October 3, 2007
The Division Series
The Division Series round sets up a bit like some recent NBA seasons, where all the best teams are in one conference, and the nominal "World Series" matchup will occur in the first or second round. I had said a couple of weeks ago that the next four teams in the AL-the Tigers, Mariners, Blue Jays, and Twins-would be a pretty even match for whoever came out of the NL. The recent good play of the Phillies and Rockies has me wavering a bit on that, but that I can even have the thought gives you an idea of how wide the gulf is right now.
In the AL, then, we'll have very good matchups between very good teams, while in the NL we'll have entertaining matchups between dramatically flawed teams. It's going to be a lot of fun; just remember that we're crowning a champion here, not determining who the best of the bench is.
One other note: I'm going to tack on predictions here, but they're for entertainment purposes only. It's just not possible to make a reliable prediction for a five- or seven-game series. If I get them all right, or all wrong, it means nothing. Whether here or elsewhere, you want to focus on the analysis, not the prediction.
Series by series:
Red Sox/Angels: The Red Sox decision to take the eight-day schedule makes a bit more sense when you account for the absences of Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield, which leave them looking at Jon Lester or Julian Tavarez as their fourth starter. Five games over eight days with just one back-to-back stretch will not only allow them to use three starters, but it also means they can ride the hell out of Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and Jonathan Papelbon. It's the Red Sox, not the Angels, who can make these six-inning games.
The Angels, then, have to focus on winning those first six innings, because for once, they're the team facing a deep and powerful bullpen that will be hard to come back against. The Angels subsist on singles and doubles offensively; while their reputation as a speed team persists, the current version of the Angels features above-average speed at just three lineup spots now that Gary Matthews Jr. is out for the series. The Angels need to hit .280 just to sustain a passable offense, and to do that, they have to put the ball in play against a high-strikeout staff that will be using only its highest-strikeout pitchers over the next eight days. That's the key battle in this matchup, and I suspect it won't go well for the Angels. Red Sox in three.
Indians/Yankees: I read that the Yankees are as much as 2-to-1 favorites in Las Vegas. If you happen to be reading this in Nevada or England, know that makes the Indians a high-value bet. At worst, these teams are evenly matched, and you have to really squint to even see it that way. The Indians will have the best starting pitcher on the mound in every single game-although the edge in the Fausto Carmona/Andy Pettitte matchup is pretty small-and that's a lot to overcome. I have no idea what Roger Clemens will bring to the mound Sunday afternoon; he's made one good start since college football started. I suspect that neither he nor the Yankees know what to expect, either.
If the Yankees are giving ground on the mound, they are making it up with a better offense and a better safety net in the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera may be slightly off his peak, but he had 74/12 K/BB in 71 1/3 innings, one of the best rates of any closer in the game, and he doesn't give up homers, allowing just four all year. Joe Borowski allowed nine bombs in fewer innings, and walked more guys as well. As good as the Indians' pen is in front of Borowski, the Yankees will catch a break any time they come up in the ninth with a small deficit and get a chance to face Borowski instead of Rafael Perez or Rafael Betancourt. In a best-of-five series, winning one game you were trailing in the ninth inning is a massive edge. That might happen here.
The Yankees have a whopping 20-point edge in team EqA, and scored 157 more runs than the Tribe did this season. I suspect that that overtstates the differences in the two teams' offenses in this series. The Indians upgraded their OBP in-season with the trade for Kenny Lofton and by allowing Asdrubal Cabrera to win the second-base job, filling two lineup holes. I'm also not convinced that Travis Hafner's off year (.266/.385/.451) is representative of his talent level. This is a good lineup, and if it needs to score eight runs to win a game-Paul Byrd in Game Four, I'm looking at you-it can.
What this series will likely come down to is this: the Indians have the best pitcher in it getting two starts, and that pitcher is a tough matchup for the Yankees. C.C. Sabathia is a power lefty who has knocked two walks a game off his rate over the past two years. He was the best pitcher in the American League this season, and I expect him to be that guy over the next week. The Yankees may make it interesting by dinging Borowski once or twice, but this series ends with a second Sabathia gem. Indians in five.
Phillies/Rockies: If this isn't one of the five most entertaining Division Series ever, I'll be surprised. You have two teams with good or great offenses playing in two great hitters' parks, each with pitching staffs that have been patched together through injuries. Throw in bullpens that, despite recent good work, can hardly be called dominant, and you have a recipe for some long afternoons spent watching guys fly around the bases. It might not happen today-Jeff Francis against Cole Hamels is a fantastic matchup of two good young lefties-but we will see a 20-run game in this series.
It helps that it's hard to find a true edge in the series. The Rockies play better defense, and may have a slightly better rotation once they figure out who's starting. I'd like to see Franklin Morales in the mix, as he's left-handed and a hard thrower. They warrant a slight edge in the bullpen thanks to Brian Fuentes, a weapon who will be used against the Phillies' best players, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, in every game. The Phillies are better offensively than everyone, but the Rockies can score runs, and don't have any zeroes in the lineup.
If you have to give out an edge, it's probably to the Phillies. Their ace is a bit better than the Rockies' ace, although the matchups mitigate against that somewhat. The Phillies' back end of the bullpen is a bit better than the Rockies' back end, although neither is great. The Phillies' best players are a little bit better than the Rockies' best players. Really, though, this series is a coin flip, even by postseason-baseball standards. I would have picked both of these teams against either the Cubs or Diamondbacks; against each other… Phillies in five, with a sigh and a shrug.
Cubs/Diamondbacks: These two teams are a lot alike-lots of power arms in the bullpen, lots of power in the lineup. They both list heavily to the right in both categories. Neither team walks all that much. The D'backs play better defense, while the Cubs strike out so many guys that it doesn't matter that their defense isn't that good.
The Cubs have a massive edge in the rotation. Brandon Webb is a bit better than Carlos Zambrano (although the D'backs being so right-handed helps Z tremendously), but Ted Lilly and Rich Hill are miles ahead of Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez. That edge may be the biggest one of all these Division Series matchups, and it makes tonight's game almost a do-or-die for the D'backs. They can't win this series without winning two of Webb's starts, because there's some chance they'll be blown out of at least two other games. I like Micah Owings and all, but he's just a league-average starter, and has been inconsistent from start to start.
I suspect these games are all going to have a sameness to them. The Cubs will hit a homer or two and take a small lead into the sixth inning, they will get the game to their relievers and win 3-2. There may be variations on that theme, but we're looking at a bunch of close, low-scoring games in which lead changes late will be hard to come by. The Cubs' edge in the rotation will be their edge in the end. Cubs in four.