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October 3, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox

by Nate Silver

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Sox versus Saux. This is the first time that these two clubs have met in October, a distinction owing mostly to the fact that the White Stockings have reached the postseason just four times since divisional play began in 1969.

This is probably the most compelling matchup of the four opening series, and it'd be easy to pin a Moneyball versus "Ozzieball" label on the contest, but that doesn't entirely do it justice. Yes, the White Sox steal bases, and the Red Sox don't; the White Sox sacrifice, and the Red Sox don't; the Red Sox take pitches, and the White Sox don't. But what we really have here is a more classic matchup: a team superior at run prevention and average at run scoring against their alter ego.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Chicago White Sox

LF-L Scott Podsednik (.293/.354/.353/.265/12.6)
2B-R Tadahito Iguchi (.278/.342/.435/.275/27.1)
RF-R Jermaine Dye (.271/.330/.505/.285/30.1)
1B-R Paul Konerko (.283/.375/.534/.309/52.4)
DH-B Carl Everett (.250/.309/.434/.261/11.3)
CF-R Aaron Rowand (.271/.329/.408/.262/20.1)
C-L A.J. Pierzynski (.256/.308/.420/.253/15.2)
3B-R Joe Crede (.252/.303/.456/.262/11.8)
SS-R Juan Uribe (.254/.303/.415/.251/12.0)

Boston Red Sox

CF-L Johnny Damon (.316/.365/.440/.291/47.1)
SS-R Edgar Renteria (.276/.335/.385/.261/24.9)
DH-L David Ortiz (.299/.395/.604/.335/82.5)
LF-R Manny Ramirez (.290/.384/.587/.324/63.6)
RF-L Trot Nixon (.277/.359/.449/.289/21.0)
C-B Jason Varitek (.281/.366/.490/.298/43.6)
1B-L John Olerud (.292/.348/.458/.285/8.7)
3B-B Bill Mueller (.293/.368/.422/.285/28.5)
2B-R Tony Graffanino (.321/.355/.460/.276/13.2)

Two overwhelming and fairly obvious observations about the White Sox offense: this lineup is very heavy on right-handed hitting, and it is one of the stranger collections of hitters that you're ever likely to see, particularly for a playoff club. The platoon issues are the more salient ones for this series; perhaps 85 percent of Red Sox innings will be thrown by right-handed pitchers, and the White Sox hit .259/.318/.418 for the season against right-handed pitching, .271/.335/.447 against lefties. That's a fairly normal platoon split, but it's still a problem, and could break the back of the White Sox, an offense that struggled to come up with more than three or four runs a game in the second half.

The White Sox are also an odd hybrid of a lineup. They're far more dependant upon home runs than the press clippings would have you believe--about 40% of their run output on the season--and it's hard to think of two players who less embody the speed and defense ethos than Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski do. Scott Podsednik is the only true Ozzieball player in the everyday lineup, the only guy who might not start for half the teams in the league, and Guillen might limit him to a flashing yellow on the bases after he was caught on 14 of his 29 steal attempts in the second half. The Sox will surely run wild against Tim Wakefield, but the remainder of the Red Sox' pitching staff is reasonably stingy about allowing steal attempts.

There are a couple of hidden positives for the White Sox; their lineup, save for Podsenik and his gimpy groin, is a healthy and reasonably well-rested bunch, and there's nobody here who has been performing way above his head. Still, this is an average group at best; their .251 team EqA ranked behind the Nationals, Devil Rays and Pirates. A particular bane is Carl Everett, who spent most of the season killing rallies in the #3 hole before finally being demoted by Guillen; put a Matt Stairs type of lefty in his place, and the lineup takes on a whole different feel.

The Red Sox lineup doesn't need much introduction; it's one of the better groups of our lifetimes. The lineup listed here is the version that took the field against the Yankees on Sunday; Kevin Millar should be in there in place of John Olerud or Trot Nixon in Game Two against Mark Buerhle, which isn't giving up too much.

Finally, a bit of a teaser on the question of David Ortiz and his clutch hitting. Some research that I've done for an upcoming book project, with the generous assistance of James Click, suggests that there are some hitters who persistently produce more than the sum of their parts. The advantage is not all that large, but where it exists, it tends to exist disproportionately in hitters who (i) hit for good batting averages, and (ii) have excellent strike-zone control. My take is that this is not really clutch hitting in the classic sense, but rather, situational hitting--the notion that a disciplined hitter with good bat control can adjust his approach to the situation, whether it calls for a walk, a line drive or a power stroke. That is, it's not clutch hitting so much as it is smart hitting, and the Red Sox are about as smart a group of hitters as you're likely to see.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

White Sox

IF-R Pablo Ozuna (.276/.313/.330/.236/-1.0)
OF-L Timo Perez (.219/.267/.298/.200/-9.7)
C-R Chris Widger (.241/.296/.383/.234/0.8)
UT-L Willie Harris (.258/.336/.317/.249/1.9)
3B-B Geoff Blum (.200/.232/.274/.152/-6.9)

Team

1B-R Kevin Millar (.272/.355/.399/.274/13.3)
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.224/.307/.388/.254/3.1)
IF-L Alex Cora (.272/.313/.398/.250/2.0)
1B-L Roberto Petagine (.281/.361/.438/.282/1.6)

Although Guillen is inclined to overmanage certain aspects of the game, pinch-hitting isn't one of them, and that's just as well since there's no hitter here that's materially better than anyone in the starting lineup from either side of the plate. In fact, that's understating the case; if anyone in the starting lineup tweaks a hammy, the White Sox are in real trouble. There's some debate about whether Geoff Blum or Ross Gload will earn the last offensive roster slot; Gload, as a decent left-handed bat, might potentially be more useful in the endgame, but he's hit so rarely and so erratically this year that it's hard to imagine the White Sox putting the game in his hands in a key situation.

On the other hand, identifying useful spare parts is one of those things that the saber-minded clubs really tend to do well, and the Red Sox are no exception; all of these players have their uses, whether it's mitigating the platoon problem, catching Tim Wakefield while maintaining a credible bat, or serving as a sure-handed defensive replacement. The only minor gripe is that there isn't a Dave Roberts analog on the bench; outside of the nine players we've listed in the starting lineup, the Red Sox attempted just 13 stolen bases on the season.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Chicago White Sox

RHP Jose Contreras (3.61, 204.2, 5.1)
LHP Mark Buehrle (3.12, 236.2, 5.7)
RHP Freddy Garcia (3.87, 228.0, 5.1)
RHP Jon Garland (3.50, 221.0, 6.0)

Boston Red Sox

RHP Matt Clement (4.57, 191.0, 4.2)
RHP Tim Wakefield (4.15, 225.1, 4.5)
LHP David Wells (4.45, 184.0, 3.6)
RHP Curt Schilling (5.98, 87.1, -0.4)

Jose Contreras is going to start Game One on Tuesday, which puts him in the critical position of also being the potential Game Five starter. That's an understandable decision; Contreras outpitched Mark Buehrle down the stretch, and Buehrle would be pitching on short rest, having made the start on Friday.

It's also the wrong decision. Buehrle is pretty clearly the best pitcher on either staff; he's given up 35 fewer walks than Contreras this season, and three fewer home runs, despite having pitched 30 more innings. He's also pitched particularly well at U.S. Cellular Field, where he's limited opponents to a .269 OBP--critical at a ballpark that can play like Coors Field Midwest. The easiest road to a White Sox victory would seem to be having two of the five games be Mark Buehrle starts at The Cell; I suppose you can credit Guillen with pluck for starting him on Friday and making life hard for the Indians, but setting up the playoff rotation should have been the priority.

That isn't to take too much away from Contreras, who has become a good pitcher, improving both his groundball rate and walk rate significantly this season, while putting his Kafkaesque refugee nightmares behind him. Jon Garland has gone through a similar transformation this season, although without the humanitarian component. Freddy Garcia, contrary to the reputation he seems to have in stathead circles, is nothing if not durable and consistent. Still, the White Sox qualify as a finesse staff, and that could be a favorable factor for the Red Sox. As our research indicates in Mind Game, power-hitting teams tend to have the advantage against finesse pitchers like Buehrle, Mariano Rivera, or the St. Louis Cardinals' staff; it's another manifestation of the opposites attract phenomenon in platoon matchups. Finesse pitchers thrive by working quickly, keeping their pitch counts down, and avoiding placing themselves in dangerous situations, things that become much harder to execute against a team as patient as the Red Sox.

Certainly, the biggest difference between Red Sox v.2004 and v.2005 would be the lack of a headliner starting pitcher, between Pedro Martinez' departure and Curt Schilling's apparent decline. This is not to be understated, as the playoff format tends to reward top-heavy staffs rather than average but well-balanced ones.

Can Schilling, after his reasonable outing on Sunday, perhaps be "that guy" after all? His key peripheral numbers have not been all that different from last year; the strikeout rate has actually been slightly better. It's been Schilling's poor hit-luck that's done him in. The .383 BABIP he's given up on the season is not only the worst in the majors this year, it's the third-worst mark since 1972:

Worst BABIP (Minimum 75 IP) Since 1972

1. Bobby Ayala (1998), .391
2. Glendon Rusch (2003), .387
3. Curt Schilling (2005), .383
4. Brian Williams (1994), .383
5. Mike Morgan (1994), .382

It's hard to watch a pitcher, see him give up all of those hits, and conclude anything other than that he stinks. Certainly in terms of aesthetic impressions, Schilling would seem to be laboring more often on the mound, and he has been injured this season. But if you PECOTAed him today, he'd probably wind up somewhere in the 3.50-3.75 ERA range, which wouldn't quite qualify him as an ace, but would make him the best pitcher on this staff. If, as anticipated, he's penciled in as the Game Four starter, he'll also be going on an extra day's rest.

You could pretty much pick from the other three starters out of a hat, along with Bronson Arroyo, and not do too much harm, though it makes sense to get Clement two starts since Wells is a lefty and Wakefield's problems with home runs and stolen bases could present some matchup problems. It also makes sense to slot Wakefield in ahead of Wells, to the extent that he could be used in a relief role if things get wild later in the series.

Bullpens (ERA, IP, WXRL)

Chicago White Sox

RHP Bobby Jenks (2.75, 39.1, 1.4)
LHP Damaso Marte (3.77, 45.1, 1.2)
RHP Dustin Hermanson (2.04, 57.1, 3.9)
LHP Neal Cotts (1.94, 60.1, 2.0)
RHP Cliff Politte (2.00, 67.1, 3.8)
RHP Luis Vizcaino (3.84, 68.0, 0.0)
RHP Orlando Hernandez (5.20, 126.1, 1.0 SNLVAR)

Boston Red Sox

RHP Mike Timlin (2.25, 80.0, 2.2)
RHP Chad Bradford (3.86, 23.1, 0.3)
RHP John Papelbon (2.70, 33.1, 0.5)
LHP Mike Myers (3.19, 36.2, 1.1)
RHP Bronson Arroyo (4.54, 80.0, 3.1 SNLVAR)
RHP Chad Harville (4.76, 45.1, -0.5)
RHP Jeremi Gonzalez (6.11, 56.0, 0.3)

If there's a stathead case for Ozzie Guillen as Manager of the Year, it begins (and possibly ends) with his management of the White Sox bullpen. Chicago has managed to get both quality and quantity out of a staff that would seem to include a number of projects, and Guillen's distaste for egos has borne benefits; he got rid of Shingo Takatsu quickly once it became clear that he wasn't the same pitcher the second time around the league, and more recently, entrusted Bobby Jenks with the closer's job rather than count on Dustin Hermanson and his sketchy back.

The "Outside the Lines"-type storyline aside, I think most White Sox fans would confess to being at least a little bit nervous when Jenks takes the mound. His walk rate has been acceptable this year, but only barely so, and he was used a ton down the stretch--16 appearances since September 2. Jenks' curveball has been the key to his development this season, but he doesn't throw it when behind in the count, something that presents obvious problems against the Red Sox. The White Sox do have a nice left-handed tandem in Marte and Cotts, but the Red Sox' bench depth should prevent them from exploiting that advantage too much. The last spot could go to Brandon McCarthy, but McCarthy threw 102 pitches on Sunday and I suspect that Hernandez' familiarity with the Red Sox would be appealing.

To the extent that the Red Sox bullpen has a problem, it's the lack of depth rather than an effective Mike Timlin in place of an ineffective Keith Foulke, particularly as Mike Myers becomes almost entirely useless against the White Sox. That's all the more reason for the White Sox to work the count early in the game and not give up stupid outs on the basepaths, particularly against Wells, who can't really go more than 100 pitches, and Clement, who is ineffective when he tries. Wakefield, to repeat, could play a key role here; even on limited rest, he'd seem to be a more desirable option than Harville, Gonzalez, or whoever else fills out the staff.

Defense

The White Sox have a substantial advantage in Defensive Efficiency, .713 against .685. They have essentially two center fielders out there in Podsednik and Aaron Rowand, a practice that seems to have gained some currency since the Mariners tried it in 2001, though there's some concern that Podsednik has lost a step since his crotch began bothering him. I've always liked Joe Crede's defense at third, and Clay Davenport's system has finally caught up with those impressions, giving him a +11 FRAA on the year. Juan Uribe's glove doesn't get much press, but he rates as a +44 FRAA in a relatively short career, including +10 this season. The defense, surely, has been a big part of the White Sox' success, and it meshes well with the pitching staff, which isn't strikeout-heavy. The only quibble is that it won't play quite as much of a role against a Three True Outcomes club like the Red Sox.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, make no representations about their defense, although things are a little bit better with Mark Bellhorn and Kevin Millar out of the picture, and the series to be played in small ballparks. A bigger concern is Edgar Renteria, whose FRAA rates as a -22 this year, tied with Michael Young for the worst score this season among an unimpressive group of AL shortstops. As with Nomar Garciaparra before him, I'd tend to give more legitimacy to a decline in defensive numbers that coincides with offensive struggles; Renteria has stolen just nine bases this season, easily a career low.

Managers

We've talked a fair bit about Guillen, who deserves better marks as a defensive coordinator than as a playcaller. I wouldn't dismiss the notion that he's a good motivator, or that it takes pressure off the guys when he makes himself the center of attention, but those sort of things are more important over a 162-game schedule than a short series. Terry Francona is Guillen's exact opposite: passive while the game is being played, and with a preference to stay out of the way while it isn't. The Red Sox attempted just 57 steals this year, fewest in the league, and executed just 14 sacrifices, second-fewest behind Texas. It's an approach that makes all the sense in the world with a veteran roster that creates plenty of runs on its own, and one that Cito Gaston proved can be effective in the playoffs.

Prediction

I'll confess to having some affection for both of these clubs, although in different ways; the White Sox are like the erratic second cousin who shows up at family reunions every five years and eases the burden by getting blisteringly drunk with you, while the Red Sox are the Connecticut aunt who can be intolerably smarmy at times but provides really good Christmas gifts and turkey dinners. I do think it would be a mistake to dismiss the White Sox as the Luckiest Team on the Face of the Earth, and conclude that the series is a gimme. Yes, according to our Adjusted Standings, the White Sox only have 87-win talent, but the Red Sox check in at just 91 wins by that metric, a difference that can almost be made up for by home-field advantage alone.

Still, the matchups favor the Red Sox. The White Sox' problem against right-handed pitching is the most important factor, but the Red Sox' success against finesse pitching staffs is another, as is the White Sox giving away too many easy outs to take advantage of Boston's marginal bullpen. I think Chicago wins Game Two with Buehrle going, and Game Three against David Wells, but the Red Sox take the other three with their superior hitting, and perhaps Bobby Jenks coming up short in a critical situation. Red Sox in 5.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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