but they won't be a factor in a short series unless Trot Nixon really isn't ready to go. It's possible that a key matchup might end up being Gabe Kapler against Rincon, as Kapler hits lefties fairly well (.832 OPS this year), but really, who in the lineup do you need to pinch-hit for?

Rotations (SNVA, RA, IP)

Oakland Athletics

RHP Tim Hudson (4.6, 3.15, 240)
LHP Barry Zito (2.8, 3.81, 232)
LHP Ted Lilly (0.2, 4.67, 177)

Obviously, the A's would love to have Mark Mulder available, but that's not going to happen. Ted Lilly's been tremendous in the final two months of the season, posting a 2.34 ERA, but primarily against pretty middling competition. Rich Harden will probably pitch out of the pen for the DS, but Ken Macha might turn to him to pitch Game 4 under very specific (and unlikely) circumstances.

Game One, with Hudson vs. Martinez, has the potential to turn out like those Clemens/Stewart matchups of 15 years ago. Of course, kids of this generation on the east coast will be in bed by that time, so perhaps it's best not to have any Games of the Epoch scheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern.

Boston Red Sox

RHP Pedro Martinez (5.5, 2.51, 187)
RHP Tim Wakefield (0.2, 4.79, 199)
RHP Derek Lowe (0.2, 5.00, 203)
RHP John Burkett if up 2-1 (-1.1, 5.47, 173)

It's unlikely that there's any pitcher anyone would rather have throwing in the first game of a playoff series. Martinez put up a 71.9 VORP for the season, edging Hudson and just behind Esteban Loaiza, despite making only 29 starts. He may not be the most durable pitcher around, but if he's able to take the mound, there's no one more likely to leave an opposing lineup just plain gasping for air.

After Martinez, things get dicey. Wakefield's a very valuable pitcher, but a great deal of his value comes from his durability and versatility over the course of a season. It's great that he threw 200 innings for the Sox this year, but in a short series, Wakefield's biggest asset has little if any value. Wakefield is unlikely to come up with a dominant outing, and will depend (wisely so) on the Sox offense to overmatch Barry Zito in Game 2. The Sox have the offense to do it, but Zito is only one year removed from a Cy Young Award, and is fully capable of showing up in a cape and tights on any given day.

Derek Lowe could well be the difference in the series, depending on which version of him shows up. If the Derek Lowe that allows countless bleeders between some combination of Todd Walker, Kevin Millar, and David Ortiz shows up, the Sox will have to bring the bats in order to win Game 3. If the Derek Lowe that shows up induces 18 ground balls right at Mueller and Nomar, the A's will be playing early October golf. Lowe's road ERA is nearly twice his home ERA, which explains Grady Little's ordering of the Sox rotation.

Bullpen (ARP, ARA, IP)

Oakland Athletics

RHP Keith Foulke (26.5, 2.12, 87)
RHP Chad Bradford (17.3, 3.18, 77)
RHP Jim Mecir (-2.2, 5.92, 37)
LHP Ricardo Rincon (6.6, 3.32, 55)
RHP Rich Harden (0, 4.38, 2)
RHP Mike Neu (1.6, 3.75, 42)
LHP John Halama (2.5, 4.20, 42)
RHP Chad Harville (-4.9, 6.06, 22)

For both Oakland and Boston, there might be one or two guys who don't make the postseason roster.

So, if you're Ken Macha, and the patient Boston offense gets Tim Hudson up to 115 pitches through six innings, what do you do? Keith Foulke's a bona fide nasty-ass closer, but you have to get to him. Oakland's best setup man, Chad Bradford, is a great pitcher, but he requires careful management. Why? Because righties hit him approximately like the Nigerian Ambassador to the UN (.190/.245/.254), and lefties hit him approximately like Manny Ramirez (.326/.458/.579). That leaves a bunch of unappetizing options. In order to win the series, the A's may need Rich Harden to do his Francisco Rodriguez impersonation.

Boston Red Sox

RHP Byung-Hyun Kim (0.7, 4.05, 50)
RHP Scott Williamson (-2.3, 6.27, 20)
RHP Mike Timlin (11.4, 3.76, 84)
LHP Alan Embree (8.6, 4.02, 55)
RHP Jeff Suppan (2.8, 0.00, 4)
RHP Brandon Lyon (-6.7, 4.75, 59)
RHP Ramiro Mendoza (-9.4, 6.42, 42)
LHP Scott Sauerbeck (-6.3, 7.13, 17)

Boston got a lot of attention early in the season, most of it negative and misguided, for pointing out to the world that Saves, as a stat, and the resulting de facto bullpen structure that comes from their inflated importance, are arbitrary and more than slightly silly. For now, the Sox have a makeshift pen that doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, but as often as not, they really only have to kind of babysit a large lead and get the game safely to the end. Almost every reliever on the squad has a significant weakness, be it a brutal platoon split, a tendency to give up bombs, or some combination thereof.

If the A's can get into the Boston pen early, they might be able to score enough runs to keep up with the Boston offense. It'll be interesting to see if the A's shuffle their lineup around to avoid giving Little easy choices as to when to use Alan Embree. More than one Yankee fan has sent in e-mail prophecizing about BK Kim taking the Red Sox to the World Series, only to give up the series-losing homer to some obscure, left-handed Cub.

Defense


TEAM LG     G     BFP       H    HR    BB  HBP     SO DEF_EFF
OAK  A    161    6038    1324   138   494   54   1015   .7265
BOS  A    161    6325    1494   153   486   75   1131   .7007

Gone are the days of an outfield that contained one or two of Geronimo Berroa, Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, or Camryn Manheim. The A's' defense is outstanding almost everywhere. Jermaine Dye and Jose Guillen combine reasonable range with outstanding arms in the corners, Chris Singleton provides slick glovework off the bench, and the infield might be the best defensive unit in the American League.

Boston's defense is something of a patchwork, and it'll be interesting to see how players like Manny Ramirez and Kevin Millar adapt in Oakland. They'll be going from a park with virtually no foul territory to one that has enough foul ground to host a World Cup match. If Oakland gets a lead, expect to see substitutions that result in a lineup for the A's that resembles something the Dodgers might have put on the field during the 1988 World Series, but with slightly less Mickey Hatcher.

Managers

Boston and Oakland are two organizations where the manager's role leans heavily towards the side of tactics. There are no Mike Holmgrens in either place, demanding significant input into the player acquisition and development process. (Or, more accurately, they're not getting significant input.) The personnel, development, and strategy are driven from the front office as a whole, and Macha and Little focus on keeping the team prepared and healthy, and making the best use of the player personnel they have available.

Grady Little's had his hands on the reins of Pedro, the Maserati of pitchers, all year, and he's done a good job of keeping him healthy. Little hasn't abused his starters, and he's done a reasonable job of distributing the bullpen load--no small feat when you consider the early-season attention the pen was getting. Offensively, the Sox have three guys that can run: Nomar, Damon, and Damian Jackson, and everyone else keeps their feet nailed to the base and waits to round the bags on an extra-base hit. Having great batters makes it easier to manage an offense.

Ken Macha's first season with Oakland has had its share of problems, from Mark Mulder's hip injury to Jermaine Dye's legs, to Eric Byrnes' unmatched streakiness. Through it all, he's kept the A's rotation as healthy as possible, and mixed and matched outfielders to take advantage of their relative strengths, putting together platoons based on handedness, health, or relative offensive and defensive ability.

Look forward to having Macha and Little questioned for their propensity not to throw away outs. The two teams combined for only 46 sacrifice bunts this season. That's about 2/3 as many as Detroit executed, and there's an object lesson there for Joe Morgan.

The Call

Boston in 4. Too much offense for the A's to overcome. If Hudson falters at all in Game 1 and the A's start running their middle relievers out there, we could witness some truly ugly blowouts. Oakland's offense isn't that fantastic to start with, and has significant weaknesses that can be exploited. The fugly .218/.270/.404 and .236/.270/.329 that Eric Chavez and Terrence Long respectively post against lefties make Grady Little's job particularly easy.

Oakland's chances rest with Boston's righty-filled rotation, and a defense that has the potential to implode. If Boston makes some miscues, gets a poor performance in Game 1 from Pedro, and Macha can spot his bench guys perfectly, Oakland has a chance. But more likely, the A's suffer another first-round exit. To some extent, this is a showdown of great hitting versus great pitching. Unfortunately for Oakland, the team with great hitting also has Pedro.

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

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