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October 4, 2005

Prospectus Today

Playoff Previews

by Joe Sheehan

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Reader E.R. sent along an e-mail reminding me of an observation I once made, and it's something that we all need to take to heart right about now:

"In a short series between teams good enough to make the playoffs, any outcome is possible, because very little separates the teams. The outcome will be determined primarily by how well those teams play in the series, with luck a factor in the result. Same as it would be in May, same as it would be in August."
For about two months now, I've been saying that this would be a completely wide-open postseason, and with the team that spent three months playing the best baseball in the game--the Indians--failing to qualify, I see no reason to change that assessment. Even the Cardinals, with 100 wins, true superstar talent and a deep roster, enter October with enough questions to make them considerably less than a lock to even get through the first week. That doesn't make them a bad team or even, perhaps, less than the NL's favorite; it just acknowledges that in short best-of-N series, there's almost no such thing as an upset.

In 2005, that's going to ring even more true than ever. As you read what follows, keep in mind that the predictions are the least viable lines in the piece. Focus on the analysis, because that's what's important.

White Sox vs. Red Sox

The team with the best record in the American League gets so little respect that not only do oddsmakers have them as a small underdog to the AL's wild-card team, but the final BP Hit List slots them five rungs behind the team they beat out in the Central, the Indians. That looks weird, but the fairer Sox don't have quite the underlying performance of a 99-win team. They were an MLB-best 35-19 in one-run games, which helped them to post an actual record eight games better than their Pythagorean projections. Go a bit deeper, and you find that the Sox were likely an 87-win team that had one of those years.

That true performance is driven by terrific run prevention: third in the AL in runs allowed with 645. They were the second-best AL team in Defensive Efficiency which, coupled with above-average walk prevention, gave them the league's third-lowest OBP allowed. Their pitching staff improved its home-run rate, even after accounting for changes in the league and the way U.S. Cellular played. That across-the-board improvement is the reason we're still talking about them, and the storylines surrounding this team--speed, Scott Podsednik, "Ozzieball"--are not. In fact, all the attention paid to the Sox' offense--worse in 2005 by any standard--has served to distract from the keys to their success: They pound the strike zone, make plays and by and large have good pitchers throwing their high-leverage innings.

The Red Sox are a contrast in more ways than color. They led the majors in runs, and as I write this, have two pitchers about whom you can be comfortable they're not going to get pounded. One of those, Tim Wakefield, actually did just that in his final start. Other than him and Mike Timlin, the Sox have struggled to find reliable pitching since midsummer, as first-half heroes Bronson Arroyo and Matt Clement stumbled to 5.00+ ERAs after the All-Star break. They have an effective left/right setup tandem in Mike Myers and Chad Bradford, but Myers has little value in a series with the heavily right-handed Sox. (Bradford, on the other hand, might go multiple innings in any given outing.) Their defense is below average, especially outside of Fenway Park, where the Green Monster covers Manny Ramirez's lack of range.

But man, can they print runs. The core challenge in this series is the White Sox pitching and defense trying to keep the Red Sox from hanging four-spots on them. The White Sox cannot win games in this series if they need five or more runs to do so. They don't put enough runners on base and they're prone to wasting outs when they do. So it's up to the pitching, and the underpublicized defense, and that could well be enough. The Jose Contreras matchup in Game One is unfortunate, as Contreras is exactly the kind of pitcher the Sox can expoit for deep counts and extra baserunners. They have an edge in that matchup, and they must take advantage of it to pick up a win. After that, they'll be facing three straight pitchers who do a fairly good job of limiting walks and home runs. Their defense does a great job on balls in play, so they have the tools to limit the Red Sox' great offense.

The Red Sox have to win this series by winning the first six innings of games. After that, Guillen can keep coming at them with hard-throwing relievers from both sides, including two very effective left-handers to exploit the Sox' reliance on lefty power. Watch how Guillen played the last week of the season, and on back to the trip to Cleveland. He's not afraid to ride his relievers to get wins, which is a key trait for managers in the postseason. He should be able to control matchups in the late innings. Add in that the Sox bullpen in front of Timlin is vulnerable--the coronation of Jon Papelbon after 30-odd innings is wildly misplaced and seems destined to go very wrong sometime soon--and the White Sox are going to be in great shape as long as they can avoid getting blown out.

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have been reading me all season, but I'll take the White Sox in five. They'll throw enough strikes and make enough plays to keep the Sox from putting up lots of crooked numbers, while taking advantage of the Sox' mediocre pitching to score just enough to win.

I'd like them a lot more if it were Mark Buehrle starting today, though.

Angels vs. Yankees

Ditto.

I'm only half-kidding. The two AL Division Series are nearly identical, each pitting one of the league's top two offenses against one of its best run-prevention squads. The Yankees are more balanced offensively than the Red Sox and feature a sturdier bullpen, at least at the very back end. The Angels have an even worse offense than the White Sox do, and an even better pitching staff.

The finer points diverge a little bit. The Yankees have a stronger rotation and short relief than do the Red Sox, making the Angels' job a bit harder. On the other hand, the Halos have Vladimir Guerrero, basically a rally unto himself and a hitter far better than anything the White Sox can muster. The Angels have a rotation capable of dominating even a good lineup such as the Yankees, because the Angels' pitchers own the strike zone: third in K/BB, fourth in fewest walks allowed, led by three of the top ten starters in the AL in Bartolo Colon, John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn, and a ridiculously deep bullpen. While the Yankees have five or six reliable pitchers, the Angels have 11. Even in a short series, that makes a difference.

These aren't the 2002 Angels, who had enough power on their roster to slug more than .500 in October on their way to a World Championship. However, they do still put the ball in play nearly as much as any team in baseball, and the Yankee defense remains susceptible to that approach, perhaps moreso now that they strike out fewer batters.

This summer, Bill Stoneman went out and got Mike Scioscia a new toy, a lefty specialist. Scioscia had been doing just fine without one since '02, but the memory of Washburn's ill-fated relief appearance in Boston last year may have stuck with the management team. The problem is that Scioscia can now make the big mistake; he can, rather than let pitchers like Scot Shields, Kelvim Escobar and Brendan Donnelly throw complete innings, he can work an inferior pitcher like Jason Christiansen into the game.

The Angels were better off without the lefty, and if Scioscia gets away from what has worked so well for him for the better part of his Anaheim tenure, I expect it will cost him at least one of the games in this series.

Even if that happens, I think the Angels are in good shape. The Angels still put a lot of balls in play, and the Yankees still don't catch them. There's an excellent chance that the Angels will get to hit off the soft underbelly of the Yankees' staff at least once in the series, and when that happened in the regular season, teams were often able to name the score. The Yankees can score with anyone, and you'd normally like their chances in a series played at six and seven runs and higher. The Angels are one of the few teams, though, that can take away a key strength of this Yankee lineup--walks--by throwing strikes and forcing the Yankees to bring the Angels' strong defense into play.

The Yankees might hit a dozen homers in the series and not get to 25 runs, so unless the expensive version of Mike Mussina shows up twice, they're not going to be able to pull it out. Angels in five.

Braves vs. Astros

My full preview on this series will be on the site later in the day. I'd like to say that there's something deep and complex here that no one else is seeing, but I don't think it's out there. The Astros' top three starters rank among the greatest trios ever, perhaps the all-time greatest if you measure by the #3 guy, in this case, Roy Oswalt. A scheduling break means that even through they played 162 meaningful games, they get to open the playoffs with their top starters on full rest. They can't score--more than half the lineup has below-average OBPs--and their bullpen is largely two guys, Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge. If you never give up three runs, though, you can go a long way.

The Braves, so long defined by their rotation, don't have that kind of cachet this year. However, their top-two starters, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz match up extremely well against the Astros. They eat up right-handed batters with power stuff, and they don't give up many home runs. Jorge Sosa, Leo Mazzone's latest project and Game Three starter, has pretty much the same profile with a bit less quality.

There's little chance of a surprise in this series. The games are going to be low-scoring, closely contested, and likely decided by which team's daily home run occurs with more runners on base. The Astros have a stronger back of the bullpen with Wheeler and Lidge, and are unlikely to cede a lead late. The Braves have a much better lineup, although one a bit top-heavy. They lose a lot after the #4 slot, especially with Jeff Francoeur having returned to Earth. (.247/.287/.452 in September). The Braves are deeper across the board, with more of a mix-and-match pen, something that would be more valuable if the Astros had anyone other than Lance Berkman worth going after tactically. If Berkman faces a righty after the sixth inning, someone fell asleep.

This is my one change from the predictions I made yesterday on ESPNews. I said Astros in four on the air, but if they don't go back to Pettitte in Game Four, and rather use Brandon Backe, I don't like that so much. So, Astros in five.

Cardinals vs. Padres

This is supposed to be the easy call, but I don't see it. The true gap between these two teams today is far less than the 18 games you see in the standings. The Cardinals ran up that figure in part with Scott Rolen, and with a version of Chris Carpenter that appears to have been detained at the equinox. The Padres, meanwhile, played most of the season without their starting shortstop, starting catcher or both, and needed a midseason dump trade, as well as a deadline pickup, to straighten out their infield. This is not an 82-80 team right now.

The true gap between these two teams is more like 10 games, and that's over a full season. Now consider that a big part of the Cardinals' edge is in the fifth-starter spot, where Jason Marquis blows away a bunch of guys who will not be on the Padres' playoff roster. Just considering the core talent, the guys who will actually play this week, closes the gap a bit more. In general, the Cards' edge is tied to their depth, and in a short series, as Bill James once wrote, depth don't count. You win with frontline talent.

The real reason I think this series is a coin flip, though, is luck. The Padres caught the biggest scheduling break they could, getting the one Division Series with two off-days. This means they can start their ace, Jake Peavy, twice in the first four games on full rest. And right now, Peavy is a much better pitcher than Carpenter, his Game One foe. On a per-inning basis, Peavy was nearly as good a hurler in '05 as Carpenter was. On October 4, I think he's better.

In 2001, I pegged the Indians to take down the 116-win Mariners in the Division Series, largely because I thought Bartolo Colon could beat them by himself. It nearly happened; Colon threw a shutout in Game One and, with the Tribe holding a 2-1 series lead, pitched well in Game Four before a scratch rally put the Mariners ahead late. They would go on to win in five games.

This is essentially the same scenario, and an example of why short series are a poor way to reach conclusions about teams. The Cardinals are certainly a better team than the Padres; however, on the days Peavy pitches, the two teams are basically even. Peavy should start two of the first four games, could well win both by himself, and that would force the Cardinals to win all of the others.

The Padres have other things going for them as well. Their bullpen has been terrific this year, and they'll be deep enough to keep from having to wait out a bad start by Pedro Astacio or Adam Eaton. They're heavily left-handed, an edge when facing four righties in five games. Save for Dave Roberts--a significant exception--they're about at full health for the first time all season.

The case for the Cardinals is much easier to make. They have two of the top five players in the National League in Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. They'll have the edge in starting pitching whenever Peavy isn't on the mound. They get at least passable offense from six lineup spots when Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders both play. Their bench is good, but not due to the veterans (John Mabry and Einar Diaz and So Taguchi); it's the less-experienced John Rodriguez and Hector Luna who provide punch and flexibility.

The more I think about this series, the more I think I've shorted the Cardinals a bit, which, to be unnecessarily blunt, would be consistent with how I've covered them for two years. They're an excellent baseball team that has few weaknesses when everyone is healthy. (Oops, there's a weakness.)

They've been dropped into a very bad spot, though. Peavy is the real thing, and I suspect Carpenter's recent struggles stem from an empty tank and not something temporary. The schedule forces the Cards to deal with Peavy twice on full rest, the second time at Petco Park. As much as I appreciate the Cardinals' talent and performance, this is the Colon Theory redux, but with a better pitcher and an extra day's rest.

America, Jake Peavy is ready for his close-up. Padres in four.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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