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October 24, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Rockies versus Red Sox

by Nate Silver

Tonight, the Colorado Rockies will become the fifth franchise in the past 11 years to make its virgin appearance in the World Series, following in the footsteps of the 1997 Marlins, the 2001 Diamondbacks, the 2002 Angels, and the 2005 Astros. The Rockies combine elements from each of those clubs. Like the 1997 Marlins, they are an odd mix of veteran talent and youth, and squeezed into the playoffs as a Wild Card team in a league that featured a great deal of parity. Like the 2001 Diamondbacks, they are an expansion club from the Mountain West that is set to square off at long odds against one of the AL East's superpowers. Like the 2002 Angels, they are a 'small ball' team that has excelled by vacuuming up with their defense when their opponents tried to put the ball into play. And like the 2005 Astros, which at one point were more than 200:1 underdogs to reach the postseason, they saved their best baseball for late in the year.

The good news for the Rockies is that three of those four teams won the World Series. The bad news is that none of them were facing opponents that were as well-equipped for October baseball as this year's Boston Red Sox. Do not be fooled by the Red Sox' relatively pedestrian 96-64 record-they accumulated 101 Pythagorean wins, and 103 third-order wins, and in a very competitive American League. They probably gave away a few additional wins by taking it easy in September, which only means that their regulars are healthier now.

Even scarier for the Rockies-or at least for those Rockies who read Baseball Prospectus religiously-the Red Sox are perhaps the strongest Secret Sauce team since divisional play began, excelling in each of that metric's three categories: defense (FRAA), closer effectiveness (WXRL), and power pitching (EqK9). Using our nifty new Secret Sauce reports, I recreated my study from Baseball Between the Numbers and ranked the 208 playoff teams since 1969 in each of the Secret Sauce's three departments. The Red Sox sit right atop the list, and each of the four teams immediately below won the World Series.


Secret Sauce Ranking of Playoff Teams since 1969
                  Rank Among 208 Playoff Teams
Year Team        FRAA    EqK9   WXRL  Avg Rank     Result
2007 Red Sox      21      10     51     27.3       Reached World Series
1990 Reds         31.5    15.5   40.5   29.2       Won World Series
2001 D'backs      48      15.5   40.5   34.7       Won World Series
1998 Yankees      13      68     24     35.0       Won World Series
1984 Tigers       42.5    68      1     37.2       Won World Series
1998 Red Sox      59.5    55.5   11     42.0       Lost in ALDS
1979 Pirates      42.5    68     21     43.8       Won World Series
2006 Twins       112      22     19     51.0       Lost in ALDS
1995 Indians      78      68     12     52.7       Lost in World Series
1999 Indians      75      22     62     53.0       Lost in ALDS

The Rockies, of course, have a few tricks of their own up their sleeve. They are the first team since the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995 to go a perfect 7-0 in their first two rounds of playoff competition. And they did this after going 14-1 over the last 15 days of the regular season. But does coming in hot actually matter?

If we look at the performance of recent World Series entrants, we see no particular pattern. The teams in the table below are rated by their record over their last 15 games of the regular season, plus their record in the Divisional and Championship Series. In five of the past 12 World Series, the team that came in hotter won, while in the other seven, the colder team prevailed. Even if we restrict the analysis to those cases where there was a large disparity in the recent performance of the two clubs, the results remain ambiguous. The 1998 Yankees and 2001 Diamondbacks both came in significantly hotter than their opponents-and both won the World Series. On the other hand, the 2000 Yankees and 2006 Cardinals couldn't have come in much colder, and they won the World Series too.


Records of Recent World Series Teams in LDS, LCS, and Last 15 Days of Regular Season
Year   "Hot" Team     "Cold" Team
2007    COL  21-1      BOS  14-11
2006    DET  14-9      SLN* 12-14
2005    CWS* 17-6      HOU  17-8
2004    BOS* 16-9      SLN  15-11
2003    NYA  17-9      FLO* 16-10
2002    SFG  19-6      ANA* 14-10
2001    ARI* 17-8      NYA  14-11
2000    NYN  17-7      NYA*  9-17
1999    ATL  19-6      NYA* 16-7
1998    NYA* 18-5      SDN  13-12
1997    FLO* 13-11     CLE  14-12
1996    ATL  17-8      NYA* 15-9
1995    CLE  17-7      ATL* 16-7
* Won World Series

However, the Rockies haven't just come into the World Series hot: they've come in hotter than a Times Square rolex. And if we look at the teams that made the greatest late-season comebacks to reach the playoffs, the results are a little more encouraging:


Greatest Comebacks with <=20 games to Reach Postseason - Playoff Results
Team              W-L   YTP   Play%   Odds     Result
1934 Cardinals   82-56   15   1.16%   85:1     Won World Series
1964 Cardinals   83-66   13   1.26%   79:1     Won World Series
2007 Rockies     77-72   14   1.82%   54:1     Reached World Series
1951 Giants      82-55   20   2.09%   47:1     Lost World Series
1908 Cubs        85-53   16   2.21%   44:1     Won World Series
1965 Dodgers     82-64   16   2.88%   34:1     Won World Series
1973 Mets        73-77   11   3.35%   29:1     Lost World Series
2004 Astros      85-70    7   3.59%   27:1     Lost NLCS
1982 Braves      82-70   10   4.80%   20:1     Lost NLCS
1959 Dodgers     75-63   18   5.76%   16:1     Won World Series
1962 Giants      96-59   10   6.60%   14:1     Lost World Series

The real insight is perhaps not in looking at these quirky teams and small sample sizes, but in asking whether we've learned anything about the Rockies over their past 22 games that we hadn't known before. If it has been young players doing the damage during their winning streak, for instance, or players coming off of injury, then perhaps we could conclude that those players had established a new level of performance. In fact, however, most of the improvement on the offensive side has come from established players who are right in the middle of their careers: Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, and to a lesser extent Yorvit Torrealba. Youngster Troy Tulowitzki, on the other hand, has actually been in a mild slump lately:


Rockies Position Player Performance Since September 16th
             Before 9/16         After 9/16
Player      AVG  OBP  SLG     AVG  OBP  SLG    OPS Diff
Holliday   .330 .393 .586    .387 .467 .800    +.288
Hawpe      .276 .373 .509    .387 .494 .653    +.266
Torrealba  .258 .327 .464    .269 .329 .492    +.131
Spilborghs .288 .355 .475    .346 .419 .491    +.080
Atkins     .290 .354 .471    .329 .390 .487    +.052
Matsui     .291 .342 .412    .280 .353 .440    +.039
Helton     .312 .431 .476    .310 .392 .517    +.002
Tulowitzki .295 .366 .476    .232 .281 .452    -.109
Taveras    .320 .367 .382    .167 .250 .222    -.277

As for the pitchers, nearly everyone has been better: the Rockies have allowed just a 2.80 ERA (and perhaps more impressively, just a 2.88 RA) over their last 209 innings pitched:


Rockies Pitcher Performance Since September 16th
              Before 9/16        Since 9/16
Pitcher      ERA  BB/9  K/9     ERA  BB/9  K/9   ERA Diff
Morales     4.84   3.6  4.4     2.63  3.0  7.5   -2.22
Julio       5.43   4.9  7.9     3.68  1.2  9.8   -1.75
Francis     4.35   2.6  6.6     2.70  2.4  9.5   -1.65
Fogg        4.98   3.2  4.9     3.42  2.3  6.1   -1.56
Hawkins     3.40   2.7  4.5     2.25  2.3  5.6   -1.15
Fuentes     3.40   3.2  8.2     2.65  4.2  9.5   -0.75
Jimenez     4.13   3.9  7.6     3.54  5.5  7.7   -0.59
Herges      2.77   2.3  5.3     2.70  4.1  5.4   -0.07
Speier      3.12   2.5  8.3     3.52  2.3  9.4   +0.40
Corpas      1.88   2.4  7.4     2.29  0.9  4.1   +0.41
Cook        4.12   2.4  3.3      N/A  N/A  N/A    N/A

You'll see that the Rockies' peripherals have generally improved in addition to their ERAs. Their collective PERA during their streak has been 3.41, which is not quite as good as their ERA but still quite strong. Their BABIP is .262, which is somewhat on the low side, but perhaps not ridiculously so given their excellent defense. The single most impressive performance might be that of Jeff Francis, whose strikeout rate is up significantly, and who may have reached a new level. Franklin Morales has made strides toward improving his control, while Jorge Julio, whose arm wasn't right at the start of the year, has become a fairly reliable option. Still, it is hard to attribute a cause beside randomness to many of these improvements.

Intuitively, I'd feel comfortable treating the Rockies as a 94-win team right now, rather than the 90-win club that they were in the regular season. We can get to this number a bit more scientifically too. Generally speaking, you would assign about a 55:45 weight to performance in the second half of the season versus the first half when coming up with a projection for the year ahead. The Rockies played .500 baseball in the first half of this year, and .646 baseball in the second half, inclusive of their seven playoff wins. Weighting those percentages accordingly, we come up with a .580 winning percentage, which is the equivalent of a 94-68 record.

Still, while that helps to close the gap with the Red Sox, it doesn't go all the way, since the Red Sox were a better team than their record indicates too. But perhaps the facts, circumstances, and matchups in this series favor the Rockies? Let's take a look:

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
OF-L Jacoby Ellsbury     .353/.394/.509   .321   13.6 @LF
SS-R Julio Lugo          .237/.294/.349   .240   -1.3

Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-R Willy Taveras     .320/.367/.382   .260   16.4
2B-S Kazuo Matsui      .288/.342/.405   .258   16.9
LF-R Matt Holliday     .340/.405/.607   .318   75.0
1B-L Todd Helton       .320/.434/.494   .308   51.9
3B-R Garrett Atkins    .301/.367/.486   .278   34.8
RF-L Brad Hawpe        .291/.387/.539   .297   37.4
DH-R Ryan Spilborghs   .299/.363/.485   .283   16.5
SS-R Troy Tulowitzki   .291/.359/.479   .269   37.8
C-R  Yorvit Torrealba  .255/.323/.376   .235    4.6

Some housekeeping: Jacoby Ellsbury will start in Game One at least, and perhaps in the entire series, depending on how Coco Crisp recovers from his knee injury, and whether the Rockies have a left-hander on the mound. This was likely the right direction for Terry Francona to be going in even before Crisp's injury, but it's also not something that deserves as much attention as it's received. Neither manager has been so kind as to reveal their strategy involving the DH slot. We can probably infer that David Ortiz will sit in Game Five, the only Coors game when the Rockies will have a left-hander starting, while displacing Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell once apiece in Games Three and Four. As for the Rockies, you could really flip a coin between any of three or four players for the DH in the American League park, but my guess is that Ryan Spilborghs, who had the best regular season, will start in Game One, and that Clint Hurdle will play it by ear from there.

It's been great to hear so much discussion of the Red Sox' plate patience during the Fox and Turner broadcasts. Indeed the praise is well deserved, as the Red Sox drew 689 walks this year, the highest total in the American league since the strike zone was contracted in 2001. Those walks are not just an asset unto themselves, but also because the collective impact of the extra pitches taken has the capacity to knock otherwise outstanding pitchers off their gameplans.

This is particularly bad news for the Rockies' starters, because they are a group that relies heavily on breaking balls, and they will have trouble throwing breaking balls when behind in the count. Taking a weighted average of the Rockies' projected starters, we find that they allowed a .217 average on breaking pitches, versus a .288 average on fastballs. But they were only able to throw breaking pitches 12 percent of the time when behind in the count, versus 31 percent when ahead.


Rockies Pitcher Fastball/Breaking Ball Tendencies
                   Average Against         % Breaking Balls Thrown
Pitcher           Fastball  Breaking Ball     Ahead    Behind
Francis            .285         .213           26%        7%
Jimenez            .280         .136           35%       16%
Fogg               .301         .274           34%       18%
Cook               .282         .273           27%        3%
Weighted Average*  .288         .217           31%       12%
* Two Starts for Francis, Jimenez and Fogg; one start for Cook

This gets at exactly the reason that the Secret Sauce formula says that you need a power pitching staff to excel in the playoffs. In the playoffs, you're generally facing good offenses, which means that you're facing patient offenses, and patient offenses generally don't chase pitches out of the strike zone. So you need to be able to challenge hitters and miss bats-and this is not really the Rockies' strength. Francis may be able to compensate by turning to his off-speed pitches, and Jimenez can miss bats when he's finding the strike zone, but the other two, Josh Fogg and Aaron Cook, are going to need a lot of help from the men in blue to beat this offense.

The Rockies' offensive strengths tend to be concentrated on the OBP side rather than the isolated power side, especially with Taveras returning to regular duty. They finished second in the National League in walks, a category which is not strongly affected by a team's home park, but their slugging percentage was mediocre, and they were just 14th in the league in extra-base hits generated in road games.

This is actually not a bad combination of attributes to have at the two parks involved in this series, both of which do more to accentuate batting averages than they do home runs. The Red Sox's hurlers, however, are fairly well equipped to deal with patient offenses. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling are arguably the two best pitchers in the game at maintaining their entire repertoires when behind in the count, and Beckett's curve is so good that he'll throw it at any point during an at-bat. I can envision the Rockies' instincts getting a little fouled up, with their swinging at some bad pitches on 3-1 and 3-2 counts. The matchup against Matsuzaka, whom they have not seen before, could be particularly tough.


Red Sox Pitcher Fastball/Breaking Ball Tendencies
                     Average Against       % Breaking Balls Thrown
Pitcher           Fastball  Breaking Ball     Ahead   Behind
Beckett            .270        .161            31%      16%
Schilling          .245        .228            17%      28%
Matsuzaka          .265        .240            31%      35%
Lester             .259        .213            37%      24%
Weighted Average*  .260        .210            28%      26%
* Two Starts for Beckett, Schilling, and Matsuzaka; one start for Lester

Benches


Red Sox                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-S Coco Crisp          .268/.330/.382   .262   11.8
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

Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-L Cory Sullivan     .286/.336/.386   .246    2.9
C-R  Chris Iannetta    .218/.330/.350   .234    0.2
INF-R Jamey Carroll    .225/.317/.300   .218   -7.6 @2B
4C-R Jeff Baker        .222/.296/.347   .216   -5.1 @PH
OF-L Seth Smith*       .270/.333/.445   .267    NA
* translated minor league stats

Both managers tend to favor set lineups. The one interesting asset that either team had off the bench was Jacoby Ellsbury, but to the extent that he's probably starting most nights in this series, the primary purposes of the benches will now be to provide a series of middling pinch-hitters when the pitchers come to bat at Coors Field. Naturally, the Red Sox will have the edge in this department, since they'll have one of Ortiz, Lowell, or Youkilis available in the National League games.

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
LHP Jon Lester          63.0  4.57    1.1    4.94

Rockies                  IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
LHP Jeff Francis       215.1  4.22    5.4    3.90
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez      82.0  4.28    1.8    4.24
RHP Josh Fogg          165.2  4.94    2.3    4.97
RHP Aaron Cook         166.0  4.12    2.3    4.63

We have already touched upon the habits of each team's starting pitchers, so we will not go into great length here, except to discuss the new additions to each team's rotation. In the Red Sox's case, there's the apparently involuntary move to replace Tim Wakefield with Jon Lester. Notwithstanding my pleadings that the Red Sox were too quick to shut down Clay Buchholz, this is a move that could pay dividends, both because the Rockies are relatively weak against left-handed pitching, and because Wakefield had a rocky history when pitching at altitude, with a 9.31 lifetime ERA in Denver.

I'm not a fan of the Rockies' decision to rush Aaron Cook back into action. For one thing, Franklin Morales had been pitching pretty well, quite a bit better than Ubaldo Jimenez when you look at his peripherals. For another, Cook is exactly the sort of pitcher that the Red Sox are likely to tee off against, as he relies primarily on locating a fairly weak fastball. For a third, there is no telling how Cook is going to perform after a long layoff; there's nowhere to send a guy on a rehab assignment this time of year. And to complete the grand slam, Morales could probably force David Ortiz out of the lineup in Denver, whereas Cook will not.

Bullpen


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
RHP Kyle Snyder         54.1  3.81   0.392   5.43

Rockies                  IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Manny Corpas        78.0  2.08   4.158   3.35
LHP Brian Fuentes       61.1  3.08   0.392   3.98
RHP LaTroy Hawkins      59.0  3.42   0.271   4.12
LHP Jeremy Affeldt      55.1  3.51  -0.647   4.64
RHP Matt Herges         48.2  2.96   1.927   4.37
LHP Franklin Morales    39.1  3.43    1.3*   4.12
RHP Ryan Speier         18.0  4.00   0.252   4.62
 * SNLVAR

Judging by their ERAs, you wouldn't detect much difference between Manny Corpas and Jonathan Papelbon, but the closer slot is another significant advantage for the Red Sox. Whereas Papelbon's QERA was an elite 2.09, Corpas' was a merely adequate 3.35. Moreover, Corpas has stopped missing bats, with just nine strikeouts in his last 19 2/3 innings. Corpas has been used an awful lot for a high-leverage reliever, as he's now at 85 appearances and 86 2/3 innings on the year (inclusive of his postseason appearances). I'm worried that his arm is wearing down, and if I were Clint Hurdle, I'd at least hedge my bets by having action in my bullpen at the first sign of trouble.

The other interesting decisions are down-ballot: will Francona entrust Eric Gagne with anything less than an eight-run lead? How will Hurdle employ Morales, whose two-pitch repertoire ought to translate fairly well to the bullpen? On Gagne, I still trust the peripheral numbers; he's not the same pitcher that he used to be with the Dodgers, but he's not nearly as bad as his high Sox ERA suggests. Sure, you don't use him when any of Papelbon, Okajima, and Delcarmen are available, but if Francona prioritizes Kyle Snyder, or ignores the platoon advantage to keep Javier Lopez in the game against a tough righty, he's letting the media frenzy get the better of him. As for Morales, the Rockies' bullpen is deep enough that Hurdle should probably reserve him as a Get Out of Jail Free card for one of his starters, but he needs to be willing to play that card early.

Defense

These are arguably the two most difficult fields in baseball, and that coupled with the DH rules should make home-field advantage in this series as significant as it's been in a long time. By any measure, the Rockies have a ridiculously good defense; their +78 FRAA this year is the sixth-highest score in baseball since 1959. This is also a fairly good defensive matchup for the Rockies. Although the Red Sox take plenty of walks, they are not really a Three True Outcomes club: they don't strike out very often, and their team-wide power is just average; that means they're putting a fair number of balls into play. The Red Sox also ground into a quite a few double plays, ranking fifth in baseball with 146 GIDPs. Slow line-drive hitters like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis could find the going a little frustrating, and have extra incentive to try and reach base via the walk rather than gambling on a defense that rarely makes mistakes.

The Red Sox defense also rated quite well, with a +48 FRAA on the season. However, this defense won't be playing to their strengths in this series. Although Jacoby Ellsbury is at least an average defender in center, he is not the maestro that Coco Crisp turned out to be. Manny Ramirez, meanwhile, has the potential to be a disaster amidst the large acreage of the Coors Field outfield, and the Red Sox will be making a substantial defensive sacrifice whenever they decide to have Ortiz play the field.

Managers

We have a very simple contrast between active and passive managerial styles. Hurdle's Rockies led baseball with 83 sacrifice hits; Francona's Red Sox were second from the bottom with 30. Hurdle gave 250 at-bats to pinch-hitters, a high figure by National League standards; Francona used 69, a low figure by American League standards. Hurdle issued 61 intentional walks, the fourth-most in baseball; Francona issued 20, which ranked dead last. By our way of thinking, naturally, it is Francona who is getting these decisions right. The only saving grace is if there's some bad weather in the forecast, as there is for Games One and Two in Fenway Park; the infields could be slow and damp, and the Rockies' superiority in the bunting department could come into play.

Prediction

I saw one of those ubiquitous Vegas shows on the Travel Channel recently, the ones that claim to teach you how to be an "intelligent" gambler, but are very probably underwritten by MGM and Harrah's. The only thing I recall was a quote from a video poker expert, who said that casual bettors think about possibilities, whereas smart bettors think about probabilities. Considering that I've botched both of my postseason predictions so far, it helps to take that kind of thing to heart.

Is there the possibility that the Rockies could win this series? Of course there is; this is not exactly Super Bowl XXIV. But there's not really any rational argument that the Rockies are the better team, and the batter-pitcher matchups tend to favor the Red Sox in this series. I do envision a good series, in part because the unusually strong home-field advantage is liable to give both teams some victories. My prediction is that Jeff Francis tosses a gem tonight, the Red Sox win decisively in Games Two and Three, the Rockies win a high-scoring Game Four, Francis outduels Beckett again in Game Five (with Manny Ramirez making a key defensive miscue), Manny Corpas blows a save in Game Six, and Matsuzaka and Papelbon combine for a shutout to give the Red Sox the win in seven.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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