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October 12, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Indians versus Red Sox

by Jay Jaffe

The Red Sox and Indians tied for the major league lead with 96 wins this year, but that doesn't mean these two teams are exactly equal. The Sox outscored opponents by 210 runs, the largest margin in the majors, and finished with a third-order projection of 103.2 wins. The Tribe's run differential was about half as large (107 runs), and their third-order projection of 88.2 wins suggests a good deal more separation between these two teams than meets the eye.

Boston won five of the seven matchups between the two teams this season, but given the Indians' in-season makeover, that split isn't worth getting worked up about. During the pair's first series in late May, the Sox pummeled both Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers, both long since displaced from the rotation. During the second series in late July, they again battered Lee, and loaded up on a struggling Jake Westbrook just as his season was reaching its nadir. "Those were different times," as Lou Reed sang.

In terms of more recent history, the Sox steamrollered their Division Series opponent, outscoring the Angels 19-4 in a three-game sweep and barely breaking a sweat in the process. The Indians worked harder in dispatching the Yankees in four games, but their doing so was a rite of passage to which the Red Sox can relate. The mainstream media will keep the Yankees' absence and the unfolding drama in the Bronx hovering over this series, but the focus should be on the merits of these two compelling clubs.

Lineups


Red Sox                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
2B-R Dustin Pedroia      .317/.380/.442   .292   36.0
1B-R Kevin Youkilis      .288/.390/.453   .299   31.2
DH-L David Ortiz         .332/.445/.621   .355   86.2
LF-R Manny Ramirez       .296/.388/.493   .307   34.7
3B-R Mike Lowell         .324/.378/.501   .303   46.5
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

Indians                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-L Grady Sizemore      .277/.390/.462   .306   53.8
2B-S Asdrubal Cabrera    .283/.354/.421   .280    7.6
DH-L Travis Hafner       .266/.385/.451   .300   30.7
C-S  Victor Martinez     .301/.374/.505   .308   55.0
1B-R Ryan Garko          .289/.359/.483   .294   27.8
SS-R Jhonny Peralta      .270/.341/.430   .275   26.3
LF-L Kenny Lofton        .296/.367/.414   .287   24.5
RF-R Franklin Gutierrez  .266/.318/.472   .277    8.3
3B-R Casey Blake         .270/.339/.437   .275   17.6

The current version of Boston's offense isn't nearly so potent as those in years past. Via the league's second-best OBP (.362), and third-best SLG (.444) and EqA (.270), the Sox finished third in the AL with 867 runs scored, but that number is well shy of the 940 they averaged during their three-year run as AL Wild Card winners (2003-2005). Ortiz and Ramirez remain the big boppers, but as Jim Baker pointed out, the rest of the offense has more or less turned over since then. Youkilis (whose wrist appears to be OK) and Lowell are genuinely good hitters, but with underwhelming seasons from newcomers Drew and Lugo and the returning Crisp, plus the continued erosion of Varitek's offensive prowess, this is a rather top-heavy lineup.

Which isn't to say it's not a dangerous one. After Ortiz hit a two-run shot off John Lackey in Game One of the Division Series, the Angels tried to pitch around him as often as possible in favor of facing Ramirez, who missed most of September due to an oblique strain. Manny being Manny, he made the Angels pay, bashing a walk-off home run to win Game Two and going back-to-back after Ortiz the following day. The dynamic duo dished out Cream of Whoopass all series long, going 8-for-15 while drawing a whopping 11 walks. The rest of the lineup got into the act too, particularly during a seven-run coup de gr‚ce in the eighth inning of Game Three, turning the sweep into an even more lopsided rout.

Looking beyond the big boppers, the Sox clearly value the ability to get on base over fleetness afoot, tabbing Pedroia (7-for-8 on the basepaths) to lead off. While the team doesn't steal often, they do so advantageously. They ranked ninth in the AL in attempts (120) but first in success rate (80 percent) largely due to Lugo (33-for-39) and Crisp (28-for-34), neither of whom is as adept at stealing first base as second or third. Those two are also the only regulars for whom sacrifice bunting is even a remote possibility; they did so a combined 17 of the team's 30 times (13th in the AL).

Turning to the Indians, in the regular season, they rated a more modest sixth in the league in runs scored (811), fifth in both OBP (.343) and SLG (.428), and seventh in EqA (.261). The popular myth may hold that replacing Trot Nixon, Josh Barfield, and the David Dellucci/Jason Michaels platoon bolstered the offense over the final two months, enabling the Indians to run away with the AL Central via their 36-20 finish. The reality is that Indians' scoring actually declined after the revamp, but their run prevention improved, in part because the new guys-Gutierrez, Cabera, and Lofton, respectively-upgraded the defense as well:


Span         RS  Rank   RA  Rank
Apr-July   5.21    3   4.73   8
Aug-Sept   4.63   11   3.63   1

So, the real key down the stretch was that he Tribe was the best in the AL at preventing runs over the final two months, even while their scoring dipped. Regardless, they rolled up 24 runs on the Yankees in the Division Series, hitting .315/.417/.524 against the not-so-vaunted Yankee pitching staff, and put together an uncanny 12-for-27 showing with two outs and runners in scoring position. Expecting a repeat performance along those lines against a better set of hurlers from Boston is folly, but perhaps more relevant is that six different hitters homered versus New York, and of the 12 who played, 11 collected at least one extra-base hit. In the Indians' balanced attack, many players can beat you.

Tactically speaking, Sizemore (33-for-43) is the lineup's only major threat to run. Barfield (14-for-19) is the only other Indian to reach double-digits in steals, though Gutierrez went 8-for-11 in part-time duty. The team is relatively prone to sacrifice bunting, but their 41 sacs, while second in the league, weren't significantly more than the Sox's 30. The aforementioned new guys did a disproportionate number of the bunting, though none did so more than five times.

Benches


Red Sox                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
C-R  Doug Mirabelli      .202/.278/.360   .226   -2.2
1B/OF-L Eric Hinske      .204/.317/.398   .257   -1.5 @1B
MI-L Alex Cora           .246/.298/.386   .243   -0.6 @2B
OF-S Bobby Kielty        .231/.295/.327   .234   -2.5 @LF
OF-L Jacoby Ellsbury     .353/.394/.509   .321   13.6 @LF

Indians                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
C-R   Kelly Shoppach     .261/.310/.472   .272    8.3
INF-R Chris Gomez        .297/.325/.374   .254    1.4 @1B
2B-R  Josh Barfield      .243/.270/.324   .220  -13.6
OF-R  Jason Michaels     .270/.324/.397   .258    0.4 @LF
RF-L  Trot Nixon         .251/.342/.336   .254   -4.2

Terry Francona favors a set lineup with no platoons, so he doesn't use his bench a great deal. Which is a good thing, since this particular cast of characters is none too impressive. The exception is Ellsbury, who tore up AL pitching while Ramirez sat in September. During the first round, he served as Ramirez's late-inning defensive replacement twice, entering the game as a pinch-runner on one of those occasions. Hinkse, who struck out for Ortiz once Game Three got out of hand, was the only other reserve to see action.

From the standpoint of his current role, speed is Ellsbury's primary asset. He went 9-for-9 in steals with the Red Sox after nabbing 41 in 48 attempts between Double-A and Triple-A this year. His power is overstated by those big-league numbers; he slugged just .424 with two homers in the minors, one less than he hit in limited major league duty. The heir apparent to Crisp in center field, he's not very experienced in left, but his 118 Rate in 22 games suggests he's more able a fielder than Manny, thus completing his job description.

Boston's decision to carry three catchers in the absence of Tim Wakefield made little sense in the first round, but canning the knuckleball-friendly Kevin Cash (.111/.242/.148/.151/-3.4) to add Wakefield to the roster is just as nonsensical. Neither primary valet Mirabelli nor Cash are much with the stick, nor do they have any speed; carrying both in the presence of Wakefield would mean being able to pinch-hit or pinch-run for one in the middle innings if it's advantageous.

The other wrinkle for the Sox is that Francona appears to favor starting Kielty in right field against C.C. Sabathia in Game One based on a lifetime .310/.375/.655 showing in 32 PA versus the lefty, though none of them were this year. Drew is just 0-for-3 with three strikeouts against Sabathia.

The bench plays a more active role on the Indians, and Wedge made himself look smart in the Division Series by sticking with the maneuvers that got him this far. To the surprise of this analyst, he used Shoppach in tandem with Paul Byrd in Game Four, just as he's done all year. The former Sox farmhand pounded a pair of doubles while helping Byrd fluster the Bronx Bomber lineup, while Martinez shifted to first base, where he made one highlight film-caliber play and generally held his own.

Nixon, meanwhile, started against Roger Clemens, a pitcher he'd owned in the past. All he did was pop his first home run since July 7, not to mention a double-good signs from a player who slugged just .338 in a scant 80 at-bats in the second half. Of course, in the field he misplayed a bases-loaded single by Robinson Cano into a three-run windfall, with Cano winding up at third. In any event, Nixon has far less positive history against the Red Sox rotation than he does behind it, so a spot start is less likely.

Michaels, though displaced from his left field platoon by the arrival of Lofton, remains a fine lefty masher (.287/.359/.441 this year) who could be used to counter Hideki Okajima in the late innings. Gomez is the likely first option to sub for Garko in a close game, with Barfield around in case pinch-running opportunities arise; he's 35-for-45 stealing in his two years in the majors. At press time, the team was also mulling adding outfielder Ben Francisco, the International League batting champion (.318/.382/496 in Buffalo, .274/.303/.500 in 66 PA with Cleveland) to the roster in favor of a pitcher.

Rotations


Red Sox                  IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
RHP Josh Beckett       200.2  3.27    6.2    2.91
RHP Curt Schilling     151.0  3.87    4.3    3.90
RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka  204.2  4.40    5.1    3.79
RHP Tim Wakefield      189.0  4.76    3.1    4.85

Indians                  IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
LHP C.C. Sabathia      241.0  3.21    6.5    2.99
RHP Fausto Carmona     215.0  3.06    6.8    3.70
RHP Jake Westbrook     152.0  4.32    3.3    4.14
RHP Paul Byrd          192.1  4.59    2.5    4.54

Beckett has already carved his name into October's annals with a World Series-clinching shutout of the Yankees in 2003, doing so on three days' rest. His postseason stature is that much larger and his scoreless string still intact after blanking and thoroughly dominating the Angels in Game One last week (9 4 0 0 0 8). Francona has the option to start him three times if this series goes seven games, with Game Four on three days' rest, and Game Seven on his normal four days.

The team, however, is currently leaning towards starting Wakefield in that fourth game, after having him sit out the Division Series after receiving a cortisone shot in his right shoulder. Given that the 41-year-old knuckleballer was plastered for an 8.76 ERA in five September starts, and that the recent reputation of 40-somethings coming off injury layoffs to make October starts isn't a good one, it's fair to question this decision, particularly given the alternative of an extra dose of Beckett.

Elsewhere, Schilling has been moved up one slot after a strong first-round showing against the Angels. Since a seven-week mid-summer absence due to a rotator cuff strain, the Big Schill has remade himself, compensating for losing considerable velocity on his fastball by pitching to contact instead of overpowering hitters. The results have been encouraging:


       IP    K/9  BB/9  P/IP   ERA
Pre   94.1  6.77  1.81  15.4  4.20
Post  56.2  4.76  0.64  14.3  3.34

The top line includes Schilling's only appearance versus the Indians this year, a season-high 10-strikeout effort on May 28 by a pitcher who, stylistically, is no longer with us. Given his performance of late and his stellar postseason portfolio (9-2, 1.93 ERA in 116.1 frames), there's no particular reason to expect he'll struggle here.

Matsuzaka, on the other hand, has known little but struggle lately. Though he struck out 201 hitters in his first season stateside, he yielded a 7.14 ERA and just two quality starts in eight from August 15 on, then couldn't make it through the fifth inning in Game Two of the LDS. Fatigue appears to be a factor, with a resultant loss of command; his walk rate shot up 45 percent, from 3.2 per nine to 4.6, in that late-season skid. Under the four-man rotation scenario, Dice-K lines up to pitch a potential Game Seven, but another troubling outing could have Francona juggling his rotation, either triggering the Beckett 1-4-7 scenario to avoid the uncertainty of Wakefield, or hoping that his knuckleballer can impress him enough in Game Four to justify a Game Seven start. It's a sticky position to be in.

Turning to the Indians, Sabathia didn't exactly bring his A-game to his first-round start, laboring through five innings and 114 pitches while walking six and surrendering two home runs. Call it a rare off-day for a pitcher who walked just 1.38 and yielded just 0.75 homers per nine. Amazingly, that was just his second non-quality start out of 14 dating back to July 19. If there's concern to be had-beyond a southpaw's general preference to avoid Fenway--it's that Ortiz may be the only lefty in the lineup against him. Lefties hit just .203/.225/.317 against the big man, while righties hit a considerably more robust .275/.308/.413.

In contrast to Sabathia, Carmona came up huge in his opening-round start, tossing nine stellar innings and withstanding not only the Yankee lineup but a biblical plague of midges. In doing so, he was continuing a second-half groove to rival Sabathia; since the All-Star break, he's yielded just a 2.26 ERA and 0.5 HR/9, killing earthworms with an incessant stream of groundballs generated by his mid-90s sinkerball. That second-half stretch included eight innings of four-hit shutout ball versus the Sox on July 25, as Carmona outdueled Beckett for a 1-0 win.

Westbrook and Byrd are a decided step down from that 1-2 punch. Like Carmona, they rely on their defense to do the bulk of the work, but they lack raw stuff and true out pitches. The former was particularly shaky against the Yankees, failing to throw first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 22 hitters he faced, and whiffing just one hitter while being pounded for six runs in five innings. A recurrence against even this late-model Red Sox lineup could be another recipe for disaster.

Watching Byrd pitch the series clincher versus the Yankees, with his double windups and fastballs that couldn't break a soft-boiled egg, I was reminded of none other than Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High: a crochety geezer who should be easily overpowered but is far too stubborn to submit. Byrd got strike one on 20 of 25 Yankee hitters he faced the night, and his pinpoint control (1.3 per nine) helps limit the damage he can do. Going up against a less-than-healthy Wakefield, he may actually have the edge.

Bullpens


Red Sox                  IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Jonathan Papelbon   58.1  1.85   5.143   2.09
LHP Hideki Okajima      69.0  2.22   4.429   3.22
RHP Manny Delcarmen     44.0  2.05   1.652   3.70
RHP Mike Timlin         55.1  3.42   1.572   4.59
RHP Eric Gagne          52.0  3.81   1.364   3.80
LHP Javier Lopez        40.2  3.10   0.497   4.61
LHP Jon Lester          63.0  4.57    1.1*   4.94
* SNLVAR

Indians                  IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Joe Borowski        65.2  5.07   2.776   3.81
RHP Rafael Betancourt   79.1  1.47   6.845   2.68
LHP Rafael Perez        60.2  1.78   3.142   2.62
RHP Tom Mastny          57.2  4.68   0.596   4.64
LHP Aaron Fultz         37.0  2.92   0.187   4.91
RHP Jensen Lewis        29.1  2.15   0.629   3.21
LHP Aaron Laffey        49.1  4.56    0.8*   3.96
* SNLVAR

The Red Sox bullpen led the AL in team WXRL (13.850), and they led the majors in Fair Run Average (3.49). In the first round, they passed their one major test with flying colors; with the outcome of the series still in doubt, they wriggled out of a two-on, two-out jam to toss 4 1/3 hitless innings in relief of Matsuzaka in Game Two.

The closer, Papelbon, was not dominating to the extent that he did in 2006, but avoided the shoulder problems which shut him down last year, and confirmed his elite status by placing third in WXRL and saving 37 out of 39 opportunities. Top set-up men Okajima and Delcarmen are more recent invitees to the late-inning party. The former, who placed sixth in WXRL, avoided the specialist tag by being even tougher on righties (.182/.230/.277) than lefties (.236/.286/.360). While he ran out of gas late in the year (11.04 ERA after August 24), he's been spotless in four outings following a two-week rest in late September. The latter, a heat-throwing 25-year-old, has surpassed the infinitely more heralded Gagne and Timlin to win the righty setup job. Though he has occasional control problems, he's tough on both righties (.194/.262/.290) and lefties (.167/.274/.300). Francona doesn't particularly have to fret about tailoring matchups for either pitcher, but neither is a two-inning go-to guy who can dramatically shorten ballgames the way the Raffys can for Cleveland.

Elsewhere in the Bosox pen, Gagne has been simply awful (6.99 Fair Run Average, -1.408 WXRL) since coming over from Boston, perhaps--as Will Carroll suggests--due to arm trouble. After watching his sole first-round appearance, protecting a 9-0 lead in the ninth of Game Three, one gets the sense Francona would just as soon anoint him Head Bee Guy. Timlin has been more gracefully put out to pasture in a lower-leverage role. Lopez is a LOOGY whose ability to get that one out is in doubt; lefties hit .293/.366/.439 against him, righties .176/.296/.265. Lester, the comeback kid, is around for long-relief purposes, the backup plan if something goes awry with Wakefield.

Cleveland's bullpen, which finished a close second to the Red Sox in team WXRL (13.517) and a more distant second in Fair Run Average (3.98), proved their mettle against the Yankees, allowing just two runs and seven hits in 13 frames. Much-maligned closer Borowski's QERA, FRA (4.84), and ERA after mid-May (3.91) all indicate that he out-pitched his actual ERA, and in the ALDS, he was kept largely out of the way, tossing an inning of mop-up in the Tribe's sole loss and then yielding a towering but ultimately inconsequential solo homer to Bobby Abreu during the Yankees' last stand. In handicapping this series, many point to him as the weakest link, expecting him to cough up at least one ballgame. That analysis ignores the strength of the unit in front of him, which will do much more of the heavy lifting.

The Division Series' revelation was Perez, a lanky southpaw who gave the lefty-heavy Yankee lineup fits. He tossed six innings in three appearances, all of them two-inning jobs, the first two on back-to-back days, and only in the last did the Yankees ding him for baserunners and a run. Boston's lineup doesn't skew as heavily to the left as New York's, but Perez handles righties (.213/.257/.324) pretty well, if not as well as lefties (.145/.209/.241). Expect him to run the Ortiz-Ramirez-Lowell-Drew gauntlet once a game.

Betancourt tossed two scoreless frames in the first round after finishing second in the league in WXRL; he also produced an incredible 80/6 K/UIBB ratio and held righties to a mere .147/.170/.229 showing for the year. Betancourt may be especially prominent here. Even if Wedge eases up the throttle on Perez, whose velocity tapered off by his third appearance, he can probably combine the two Raffys to get three innings, even on back-to-back nights. If he can't, Lewis will see some more work, which doesn't appear to be a bad thing. A midseason callup, he didn't faint at the sight of pinstripes, striking out four in two perfect frames versus New York. Fultz may provide for an early matchup against Ortiz, with Laffey and Mastny around as filler in the event of an early exit from a starter.

Defense

The Sox ran second in the AL in Defensive Efficiency (.711), and second in the majors in FRAA, one reason why they've got the most Secret Sauce of any team. Of course, the pitching staff's strikeout rate (7.2 EqK9), which kept the ball out of the fielders' hands, also helped.

Behind the plate, Varitek had a strong season (+9 FRAA) despite thwarting just 24 percent of stolen base attempts. With Sizemore the only real threat to run, that won't be much of a factor except with Wakefield pitching. Constrained by the knuckleball, Mirabelli caught just 22 percent of runners. Elsewhere, Lugo (-16 FRAA) is the weak link in an otherwise above-average infield, while Crisp is off the charts (+23) in center, although that's probably inflated by playing in Fenway and alongside Ramirez. For all of the scorn heaped upon Manny's fielding, he finished just one run below average according to FRAA, and Francona showed no hesitation to pull him for Ellsbury in the late innings.

The Indians finished seventh in the AL in Defensive Efficiency (.693) and ninth in FRAA (+14), numbers that don't speak particularly well for a team that counts three of its four starters here as ball-in-play guys. As middling as those numbers are, they mask the in-season improvement represented by the arrivals of Cabrera (13 runs per 100 games better than Barfield according to Rate) and Gutierrez (14 runs per 100 games better than Nixon). While Peralta draws criticism for his range, his FRAA is oddly high (+19). The weakest remaining link is Garko (-8 FRAA), who can be subbed for in the late innings by Gomez if Wedge so chooses.

Martinez's kill rate on would-be base thieves jumped from 18 percent to 32 percent this past season, and nailed one of the two Yankees who tried to run on him in the first round. He also made a strong showing at first base in Game Four. Shoppach gunned down 36 percent of attempts, but went untested in that start, even with baserunners galore; that was likely more a product of the scoreboard than his arm.

Managers

Thanks to 2004, Francona carries the aura of a pre-millennial Joe Torre--unflappable in the harsh glare of the postseason spotlight, able to run a bullpen, and not prone to overmanaging elsewhere. He trusts his big guns to get the job done, but as the potential start of Kielty over Drew suggests, he's not afraid to exploit a favorable matchup when handed to him on a silver platter. Unlike predecessor Grady Little, he's on board with the front office's point of view regarding smallball tactics, using them conservatively via the players most likely to succeed in executing them. He tolerates the occasionally off-the-reservation antics of Ramirez without letting them detract from the team or his hefty production. He's well-suited to his job, and capable of adding a second championship to his belt given the roster at his disposal, though.

Untested by the postseason coming into this October, Wedge earned his wings versus New York. Leery of upping the pressure on his inexperienced club, he stuck with what got him to October in the first place, starting the Byrd-Shoppach tandem in Game Four, and heaping the bulk of the important relief innings on his top set-up men rather than his shaky closer. Some have accused him of overmanaging by working Perez and Betancourt for three innings to protect a 9-3 lead in Game One, but against a Yankee lineup capable of dropping a touchdown on the soft underbelly of a bullpen, he can't be blamed for wanting the ball in his best relievers' hands to up 1-0 in the series. To get by the Red Sox, he'll have to pull those tricks off again, which is no small order. How well he adjusts if something does go wrong--and in a seven-game series, something inevitably will--may decide whether the Red Sox romp or whether the Indians keep this a competitive series.

Prediction

Despite these two teams' records, the Red Sox were clearly the superior team in the regular season. Their lineup rates an edge over Cleveland's based on the superiority of the Ortiz-Ramirez tandem. But the bullpens, despite major structural differences, appear to be a push, and even with the robust October resumes of the front half of their rotation, they're going against two very good pitchers in Sabathia and Carmona, so that's at best a squeaker in Boston's favor.

The problem is the second half of the Sox rotation, which hasn't pitched well since mid-August and which may require in-series or in-game patchwork if run as planned. So I'm going to make a provisional call here. If the Sox choose to throw Beckett on short rest in Game Four, he may not need to make that third start; call that scenario as one where Boston wins in six games. But if they opt to pitch Wakefield in Game Four, and forego that third start from their capable ace, and leave themselves open to either Matsuzaka or Wakefield in Game Seven against Carmona, I have no hesitation in calling that permutation a Tribe triumph in seven.

[Ed. note: For Jay's mea culpa on getting the game assignments off, where he notes that Carmona's going to start Game Six, check out his Unfiltered post.]

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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