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October 5, 2004

Prospectus Today

Playoff Previews

by Joe Sheehan

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This is being posted later than it should have been, which is my fault. The story behind the lateness isn't interesting, but know that I'm sorry for it, and that I appreciate your patience.

The apology also applies to the Red Sox/Angels preview, which will follow this piece to your computer screen later Tuesday evening.

--

Before we get into these, let me make one point: I have no strong convictions about any of these series, or for that matter, anything we might see in October. I think a matchup like Astros/Twins in the World Series isn't that much less likely than, say, Yankees/Cardinals. The two teams with the best records in the game just aren't that imposing as playoff opponents, thanks to injuries and their weaknesses. The hottest teams in each league are the ones that squeaked into the postseason by the slimmest of margins. None of these teams are complete--only the Red Sox are really close--and all are good enough to play 19 games this month and just flawed enough to play three.

In other words: welcome to one heck of an October.

Red Sox vs. Angels

The long version is my assigned Playoff Preview, so I'll keep this relatively brief. I think you can make a case that these are the two best teams in baseball right now, both of them having had strong second halves, and both having across-the-board strength in most aspects of the game.

With the two teams closely matched, I think the difference here will be the superior--potentially dominant--starting pitching that the Red Sox have, coupled with the Angels' health issues keeping them from peak performance. As Will Carroll explained, the Angels have a number of persistent injury problems, ones that are going to keep the team from deploying its talent optimally. While the Sox have a couple of question marks, none are as critical as, say, Garret Anderson's patellar tendonitis, which Will says might keep him out of center field and create a domino effect that weakens both the offense and the defense.

The Red Sox are one of the most patient teams in the AL. They led the league in walks and in strikeouts, a reflection of all the deep counts they see. They even managed to add Orlando Cabrera and become more patient, which is no mean feat, and a reflection of Nomar Garciaparra's style at the plate.

Normally, this strategy helps you get to the soft underbelly of the bullpen. In the Angels' case, you might be better off taking a different path to victory. They're deep late in close games, with Francisco Rodriguez and Brendan Donnelly. Scot Shields would have been the best pitcher on many AL teams this year; he throws a lot of long relief for the Halos. Ramon Ortiz, emergency pitcher, threw well in the emergency pitcher role after losing his rotation spot.

The Sox are just a good baseball team. Pointing to the trade for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz as the reason for their second-half run is facile. They hit the heck out of the ball in August and September, and after an August dalliance with being an excellent run-prevention team, they put up their highest team monthly ERA in September. Their team defense may well have been better after the trade, but they reached the playoffs because their hitters went nuts and because their starters had their best stretched of the season, independent of what the defense was doing behind them.

(But not Derek Lowe: for all the discussion about how the trade made him a changed man, he was a lousy pitcher with (5.92 RA/9) and without (7.29 RA/9) Cabrera as a teammate.)

I don't see the Angels' shaky starting staff holding down the Sox offense, and it's going to be harder for the Halos to mount comebacks against Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez than against the recent editions of Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Red Sox in four.

Yankees vs. Twins

While the primary focus is on Johan Santana, who is more than ready for his close-up, the edge for the Twins that will show up in every game is the Yankees' inability to do anything about their good left-handed hitters. Every Yankee playoff game will be opened by a northpaw, and there are only two lefties in the pen, neither of whom has any business pitching.

One-hundred-one wins aside, this isn't a Yankee team that gets people excited. Even on the brink of the postseason, Joe Torre is unsure of which of his players will carry certain roles, as evidenced by his carrying 11 pitchers, including all five starting pitchers, into the best-of-five Division Series. Not only does Torre not know who he'll want to use in Games Three and Four, but he can't even narrow the field in such a way that strengthens the roster. That's unusual, and a reflection of the unsettled nature of this team, as well as Torre's unsteady hand with it. Carrying 11 pitchers into a best-of-five is basically a cry for help.

The problem for the Twins is that they're a one-trick pony. They don't score very many runs, and that's an evaluation that doesn't consider that they played 76 games against the run factories that pitch in the AL Central. The Twins went 35-33 outside the division, perhaps a more accurate reflection of their abilities. Santana and Brad Radke, as well as an excellent bullpen, have to pitch well or this team has no chance. They won't score five runs a game in the postseason, not with at least four starters sporting OBPs of .330 or below.

This series reminds me of the 2001 Division Series, in which the Yankees went up against another team whose entire game was run prevention. The Yankees and A's combined for 30 runs in six games, including two shutouts, and the Yankees came back from a 2-0 deficit to win three games to two. I wouldn't be surprised if these two teams averaged fewer than the six runs per games their predecessors did in '01. These are going to be close games, and the biggest factor in close games is luck, followed by relief pitching.

I'm going with Twins in four, without any real conviction other than a belief that Johan Santana is one hell of a pitcher who can beat the Yankees twice, even going on short rest.

Dodgers vs. Cardinals

(Well, I guess if I was going to leverage my timing issues, this would be the place to do so.)

I've been hitting the comparison of the Cardinals to the '00 Chicago White Sox for a few weeks. Both teams led their league in runs scored while finishing with the best record. The White Sox then scored seven runs in three games in getting swept by the Mariners in the Division Series. Teams that rely on a great offense are no more likely to have that kind of outcome than are teams that rely on great pitching. However, like those White Sox, these Cardinals will be similarly vulnerable if they don't score. They can expect to allow some runs, as they have so-so starting pitching and are facing a Dodgers offense that was fairly good this year, especially after adding Steve Finley in July.

The Cardinals play much better defense and feature a better bullpen than those White Sox did. On the other hand, they get their offense from fewer players, leaving them susceptible to slumps by any or all of them. On the whole, they're a better team with a broader skill set, and that may be where the comparison breaks down.

The Dodgers have been just barely getting by for a while, with a rotation that has been putting a heavy burden on both the offense and the bullpen. It's reasonable to think that the Dodgers might have clinched much sooner had Brad Penny been healthy after coming over from the Marlins. Without him, they've been grasping at straws in the rotation, reduced to using Elmer Dessens in what became the division-clinching game Saturday. That this series is spread over seven games gives Jim Tracy the luxury of not having to figure who his #4 starter is for another week, one he has to be thankful for.

I'm going with Dodgers in four, and conceding that it was predicated in part on them winning Tuesday's game. So was the idea that this series might see zero starting pitchers get decisions, as the two offenses went back and forth.

Braves vs. Astros

Is anyone paying attention to this series? Maybe it's because the Astros got their ticket punched so late, or because the Braves locked up their 13th division title in 14 years in such an unexciting manner, but I can't find too many people looking at this series with much interest.

It could also be because every time the Braves play the Astros in the Division Series, the Braves allow about four runs and sweep. That's an exaggeration, but not much of one; the reality cost Larry Dierker his job and set the franchise back two years with the One M Experiment.

The Braves are starting Jaret Wright, Mike Hampton and John Thomson in the first three games. In 2002, those three allowed 6.77 runs per nine over 378 2/3 innings. Now, they're a playoff rotation, following in the footsteps of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

That's not to say that they're bad pitchers; any of the three would be greeted with open-mouthed kisses by Jim Tracy right about now. However, even through they finished third in the NL in RA/G, this is no longer a team that can expect to dominate a series from the mound.

The Astros have to be pleased. It's possible that no team in baseball history has ever seen the type of pitching they have in their trips to October. In seven playoff series, the Astros are 0-7, going back to their five-game loss to the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS. Their opponents in those seven series led the league in RA/game four times, finished second once, and third twice. The '04 Braves extend that string, as they were third in the NL in RA/G this year. You would expect a playoff team to have above-average run prevention. You might also expect that a team could go to the playoffs once in eight times without running into one of the top three teams in the league at the task.

Maybe it won't matter to the Astros, who finished the year on a 36-10 run that still hasn't received enough credit. I was one of the many people who thought they should have dealt away Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent when they had the chance to use those players to start the long-overdue rebuilding process. (The streak changes nothing in that regard; this team is older than the wheel and needs to be overhauled.) Back in mid-August, their shot at the playoffs was less than 1%. It's higher than that now.

The run is almost entirely about the pitching. Brad Lidge, who deserves some down-ballot MVP consideration, has led a group of bullpen no-names who have completely shut down the opposition for six weeks. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt were very good down the stretch, and Brandon Backe established himself as the #3 starter in September. Remember, this team has close to $10 million worth of starting pitchers on the shelf in Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller.

Their pitching masks the fact that the Astros haven't had a great offense. With Craig Biggio in decline and non-hitters at shortstop and catcher, the Astros don't sustain offense, and often break down after the middle of the lineup. They need to take advantage of the innings in which the middle of the lineup, with Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent, comes to the plate, because opportunities outside of those innings are infrequent.

For many of the same reasons as I choose the Twins, I'm picking the Astros in four. They may not be the better team, but they'll have the better starting pitcher in the first two games, and they're facing a flawed team whose favorite status may be a vestige of an earlier decade.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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