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October 2, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Red Sox versus Angels

by Jim Baker

"So, we meet again." This is the third postseason pairing of these two teams; their last hook-up was in the 2004 ALDS, when the Angels held exactly one lead in three games, and that one didn't even last an inning. Their first matchup in 1986 resulted in one of the more exciting playoff games ever, as Boston, down three games to one, rallied from a 6-2 deficit in the top of the ninth of Game Five, and went on to win in extra innings. The Sox took the next two games by the combined score of 18-5, setting up their own messy fate in that year's World Series.

Not everything is the same. For the first time since 1995, the Red Sox enter the postseason as division champions. The importance of this is that writers get to make a note of this fact, otherwise, the difference between that and being the Wild Card is... not much, really, although if the Red Sox and the usual division champions, the Yankees, had their records reversed, Boston would be meeting Cleveland in the first round.

In the standings, only two wins separated the Angels and Red Sox, but in terms of run differential, they are more like a dozen games apart. In that regard, this is the most extreme series of the first round:

Red Sox +12 over Angels
Cubs +9 over Diamondbacks
Yankees +6 over Indians
Rockies +2 over Phillies

Boston's actual won-loss record didn't measure up for a couple of the usual reasons teams often underperform: a bad record in one-run games, and a great one in blowouts. In the former instance, they were 22-28, while in games where the winner scored in double figures and the losing team was under five runs scored, the Red Sox went 17-3. This includes their historic dismantling of the White Sox in late August, where Boston had four such games, consecutively. So, while we might want to conclude the Red Sox are much better than the Angels based on run differentials, that conclusion should be tempered somewhat by how Boston's differential was achieved.

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

Angels

RF-S Chone Figgins (.330/.393/.432/.304/36.2)
SS-R Orlando Cabrera (.301/.345/.397/.263/31.7)
DH-R Vladimir Guerrero (.324/.403/.547/.327/62.6)
LF-L Garret Anderson (.297/.336/.492/.289/22.1)
1B-L Casey Kotchman (.296/.372/.467/.296/26.2)
CF-S Gary Matthews, Jr. (.252/.323/.419/.270/15.7)
2B-R Howie Kendrick (.322/.347/.450/.280/19.3)
3B-S Maicer Izturis (.289/.349/.405/.276/13.0)
C-R Mike Napoli (.247/.351/.443/.286/13.8)

Red Sox

2B-R Dustin Pedroia (.317/.380/.442/.292/36.0)
LF-R Manny Ramirez (.296/.388/.493/.307/34.7)
DH-L David Ortiz (.332/.445/.621/.355/86.2)
3B-R Mike Lowell (.324/.378/.501/.303/46.5)
1B-R Kevin Youkilis (.288/.390/.453/.299/31.2)
RF-L J.D. Drew (.270/.373/.423/.285/15.1)
C-S Jason Varitek (.255/.367/.421/.281/23.5)
CF-S Coco Crisp (.268/.330/.382/.262/11.8)
SS-R Julio Lugo (.237/.294/.349/.240/-1.3)

The lingering perception about these two teams is that Boston is patient and the Angels are not, but both teams have won World Championships in the last five seasons using these vastly different approaches at the plate. The '02 Angels were especially known for putting the ball in play, while Red Sox teams continue to finish at or near the top of the league in the number of walks they draw. In truth, the Angels are usually in the middle of the pack in walks, but they do derive an above-average percentage of their team OBP, from batting average while the Red Sox are below-average:

League average: .799
Angels:         .823 (3rd)
Red Sox:        .771 (13th)

The Angels, possessors of the best free swinger in the game in the person of Guerrero, have made this work for them, and it's hard to criticize a team that's averaged 90 wins a year for the past six seasons.

Boston has turned over two-thirds of its starting lineup since its playoff wipeout at the hands of the White Sox two years ago. Only Ortiz, Ramirez, and Varitek remain; gone are Johnny Damon, Edgar Renteria, Trot Nixon, John Olerud, Bill Mueller, and Tony Graffanino. However, in terms of run differential, this current Red Sox teams most resembles the 2002 club, in that both were excellent at run suppression while scoring at a good rate without being the prolific plate-denters of 2003 to 2005. Ortiz is still the load-bearing unit in this structure. In spite of what you might hear about a drop in home runs (54 to 35) and RBI (117 after years of 139, 148 and 137), this year might just represent his best work for Boston. Forget the counting stats, his .355 EqA was the highest of his career. If healthy, he will be ably assisted by Ramirez, who, thanks to injuries, suffered through his worst season since his rookie year in 1994. Even with that, though, he still managed an EqA of .307.

In Manny's place, picking up the slack was the resurgent Mike Lowell, a player who has rebounded well from his abysmal 2005 swan song in Florida. It can be argued that 2007 was the best year of his career as well. The Red Sox really only have one true hole in their lineup, that being shortstop Julio Lugo. If the Lugo of 2005 shows up this week, though, that will be a hole no more.

The Angels scored 98 fewer runs on the road than they did at home. Considering the way their ballpark favors pitchers, it's no wonder they were below .500 away from Angel Stadium. Only Boston (77) and New York (72) were anywhere close to that kind of scoring dichotomy in the American League. With only 123 home runs, this is the least slugacious of the modern Angels clubs. Consider that their first baseman, Casey Kotchman, only had 11 home runs.

Focusing on what they don't do is a mistake that is often made when analyzing the Angels, however. Guerrero is not quite the player he was in 2004-2005, but he is still a devastating force, and arguably the most reliable man with men on base in the American League. Let's consider OBI%, an accounting of batter's ability to bring men home from the bases. It is a fairly variable stat in that, over the last four years among players with 400 PA or more in the American League, 29 different men have entered the top 10 in OBI%. Six players have done it twice, including Manny Ramirez (fifth in 2005 and 10th in 2004) and David Ortiz (sixth in 2005 and third in 2004) of the Red Sox. One player has done it three times-Travis Hafner of the Indians, who not surprisingly (given the general downturn in his fortunes) missed the top 10 this year. The only player to land in the top 10 in all four seasons is Guerrero, placing ninth, seventh, sixth, and second this year.

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

Angels

OF-S Reggie Willits (.293/.391/.344/.284/15.2)
OF-R Juan Rivera (.279/.295/.442/.258/0.4)
1B-S Kendry Morales (.294/.333/.479/.280/5.0)
4C-R Robb Quinlan (.247/.304/.348/.239/-4.3)
MI-S Erick Aybar (.237/.279/.289/.210/-10.3)
C-R Jeff Mathis (.211/.276/.351/.230/-3.5)

Red Sox

1B/OF-L Eric Hinske (.204/.317/.398/.257/-1.5)
SS-R Royce Clayton (.246/.296/.333/.239/-3.2)*
OF-S Bobby Kielty (.231/.295/.327/.234/-2.5)
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.202/.278/.360/.226/-2.2)
MI-L Alex Cora (.246/.298/.386/.243/-0.6)
CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury (.353/.394/.509/.321/13.6)
*: combined stats

The Boston bench is decidedly below replacement level, although these sorts of results can occur with the small sample sizes involved in part-time play. If you're a big fan of veteran presence, the Boston bench should be to your liking. None of them helped out much this year on the field, but they all got a year older, adding, at least, to their veteranlyness.

The Angels have the superior bench, especially if you consider the ever-versatile Chone Figgins to be a part of it. Is that a mis-classification? Is a player without a true position one of the starters or the subs? While you're pondering that distinction, consider that Reggie Willits is the best player on either bench, especially provided that Juan Rivera isn't up to speed. While Willits' OBP is a Deadball Era-like 47 points higher than his slugging average, he was a big help to have around while Garret Anderson was injured. Kendry Morales' time to shine during the regular season is coming soon, but in the meantime, he can bother the Red Sox from either side of the plate off of the bench.

Rotations (IP/ERA/SNLVAR)

Angels

RHP John Lackey (224.0/3.01//6.9)
RHP Kelvim Escobar (195.2/3.40/5.8)
RHP Jered Weaver (161.0/3.91/4.1)

Red Sox

RHP Josh Beckett (200.2/3.27/6.2)
RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (204.2/4.40/5.1)
RHP Curt Schilling (151.0/3.87/4.3)

Obviously, the two teams obviously got together and arranged to make their pitching matchups based on descending SNLVAR. Beckett was already beloved by Red Sox fans before he ever got to the team for his dismantling the Yankees for the Marlins in their World Series clincher in 2003. Prior to this, he and his opponent, John Lackey, have pitched in six and eight postseason games, respectively. Much will be made of experience in the following two matchups as they pit pitchers with no postseason exposure (Matsuzaka and Weaver) against players who have plenty (Escobar's seven games and Schilling's 15). These things tend not to matter, but that won't stop people from saying that they do.

As Nate Silver pointed out in his Red Sox-White Sox preview two years ago, the top-heavy staff has an advantage over the well-balanced one in the playoffs. This is certainly good news for the Angels, in that the 2007 performances of those beyond the front three drop off the table and hit the floor with a bang. One wonders who they will trust if/when the time comes to call on a fourth starter. Ervin Santana was mostly disastrous, and the sight of Bartolo Colon on the mound should make Angels fans find a new use for their 2002 vintage Thunder Stick. Better than either option would be Joe Saunders, but even he wasn't so hot. Boston at least has Tim Wakefield waiting in the wings, but no Clay Buchholz, as the crafter of a no-hitter against Baltimore has been shelved owing to shoulder miseries.

The Red Sox and Angels finished second and third in the American League in K/9. Qualitatively, this might not carry much weight, as the team they were behind was Tampa Bay; fellow playoff team New York finished 12th in the league. (The two clubs were nearly identical in walks allowed, too.) More importantly, Boston suppresses baserunner activity better than any other team in the league, with an opponents OBP of just .314. That means their hitters get on base 14 percent more than their opponents. Both teams surrendered 151 home runs, a stingy figure bettered only by Oakland and Cleveland.

Bullpens (ERA, IP, WXRL)

Angels

RHP Francisco Rodriguez (2.81/67.1/4.259)
RHP Scot Shields (3.86/77.0/2.699)
RHP Justin Speier (2.88/50.0/1.950)
LHP Darren Oliver (3.78/64.1/1.233)
RHP Chris Bootcheck (4.77/77.1/0.506)
RHP Dustin Moseley (4.40/92.0/0.255)
RHP Ervin Santana (5.76/150.0/1.3 SNLVAR)
RHP Bartolo Colon (6.34/99.1/0.3 SNLVAR)

Red Sox

RHP Jonathan Papelbon (1.85/58.1/5.143)
LHP Hideki Okajima (2.22/69.0/4.429)
RHP Mike Timlin (3.42/55.1/1.572)
RHP Eric Gagne (3.81/52.0/1.364)*
LHP Javier Lopez (3.10/40.2/0.497)
RHP Kyle Snyder (3.81/54.1/0.392)
RHP Julian Tavarez (5.15/134.2/-0.099)
RHP Tim Wakefield (4.76/189.0/3.1 SNLVAR)
*: combined stats

Given the starters and the bullpens on these two clubs, you will not be seeing a lot of southpaw action in this series. Darren Oliver and Hideki Okajima will be the prime portside suspects. While the Angels bullpen doesn't quite conjure images of the nastiness they used to bring from out behind the fence in 2002 (Brendan Donnelly is on the Red Sox DL, Ben Weber is gone from the bigs, and Troy Percival is long gone), Rodriguez and Shields do what they can to hearken back to that particularly effective crew, aided by Speier and Oliver.

Much has been made of the acquisition and subsequent struggles of Gagne, but what, really, has it cost the Red Sox? The real trick for Boston will be to avoid protracted battles so that they can keep someone like Tavarez out of the mix, although having Wakefield to eat middle relief innings will help in that department. Lopez and Timlin help bridge leads to the dangerous pair of Okajima and Papelbon; Gagne was always just icing on the cake. That it didn't make the cake any sweeter is no big deal, and his downturn has been in such a limited amount of playing time that there is no reason to expect he can't go back to what he was doing in Texas before the trade.

Defense

The Red Sox had the second-best Defensive Efficiency Rating (.711) in the American League, behind only the Blue Jays. Almost conversely, the Angels were two from the bottom at .687, ahead of only the Mariners and Devil Rays. This was nearly the advantage the White Sox had over the Red Sox two years ago (that was a slightly more pronounced .713 to .685), and we know what happened in that particular short series. The Angels have a clear advantage at only one position, really-shortstop, where Orlando Cabrera's 37/15 FRAR/FRAA smokes Julio Lugo's 5/-15. One supposes if you have to pick one spot on the field to have a defensive advantage, it might as well be shortstop.

Jason Varitek has it over the Napoli/Mathis pairing, Kotchman and Youkilis are about even at first, and Boston enjoys advantages in center field, with Crisp over Matthews, and also third, where Lowell can leather it better than whichever Angel gets the call to man the hot corner. No body the Angels sent out to cover second base in 2007 managed a positive FRAA, while Dustin Pedroia's 24/4 looks good in comparison. One can argue about the outfield corners where time has reduced Garret Anderson's effectiveness to the point that his numbers aren't that far removed from Manny Ramirez's, although Ramirez is always going to win any seeing-is-believing war as to who is less effective defensively. On the other corner, J.D. Drew followed up the best defensive numbers of his career in 2006 with his worst in 2007. His counterpart, Guerrero, has generally been a below-average fielder, although he at least had a reputation for having a cannon arm. He was only credited with a career-low five assists this year, as he spent less time in the field than any season of his career. How much time he sees in the outfield this October will be dependent on his health. The best outfield glovework executed by an Angel this year probably belonged to Reggie Willits when he was filling in for Anderson in left; his numbers in center and right are not as impressive, although those figures come in much less playing time.

Managers

Mike Scioscia is the assistant dean of American League managers, having helmed the Angels for eight years, the second-longest current stint in the league, behind only the Yankees' Joe Torre. This is his fourth trip to the postseason in that time, and if Scioscia can maintain that every-other-year average, he can keep that job for a long time to come. Scioscia favors an aggressive game on the basepaths. Not only did the Angels lead the American League in stolen base attempts (194, albeit with a 10th-best 71.6 percent success rate), they pride themselves on taking the extra base on hits. One of the adages of recent times is that over-aggressiveness doesn't play in the postseason where the best teams lie in wait-ones that are much more adept at putting away adventuresome types on the bases.

The Red Sox ran more than half the teams in the league, and more importantly they were also the most successful at it. There is a perception that sabermetric-friendly teams abhor the stolen base, when in actuality what they truly dislike is the caught stealing. Fellow true believers Toronto and Oakland tried 50 fewer steals, but were much less successful. What this says is that Terry Francona is only letting his sure-thing guys loose (Crisp, Lugo, and Ellsbury), a wise use of resources. Francona has a decent amount of playoff experience, although only one of the four series he's managed in has been close-the '04 ALCS. Francona also was judicious with the use of the sacrifice. The Red Sox only had 30, all of them credited to up-the-middle guys like Mirabelli, Pedroia, Lugo, Cora, and Crisp.

Prediction

The obvious pick is the Red Sox, given their 12-game spread in expected wins. Boston also has a slight edge in offensive prowess, Boston's defense is vastly superior, and their pitching, while close, is slightly better as well. After the outcome of the 2006 playoffs, we should all be a bit shy about putting ourselves out there with predictions, but that's part of the fun, one supposes. So, sticking with the obvious, I'm going with the Red Sox in four.

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