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October 11, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

Chicago White Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

by Jay Jaffe

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And now for something completely different... an American League Championship Series that doesn't involve either of those Beasts of the East, the Yankees and Red Sox. This is only the second time in eight years that the LCS has proceeded without the Yankees and, as with 2002, it's the Angels who tripped them up. Lying in wait for them, licking their chops, are the White Sox.

The aborted decision to move the opening game of the American League Championship Series back a day in light of Saturday's rainout ensured that regardless of who advanced on Monday night, the real winners were the White Sox. While the Angels were logging some 4,700 air miles to make their third game in three days in three different time zones, the Sox were enjoying three days off at home, basking in the afterglow of having eliminated the defending World Champion Red Sox in three straight games for the team's first postseason series win since before Shoeless Joe said it was so.

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)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

3B-B Chone Figgins (.290/.352/.397/.279/36.5)
SS-R Orlando Cabrera (.257/.309/.365/.253/17.3)
RF-R Vladimir Guerrero (.317/.394/.565/.334/70.1)
LF-L Garret Anderson (.283/.308/.435/.260/17.8)
C-R Ben Molina (.295/.336/.446/.280/27.3)
1B-L Darin Erstad (.273/.325/.371/.256/7.7)
DH-R Juan Rivera (.271/.316/.454/.261/8.9)
CF-L Steve Finley (.222/.271/.374/.234/-3.6)
2B-L Adam Kennedy (.300/.354/.370/.274/21.7)

Offensively, both of these teams stand in marked contrast to the opponents they vanquished to get here. The Angels put the ball in play more than any team in the majors, a whopping 74.9 percent of their plate appearances (oddly enough, second on that list is Oakland, so don't throw that copy of Moneyball at the TV just yet). The White Sox, at 70.4 percent of the time, were 10th in the AL, well below the league average of 71.3 percent but still miles ahead of the Red Sox and Yankees (virtually tied at 68.6 and 68.7 percent, respectively). Not coincidentally, both teams were below the league average in runs scored per game; the Angels at 4.70 were seventh in the AL, the Sox at 4.57 were ninth. Both have Equivalent Averages below the .260 mark, which is defined as average; the Angels ranked 8th in the AL at .256, the White Sox 10th at .251. Both like to run; indeed, these two teams were the only ones to attempt more than 200 stolen bases on the year, with the Angels (a majors-leading 156 steals at a 74 percent clip) considerably more successful than the Go-Go Sox (137 steals at a 67 percent rate). Both like to bunt, with the White Sox leading the AL with 47 sacrifices and the Angels fourth at 39.

Expect to hear a lot of hooey about how the success of the Sox/Angels' PutItInPlayism is a repudiation of the the patient WaitItOutNess of those more sabermetrically sound offenses. Or maybe it's how the Sox and Angels represent the triumph of man's natural impulses over the tyranny of spreadsheets and slide rules. Either way, thank your local deity that Joe Morgan won't be jabbering for seven games about the book that Billy Beane wrote.

The White Sox lineup features four out-gobbling machines, hitters with supremely unimpressive OBPs in the .300-.310 range. No one came up bigger against the Red Sox than A.J. Pierzynski, who was 4-for-9 with two doubles and two homers, the first of which, a three-run shot in the first inning of Game One, provided the initial nail in the defending champs' coffins. Indeed, for all of the Sox' shortcomings in the OBP department, they certainly can power their way past a team. In the Division Series, the Pale Hose outhomered the Carmine 7-3, accounting for 15 of their 24 runs (Boston's homers accounted for a bare three, all of them in the final game).

Indeed, home runs are the dirty little secret of the Sox "speed and defense" mantra. Ozzie Guillen's small-ballers walloped 199 in the regular season, fifth in the major leagues, and a number that has a lot to do with the ballpark they play in. Over the past three years, U.S. Cellular Field (née Comiskey II) has yielded homers to lefthanded hitters at a rate that's 58 percent above average, tops in baseball and 26 percent ahead of the second-place Ameriquest Field (née The Ballpark at Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers). Over that same three-year span, righty hitters have homered at a rate that's 38 percent above average, just one percent behind pacesetting Houston's Minute Maid Park. Forget Colorado's Coors Field; U.S. Cellular is the top home run park in baseball for reasons that don't seem to have much to do with either altitude (Chicago's about 600 feet above sea level, which puts it in the top 10 among major-league cities but trailing most other midwestern venues) or dimensions:


    USCEL  ML AV   DIF
LF   330   331.3  -1.3
LCF  377   376.8  +0.2
CF   400   404.1  -4.1
RCF  372   377.4  -5.4
RF   335   329.1  +5.9
By this data, it would appear that everybody benefits from a shorter centerfield, with lefty hitters perhaps gaining a slight advantage with the shorter right-center power alley, one somewhat negated by the longer foul line adjacent. Perhaps weather (they do call it the Windy City) and a disproportionate number of times feasting on the young arms of the Royals and the Tigers might be factors as well.

James Click pointed out via our internal mailing list that Sox pitchers are giving up homers to lefties at a rate over four times more often at home than on the road, but the Sox have little in the way of lefty power to match that. Meanwhile opposing pitchers are falling prey to the Sox righty hitters, while the Sox staff has been essentially homer-neutral against them over the past few years:


YEAR BATS   CHA_PF  VIS_PF
2005    L    0.91    4.11
2005    R    1.96    0.91

2004    L    0.47    3.33
2004    R    1.50    1.12

2003    L    0.96    4.00
2003    R    1.79    1.03
Moving beyond the homers, Nate Silver noted the White Sox platoon split (.259/.318/.418 vs. righties, .271/.335/.447 vs. lefties). With only one lefty pitcher (Jarrod Washburn) likely to be on the Angels roster, that could be a problem for Chicago. As for the speed angle, the Sox weren't so successful running against Boston, going just 3-for-5 in steals. Scott Podsednik, who was second in the majors with 59, was just 1-for-3, continuing a trend that held over the second half (just 15-for-29). Podzilla's lack of success may have everything to do with his late-season groin injury. In any event, the team is wasting outs; their 66 caught stealings was 10 more than any other major-league team, and their 67 percent rate of success was just 21st in the majors and below the break-even point.

On the face of it, the Angels would appear to offer less power than the White Sox, but a look at the two team's road stats shows them with nearly identical numbers once the park effects are washed out:


      -----ROAD------    -----HOME------
      AVG   OBP   SLG    AVG   OBP   SLG
LAA  .273  .325  .412   .268  .324  .406
CHA  .268  .326  .410   .257  .319  .442
Like the White Sox, the Angels offer their share of offensive sinkholes, with four starters below a .316 OBP. Quite often, two of those four are in the top half of the order, smothering big-inning rallies before they can even get started. The Angels have more lefties in the lineup than the Sox, and less of a platoon differential (.267/.321/.407 vs. righties, .277/.334/.414 vs. lefties). Particularly strong against lefties is Bengie Molina, who mashed an eye-popping .393/.430/.648, consistent with his history. Very quietly, Molina's emerged as one of the league's more productive catchers; his Marginal Lineup Value rate of 0.069 ranked him fourth among AL backstops, and of course, his three homers in the Division Series didn't hurt the Angels' cause. Also stronger against lefties--surprisingly enough and contrary to his past history--is the lefty Garret Anderson (.330/.347/.447, as compared to .261/.290/.429 against righties), who nonetheless saw an overall 35 point drop in his OBP this year despite playing in 30 more games. Indeed, Mike Scioscia's loyalty to Anderson is one of the manager's less admirable traits when it comes to running an offense.

At the center of the Angels lineup is Vlad Guerrero, simply one of the best hitters in the league and with virtually identical numbers against pitchers of both sides of the plate. Not only does Vlad the Impaler offer tremendous power, but he rarely strikes out, just 48 times on the year. He'll swing at just about anything, and get away with it because of his strength and his bat speed. It's worth the price of admission.

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)

Angels

3B-R Robb Quinlan (.231/.273/.403/.241/-0.9)
C-R Josh Paul (.189/.231/.378/.207/-0.7)
OF-B Jeff DaVanon (.231/.347/.311/.253/0.6 at DH)
C-R Jose Molina (.228/.286/.348/.235/0.4)
DH/1B-L Casey Kotchman (.278/.352/.484/.291/8.6)
INF-B Maicer Izturis (.246/.306/.346/.246/1.8 at 3B)

The bench was virtually non-existent for the White Sox in the Division Series, with Sox manager Ozzie Guillen granting his reserves only three plate appearances. With slim pickings like these, it's not difficult to see why: none of these players is better than the ones in his starting nine. Pablo Ozuna was somewhat useful against lefthanders (.306/.340/.357), but given the dearth of them on the Angels' roster, that's a non-factor here. Ozuna and Willie Harris both have some speed, making them possible candidates for a late-inning pinch-running or even pinch-bunting situation, but don't expect much more than that. There's practically no power here; these five combined for just 13 homers, five of them by Geoff Blum when he was a Padre.

Mike Scioscia has a much better bench at his disposal, though he's apt to use it more in the service of an alternate lineup than as a late-inning adjustment; the Angels, with just 78 pinch-hitter plate appearances, were 10th in the AL (the White Sox were a hair below the league average with 86). Quinlan's success against lefties (.289/.318/.542) means that he may draw a start at third base, with Chone Figgins shifting to center. Kotchman would appear to be an obvious solution to the team's lack of firepower, slotting in ahead of Darin Erstad or a DHing Anderson. But in what appears to be a serious case Count-Da-Ring-Itis, Scioscia refused to use the rookie in either of those roles in the Division Series, limiting Kotchman to just two pinch-hitting at-bats, and not necessarily the right ones. Still, he's an enticing weapon to have in one's arsenal. Jeff DaVanon, despite the overall unimpressive season, is handy against lefties, as is Jose Molina, who shows similar proclivities (.306/.368/.548 against southpaws this year) to his brother. Josh Paul, as the third catcher, is a waste of a roster spot, one that might be revisted in the few hours before the LCS starts.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

White Sox

RHP Jose Contreras (3.61, 204.2, 5.0)
LHP Mark Buehrle (3.12, 236.2, 5.7)
RHP Jon Garland (3.50, 221.0, 6.0)
RHP Freddy Garcia (3.87, 228.0, 5.1)

Angels

RHP Paul Byrd (204.1, 3.74, 4.1)
LHP Jarrod Washburn (177.1, 3.20, 5.6)
RHP John Lackey (209.0, 3.44, 5.5)
RHP Bartolo Colon (222.2, 3.48, 6.6)
RHP Ervin Santana (133.2, 4.65, 2.9)

The White Sox really didn't need the extra days off to align their rotation; if anything, Guillen is anxious to get Jose Contreras back on the mound after six days of rest. And why not? Since the All-Star break, Contreras has been the top Sox starter, and a pitcher who's improved his command and left his Bronx struggles behind:


      IP    ERA   HR/9  K/PA  K/UIBB
Pre  101.1  4.26  1.42  .164   1.53
Post 103.1  2.96  0.61  .197   3.15
Contreras is the most dominant of Guillen's quartet of starters, and the only one with a strikeout rate above league average. He's also the most prone to walking hitters, though as shown above, he improved markedly in that department as the season progressed. Mark Buehrle, by comparison, is the control freak of the bunch, with a 3.73 K/BB ratio and the most innings on the staff; in fact, Buehrle led the AL in that department. Starting him in Chicago, where he put up just a 2.48 ERA, will be another boost in his favor. Jon Garland is the sacrificial lamb of the bunch; he didn't start against Boston, and he'll be pushed back to third here to keep the other three pitchers more or less on schedule. The 12 days off between starts might mean he's too strong to throw his sinkerball; towards that end, the Sox had him throwing a simulated game on Sunday to give him some work. Freddy Garcia complained of being too rested against Boston, but he gets pushed back here as well. He's likely to benefit from a start away from U.S. Cellular; his road ERA was 3.40, compared to 4.38 at home. All in all, this is a very consistent, finesse-oriented foursome that won't wear itself out nibbling at the corners. Each starter is a good bet to eat six or seven innings before handing the ball off to the bullpen. You can't ask for much more than that.

The Angels, though they had one of the top rotations in the majors (their team total of 25.659 SNLVAR was third overall and first in the AL, while the White Sox were third in the AL at 24.495), find themselves in a state of disarray entering this series. Bartolo Colon's back problems altered his mechanics to the point that when he left Game Five of the Division Series, the report was shoulder inflammation, a classic cascade injury. Getting a quick read on whether he belongs on the LCS roster is an unenviable task for the Angels' medical staff. Jarrod Washburn was scratched from his Game Four start with a throat infection, and Scioscia showed enough concern over his current state that he tapped Paul Byrd to start Game One. Byrd is a soft tosser with excellent control; his 1.23 walks per nine innings placed him fourth in the majors among qualifiers. The Yankees weren't so impressed, pounding him for four runs in just 3.2 innings, but the dire conditions played a part, as did a patience that's in a much shorter supply among Angels hitters. By process of elimination, either Washburn or Colon would need to start Game Two unless Scioscia returns Kelvim Escobar to the rotation.

As the Division Series showed the rest of America, John Lackey has emerged as the virtual co-ace. Like Contreras, he's really a second-half story, with a 2.57 ERA and 3.37 K/UIBB after the break, compared to 4.22 and 2.63 before it. He's especially adept at avoiding the longball, placing fifth in the majors with just 0.56 per nine innings. He's shown repeatedly that he can be effective on three days' rest; he'll slot in on normal rest for Game Three, putting him on three days' rest in the event of a Game Seven.

The wild card for the Angels, as Game Five showed, is rookie Ervin Santana. While Santana didn't really emerge as an effective starter until the second half (a 3.97 ERA and 2.60 K/UIBB, as compared to 6.20 and 1.70 before), he did toss a five-hit shutout at the White Sox in just his second big-league start on May 23 (and he did OK last night, too). If Colon is unable to go, or if any starter gets roughed up early, it's clear that Scioscia isn't afraid to call his number.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

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)
x-RHP Brandon McCarthy (4.03, 67.0, 1.5 SNLVAR)

Angels

RHP Francisco Rodriguez (67.1, 2.67, 5.5)
RHP Scot Shields (91.2, 2.75, 4.5)
RHP Kelvim Escobar (59.2, 3.02, 1.5)
RHP Brendan Donnelly (65.1, 3.72, 1.4)
RHP Kevin Gregg (64.1, 5.04, 0.0)

The bullpens are where the real power lies in this series. The Angels ranked first in the majors in Reliever Expected Wins Added with 13.372, while the White Sox were third (second in the AL) with 12.769. Angel relievers struck out more hitters per plate appearance (.218) than any AL team, with the White Sox third in the league (.205). Those K's didn't come at the expense of control; Angel relievers' K/UIBB rate of 2.64 was third in the AL, the White Sox 2.41 was fifth. Both teams showed the advantages of superior relief work in the Division Series, offering a veritable smorgasbord of options for their managers.

The big storyline here is the emergence of rookie Bobby Jenks as the Sox closer after being waived last December by the Angels, who spent five years casting him as a starter. The triple-digit-tossing, 270-pound manchild with a dark past has vitally strengthened a unit which was showing some wear and tear, taking over the closer spot from Dustin Hermanson, whose bad back limited him to just five appearances after September 9. In the first round, he acquitted himself admirably against the toughest offense in the majors, throwing a two-inning save to protect a one-run lead in Game Two, then slamming the door while protecting a two-run lead in the clincher. Yes, his walk rate (3.43 per nine innings) is problematic, but backed up against that 11.44 K/9 rate and a 3.33 K/BB, it's not so bad. And while Guillen has a nice pair of lefties at his disposal in Damaso Marte and Neal Cotts, Jenks had an odd reverse platoon split, albeit in a small sample size:


      PA   AVG   OBP   SLG
LHB   64  .105  .203  .211
RHB  103  .298  .359  .436
The decision to add Orlando Hernandez to the roster at the expense of rookie Brandon McCarthy, who had usurped his spot in the starting rotation, paid off in a currency that lengthened the October legend of El Duque. The wily Cuban's Houdini-esque escape in Game Three justified Guillen's decision and showed he's not afraid to get creative in a tight spot. It's possible that McCarthy might replace Hermanson on the roster, but such an addition would likely make him a long man in the event of an emergency among the starters. Lost in all of the hoopla is Cliff Politte, who was second in the AL in Adjusted Runs Prevented, with by far the best Fair Run Average in the majors. In terms of situations with an inherited runner, he's as good as they come.

The Angels can't boast the platoon flexibility of the White Sox, but that's a feature, not a bug; there's no sense messing around with the team's sixth- or seventh-best reliever in a high-leverage situation. With the lack of lefties on the Sox, that's just as well. Another innovation is the team's use of Kelvim Escobar since he returned from surgery to shave down a bone spur in his elbow. Escobar, who began the year as a starter, quickly emerged as the bridge between the starting pitcher and rubber-armed setup man Scot Shields, though until Game Five, he hadn't thrown back-to-back days. He allowed just four runs in 19 September relief innings, striking out 17 while walking only four.

Shields and Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez make for the top setup-and-closer tandem in baseball, with a whopping 10 WXRL between them. Despite the plethora of options he's got, Scioscia isn't afraid to let the former go two innings when the situation warrants, something that should compensate for any need to rest Escobar. Rodriguez has a repertoire so filthy that your mother would ground you if she caught you looking at it. If there's a concern about him, it's that he left his fastball on the DL, forcing an over-reliance on a nasty slider at the expense of his elbow and shoulder. While his strikeout rate of .333 per plate appearance is off the charts (good for fifth in the majors among pitchers with at least 30 innings), it's still below last year's awe-inspiring .368. This year saw his unintentional walk rate per plate appearance rise as well, from .096 to .103, pointing to reduced command.

Defense

The White Sox were second in the AL in Defensive Efficiency at .713, no small factor in the team living up to its hype. Center fielder Aaron Rowland has put together a highlight reel that will probably net him a Gold Glove, and with a Rate2 of 106, more power to him. The use of another center fielder, Podsednik, to play left only strengthens the outfield defense. In the infield, Tadahito Iguchi is the weak link, with just an 88 Rate2, but they were well above average at the other three positions, including first base, where Paul Konerko put up a fluky-looking 107 Rate2, one that's out of line with his career rate of 99.

The Angels aren't as strong defensively; their Defensive Efficiency of .701 was middle-of-the-pack, and some sloppy play in the Division Series didn't make things any easier. Erstad, for all of his shortcomings as a hitter, is an excellent first baseman, with a 108 Rate2, but the rest of the infield rates about average. Figgins improved markedly at third base this year (from 94 to 101) allowing Scioscia a good deal of flexibility, while Orlando Cabrera rebounded from a bad year with the leather. In the outfield, Anderson's the weak link (a 94 Rate2), but Scioscia stubbornly keeps him out there at the expense of Juan Rivera, who's got an arm that would put him in right field except on a team with Guerrero already there. Picking up on the fact that he doesn't always charge ground balls, the Yankees challenged Guerrero successfully a few times in the Division Series, something other teams are understandably loathe to do. The Impaler's eight assists were a career low, even accounting for the missed injury time. For all of the hype about his cannon of an arm, he doesn't cover so much ground, something his 96 career Rate2 reveals.

As his offense has improved, Bengie Molina's defense has suffered; this is the second year in a row he's down below 100 and failed to catch at least a third of all baserunners. He still does a much better job cutting off the running game than Pierzynski; opponents stole just 0.45 bases per adjusted game played and were caught 31.3 percent of the time, as compared to 0.64 steals per adjusted game and a 25 percent kill rate for Pierzynski.

Managers

Both managers like the running game and are prone to using one-run strategies, often taking themselves out of bigger innings by doing so. The Sox led the AL with 42 sacrifice bunt attempts, while the Angels were fourth at 37. Both like to use the squeeze play, having done so four times during the regular season (tied for the league lead) and once in the first round. Both are completely in their element when handling their bullpens without shifiting to Maximum LaRussa Overdrive; nonetheless, it's nice to have a TiVo for the inevitable late-inning pitching changes that are heading our way.

Mike Scioscia manages with the confidence of a man who's already won a World Series ring. He's loyal to the veterans who helped him win that 2002 title, particularly Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad, and his trust in the former at least was rewarded as the Division Series progressed. He's got a great pitching staff at his disposal, and utilizes the insight of a defense-first former catcher to manage his way to success via that staff. He could improve his team's odds by putting as much faith in Casey Kotchman as he showed in, say, Ervin Santana on Monday night, or K-Rod back in 2002, but he seems determined to dance with the ones what brung him to this here spot.

The brash, bombastic Ozzie Guillen has generated more copy than any other manager in baseball this year. Just when it seemed his team might complete a nosedive of epic proportions, they relaxed during the season's final week, sweeping a near playoff-caliber team in the Indians before doing so to the Red Sox. Assuming they haven't gone to seed with the layoff, he's got them playing excellent ball at the most important time.

Prediction

With a pair or strong pitching staffs and subpar offenses, this is likely to be a low-scoring, fast-paced series--at least as compared to the Boston-New York battles of the past two years. Both teams have pitching depth and managers who know how to used it. But the Angels have a couple of serious health questions that may have an early impact, while the White Sox are so much more rested that it will likely prove decisive. The Halos need to hope they can steal a game in Chicago as they catch their collective breath from a whirlwind first round, and that whatever gamble they make on a Game Two starter pays off. Still, with the rest, home field advantage, and the fewer question marks, one has to favor the White Sox. Chicago in six.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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